By Eric Sandhusen
The delegates to the 108th Annual Assembly of the American Ethical Union (AEU) convened virtually last week to elect officers and plot a future for the organization, which serves 23 Ethical Culture Societies of various size and character around the country. (You can learn more about the AEU at aeu.org.)
Some of you may not even know that there is such a thing as an American Ethical Union. It’s an organization that for decades has trained and certified leaders, sponsored lay-leadership trainings, coordinated among Society committees, and worked to advance the Ethical Culture Movement.
Societies financially support the AEU
Each Society provides financial support according to the size of its membership, with the Bergen Society providing roughly $16,000 per year for its apportionment. For some years, the AEU has not been entirely successful in building Society capacity, partly due to a lack of focus on this important part of its mission. When I joined the AEU President’s Council in May, I learned more about its recent operations and workings, and became concerned at the direction its board was taking it during what should have been an interim period (after the loss of both the executive and administrative directors). I saw major decisions being made by a small subset of the board–a Steering Committee, if you will–with funds being misspent in pursuit of dubious goals (such as removing opposing board members and focusing energy on correctives for “white supremacy culture” in our Movement).
In recent years, it has not been clear whether the AEU considers itself to be primarily a network organization, designed to serve the member Societies, or if it is to be a national organization that speaks for, and to, the different Ethical Societies. This was accentuated after the AEU, in 2006, went from having a board made up of Society representatives to one elected “at-large,” with Societies being only incidentally represented and having no specific voice. The disconnection of the national organization from the local Societies came to a head, in my opinion, in conflicts that erupted on the AEU Board this past year, spilling over in the form of interference in the personnel and programmatic affairs of the Bergen Society, which led our Board of Trustees to suspend our apportionment as of last April.
In response, the Bergen Ethical Society has repeatedly asked that the AEU Board let us know the policy regarding such interventions, as well as how the AEU shall respond whenever a member organization such as ours registers a concern about such interference. Instead of a clear policy and response, we were offered a Restorative Justice circle, which we found to be premature given that AEU Board members were not even made aware of the specifics of our concerns.
Societies retain independence
I personally believe that the AEU is most effective when it recognizes its purpose, which is to be a network organization supporting Societies, and not in existing as any separate, let alone authoritative, organization. This is in accord with Ethical Culture’s “congregational polity,” which in basic terms means we don’t have any superior doctrinal authority. There is no high church that can lay claim to any Society’s assets or define its character.
I write this as background for what happened at the AEU Assembly, where delegates were given proposals representing these two basic conceptions of the organization, to vote and decide on as the future direction of the AEU. I will describe the proposals, the discussions, and the outcome, in my next column. As someone once said–stay tuned!
Eric Sandhusen is president of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.