UUA Magnifying Glass

Does UU Revolution have a future in a UUA where districts don’t?


The article UUA board seeks big changes from districts, published today on uuworld.org, reports  that the UUA Board of Trustees is calling on the district leaders to envision their role “if trustees are no longer elected by districts” and if “the district is no longer the basic unit of service delivery.”   This issue will be considered by the District Presidents Association in November.

As I’ve been following it — and feel free to correct me — once the UUA moved toward a Policy Governance model with the UUA President charged with achieving ends determined by the UUA Board, districts suddenly became incompatible with the UUA’s governance model.  By that model  UUA President serves as CEO and the UUA staff are to be accountable to the President.  As it stands now,  District Executives and various other full time staff are co-employed by and therefore accountable to both the UUA and the districts they serve.

I’m not sure what the future of districts will be, but I do know the future of Unitarian Universalism requires the following…

We need more revolution ideas, innovation and inspiration.
We need kick @$$ leadership & ministry development in, between and beyond our congregations.
We need volunteers and staff engaged in more diverse types and forms of ministries.
And as  UUA President Peter Morales often states, we need trouble makers.

Maybe being removed from “governance and service delivery” will free our districts to dedicate more time and energy to innovating, fueling revolution and making trouble.  I don’t know.  Its very complicated…

As someone working  as a consultant at the district level and on a more  “free range” basis nationally,  I worry about the ease with which revolutionary ideas (and ministry) thrive in large organizations — nothing against the UUA.  I’m talking organizations in general. I love the UUA and would work for it in a heartbeat if someone would create a job that matched my skills.

What do you think?

Be interesting to have existing UUA staff and UUA Board members write essays on the role of districts and district programs/ministries in the leadership development that led to the positions they now hold.

Readers, feel free to answer question for yourself in the comments of this post.   Have districts mattered in your leadership development? If so, what impact will these changes have on potential future leaders?

We need to hear these stories and know what have been important pathways to leadership & ministry so we can work to protect them or create viable alternatives.

18 thoughts on “Does UU Revolution have a future in a UUA where districts don’t?”

  1. Yes. Hopeful signs. Maybe some are finally getting acquainted or seeking to implement the ideas in Schaller’s book of some years back for “judicatories” called From Geography To Affinity: promoting geographic ties will seek to embed a kind of cookie cutter UU church that isn’t helpful for the diversity needed this century; need to build on all the affinity groupings that do exist and feed churches and look for ways to shift money to support new ones.

  2. I have spent my life in three districts (MDD, PNWD, and CBD), so can speak primarily from those experiences. MDD is where I spent most of my childhood up through a small portion of my young adulthood. The MDD did make a difference in my own leadership development through district level ministry for youth. In a very real sense, the first leadership positions I ever had were as a teen in MDD.

    Later in my young adult years, I moved to the PNWD, where I eventually found a calling in religious education ministry. The PNWD was a powerful place to be! The district offered many amazing and challenging programs that were all about ideas, innovation, and inspiration. From inviting congregations to hear Michael Durall speak almost immediately after his publication of _The Almost Church_ (despite his criticism of the UUA), to arranging for high quality workshops on the pastoral-to-program transition through the Alban Institute, the district played a key role in my early development as a religious professional as well as the development of lay leadership within the congregation I served. One thing that was particularly helpful in that regard is that the culture of the district was such that (1) collegial and mutually-respectful relationships between ministers, religious educators, and music directors were fostered, which increased capacity for innovation on the level of the professional “ministries” team within the congregation; (2) congregational teams — including lay leadership, such as board members and worship committee chairpeople — were encouraged to attend most events, which increased the collaborative capacity in-congregation. The combination of those two things, I have come to believe, produces greater capacity for ideas, innovation, and inspiration.

    Most recently I have come to serve a congregation out east. Here, I have found a funky structure of many small districts with very politically charged relationships, small-scale program offerings of variable quality, difficult, strained, distant or (perhaps worst of all) non-existent relationships between ministers, religious educators, and music directors on the district level, ambivilant congregational-district relationships, and congregational lay leadership largely unengaged with the services and offerings of the district. Here I would say the district seemed, upon my arrival a few years ago, to serve primarily (and largely separately, with the exception of one annual “collegial conversation” workshop) ministers and religious educators, largely in isolation from their congregational contexts.

    The above seems especially harsh, however, given the slow but steady progress made as the MBD and CBD have begun to share resources on a number of levels, including staffing, programs, and communications. It is precisely the positive movement I have witnessed in that regard that makes me think that in geographical areas in which districts are very small, regionalization (a movement toward shared resources on the district level) is a good first step toward structural reform.

    To acheive the four goals you listed, in regard to our structure as an associated body of congregations, I would say we would need to make whatever changes necessary to:

    1. Ensure high quality services on the district level. Just as one small example, as a lifelong UU who has attended quite a few in different districts, I don’t see the point in a district assembly or district annual meeting regularly (year after year) offering workshops or programs to participants unless those are quality workshops and programs. It would be in our best interests to discontinue offerings that are made simply because we “always” do it that way. Increasing quality in this way also means that greater travel distances are justified for districts that are moving away from a small-district into a larger regional structure.

    2. Bring the best of our leaders in small districts into shared staff roles among multiple districts rather than singular staffing among singular districts. Eventually, phase out small districts…especially those that exist purely for political reasons (I’m sure I’ll catch grief for that).

    3. Cut positions on the district and national level that don’t serve innovation, ideas, and inspiration and have a real impact on the lives of people in the affected geographical area. Depending on the future of the economy, it may be that we can’t afford the structures we have now over the long-term. It’s time to think *now* about what is worth keeping.

    4. Rely more on the resources outside of singular districts and even the UUA when the program/service quality is superior. For example, the Alban Institute is a tremendous resource for congregations embarking on numerous ventures.

    5. Both at the UUA and the district level, focus on hiring staff who are themselves capable of identifying, engaging, supporting, and empowering emerging innovative leaders. How many folks doing amazing stuff out there are essentially ignored for years on end by the UUA or sometimes even district leadership (I am quite certain it is the case for numerous minister, many more religious educators and music directors, and certainly droves of congregants across the country). We need staff people who recognize these folks from the earliest signs of innovation

    6. Do the work of transforming culture on district and congregational levels in regard to collegial relationships between ministers, religious educators, and music directors. The best example I have of this is the symbolic and tremendously powerful gesture of the ministers of the PNWD when they decided, rather than to guard their power, to share it…and thus, handmake special scarves for religious educators and invite them to walk in installation, ordination, and building dedication processionals along with the ministers. The power has been multiplied as congregations have gotten to know another layer of professional religious leadership in the district (and vice versa)! Now, the PNWD, unlike other places, is somewhere you can go and see religious educators drive many hours to get to an installation, ordination, or building dedication. In the CBD, ministers don’t even do that often enough for each other, and yet the rite is guarded.

    7. Together consider whether there is once again a place for greater itinerancy and pulpit sharing to, at the very least, expose congregations to the larger association one-minister-at-a-time.

    I’m sure I could think of more, but this is getting long…

  3. Here in the UK we shifted our governance from national Trustees coming from districts (a Council) to directly elected Trustees (an Executive Committee). This has led to some soul-searching as to the purpose of districts. Of course, they’re very different things from the US; only two of them have any staff. However a lot of them have a fair bit of money. A proportion of my stipend comes from the district. But other than that financial support, it’s difficult to say what the districts are for.

  4. My Church has been well served by Central Midwest District. I shutter at what comes out of UUA. All in all, this looks like a very bad move. If the “standing on the side of love” campaign is being offered up as a sample of what’s to come (read Rev Morales’s thoughts) than I’d say UUA’s on the fast path downhill. This move a symptom of the coming crisis, not a solution.

      1. Hi Anna, I think Bill may be referring to a paragraph in the article linked to in this post which reads as follows, though I hope Bill will elaborate further:

        Public witness is Morales’s third priority. He emphasized that the UUA wants to continue working with and empowering congregations at the local level. He referred to the success of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love Campaign, which has provided resources and support to congregations to address social justice issues arising in their own communities. “It’s empowered and released the energy and idealism in our congregations. We need to nurture that as we move forward.”

  5. Yes, that’s the quote.

    My take is that the current UUA leadership are working to cut costs, concentrate decision-making, disempower the Districts and enforce a liberal political correctness that has challenges with nuance and context.

    ….that para as a friend neatly put it to me. I think Rev Morales references to the success of Standing on the Side of Love an example of liberal political correctness very deeply challenged by nuance and context. Political Liberalism’s on it’s way to a huge breakdown, and it will drag UUism down with it, to the extent we’ve heavily invested in it. If ever there was a time to return to Liberal Religion it’s now, because Liberal Politics is falling apart. I’m afraid the strategy UUA’s suggesting is just centralizing authority on a ship taking on much water. It’s not revolutionary in the least.

  6. Bill, thanks for elaborating. Interesting to consider the relationship between Liberal Religion and Liberal Politics. I know many people feel that Liberal Religion should inspire people to take some sort of action to right injustices. If so, how do we do that without boarding the sinking ship? Or do we take over the ship, fix the ship, wave flags from the shore…

  7. Liberal Religion inspires People to take action. Churches as associations of people can help.

    UUA as an Association of Churches will stifle because people and Churches can be inspired in very different ways.

    This move towards centralizing Political Action in the hands of a Central Committee a very bad move especially if this Liberal Political line one of the outcomes. It will kill our Association.

    It seems well along the path and only confirms why I’m hearing talk about how we’ve been here before UUA and will be here after UUA.

  8. Bill, Standing on the Side of Love isn’t centralized political action—and it doesn’t have a Central Committee. It’s a theme—and one that local congregations have adapted to use in their own local social witness initiatives.

    1. I understand Chris, but will that be the case come this centralization? For Rev Morales to raise it as a best practice in the same message as discussing these reforms, raised my eye brows.

      1. Peter didn’t point to Standing on the Side of Love in the context of the district reforms; he raised it in the context of his own programmatic priorities. He points to SSL as an example of decentralized social witness, since it represents the UUA moving away from a Washington-focused, legislation-focused social witness program toward a congregation-focused, local-focused, issues-oriented program.

      2. Regardless of how anyone might judge the Standing on the Side of Love campaign’s focus or approach, it certainly has mobilized our members. I particularly like that the UUA has been working to train ministers to engage with the media. It would be nice if those trainings were more widely available, including online somehow on-demand.

      3. I’ve seen this campaign being used in many of the congregations I visit through my consulting work, guest speaking and have witnessed a huge response via the UUs I’m connected to via social media and congregational e-newsletter. Sorry I have no hard data to share. Ah, to have good data….

        Here’s an experiment. Try a Google search for Unitarian, “Standing on the Side of Love” or any other UUA initiative in quotes. How many results are yielded? Gross level comparison, but it does hint at the extent at the volume of communication….

        A few searches and Google’s approximate results:

        Unitarian, “Standing on the Side of Love” = 588,00
        Unitarian, “potluck” = 555,000
        Unitarian, “Youth Group” = 313,000
        “Unitarian Universalist Association” = 153,000
        Unitarian, “General Assembly” = 142,000
        Unitarian, “Religion for Our Time” = 68,900
        Unitarian, “Peter Morales” = 23,500
        Unitarian, “Covenant Group” =12,400
        Unitarian, “Our Whole Lives” = 8,170
        Unitarian, “Small Group Ministry” = 4,550

        Note that I use Unitarian to identify a set of websites related to our faith. You could repeat the above using Universalist or Unitarian Universalist.

  9. I’m in the Heartland District.

    I think the District system is one of the biggest problems we have in the UUA. It encourages congregational leaders to think that anything that involves more than one congregation must be under the districts purview, and thus the congregations get to pass the buck and (for the most part) ignore one another.

    Especially here in the midwest, all the districts are too large. No multi-congregational organising can be effective when we’ve 12 hours between our furthest congregations, especially when you have 25% of them within a one hour radius.

    And because the district staff can’t really play favourites or say “well… it’s easier to organise with these 15 congregations than it is to do the other 35”, we get congregations within 30 minutes of each other whose lay leaders don’t speak to one another between district assemblies.

    I don’t think the districts will go away. At least for a while, the district boards will find time for the things they SHOULD be doing: leading multi-congregational discourse.

  10. Donald, that is an interesting point. Thanks for that. One strength I have found in CBD is that because congregations are relatively closely clustered geographically, there is a great impulse toward informally organizing partnerships of various sorts.

    1. See, in Michigan, we USED to have that.

      And then we created the Heartland District and everyone was SO HYPER PARANOID about the district being a whole, we lost all that interconnection because we started focusing on a scale that doesn’t work.

      The DREs in the area work together… the Ministers talk to one another… Every now and then you’ll get a music director or three doing something… But if one youth or YA group wants to work with one at a neighboring congregation, we get ministers and board members saying “You have to go thru the district for that”. Heck, we have UUs from two congregations show up at the same Habitat for Humanity house, never knowing the other group was scheduled to be there (or even knowing the other Cong existed)

      At the Detroit PRIDE Festival, there were 3 UU congregations (two of them with Standing on the Side of Love banners) who didn’t know each other was there… until the day AFTER the event.

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