Process: UU decision-making on a new congregational name

Process: n. : a series of actions or operations conducing to an end

Process: v. to subject to or handle through an established set of procedures ; to subject to examination or analysis

We Unitarian Universalists love process (the noun) and processing (the verb). Perhaps it’s because promoting  the democratic process is one of our seven principles. Perhaps it’s because we like to see all sides of every issue before making a decision.

In practice this means that we talk everything to death. Because we value individual authority as well as community, this also means that when the process doesn’t go “MY way,” we sometimes take it personally – leading irascible members to collect their marbles and go home. (Pissed off forever).

Our congregation was formed in 1953 during a UU period of expansion known as the “fellowship movement.” The idea was to seed small lay-led UU congregations across the country, which would eventually grow larger. Our local founders named the organization “The Michael Servetus Unitarian Universalist Fellowship” after the brilliant bad boy of the Protestant Reformation, Miguel Servet, to honor his death 400 years earlier in 1593.

(Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva by John Calvin for proclaiming that the trinity was a load of codswallop and not to be found in the bible.  God was a unity, as any idiot could see, he said. His story is actually extremely interesting, but that’s not the point of this post…)

Anyway, we’ve lived with this horrendous mouthful of a name for 55 years. First, Unitarian Universalism is obscure enough. There are only about 200,000 of us in the US because we are not evangelical (nor are we Christian any more). Michael Servetus is known only to the cognescenti; everyone else who sees our name thinks he must be our conceited minister – people actually call and ask for “Michael”. And we outgrew the “fellowship” size years ago.

I’ve thought the name sucked since I joined in 1992. A year ago, three of us, including me, were commissioned by the Board of Trustees to form the “Name Change Exploration Team.”

In the ensuing months we conducted surveys of members, friends and newcomers (a wide net because we wanted to know how the name played out in the greater community) Was our name a barrier to people visiting? Did it communicate who we were to outsiders as well as insiders?  Should we change our name? If so, what names would you suggest?

The response was very positive and 90  new names were suggested. After reducing the list by half lumping together similar names, everyone ranked their top three names, which got us down to six names –five new names plus “no change.”

The “no change” contingent was relatively small, but they were obstreperous. Too often good ideas get killed by the small obstreperous minority so we came up with an ingenious process which neatly bypassed our argumentative natures:

1. We posted one sheet for each of the six names on a display in the church lobby. Every Sunday for a month folks could write advocacy remarks FOR one or more names on post-its. NO dissing a name! Negative post-its were  removed.

2. Then we held a town hall meeting with only ONE microphone – the PRO microphone (no CON).  Everyone had one minute to advocate FOR their preferred name or names; no dissing of the other “candidates.”

3. After everyone had been heard, we passed out colored sticky dots – you could put ONE dot on each name: a green dot = I really like this name; blue = I could live with this name; and red = I strongly dislike this name.  The remarkable thing was how graphically clear the preferences became. Masses of green dots on one name, masses of red dots on a couple of others. When we went further and tallied the dots into weighted totals (Green=3 points, blue=1, and red = -3) one name shot way into the lead because it had by far the most favorables and fewest unfavorables. Good ol’ Michael Servetus plummeted to the bottom due to high unfavorables.

4. Today was the congregational meeting to put the matter to a formal vote (a bylaw change). A yes vote was for the new name; a no vote was for no change. The board president smartly ruled that there would be no discussion because we’d been discussing it for a full year.  The meeting lasted TEN minutes and to my astonishment 88% of the members present voted for the change.

Our new name is not sexy or evocative. None of those suggestions garnered enough support along the way. But our new name is clear, uncontroversial and inoffensive: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver.

Perhaps you have to be a UU to understand how big a deal this simple change is.  I am thrilled.

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5 responses to “Process: UU decision-making on a new congregational name

  1. Someone will need to amend the wikipedia article about Servetus, now that there’s only one church with his name.
    I’ve never been able to understand how any human was able to order someone else tied to a stake and set on fire. Does religion do this? or do some use religion as an excuse to do what they do?
    Congratulations on the name change: sounds like it was very well handled. Wonder if we could manage to have political races run the same way: only positive comments, no more dissing.

  2. Well, the article can stay till we make the formal switch on June 14, complete with signage and website changes.

    As for the “no nay-saying” process… I was astounded by how much it improved the tone and quality of the discourse. Even the “losers” don’t appear upset!

  3. Pingback: Proposing Change: Problematic! « 365 Words Beginning with P

  4. Dear members of the Michael Servetus UU Fellowship,

    It is with great dismay that we at the Servetus Institute of Spain have learnt that you are dropping the name of Michael Servetus, the pioneer and first martyr of the Unitarian faith, from the name of your fellowship.

    President Obama said at his inaugural address: “Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things…” So it was with America, and so it was with Unitarianism.

    Michael Servetus was never faint-hearted, but faced his unfair execution at the stake with courage and utter faithfulness to his beliefs. He took risks, and was killed for it. And he made new things, paving the way for toleration in religion and for the spread of Unitarianism in Eastern Europe, and then in England, America, and elsewhere. By dropping the name of Michael Servetus, please be aware that you are also dropping a fundamental moment of the history of your religious tradition.

    More and more people in Spain and other parts of Europe knew that your fellowship was one of the two religious communities in America that proudly included the name of Servetus. Now this is no more.

    Take care, and may the Spirit guide you in the future.

  5. Jaume – I appreciate your letter and the concern of the Servetus Institute.

    Michael Servetus was an amazing person and we’re so glad you’re spreading his ideas from his birthplace.

    Our primary goal was to make our name simpler and more welcoming – because we want to attract more members, especially younger ones.

    The congregation considered many name options, including Servetus UU Church, but there is a local Servetus singles group we didn’t want to be confused with.

    We plan to honor Servetus in other ways – like hosting an annual Servetus lecture series, renaming our meeting hall, etc.

    Keep up the good work!