Final impressions of GA 2009

Standing on the Side of Love banner hanging on the Salt Palace
Standing on the Side of Love @ the Salt Palace

I’m about to go to bed, because I have to get up at three in the morning (heaven help me) to catch my train back east. Before I do, though, here are a few impressions of General Assembly 2009:

— The weather was just about perfect: dry, warm but not too hot, and a couple of thunderstorms to keep it from getting boring. I have a theory that when the weather is perfect, there are fewer major conflicts at General Assembly — and indeed, this year I have heard of no erupting conflicts.

— The schedule was grueling. I had noticed that I was feeling particularly tired, but I hadn’t thought about why until someone pointed out that the GA schedule had no consistency. Plenary happened at odd times, workshop slots got thrown in when you didn’t expect them, UU University required an exhausting commitment of six hours Thursday afternoon and four hours Friday morning. I found the lack of regularity draining.

— The election for the next UUA president seemed to dominate everything else. I didn’t hear many people talking about their workshops, but everyone seemed to have something to say about the election.

— UU University (UUU) got mixed reviews this year. Some people liked their UU University track, some people thought it a waste of time (Doug Muder says much the same thing). Two years ago, I heard nothing but glowing reviews of UUU; maybe it didn’t scale up very well? It will be interesting to read summaries of the evaluations of UUU.

So ends another GA. Now off to bed.

What we've been talking about

Sunday morning everyone seemed to be talking about the presidential race. That Peter Morales won was not a huge surprise, but his margin was. From the enthusiasm of the campaigns, the cheers at the candidate forums, and the number of campaign buttons and t-shirts delegates wore, no one could have guessed that either candidate would get 59% of the vote.

I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground to hear reactions to UU University, which was a new part of the GA program this year. Early on I thought I was hearing a pattern in the scuttlebutt, but I’m glad I didn’t blog about it, because the pattern didn’t hold. I don’t know how future GA planners are going to evaluate this, and I don’t think I can help them. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t. Some of the people who liked it thought it took up too much time. Others didn’t. (This kind of analysis is why they don’t pay me the big bucks.) If UUU had been awful, attendance would have significantly fallen off on the second day, but I don’t think it did.

Salt Lake City has been a big topic of discussion. The local economy is a paradox, because there’s lots of construction, but hardly anybody on the sidewalks — even at noon on a weekday. And the city doesn’t fit its stereotypes at all. For example, there are at least two excellent brewpubs within walking distance of the Salt Palace: Squatters and Red Rock. And it rains. We had quite a thunderstorm Friday, with a beautful double rainbow.

UUU Theology: Day 1

I had expected the Theology Track of UU University (led by Galen Guengerich) to be a survey of UU thought, or perhaps a how-to workshop along the lines of Building Your Own Theology. Instead it is more of a proof-of-concept, an example of how one UU theologian answers the hard questions. Organized this way, it gains in depth what it loses in breadth, and combats by example the widespread belief that theological questions are unanswerable.

In theology, however, I find the questions are almost always more interesting than the answers, and sometimes the frame is more interesting than the picture it surrounds. When my congregation’s Coming-of-Age class reads its credos to us each year, I always try to listen “between the words” to hear what questions our teens thought they needed to answer. Those implicit questions often tell me more about their thinking than their explicit statements of belief.

I found myself taking the same approach to this session. What set of problems does Rev. Guengerich believe a UU theology needs to address? (more…)

Anticipation: Voting and UU University

In my head I’ve been at General Assembly for almost a week. It started last Tuesday when my church’s delegation (from Bedford, MA) had a lunch meeting to scan the GA program. Our first priority was to find a common hole in our schedules that we could fill with a meal or drink together, but the conversation quickly shifted to the same two topics I’ll bet all the other GA-bound folks are talking about: the UUA presidential election and UU University.

This is the first year I’ve been a delegate and I’ve never paid much attention to the plenaries before, so I expect to be fascinated in a process-geek sort of way. (The policy of this blog — which I support — prohibits any electioneering. So even as I cover the process, I intend to leave you guessing about how I’ll vote.)

Our delegation is split, but we had the kind of conversation you’d hope UUs would have. Everyone seemed to appreciate the arguments of both sides, and no one pinned unrealistic hopes on one candidate or suggested that the other’s supporters need therapy. Several of us had changed our minds in the last few months, some more than once. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us change again before the vote.

For the non-delegate, the big difference in this year’s GA is that UU University is now part of the regular program. In previous years you had to arrive early and spring for another couple nights at a hotel.

I never did, but I’ve talked to people who are very enthusiastic about UUU. Its six tracks are each nine hours long — five on Thursday afternoon and four on Friday morning. Done right, a UUU track has a chance to go deeper and be more transformative than the typical 75-minute GA workshop. I’m told that people came out of previous UUUs wishing that the experience could be made available to everybody who comes to GA. This year it is.

But there’s a price: Nothing is programmed to compete with UUU, so the amount of workshop-hopping you can do is considerably diminished. The 2007 schedule (I misplaced my 2008 program) had 12 event periods. This year’s non-UUU programming is down to seven periods.

If you don’t know much about UUU — none of my fellow Bedfordites seemed to — you feel the loss as soon as you pick up your program. But the gain won’t be apparent until UUU starts on Thursday. In the meantime, we’re all just trying to keep a leash on our characteristic UU skepticism.

So as GA goes on, I’ll have my ears open for hints of the overall mood: Are people missing the 12-period smorgasbord of past GAs? Or are they enjoying the more focused opportunities that UUU offers? Or both?