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An Answer to Criticism of the Structure of The Sunday Assembly

Lev Letter Post Criticism hurts when it is from someone close, whose opinion you respect, and who knows you well. We’ve received potshots from folk who’ve never been to a Sunday Assembly, and those who never would, and that is water off a duck’s posterior, but there was a letter into the Freethinker which did sting.

One of the original organisers of Sunday Assembly Melbourne, Lev Lafayette, wrote in to say we have “the worst possible organisational design for a body that wants to be a non-theistic church” (but what do you really think, Lev?). We must say we disagree strongly with him, and this is my response to the Freethinker:

“Hi the Freethinker,

Hope you’re well. I saw the letter from Lev Lafayette who very kindly got involved in setting up Sunday Assembly in Melbourne but then left because he did not approve of our structure. His principle objections being that the Sunday Assembly is being run for profit, while encouraging local chapters to start unincorporated associations that leave volunteers horrifically exposed.

In April I wrote a blogpost called ‘Notes on Transparency and Structure‘ where I explained that that The Sunday Assembly was initially setting up as a limited liability company, because it was the easiest structure. This would then lead to a Community Interest Company, and then, probably, to a charity.

I wrote:
“We are going to set up a normal limited liability company, with the long-term goal of turning it into a social enterprise, using the C-i-C structure…..

Apparently, setting up a C-i-C is a lot of paperwork, and regulations, and is generally a bit of a hassle for a very young enterprise, while the benefits, at our micro-scale, are small….We discussed whether we should set up a charity but that is, apparently, even more work and really not worth it until we are far bigger. Oh, and the social aim of the enterprise is this:

The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life. Our aim is to live better, help often and wonder more. Our mission is to help everyone first discover and then achieve their full potential. We meet because we know we are stronger together than on our own.”

This roadmap came from advice we received from the excellent Trudy Thompson, who runs Bricks and Bread, and specialises in consulting to start up social enterprises. Her reasoning was that we should go for the easiest structure now, as the tax and governance benefits would not effect a nigh-on zero revenue organisation like our’s. This would enable us to concentrate on our good work, and not on paperwork.

Pippa and I are comedians, so we followed her advice.
While we are technically a for-profit company believe you me, there have been zero profits, only costs. Every single pound that has gone into it has been our’s, we have taken not one penny of salary. We have turned down offers of work to concentrate on this, all the while working every single hour available hour trying to help people set up their own Assemblies.

We are now moving towards the structure of Community Interest Company and Charity, the one I mentioned in our blogpost. In the UK the lawyers at Bates, Wells and Braithwaite were instructed on July 31st (I saw this letter from Lev on August 5th) to begin incorporating, in the US we have already filed for incorporation as a 501(c)(3) called Sunday Assembly in America (funded by the very kind Jonathan Tobert). We have yet to do this in the Australia because we have not had time but it is on a to-do list (we have so many to do lists!).

Lev also claims that the unincorporated association is a ghastly structure that will lead only to woes. In fact, the unincorporated association is a very common legal entity which is used by sports clubs, university associations and all manner of community groups across the UK. These organisations then pay for public liability insurance themselves, so that their volunteers are not exposed to liabilities.

When Lev raised his concerns in earlier in the year I was deeply saddened that I wasn’t able to convince him that we aren’t maleficent Macchiavelian hucksters. We are just two comedians that started a small monthly congregation in north London to celebrate life. We did not mean to start a movement, it just happened.

Every time I do a Sunday Assembly and see a crowd of faces of beaming with joy at the ridiculous good fortune of being alive, I want to help other people start their own. Whenever, I hear back from someone who goes to our small group in London and finds it helps their life, I want to help other people start their own. Whenever I see a tweet from someone in Melbourne, New York or Bristol about how much they enjoyed an Assembly, I want to help other people start their own.

This is a crazy mission, and we don’t have a roadmap, but we are working super hard to get there. We will definitely make mistakes along the way. We, however, don’t feel this is one of them.


What is super annoying is that the moment this issue came up we asked Mark McKergow, who runs the Sunday Assembly Everywhere network to write a blogpost about it, because we didn’t want people to think we were hiding from it. We then forgot to post it.

Here it is:

“Sunday Assembly Everywhere – birth of a networkBy Mark McKergow, SAE hosts network co-ordinator

The worldwide response to the launch of the Sunday Assembly just six months ago has been one of the most whizzy aspects of this whole caboodle so far. Hundreds have been in touch, and it’s time for an update about progress.

Taking inspiration from other worldwide movements such as Transition, we’re starting to build a network-based organisation. To start with, we’re keen to make as much progress as possible in the shortest time. This means involving a minimum of bureaucracy, with the lightest weight corporate structures possible which nonetheless offer accountability, probity and quality standards.

There are five groups in the UK (Exeter, Bristol, Southend, Brighton and Birmingham) who are acting as pilots and setting up their own Sunday Assembly Everywhere. They are setting up as ‘unincorporated associations’, the format used by many community groups, sports clubs etc. The hub of the network will be Better Often More, based in London. This was set up as a limited company as the quickest route, and will move towards a Community Interest Company or charity as soon as practicable.

I am co-ordinating the network, which also includes organisers from Melbourne, as we start to grow together and learn from the experience. We have a Google Group for communications, a growing collection of online resources and telecalls from time to time to applaud progress and discuss how everything is evolving.

We passed a milestone in mid-June 2013 with the first Sunday Assembly Everywhere in Exeter – huge round of applause to Matt Pocock and the team down there for getting it together. Bristol are looking to start on July 14, with the others coming in the autumn. This is all a huge learning curve – we’re finding out how important it is to develop a local team prior to actually moving to running events, where to find great speakers, and looking for ways to make sure that the whizziness of the Sunday Assembly comes across every time.

At the moment this is all running on enthusiasm and commitment, and everyone involved is working hard to make it happen in a sustainable way. The learning from this first phase will be invaluable in developing what happens next – whatever that turns out to be. In the meantime, here are some ideas for those of you keen on starting a Sunday Assembly Everywhere in your town:

• Start to gather a core team

• Begin to meet regularly (not necessarily very frequently) to share ideas. These might include:

o Personal thoughts on living better, helping often and wondering more

o How SAE could be useful in your area

o Who might want to get involved – local humanist/skeptic groups and others

• Get along to a Sunday Assembly – in London or wherever you can – to experience it for yourselves.”

It’s sad that we weren’t able to convince Lev that we were on the right track. We tried, even suggesting a phone call, but it wasn’t to be. Oh well, I hope that when I meet him, and all the paperwork is done, we are able to get on and have a good chat over a pint (or do they have schooners in Melbourne? I can never remember).

If you have any further questions about this please ask us. We are doing a blog series on The Rationalist at the moment where we plan on writing answers to a lot of these questions, and I think it would be good to have some sort of monthly town hall meeting where these issues can be answered, before they become letters to magazines.

Thanks a lot for reading this intensely long post. In other news: Pippa and I are in Edinburgh at the moment where our new show Joy and Wonder was described as a cross between an orgasm, a Nuremberg Rally and a drug or adrenaline-fuelled disco rave by John Fleming.

We’re using the show as an experiment for new bits that might work at a Sunday Assembly because we want to make it better than better than better than ever.