The Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees passed a motion at a special board meeting on February 4 pledging to examine the UUA’s system of districts as part of its campaign to reform UUA governance. According to the motion, the board would be working with the UUA president, district presidents, and district board members to discuss a move towards regionalization. The UUA has not announced plans, however, to eliminate districts.
For most of its 49 years, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been organized into districts. Currently it has 19, covering the United States from the Pacific Northwest District to the Florida District. Each has its own structure, district board, and staff members who serve the congregations in that district.
As UUA staff and congregations embrace new forms of communication, it has become possible—and practical—to think about working beyond the boundaries of districts.
According to the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support, the idea of regions has been developing on its own. Around 10 to 15 years ago staff members from several adjacent districts began getting together to share ideas and provide support to each other. They came to refer to their gatherings as “regional” groups.
As electronic communications improved and district staff began to do more of their work with congregations online, first by email, and more recently through online workshops called “webinars,” district boundaries became less critical. Anyone, anywhere, could participate in online conversations. When the recession arrived more than a year ago, that type of extended communication increased, helping districts hold down costs.
The UUA Board of Trustees is supporting a move toward regionalization. At a special meeting February 4 the board voted to hold discussions at GA 2010 with district presidents and members of district boards about a shift toward regionalization. The board also voted to work with GA delegates starting in 2011 to “amend the UUA bylaws to significantly reduce the size of the UUA Board.” That could mean that some districts, at some point, might not have a representative on the board. Each district currently elects a trustee to serve on the 24-member UUA board.
Five regions have been identified and named. The Pacific Western Region covers the western third of the United States, the MidAmerica region comprises the Midwest, and the Southland region includes much of the southeast United States. The Central East region extends from Ohio to New York. The North Atlantic region is from Maine to Connecticut.
Are regions going to replace districts? “District boards will ultimately make that decision,” Limpert said. “My push is to encourage partnerships and crossing lines to better serve the needs of congregations. Districts are separate legal entities with bylaws and endowments. Some of them own property, including camps.”
Limpert said that as the movement toward UUA regions grows, some districts could decide to disband, or to keep only a fiduciary role, but not a governance one. Others could decide to continue as they are.
Because a region would cover the area now covered by several districts, a regional structure would permit a wider diversity of staff, Limpert noted. Because a region would draw from the staff of several districts, it’s more likely that a staff member would have expertise in a specific topic—conflict, leadership development, or young adult ministry—for example.
Regionalization does not mean that district staff would be cut, said Limpert. Most staff would likely continue their present service to congregations in their same locations although serving a larger area. District staff are co-employed—their salaries shared by the district and the UUA.
Janine Larsen is district executive in the Pacific Northwest District, which covers Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and much of Idaho. It is part of the Pacific Western Region covering 12 western states.
“Given all the changes in how the country and the world work, it makes a whole lot of sense for the UUA to look at its organizational structure,” Larsen said. “I can see having different ways of connecting and serving congregations that are not just geographic, but are related to size, the various initiatives of congregations, and different congregational cultures.”
She added, “Doing distance learning through webinars and other means is so much easier now. There are still times when being face-to-face is necessary, but when you can’t, what we’re able to do with webinars is so much better than even a couple of years ago.”
Limpert said it seems likely that operating five regions would be less costly than operating all of the 19 current districts. He said savings would come primarily from having fewer district boards. Boards typically meet quarterly at an annual combined cost estimated around $300,000.
Districts, he noted, provide different levels of support, because of financial limitations. “They can’t all afford the same number of staff. Serving congregations through regions would be one way to even that out.”
As the debate goes on, district staff and congregational leaders are increasingly working outside district lines. Staff of the four UUA districts that comprise the Central East regional group are, for the third year, attending each other’s annual district assemblies to provide programming. Three of the districts—Metro New York, Ohio Meadville, and St. Lawrence—also contribute $3,000 annually to use the services of a growth consultant from the fourth district, Joseph Priestley.
Andrea Lerner, district executive of Metro New York, noted that regions are more than simply a response to difficult economic times. Planning for them began years ago as a way to serve congregations better, she said. “Our regional cooperative was created with the primary goal of better service delivery to congregations. We created a list of our specialties, what we each felt we did well, and focused on how we could share our expertise across district lines. Now that we are dealing with tighter financial constraints, it seems that our regional staffing structure will also help to ease the financial pressure.”
Elsewhere, the Southland region held a leadership training in January attended by 40 lay volunteers from across the region who will be available to work with congregations in areas including growth, stewardship, and governance. “I was impressed with the caliber of folks and their enthusiasm,” said Jim Key, president of the Thomas Jefferson District, one of the districts within the Southland region. Key is a strong advocate of forming regions. “This is how I think we should be using people, rather than filling up 19 separate boards. “I have a strong view that regions are not only workable but essential to growth.”
The prospect of regions raises questions for some people about a possible loss of community. Cyndy Bailes is in her third term as treasurer of the Thomas Jefferson District, which includes the Carolinas, Virginia, and parts of Tennessee and Georgia. “Our congregations have a close connection to the district. When we’re asking congregations to pay Fair Share contributions to the UUA, or to engage in social justice activity, I just think that those close connections through our district help in that. We have worked hard to create a sense of community and of being part of a larger movement. My fear is all that would be harder if we had regions.”
Mary Ellen Morgan, president of the Pacific Central District in California, has heard concerns from members of her board about a loss of community if regions are adopted. “Our board is deeply involved in the day-to-day activities of the district and with our congregations, and what we have now is working very well for us,” she said.
“If we go to regions I’ll support it,” she said, “and I look forward to the conversations we are planning with our delegates at future district and General Assemblies. There are probably all kinds of changes we need to make—I just don’t know how far they need to go. But the best use of our resources is something we should be reviewing, since serving our congregations is paramount.”