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.