Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who speaks for the congregation?

The UUA Board's primary authority comes from its member congregations -- and we in turn are accountable to those member congregations. In my last post I talked about the kinds of conversations should be having in my UUA trustee role. But who, exactly, should I be having them with?

For many UUA trustees this has traditionally been with district boards, delegates at district assemblies, and/or the most vocal members of various congregations. All of these are welcome and valuable, but do not exactly fit the description of a "congregation" -- and brings up the potential for listening to the best known and/or loudest voices, and not necessarily the most representative.

This is why the UUA Board choose a random sample of 100 congregations across the United States to ask questions like "who speaks for your congregation?" and "what does a healthy relationship between organizations look like?" Interviews have been going on in person or by phone for the past few months, and will be reported out at General Assembly. The UU Church of Stockton was the only one selected in the sample from the Pacific Central District, so I have been having these conversations in other districts as well.

Our hypothesis was that the Board president and called minister(s) (if there are any), would speak for the congregation. That has been true (so far) a little over 60% of the time -- sometimes it is the church administrator, sometimes another board member, or sometimes the person with the most knowledge or greatest set of communication skills.

"Who speaks for the congregation" is most clear once a year -- during General Assembly when it is that congregation's delegates. Yet many of those delegates do not feel empowered to vote on behalf of their congregation. So we have delegates empowered by the by-laws of the Association to direct resources of the Association, but often doing so without being empowered by, or speaking on behalf or, their own congregations.

One of the responses I hear is "delegates don't do anything important anyway". That is probably true if you look at "important" as the kind of urgency that will be in place this summer with the vote on where GA 2012 will be held. And to some degree it is a self-fulfilling prophecy -- as a board member I want to be directed by a thoughtful body of delegates that has worked through the implications of what they are doing, and bring the force of their own congregations with them. Is that too much to ask?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Staying in touch

I always find meeting with congregational leaders, as I did Sunday at Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, a really interesting and enjoyable look at what is on their minds in terms of the Association. A list of questions collected prior to the meeting gave me a great chance to reflect on the past three years and try to put some perspective on it -- particularly this one:

How do you, as PCD trustee, stay informed about the needs and interests of the 38 congregations? How much time do you spend with them? How often, on average, do you receive inputs from the average congregation? What kinds of issues or problems do they bring to you?

I still struggle with this one. One of my goals as trustee is to have a substantive meeting with each congregation in the district, "substantive" meaning an opportunity for two-way dialogue with congregation leaders. I have met with a little over half, many of them more than once, so will continue with this quest. What I have come to realize, though, is the need to think of what we talk about and who I am talking to.

Most UU members, if interested in "the UUA", are interested in the services that are provided by the district and national staff. In my first year as trustee I distributed lists of resources available from the UUA and instructions on how to search the website to find what you were looking for.

I realize now that's not my role.

Talking about "what the UUA can do for you" is a conversation with someone in the customer role, the receiver of services. That is not a bad thing - it is one of the mains reasons the UUA was created. It is the appropriate conversation with UUA staff.

And there is another role, best described to me in congregational terms by then Board President John Cahoon when I joined the UU Church of Berkeley: "the next time you walk into this place, walk into it as if you owned it, because now you do." He went on to describe being a property owner, landlord, and employer as part of the church membership. "Owners" care about what is being delivered as services, but also about the long term viability of the congregation as an institution. We want the church to make a difference in the lives of more than just ourselves. We picture a future world where we have made an impact in our communities, on our children, and continue to offer a different kind of salvation to people who need to hear that message. What impacts do we want to make? This is the conversation I want to have with our member congregations as a UUA board member.

Next post: who speaks for the congregation?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Apologies from a not historian

With thanks to Larry Ladd for his information and graceful way of providing it and apologies to Gini for misrepresentation

Sometimes when one is not familiar with the details of a situation, they are still able to capture its essence with the key facts being correct. And in other cases they -- well, don't.

I did not, in summarizing Gini's comments at the governance change workshop at the PCD District Assembly. Though history is always open to interpretation, I misrepresented some key facts about our early formation:
  • Districts WERE originally set up for service delivery, not to elect trustees. In fact, trustees were elected at large until 1969.
  • As Gini mentioned, districts were pre-dated by Unitarian area conferences and Universalist state conventions. These conferences and state conventions often had their own source of money. The new UUA leadership's task was to combine them into districts -- whether that was "gerrymandering" or paying attention to "identity, money, and jobs", as Larry suggests, depends on your point of view. My understanding is there is a substantial difference in perspective between those who came to our faith as Unitarians versus those who came as Universalists.
  • Per Larry: "The important point here is that the muddled mixture of funding began in 1961-64, far earlier than the blog indicated and for very different reasons." He goes on to describe a complex set of negotiations in terms of where the funds from the existing conventions and conferences would to (which Gini also described). "So when the financial problems of the UUA emerged in 1969-70 many districts already had their own sources of funds (I served on the Connecticut Valley District Board during that period and we were glad to have the Connecticut Universalist Convention money!). The reduction in direct UUA support certainly created incentives to raise more funds but not a lot could be raised by the churches, by and large, were in decline during the 1970s. Ironically, the financial problems also led to the creation by the UUA of InterDistrict Representatives [the field people mentioned by Gini], who were regional service delivery people very similar to the structure that is emerging now (except that now there’s more money and staff)."
One of the Board's "Sources of Authority and Accountability" is "the heritage, traditions, and ideals of Unitarian Universalism". This is a living example of why that is important, and how historical context needs to inform our decisions.

Friday, May 7, 2010

By the time we get to Phoenix...

Report from the May 6 UUA Virtual Board meeting

Ever since SB 1070 was signed by the Arizona governor, the UUA board emails have been non-stop, primarily among ourselves, but also lobbying from various groups urging us to boycott Phoenix, site of the 2012 General Assembly. At least four districts who have had assemblies in the past few weeks have passed resolutions asking the President to "re-examine the decision". [Note: per the by-laws, the decision is the Board's.]

The reasons are compelling. The lack of welcome if not downright fear for the safety of our Latino/Latina community has given all of us a right to question our presence there. Yet many of us (myself included) were reluctant to just walk away, and it was not about money.

The cancellation costs could be as high as $615,000, assuming no mitigation with the hotels. More important were our values, and reasons for boycotting. Is this about sticking by our principles and showing the world what we believe? or is it about overturning this draconian not-yet-law? or both? or something else?

One of the values of the UUA identified by the Board, then-president Sinkford, and the two presidential candidates a few years ago was "transformation". What acts will move us away from fear and reaction towards the Beloved Community? Van Jones' words kept ringing in my ears: prepare to govern, prepare to engage -- you are so good at being against things. Prepare to lead.

The call had a wide-ranging discussion, with excellent input from the staff and a number of Arizona members. In the end, the Board decided to turn the decision over the the General Assembly this summer, recommending that we move General Assembly. The Board's role is to govern between general assemblies, and this was the kind of substantive, values-packed decision that the Board wants more of for assembly delegates. We envision a full discussion of how we both engage and make our values clear, raising the money not only to defray any cancellation penalties, but also support Standing on the Side of Love in Arizona. To that end, the Board also decided to move either the October 10 or January 11 board meeting to Phoenix.

Here is the full text of the resolution that will be considered in mini-assemblies at GA:

Whereas the state of Arizona has recently enacted a law—SB 1070—that runs counter to our first principle, affirming the worth and dignity of every person;

Whereas the Association stands in solidarity with allies using a widespread economic boycott of Arizona as leverage for Love against this hateful legislation;

Be it resolved: we will not meet in a state of fear.

Accordingly, the Assembly hereby:

• Directs the UUA General Assembly Planning Committee to recommend to the Board of Trustees an alternate location for General Assembly 2012 at a location outside the state of Arizona;
• Pledges to generate from Member Congregations the amount sufficient to cancel arrangements in Phoenix for GA 2012;
• Pledges further to generate an equal or greater amount to fund ongoing efforts to Stand on the Side of Love in Arizona.
• Pledges to renew and redouble our efforts to become a multicultural, anti-racist Association; to live as a people standing faithfully in opposition to systemic racism in our congregations, local communities, and in our own lives.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What does this have to do with us?

Second of a series of posts about district governance

"How will this help the PCD?", the PCD board member asked. Gini Courter's response was not necessarily appreciated.

"It's like health care," Gini answered. "We have a lot of people who are happy with what they have, so are unwilling to change a broken system because what they have is working fine for them."

If I had been able to come up with a brilliant set of reasons why the PCD directly benefited from governance changes, I would have done so a long time ago. I have combed through the reports, looking for inequities in how our congregations are served, and although I don't have access to a lot of the data, I find no glaring disparities that would suggest we are not getting our "fair share". Sure, I would love to have more staff, who could then go deeper into their expertise and not need to do it all (not to mention not have to work 24/7, which our staff appears to do), but that is more a function of being one of the smaller districts. Then I decided I was probably missing the point.

What we are doing in this district is not sustainable in the long term if the entire Association is not healthy. Just like health care, there are systemic issues that need to be fixed to have a viable denomination. I am not looking for just a church with a great worship service that attends to my pastoral needs (though I have that) -- I am looking for something that connects my faith to something much larger, to really make an impact on the world around me.

I have friends who view people without health care as somehow bringing it on themselves -- I wonder sometimes about the parallel when I hear a certain smugness about how membership in New England, the bastion of 25 Beacon and all that represents, is declining.

Should I care if their side of the boat is leaking?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Governance Detour

A slight (but important) detour into governance from a district perspective

The round up of "what have you heard" in a late evening Saturday workshop at the Pacific Central District Assembly was fascinating: the representation of congregations will shift, the money is in the west [while] the people [members] in the east, there will be a huge Western region, extending from Hawaii to the Rockies, technology will replace a lot of face to face, [the opportunity to develop] personal relationships will be eliminated, regionalized staff will be centralized... Joined by UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who came over for the evening with former UUA Board Trustee at large Tamara Payne-Alex, Mary Ellen Morgan (our district president) and I led a lively discussion with an audience whose most vocal members were PCD trustees with no desire to change the current governance structure, which from their perspective was working well at a district level.

In fairness, PCD has consistently had one of the highest rates of attendance as a percent of membership, district assembly participation, general assembly participation, and fair share congregations. Why tinker with that? We even increased slightly in terms of membership this past year, though we have one of the highest percentage of congregations that are decreasing in membership, and it has been a long time since we have added any congregations.

Even more interesting were some of the underlying assumptions expressed in the workshop: the plan has already been put together (what about that map?), what may work in the rest of the country won't work here (and "we" have the courage to say it), and a great deal of confusion between governance and service delivery.

The "plan" has not been put together. Attempts at changing the governance structured inherited from 50 years ago have crashed and burned a number of times. "That map" that shows a western region extending from Hawaii to the Rockies is an informal arrangement for service delivery, put together by staff, not governance of the Association put together by anyone doing governance. This workshop was part of a discussion that started with the District Presidents Association (DPA) and the UUA Board last November. What started as a conversation about how the President can most effectively hold co-employed staff accountable led to some district presidents questioning why districts existed at all. [PCD disclaimer: Mary Ellen was not one of them, though as the president of the DPA this past year she has gracefully maintained her role as a non-anxious leader creating space for the conversation.]

Gini led us through how we got to where we are: districts were initially created to elect trustees to the newly formed UUA board, with the boundaries gerrymandered to insure control by Unitarians. Existing boundaries were not created for effective service delivery, because that is not what they were set up to do. In the early 1970s, the financial crisis of the UUA led to essentially all field staff being laid off. Concerned about the resulting lack of services to congregations, districts decided to raise their own money and hire their own staff, in a number of cases forming 501(c)3 organizations to do it. If you raise money, you need someone to oversee its collection and use, which led to district boards that in many areas became more and more involved in not just the oversee, but also the delivery of the services themselves, as working boards, much as many of our congregations' boards do. The result is two "fair share" asks to our congregations (one from the UUA, and one from the district), co-employed staff, and a complicated set of funding mechanisms that have wide disparity between districts. Per the January 2008 "Congregations Come First" report:
  • In the Southwestern UU Conference, a large geographic district, two full-time professional staff members and one full-time equivalent administrative position serve 76 member congregations and five emerging congregations. In the relatively smaller and more compact Joseph Priestley District, six professional staff (four full-time, two half-time) and two administrative (one full-time, one half-time) serve 64 member congregations and four emerging congregations.
  • The ratio of district staff members per congregation ranges from 1:11 to 1:45.
  • The amount that our UUA reimburses districts to support their offices ranges from $23,000 to $78,000 as a result of financial agreements dating back as far as 1982.
  • -- On a "dollars per congregation" basis, the reimbursement ranges from less than $500 to over $1,600.
  • -- On a "dollars per member" basis, the reimbursement ranges from less than $4 to almost $12 per member.
  • While some districts are hiring additional specialized staff, another is requesting a line of credit from our UUA to pay its one staff person.
Next post: what does that have to do with us?