District leaders consider big changes to regional governance

Leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s nineteen districts met today with members of the UUA Board of Trustees to discuss the districts’ governance role and to imagine new ways of helping congregations collaborate with each other and with the national Association.

District/Board meeting

The all-day meeting of 133 district presidents, members of district boards, district staff, and UUA trustees asked whether the Association’s 49-year-old district structure is helping or hindering the growth and vitality of Unitarian Universalism. Without dismissing the good work that districts do, conveners of today’s meeting kept the group’s focus on ways the district structure inhibits growth and vitality.

By the end of the day, the leaders agreed to initiate a similar conversation with their respective district boards in the coming year. They also agreed to hold regional meetings that would nominate individuals to a District Presidents Association task force on regionalization by the 2011 General Assembly.

As UU World reported in February, neighboring districts have been moving gradually into regional groups that share staff expertise across district lines. In May, for example, four East Coast district boards voted to approve a plan to hire three specialists who could serve congregations in all four districts. (They named their region the Central East Regional Group.) Earlier this spring, two New England districts formally consolidated their employees with a single district executive who answers to both district boards. Other districts are exploring a variety of ways to share staff and volunteer expertise across district lines.

At the same time, the UUA Board of Trustees’s focus on reforming UUA governance has raised questions about the governance role of districts. Each district has its own governing board and its own annual meeting with delegates from area congregations; each district elects a trustee to the UUA board. In February, however, the UUA board voted to develop a plan by 2011 to reduce the size of the board, which would almost certainly mean reducing the number of trustees elected by districts.

Should a smaller number of trustees be elected by a smaller number of regions? Should regional teams of congregational support staff report to these regions rather than to districts? Today’s meeting, organized by the District Presidents Association with the help of the UUA board, was not oriented around answering these questions so much as it was focused on identifying reasons why the UUA has stuck with a complex and sometimes mystifying district structure.

John Sanders, president of the New England District and incoming president of the District Presidents Association, kicked off the meeting by asking UUA Moderator Gini Courter to define some of the problems that were prompting the shift to regional staffing and the UUA board’s push for governance changes.

Courter outlined a number of challenges. Despite the existence of districts, she said, most congregations still act as if they’re isolated and independent rather than interdependent.

Cost is also a problem. “We spend, outside of congregations, conservatively, in a year, half a million dollars on governance,” Courter said. “That’s a lot to spend without being able to point to good outcomes.”

A complicated history of financial agreements with the UUA has also led to widely divergent funding models, with districts receiving as little as 28 percent or as much as 82 percent of their budgets from the UUA, said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president of Ministries Congregational Support.* Some districts employee two people; some employ as many as five.

“One of the things that disturbs me the most,” Courter continued, “is that we spend a lot of time doing governance as if governance were the whole reason the Association existed. I don’t feel that the most appropriate thing to do with everyone who loves our faith is to put them on boards at every level of the Association.”

She told the assembly of district leaders that this was the first time in the UUA’s 49 years that such a group had been gathered. “That’s not a coincidence,” she said. “It was impossible for us to have come together before, and we weren’t supposed to come together today. So I ask you to come together in a spirit of rebelliousness and discontent” with the status quo.

The Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, a visiting professor of history at Starr King School for the Ministry and the UUA trustee from the Ohio-Meadville District, described how the district structure was designed between 1959 and 1961. A compromise between Universalist state conventions and Unitarian regional service centers, districts were designed not to follow state lines—“to avoid the specter of state conventions,” which many Unitarians opposed as contrary to congregational polity. Today, many UU congregations want to work together at the state level, especially around public policy and social witness, but some states are divided into two or even three districts.

UUA President Peter Morales, who served for two years as the UUA’s director of district services, said, “If we hired a management consultant and they designed this system, we’d sue them for malpractice.”

The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley facilitated a conversation that asked, “Are there aspects of our District structures or governance that do not nurture congregational growth and vitality?” Cooley, who is the district executive serving the Massachusetts Bay District and the Clara Barton District and who will become the UUA’s director of congregational life in July, reminded the district leaders that they were not evaluating all aspects of district life; the exercise was designed to help identify problems and the competing values that keep people locked into unsatisfying systems.

“You are the only ones empowered to change” the district structure, Cooley told the district leaders. “There are things the UUA board can recommend, things the General Assembly can vote on, things the staff can do, but a change in district governance depends on you.”

As the end of the afternoon approached, district leaders expressed a wide range of views about next steps. Most agreed with the goal of finding more effective ways of serving congregations, empowering volunteers, and governing the Association, but many balked when John Sanders, incoming president of the District Presidents Association, proposed that district presidents nominate a task force to develop recommendations to bring back to district boards in the next year.

They agreed to begin talking about regionalization with their district boards and to hold preliminary conversations with leaders in their regions in the next year, however.

District leaders from two regions have formally met and started discussing what regionalization might look like for them. Leaders from the districts that make up two other regions had never met with each other before today. The districts that make up the fifth region have scheduled their first meetings this week.

District Presidents

* Correction 6.24.10: As originally published, this post misstated Harlan Limpert’s title.