A Voice and a Vote: Should Religious Educators Be GA Delegates?

The Cambridge Platform is the original document on which the UUA bases its governance structure. It recognizes two distinct types of Minister: Pastors and Teachers, placing them on even footing as “Officers of the Church”. We’ve moved away from that over the last 370 years. This year, we are being asked to consider our roots. The General Assembly will discuss and vote on a proposed change to our bylaws next week. If you are a member of a UU congregation, that means you (at least indirectly).

This proposed bylaws change can be read fully here, about 2/3 of the way down the page. It makes a significant change to Article IV, Section 4.8 of the UUA Bylaws. This section has to do with who gets to vote on issues in the General Assembly.

The short version of the change is that a larger number of professional religious educators, around 300 people, would be allowed to vote as delegates in future votes of the General Assembly. Many ministers already receive delegate status, but the rules are different.

Let me say now that I am not going to answer the question posed in the headline for you. You must come to your own conclusion based on the facts. I will provide those facts to the best of my ability.

I am aided in this pursuit by a copy of the UUA Bylaws, available in PDF. The UUA removed the online version a few years ago. That means I cannot provide links and you will have to look it up or just trust my reading of it.

Also helping me sort this out was Leah Purcell, Credentialed Religious Educator and Board Member of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) focusing on Professional Support. She is one of the people who is helping move this proposed amendment forward, and she was kind enough to take an hour to talk to me about the issue. She was also kind enough to review this post for accuracy and fairness to the initiative.

We’re going to be talking about voting at General Assembly, both because that is what General Assembly will do next week (!) and because this proposal changes the rules about voting. So, let’s so a quick recap: General Assembly is where the member congregations of the UUA come together to vote on issues our leadership and staff have spent a year or more hashing out for us. Like almost all elections, it is the end of a long process where we agree or disagree with the work that has been done, voting “yes” or “no” on the proposals put in front of us.

Voting is done by delegates. Delegates are proportioned according to the bylaws. The proposal I want to talk about today increases the maximum number of delegates. Let’s start with how delegates are assigned…

For perspective, last summer’s race for UUA President saw 3,252 total votes cast. UU World reports that this number was 66.23 percent of all eligible voters; I am unclear if this is the total number of delegates that could have been assigned under the current rules or if a large number of actual registered delegates sat out the election, but I am inclined to believe it is the former (total possible delegates, registered or not).

The Current Rules

The UUA bylaws only recognize 2 kinds of membership in the UUA and our General Assembly: Congregations and Associate Members. Currently, three organizations have Associate Member Status. The UUSC, UUWF, and UUUNO each receive 2 voting delegates in the General Assembly. Congregations are allotted delegates based on membership, with each congregation getting two votes. An additional vote is given for congregational membership of 101 to 150, and one more at 151, 201, and so on.

I have been asked to point out that other than the only qualification required for these delegates is that they be members of the congregation they are serving and approved by the congregation to serve. The majority of delegates have no specific talents or credentials other than congregational support.

If anyone wants to do the math, here is a link to the raw number of certified congregations and their membership ahead of this year’s GA.

Some time ago, it was also added that each congregation gains an additional vote, that is separate from the delegates allotted to the congregation, for ministers who are employed by the congregation and in fellowship with the UUA. Technically, they are still a delegate of the congregation, but few congregations enact much oversight of their member delegates.

These additional votes for ministers are being assigned to people who have been through the UUA’s own rigorous credentialing process, in addition to being ordained and holding a master’s degree from a seminary, a prerequisite of Ministerial Fellowship. That is a lot of time, energy, and effort invested. It’s honestly more than many people who would love to be ministers can accomplish.

Leah tells me that there are around one thousand ministers who currently receive voting privilege. This may seem like a large number, but the minister is sometimes the only representative from a congregation. Also remember that some congregations employ more than one minister. Additionally, they do not all take advantage of their delegate status every year.

More recently the bylaws were changed again so that a vote would be given for those who have Masters level credentialing as a Religious Educator (attained through the UUA, as with ministerial fellowship) and serving a congregation. This is a level of credentialing that requires a lot of sacrifice and commitment from individual and congregation. Even the normal credentialing requires fees and attendance at workshops and training sessions, often involving travel. A DRE living far from a metropolitan area may have few opportunities to attend training. As Leah pointed out, Master’s Level Credentials are a high bar and more than many religious educators can do while also serving their congregation and living their lives. Not every Director of Religious Education expects to be able to ever achieve Masters Level credentialing, and that should be ok.

I believe that we have very high standards for the level of accreditation that is currently required to be an individual delegate. Still, even Religious Educators at the master level don’t have the same high bar that ministers do. We do treat the Teacher and the Pastor rather differently these days.

And we expect a lot of our Ministers, in that they must have a master’s degree, be investigated and interviewed by the Fellowshiping Committee, and be ordained. We also pay them quite a bit better than Religious Educators, and there is some parity in how the expectation is met with compensation.

Religious Educators do face some specific and difficult additional barriers to getting their voices heard by the General Assembly. Most Religious Educators, for instance, aren’t members of the congregation they serve; I am not, and it is against the rules of the congregation I work for to employ a member. In many congregations, the DRE spends most of their time with the youth, where the minister has the ear of the adult congregation. The DRE may lead classes and small groups, but that isn’t the same authority that comes with delivering a sermon from the pulpit. The people they influence most, the youth, aren’t serving as delegates and the delegates to GA don’t represent them, as non-members.

The proposed solution:

Under the new proposal’s less demanding standards for educators, a vote would be given to anyone who is serving a congregation as a Director of Religious Education or some equivalent position and who is an Active Member (the name of a membership level) of LREDA in good standing. More Religious Educators will be given a vote by reducing the barriers to be more in line with our expectation and compensation of Religious Educators.

We trust our congregations in their hiring. Any issues arising from such would be outside of the scope of this post, anyway. We will stipulate that employment is a suitable first hurdle.

Who are the Active Members of LREDA?

They are diverse in background and current position and responsibilities. They have committed to a code of conduct and are answerable to LREDA. Here is what we know the people affected by this proposal have in common:

Active members are required to “have completed a minimum of three years (sic) in a paid position within a Unitarian Universalist congregation or who have completed a minimum of five Renaissance modules, and/or are certified by the Unitarian Universalist Association as a Credentialed Religious Educator, any level”.

There are other ways to qualify, but they would apply very rarely, if ever, to this proposal.

So, this proposal seeks to reduce the load from having to hold Masters-level credentials to:

1: having to have half (5 of 11 modules) of the Professional training offered by the UUA.
2: Time in service to Unitarian Universalism.
3: Active Membership in LREDA.

(The first two requirements are very close to those set by the UUA for their Religious Educator credentialing program, though they are only two of many steps in that process)

What is LREDA?

The Liberal Religious Educators Association is a professional organization. It is not an associate member of the UUA, has no votes of its own, and in fact has no formal relationship with the UUA at all. The UUA has no oversight of LREDA, its membership practices, its dues, or its code of conduct. I want to make that part clear up front.

(This is also true of the UUMA, the professional organization for Ministers, the AUUA for congregational admins, and the UUSCM for Community Ministers where I serve on the Board of Directors. Again, there are only three Associate Members of the UUA a this time, none of which are our half-dozen professional organizations.)

LREDA is a professional organization with a code of conduct and a process for addressing misconduct. It also has the deep respect of the UUA: many UUA staffers were in Religious Education positions at one point. LREDA partners with the UUA in designing Renaissance modules, teaching the material, and helping find mentors for people seeking credentialing through the UUA. They are an important part of Unitarian Universalism, even if you are reading about them for the first time.

Leah wanted to make sure it was understood that you need not be credentialed to be a member of LREDA and thus to receive a vote under the proposal. You need not have been evaluated by the UUA at all. That demands a lot of faith in LREDA to use this authority well, though the stated goal is to reduce the burden on the individual.

This gives LREDA control over this group of delegates, in that membership would be a requirement in the bylaws of the UUA. Meanwhile, those who have earned Master’s Level credentials could lose their vote if they fail to maintain LREDA membership, taking that oversight away from the UUA itself.

They are asking for a lot of trust – though they already have a lot of trust and I cannot point to a single abuse of it.

Why This, Why Now?

Religious educators already lead Unitarian Universalism in many ways. In addition to being the people who lead most youth programs and a lot of what happens outside of service, they are also deeply connected to one another, tying our congregations together in ways that many of us aren’t aware of; using stories that other congregations are using and leading lessons borrowed and tweaked from other congregations, they help give us shared language for larger discussions. They are also leading social justice efforts, organizing, showing up, and even getting arrested alongside the most active UUs. It cannot be reasonably argued that our Religious Educators aren’t vital to the health and the future of Unitarian Universalism

Read strictly, this proposal awards congregations which employ a professional religious educator with an extra delegate at General Assembly. In reality, these votes will be handed to the individual to use at their discretion, as with the votes for ministers.

Do Religious Educators deserve their own votes at General Assembly? If so, is this the best way to provide for that? You and your congregation have to answer those questions, because you are being asked to make this choice. I hope this information is useful in that. If so, please share it widely.

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