Tips for Your First General Assembly – 2014 Edition

The following list of tips for attending your first General Assembly conference of the Unitarian Universalist Association was  made collaboratively by the UU Growth Lab. It was first published in 2011 and has since been updated annually.    The UUA’s 2014 General Assembly takes place this June in Providence, RI.

Before you go:

  • Plan your GA life assuming you will not be able to access wi-fi in the convention center.  Internet access is always and issue. Bring critical information and contact numbers with you. If access is good, enjoy! Otherwise, be prepared.
    GA Planning Committee member say there will be multiple free wi-fi locations in the convention center.  I’ve yet to attend a GA without internet access issues…
  • Order a Standing on the Side of Love yellow shirt if you want to join the crowds who will wear these shirts during our Public Witness event on Saturday night.  Order via UUA Bookstore here.
  • Convention centers, especially the main halls, are usually freezing! Bring a layer you can easily take on and off so you’re okay going from outside to hallways to the general session/plenary ice box…
  • Hydrate! Bring a water bottle. If you’re flying, bring an empty one to fill at a water fountain after you go through security.  You can also buy a reusable bottle in the Exhibit Hall.
  • If you’re representing your congregation and they have a budget, you might be able to get some good discounts on curricula, books, and marketing materials (banners, postcards, etc.) but remember you’ll have to have a way to get them back.
  • If you are a delegate, READ the stuff before you come.  You are deciding our future. Available here.
  • Bring business or personal cards so that you can give your information to others.
  • Be sure that someone from your congregation is bringing the banner.
  • Download & review the Program Guide ahead of time.
  • Plan out what workshops you want to go to, but don’t be wedded to the idea.  Pick a few you certainly want to go to, but be open because you’ll change your mind at least once while there.
  • Pick a 2nd workshop for each time slot. You may find that when you arrive at your first choice it’s not what you expected and it will be good to know exactly where to go to find your 2nd choice. (Also, at some GAs, the rooms were too small and you could find yourself unable to attend your 1st choice because it was full.)
  • Pack comfy shoes.
  • Bring a bag you can carry comfortably for days, like a backpack.
  • If you’re asked to carry your congregations banner, figure out how the poles/carrying PVC pipes go together before hand.  I still think my congregation was hazing me last year…
  • Last year I had a binder where on the back cover I had a map of the area in the plastic cover thing, the front with my delegate card and other really important info, and inside my travel info, the program book, the business resolutions, etc.  It really helped me stay organized throughout.  Put in paper to take notes on, bring pens, etc.  I had that with me in my laptop bag and it was great.
  • Talk to people in your congregation to find out about resources you can scout out and bring home and questions they might have, especially if your congregation has a very limited budget and will be under-represented by delegates. It is even nicer when you reach out to area congregations if your cluster is composed of smaller, less financially able congregations, and see how you can help.
  • If you can’t walk more than a mile easily, you will want to rent a scooter through GA Accessibility Services. If you often use hearing assistive devices in crowded settings, you will want to use GA Accessibility Services. Better to reserve equipment you turn out not to need than arrive & be blocked from participating because no extra equipment is available. GA Accessibility Services.
  • Download the official UUA GA 2014 Mobile App:
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id874590675
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=me.doubledutch.uuaga
  • Don’t wait to download the app until GA, do it now and play with it so you’re oriented to this tool and ready to go come General Assembly.
  • If you have special dietary requirements, scout out the food vendors before departure and plan well ahead. Make reservations at places that will accept them. Pack extra food if you have really specific needs. It isn’t uncommon to have to wait at GA area restaurants for a long time, or to have relatively few places that can accommodate vegans, folk who need to eat gluten-free, or even offer acceptable fast alternatives for diabetics.
  • Plan a check-in breakfast/lunch/dinner with some people you know at some point.  Even if you’re the independent/introverted type, GA is really kinda overwhelming in the sheer mass of people and having a drink with some familiar faces can be really nice.
  • If you are the only one you know going to GA, start making friends with people in the UU Growth Lab at GA Facebook group and via the GA app.
  • If you really want to hang out with your former minister that you haven’t seen in ten years, email them now and ask them to breakfast.  They will either say “yes” or “I’d love to talk to you for a minute at some point, but my schedule is totally booked.”  If you wait until GA to ask, the answer will almost certainly be the second one.  Ministers are really busy during GA.  I’ve found that breakfast is the meal they are most likely to be free.
  • Prepare your elevator speech about what Unitarian Universalism is and why you are one. Folks ask questions; be prepared to answer.

UUA General Assembly 2014 in Providence, RI

While you’re there:

  • Now that you’ve arrived, remember to HYDRATE!  And take time to eat and pace yourself.  GA is a marathon.
  • You don’t have to go to everything.  And that’s ok.  I ended up skipping things last year, including the Ware Lecture, because I needed a breather.  And dinner.  Besides it will be online.
  • You do still need to eat.  You’ll need to schedule that in.
  • Attend the orientations, from GA for First Timers to your regional/district ones.  They help.
  • If you’re on a budget, check out the map for what part of the Exhibit Hall you need to avoid
  • Avoid picking up paper – use digital notes whenever possible (they’re tending toward less paper now any way)
  • Say “hi” to people & don’t be shy to tell them that you’re a first timer.
  • Whatever you do, go to the Service of the Living Tradition on Friday night (updated)  & the Sunday morning service.
  • Having a meal with other UUs from across the country can sometimes be more valuable than going to a workshop
  • I was told this by my congregation and it really made a difference for me.  During a general session (previously called plenary) , if you aren’t sure what you’re about to vote on, don’t hesitate to ask for a point of clarification from the procedure microphone.  Because if you don’t know what you’re voting on, at least 100 other people there don’t know either.
  • There’s this GA tradition that I don’t fully get – getting as many possible ribbons from booths to hang from the bottom of your nametags.  When you check in, at least last year, you even got some “coupons” to take to certain booths to get certain ribbons.  I just followed the crowd on that one.
  • Wear comfy shoes.
  • GA volunteers are often wearing specific shirts or pinnies that identify them easily. They’re there to help you. GA is really possible because of the kindness and support our volunteers give.
  • If you are in need of emotional or spiritual assistance, if you experience any kind of harassment, grab any shirted GA volunteer and ask them to help you be connected with either the Right Relations Team or the chaplains.
  • You are an ambassador of our faith. Many people in and around the convention center and downtown area will be meeting their first Unitarian Universalists. This is another chance to make a good impression, invite folks to check us out, and show what great community members we can be. Pick up trash. Be kind. Be generous. You are not a tourist. You are not a business conventioneer. You are an ambassador of and for our faith

Joining the GA Choir

  • If you love to sing, GA Choir is your cup of tea. Rarely do we belong to congregations that can boast so many great voices or musicians.
  • You need to register to sing in the choir. Plan to be there for registration as soon as possible, every year it is different but it does fill up. This year (2014) it says “GA Choir registration will be held Tuesday 2:00pm– 6:00 pm and Wednesday 12:00 pm – 2:45pm at the kiosk in the West Prefunction lobby on the fifth floor of the Rhode Island Convention Center. Singers may register and pick up their music (for a $10 music fee). There will be a waiting list kept at the first rehearsal for spaces that may open subsequently.” Note all the rehearsals in the schedule. You may miss something else you’d like to do. You can’t do it all. Choir is a commitment, but worth it. I’ve heard the same about being a volunteer.

Why you aren’t reaching young adults and families with children

The following guest post is by Kelly Mahler, a former 3D artist, SAHM (stay-at-home mother), Unitarian Universalist since 2007, and member of the UU Growth Lab on Facebook.  Thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions, Kelly!   I totally relate as a parent of a young child.  11am? Uh, that’s lunch time!  ~ Peter

While reading the UU Growth lab on Facebook, I came across a post that caught my attention. The question asked was, “How can we more effectively reach out to and involve young adults and families with children as fully participating congregants?”

I don’t often participate in these online discussions, but this topic was something near and dear to me, considering I’m one of those young parents many UU churches refer to. Having been a former board member in my twenties, and now quickly closing in on my thirties (with a toddler in tow), I wanted to share my experience and perspective regarding how my involvement with my own UU church has changed over time and why those changes have happened.

I used to be quite busy at my UU church before my baby came along (even serving on the board for a time). Now I am a stay at home mom to a 19 month old. My attendance and involvement have changed drastically. What are some of the reasons that hold me back from being more involved? Sometimes it can be the little things (like a church not having changing tables in the bathrooms or nursery), but there are other issues as well that sometimes hold me (and other parents) back from being more involved.

1) Service time – our service is 11-12am, with coffee hour right after the service. Back when I had just graduated from college, I loved this time slot. Now with a kid, however, that is a tough time to make. It’s lunch time for many children, and it’s not easy making a kid wait to eat until 1pm (tantrums, anyone?), especially when their nap is usually around noon or 1pm. If the service time were earlier, we could get in and get home for lunch and nap without major headaches. Likewise, we usually don’t attend anything too late in the evenings due to conflicts with bedtime.

2) Lack of confidence in childcare providers. Ours are very nice, but they are a bit young and sometimes the judgment calls they make seem questionable to me (like letting my kid cry the entire hour of service and never coming to retrieve me to settle her down). Perhaps we need more training for our providers on handling issues such as these.

3) Activities, groups, events that I can’t relate to or that are not kid friendly. I don’t want every meeting or event I attend to require that I use the church childcare service. I would much rather have my child be a part of it, and have her see adults modeling good behavior. I realize this is not possible a lot of the time, but perhaps we should be thinking specifically on what kinds of events could be scheduled that would create opportunities for our children to participate.

4) Limited opportunities for staying in the loop when you can’t attend. Even with a newsletter and website, not enough information is communicated outside of the church walls to keep you in the loop – especially if you frequently can’t attend. It’s a compounding problem. The more you miss out, the “further behind” you feel. I wish our services were recorded and available on our website. I wish more info was provided in various communications.

5) No one has asked. It’s not that you are forgotten as a parent in church… but it does sometimes feel like people assume that you won’t be interested or that you are too busy due to having a child. Even if we say that life is busy with our children, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that we aren’t wanting to be asked to help on occasion. ESPECIALLY, if it could be a good fit – something that aligns well with that congregant’s interests or skills.

6) Outdated forms of communication. Email, phone, snail mail… I hardly ever respond to theses kinds of communications – not on purpose, mind you, but it just seems to happen. I wish my church utilized texting more, or could send out texts about things going on (kind of like how businesses do text advertising). This would help keep me in the loop better. I also would prefer if church members/leaders contacted me via Facebook or texts when they want to communicate with me directly. Email is not my preferred method of communication anymore. It seems antiquated.

7) Expecting attendance for planning purposes. I don’t understand why people want to meet in person just to plan things. In most cases, all of the planning can be handled via text, Facebook, Google+, shared Google documents, online chatting, Skype, or Google hangouts. This is so much easier than packing the kids up and all that that entails (or having to arrange for childcare).

8) Finally, there are other “groups” or “communities” doing it better. Namely, a lot of the moms groups out there are doing a better job. The Moms group I’m involved in provides many more opportunities that my child and I can relate to; the kinds of events that my church does not provide. Think playdates, mommy breaks, baby gyms, Funflatables, miniature golf, zoo, etc, as well as community outreach- outreach that doesn’t require us to be separate from our kids. Examples include bake sales, knitting for charity, 5Ks that allow strollers, craft sales, and more. All of it is managed and planned digitally. We don’t meet in person for planning purposes, we do it via text, Facebook, Meetup, and the like.

I have already addressed some of the above issues with my church. Other issues, I regret to say, I have not brought up much, if at all, with fellow congregants or lay leaders. Maybe it’s due to being busy. Maybe it’s due to the inability to make it to many meetings and services. Perhaps it’s the fact that I can so quickly and easily find other support systems and outlets out there via the internet, social networking, and Meetup. Either way, upon writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that a congregation can’t grow if we don’t speak up about our concerns, and our lay leaders certainly can’t read our minds. We Millenials need to speak up if we want to see changes happening. We can’t expect our churches to always anticipate our needs, our communication styles, or our differences from generation to generation.

I have decided that rather than leave this discussion to the boundaries of the UU Growth Lab and online blogging, it would be worthwhile to send my thoughts onward to the board at my church. I hope they see it as something encouraging – an opportunity for discussion and growth – rather than a critique of “everything that is wrong.” I encourage you to do the same with your own congregation.

It’s your church, too – don’t passively wait for your lay leaders or fellow congregants to anticipate your needs. Rise to the occasion and shape it into the loving, supportive community you envision.

Kelly Mahler

“Young Adults” image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net