Thursday, March 7, 2013

URI Global Council Meeting 2013, Day 2

Up at 6:30 to get ready for the first meeting - a breakfast talk with Multiregion Trustee Audri about the future direction of the Multiregion.  The general meeting of the Global Council started at 9:00 with a welcome to more Trustees who had arrived: Ravindra Kandage (Buddhist / Sri Lanka), Ari van Buuren (Protestant / Netherlands), Michael Pappas (Epsicopal / USA), and Osama Wazan (Muslim / USA).  The work began with an overview of the Agenda & Objectives for this week, led by GC Chair Kiran Bali.  This was followed by an overview of the Global Council, led by Executive Director Charles Gibbs.  This part of the discussion focused on Why We Exist and What We Do.  This deceptively simple topic was important for a Global Council that had so many new members and no chance to confer with its outgoing prdecessors before taking office.  Charles told the origin story of the URI...

In 1995, as festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco approached, Episcopal Bishop of California William Swing ws asked by the UN to gasther religious leaders for a service at Grace Cathedral in SF.  Bill said "Sure!" and then had a sleepless night.  Through the UN, the countries of the world had been trying to create and maintain peace for 50 years, he thought.  What had the religions of the world done?  He felt a calling to bring the religions of the world together.  After traveling the world and being rebuffed by many religious leaders, he shifted his focus to a grassroots approach.  He hosted several meetings at Stanford University, which former CoG Nat. Interfaith Rep. Deborah Ann Light and I attended an at which we created the Charter of a new kind of interfaith organization - the United Religions Initiative.

Charles explained the long involved process that led from those meetings to the URI Charter signing 2000 at a Global Assembly in Pittsburgh, which former CoG NIR Rowan Fairgrove and I attended.  When the Charter was signed, the URI was in 35 countries with 83 Cooperation Circles ("CCs").  Now we're in 83 countries with 571 CCs.  The early pre-URI had a Board of Directors, largely from San Francisco.  The new URI held elections and installed the Trustees in its first elected Global Council at a Global Assembly in Rio de Janeiro in 2002.  This was followed by another GC in 2005 and a third in 2008.  (I served on all three of these.)  This new fourth GC would be in office until 2016 and inherited the previous 13 years of work.  Charles and Kiran answered questions about the Global Council and being a Trustee.  I pointed out that the early on, as we expanded around the world, there had been a tendency on the part of the Americans to assume that anyone who was enthusiastic about interfaith would share the same approaches to doing interfaith work and to administrative organizing, when in fact we came from significantly different religions and cultures with different approaches to organizing.  We have to be open to difference and to having our assumptions questioned.

Kiran directed us to the binder of materials, where we read together about the Roles and Responsibilities of Trustees with respect to Leadership, Governance, Oversight, Fundraisning, Terms, Qualifications, and Key Principles for Good Practice for Individual Trustees.  These documents had been created and approved by the previous GC. After a short break, we returned to a discussion of the role of the Global Council, breaking into small groups - each led by a Trustee who was not new to the GC - to talk about our experiences on the GC and answer and final questions.  When we regathered to compare notes, we found that many ideas had come up in all of the small groups.  One, especially, stood out: if we really are trying to change the world for the better, then when we come to decision making we must remember that our "constituents" are not just the folks who elected us, or even the Regions we come from or the million or so people in the URI, but the whole world.  This is a lot of responsibility.  There was also talk about the responsibility that goes along with managing the URI's finances.  Finally, we all formally took the oath of office.  (We had done so several months ago on a conference call, but we felt we should do so when we could actually see each other.)

Over lunch, I told Bill and Michael a story about finances and the very first Global Council meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 2002.  We had just been sworn in and were in our first GC session.  One of our Trustees was arguing vehemently that we needed to have another, longer meeting of this GC before the end of the year and that is must be in a country other than the United States.  Our Treasurer (whose name I have forgotten) estimated that this would cost about $45,000.  Over lunch, he was sitting with me and Trustee Bob Walter (Taoist / USA).  "You know," he said, "voting to spend $45,000 when we know we don't have it would be considered `fiscally irresponsible'.  If the Board is `fiscally irresponsible', then it becomes personally liable for the costs incurred.  Except, of course, we are an American corporation, so only the Americans would be liable."  He then pointed around the room at the American Trustees.  "Father O'Rourke, vow of poverty.  Rev. Heng Sure, vow of poverty...", etc. etc.  We were suddenly aware that only about four of us were Americans AND had attachable finances, and were therefore carrying the weight of any serious bad financial decisions of the Global Council.  "If my wife had known this," I said, "I probably wouldn't be here.  It also puts a whole new spin on how I'll look at my fiduciary responsibility on the Global Council."  Now that the URI's annual budget has grown to over $3 million, that responsibility has only grown with it.  Bill laughed, agreed, and said that we should bring this up when we have a general discussion of finances in a few days.

After lunch, we reaffirmed the Officers and Committee Assignments that had been made by conference call.  We also re-appointed Charles as Executive Director, even though he will be retiring in onlythree months.  We then got to a difficult process.  Recently, the URI membership had approved a Bylaws change that would shift us to staggered terms; i.e. four of the Regions would elect new Trustees 2 years from now and the four 4 years from now.  This would continue, with half of the Regions holding elections every 2 years.  This would address the continuity issues that had resulted in me and Elizabeth Lheure being the last "Continuing Trustees".  It was a task to explain "staggered terms", with most of the non-English speakers only understanding "staggered" in terms of drunkeness.  After a random drawing of Regions from a bowl, half would hold elections in 2014 and the other half in 2016.  Africa and Europe volunteered to hold their elections ion 2014.  The rest were drawn randomly: Southeast Asia & the Pacific (SEAPac) and Asia in 2014; Latin America & the Caribbean (LA&C), the Multiregion, North America, and the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) in 2016.  (It was pointed out that, due to a technicality in the Bylaws, I could theoretically serve another 10 years on the GC, making 23 years in all.  Somehow, I don't think so.)

Diana Whitney, who will be our Facilitator, arrived, along with Varjapati Das (Hindu / India), one of the two Multiregion Trustees.  Diana led us through small group exercises to work on communication skills in Global Council deliberations and discussions.  She encouraged us to form groups that were as diverse as possible.  My group included Marianne (a German Humanist), Ravi (a Sri Lankan Buddhist), and Sam An (a Cambodian Buddhist).  We shared stories of successful communications in difficult circumstances and came up with guidelines for future communications.  All the groups shared their results.

Over dinner, we shared storie of past URI meetings and old friends.  Rachael Watcher arrived to visit with Alejandrino and to speak with him, me, and Rebeccca about Indigenous networking.  She also brought a surprise that I'll explain later.  Finally, typing and sleep called.

As usual, please excuse any spelling errors.  I wish blogspot had a spell-checker.

Thanks and Blessed Be,
Don Frew
CoG national Interfaith Representative

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