Doug McCusker Reflects on GA 2013

First, I’d like to express my gratitude to the Davidoff Foundation for providing seminarians like me the opportunity to attend General Assembly (GA). Personally, the Foundation’s financial assistance enabled me to attend both the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) Ministry Days and the General Assembly. Otherwise I would have had to choose between the two events due to the costs involved. Being able to attend both enriched my ministerial formation. To keep costs down, I drove from my home in Virginia and stayed at a campground 18 miles away from the Convention Center. I left my tent each day at 7am and didn’t return until 11pm. As a result, I was a captive audience, fully absorbed into the convention experience.

This year’s GA was by far the most fulfilling and gratifying of all the previous four GA’s that I had attended because of all the relationships in overlapping professional and volunteer UU networks that I have developed at this stage of my ministerial formation. At GA, I was able to connect with all of them in one place and develop new ones that deepened my commitment to my faith and ministry. This year I was a voting delegate from my home church – Accotink UU Church, the banner carrier for my teaching congregation- River Road UU Congregation, a UU seminarian, a student of Meadville Lombard Theological School (MLTS), a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of the UUMA and long-time youth advisor at the district and continental levels. I was invited to many receptions, luncheons and breakfasts and shared meals with friends and colleagues.

As a voting delegate, I attended every plenary session. I witnessed the broad scope of UUA business and participated in the internal workings of polity at the denominational level. It felt like being at a very long annual church meeting that stretched over 4 days. I tweeted during the sessions and was the designated tweeter during the brainstorming workshop regarding the future of General Assembly. As a former church president, I was in awe at the calm, respectful and affirming way that Gini Courtier presided over the meetings. I felt the emotion and deep gratitude as she handed the gavel over to the new moderator. The moderator election was a fun process and the results were mildly surprising. From a polity perspective, it was historical to be a part of the final transition to a new smaller Board and the re-emergence of regions as an official entity. As we were in the middle of the Study Action process, the Actions of Immediate Witness were the highlight for me regarding social justice. I enjoyed the thoughtful debates and diligent work of the delegates. I’m totally in favor of finding ways for people to remotely attend GA, but I think we are still in the primitive beginning. I think we made great strides in technically welcoming offsite delegates into the process, but I am glad that I was there in person to be a part of the energy in the hall and to see the proceedings even if I had to look at the video screen.

The worship experiences were outstanding. This year several of the people with whom I started seminary walked on-stage during the Service of the Living Experience. I felt extremely proud of them and hopeful for the day when it will be my turn. I’m a big fan of bridging ceremonies and this year’s was very moving. Unfortunately it conflicted with the MLTS Faculty reception so I had to make a choice between the two. That happened many times at GA as there were too many things that I wanted to attend but so little time.

This year because of my obligations to work at the MLTS booth, I wasn’t able to attend as many workshops as in the past, but the ones I attended were extremely enlightening. I mixed it up with some being worship in nature like the Festival Ruah and some being instructive like the Who Are Our Neighbors. I also marched in the Social Witness rally against the environmental degradation of coal mining. The latter felt a little hypocritical as we were holding a convention in a facility that was using massive amounts of energy fueled by coal. However, the most exciting workshop for me was the Building the Movement to End the New Jim Crow. During the Question and Answer portion, someone asked if anyone in the room was working with inmates to facilitate their re-entry into society. Well, this is the mission of my Focused Initiative at my teaching congregation as part of my Leadership Studies at MLTS. So I went to the microphone and described the work that I am doing. The moderator of the panel discussion said she wanted to talk to me after the meeting. Next thing I know, I’m being invited to a lunch meeting the next day with the panelists and other people involved in the fight against the New Jim Crow. I attended the meeting the next day in a hotel suite and became part of the ground floor of a social justice movement about which I feel very strongly. The video of the workshop has been making the rounds since GA and I have received several emails from people in my area looking to partner with my prison ministry.

Because I was staying so far away from the Convention Center, the MLTS booth became my home base during the week. I enjoyed meeting all the alumna and prospective students. I especially enjoyed speaking at the MLTS Prospective Students luncheon. It was an honor to be asked to share my seminary experience with prospective students. I also enjoyed the breakfast for the Davidoff Scholarship winners. We had a little school rivalry fun between the Meadville and Starr King students. However, the highlight was listening to Denny Davidoff recount the highly charged atmosphere of the 1969 GA in Boston. I’d read about it in my UU History course, but to listen to her stories made it come alive and reminded me about the significance for years to come of our actions in plenary.

Every GA experience is unique because it reflects where we are in our religious journies at that time. For me as a seminarian and ministerial candidate, I gained so much from the networking and practical knowledge that I can apply in my evolving ministerial formation. I urge every seminarian to attend GA at some point while they are in school. Knowing first-hand how difficult it can be to financially juggle the cost of GA with tuition, I plan to let my classmates know about the Davidoff Scholarships and encourage them to apply. 

Meadville Student, Nell Newton, Reflects on GA 2013

Despite having grown up UU and having become a solid Church Lady at my home congregation, I did not attend a General Assembly until 2010. At that point I was the new president of our church board after a hellacious event in the congregation. Because of geography and other circumstances, our church felt isolated and somewhat alienated from the UUA. It was our interim minister, Rev. Janet Newman, who encouraged many of us in leadership to fly up to Minneapolis and see the bigger picture. It was a complete eye-opening experience that profoundly changed my life. The meetings were informative, the worship was stirringly beautiful, and our congregation’s woes fell into perspective. By the end of the weekend I knew that my home church was on the right path to healing and growth, and knew that I was being called to ministry. Attending GA in 2013 was less life-changing (whew) but no less joyful. It helped to reinforce my enthusiasm for the denomination, the congregations, and the beauty of our way of living religiously. While not everyone who attends GA will have such changes, in my future ministry I intend to follow Rev. Newman’s example and encourage attendance for all UU’s and especially for those in church leadership.

The General Assembly of the congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association offers a deep well for all UU’s to drink from. Church Nerds can find wonderful workshops and discussions about how to lead, grow, and heal our congregations — and then how to carry our commitments out into the larger world. Worship Fans can see some of our denomination’s most gifted ministers at work. Folks who want nothing but music can sing all day if they like.

But what about the plenary sessions? Aren’t they tedious? Does anyone really want to sit there and read all of those pages filled with earnest words? Honestly, I’m a wiggly person who considers long meetings to be Hell and I have considered gnawing off limbs to escape long or poorly-run meetings. But plenary sessions are different. They are fun and serious and lively and harrowing and well run and there’s plenty of room to get up and walk about or sit and knit and listen, listen, listen to the deepest concerns and dreams of our people. And there is a thrill when votes are taken! Strips of paper flutter upwards in waves or are stabbed into the air to show our intentions. Plenary sessions are fascinating! But I can understand if a person can’t attend every single minute of every single session. I feel privileged to have witnessed Ginny Courter at work, and will look forward to seeing Jim Key conduct future plenary sessions.

Now, a word about shopping at GA: as a seminary student I am living pretty lean. My shopping is limited to the grocery store and Target. I don’t need a travel chalice, or t-shirts, or bumper stickers. Any books I buy are on the MFC reading list. But one afternoon a seminary friend lured me over to a booth where a woman was selling hand-dyed silk wraps and scarves. I start my congregational internship in September and all this work is about to Get Real. I know better than to put on a stole before ordination, and I’m not ready to robe, but I had been wondering how I might visually convey ministerial authority. My friend picked out a green silk wrap decorated with chalices and spirals. She draped it over my shoulders and we both gasped. While light on my shoulders, the garment carried a weight that spoke of the responsibilities and sorrows and celebrations that await me as a minister. Tears filled my eyes and my friend nodded and agreed “Yep. You need to buy this one.” It was terribly beyond my budget but I waved my credit card and said a prayer. Last Sunday I preached at a local congregation and the check they handed me neatly covered the cost of the silk wrap. These sorts of things have a way of working themselves out.

So, who should go to GA? I will encourage every UU to attend at least once in their lifetime.  Here is what I will tell them: “It is a spectacle, a schmooze-fest, and family reunion with people you meet for the first time. You don’t have to be fully informed before you get there – just be willing to listen and learn.” I am grateful that I have been twice now, and will feel pulled to it every summer. I am especially grateful to Denny Davidoff for encouraging the UUA to sponsor first time attendees and seminarians so that we might carry the vision of the big picture back to our congregations where we might dream even bigger pictures for what may yet become in this world.

General Assembly 2013

This year’s General Assembly was amazing. Both Meadville Lombard friends, faculty, staff, and students came together to celebrate Meadville Lombard and our liberal faith. The buzz and excitement about Meadville Lombard seemed to be humming all around Louisville, KY. This year we held a number of successful events to meet, engage, and welcome the UU community.

the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker addresses his fellow alums at the annual meeting

the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker addresses his fellow alums at the annual meeting

On Thursday, June 20th, 95 of our alums joined us bright and early (7:15 AM) for breakfast at the Annual Alumni/ae Meeting.  At the meeting, the four officers were re-elected: Allison Farnum as Secretary, Matthew Johnson Doyle as Treasurer, Bret Lortie as Vice President, and Linda Berez as President.

We recognized Neil Gerdes, Dean of the Library, for his 40 years of service to the school. Neil will be retiring in December 2013. Laurel Hallman was honored with the Distinguished Alumna Award for her long commitment and contribution Unitarian Universalism.  Ginger Luke received the Alumna Service Award in recognition and appreciation of her friendship and commitment of her time and talents to the continuing work of Meadville Lombard Theological School.

Anthony Pinn takes the stage to discuss our topic from the Humanist perspective.

Anthony Pinn takes the stage to discuss our topic from the Humanist perspective.

We also hosted a thought provoking workshop, “In Praise of Imperfect Commitment: History, Theology, Action,” featuring Meadville Lombard Provost Sharon Welch, Alumni Aaron McEmrys, and Anthony Pinn. The workshop explored three paths related to transformative change: understanding the history and science of successful social movements, appreciating a humanistic theology of beauty within a non-utopian reality, and sustaining spiritually grounded congregational activism with common language, common stories and common practice. It was a riveting experience for all that attended.

UUA President Peter Morales joined us to celebrate Meadville Lombard's faculty~

UUA President Peter Morales joined us to celebrate Meadville Lombard’s faculty~

Meadville Lombard continued the celebration on Friday, June 21st at the Muhammad Ali Center. This wonderful party provided an opportunity to introduce the Meadville Lombard faculty. We were delighted to hear from our president, the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, about the direction of the school. Lee then introduced the Frank J. and Alice Schulman Professor of Unitarian Universalist History, Dr. Nicole Kirk. Nicole electrified the crowd of 185 with her enthusiasm for history and preservation of history.

The Rev. Darrick Jackson greets the room of prospective students.

The Rev. Darrick Jackson greets the room of prospective students.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon we hosted a prospective student Lunch and Learn with our faculty and student services staff. Twenty-four potential students learned about our unique formation process, spoke in-depth with our faculty, and staff, and connected with key members of the Meadville Lombard team. We will be holding another prospective student event in January during our convocation. For more information, contact our Assistant Director of Recruitment, Justine Urbikas at jurbikas@meadville.edu.

We are already planning for next year’s General Assembly! We can’t wait to share more exciting news with you as the year goes on. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook, and Twitter for all up-to-date information.

Want to see more photos from GA? They will be on our Facebook page shortly! Be sure to take a look!