The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the professional organization for UU ministers, hired its first executive director as part of a new five-year plan to increase educational opportunities for ministers and strengthen bonds among them. The plan was approved by the UUMA Executive Committee in January 2009 and was made possible by a dues restructuring that the membership approved this past June.
On October 1, the Rev. Don Southworth began serving as acting executive director. Southworth recently completed a term as secretary of the 10-member UUMA executive committee. Until recently he was also lead minister at the Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, N.C. His responsibilities will include managing the development of a new five-day retreat for ministers, the Center Institute for Excellence in Ministry, to be held every other year. The first one will be in February 2011 at the Asilomar Conference Center, near Monterey, Calif.
To support the new position and the increased educational opportunities, the UUMA membership approved a significant increase in members’ annual dues. Most ministers’ dues will increase over a three-year-period to an amount equal to one percent of their compensation, with exceptions for ministers who are expected to pay dues to other professional organizations, such as community ministers who may serve as chaplains, as well as exceptions for ministers facing financial hardship. Until now, dues had been $360 a year for regular members of the UUMA.
Part of the impetus for the move was to provide deeper educational opportunities for ministers, according to a UUMA news release issued November 5, which quoted the Rev. Jann Halloran, the UUMA executive committee member responsible for continuing education. “As more and more Unitarian Universalist ministers graduate from non-Unitarian Universalist schools, it’s more important than ever for ministers to have the opportunity to gather with other Unitarian Universalist clergy to study a particular topic in-depth from a liberal religious perspective.”
The Rev. James Kubal-Komoto, in charge of publications for the UUMA, and author of the news release, said the UUMA will work even more closely and collaboratively with the UUA’s Ministerial Development Office to explore how each group can best serve the needs of ministers.
The Rev. Jory Agate, ministerial development director, said she was looking forward to being able to partner with the UUMA on continuing education programs designed for UU ministers. Having an executive director in place will make such partnerships more feasible, she said.
The vote to increase the dues, and to hire an executive director, passed by a wide margin at the UUMA’s 2009 business meeting in Salt Lake City before General Assembly, according to the news release. The organization has one other staff person, full-time administrator Janette Lallier. Kubal-Komoto said that in his estimation, at least 80 percent of members present at the business meeting approved the changes on a voice vote. “There was a very clear majority,” he said. The UUMA has 1,600 members.
Some ministers have embraced the new plan while others have reservations.
“This has been a long time in coming,” said the Rev. Howard Dana, minister of the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pa. “I think it’s a good direction to go in, and past due. I have never understood how a minister with a full-time job could also have time to be president of the UUMA. To have a professional staff will be helpful in the long run to ministers.” Dana now pays $360 a year to the UUMA and that would increase to around $850, he estimated.
The current UUMA president is the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, co-minister of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn. The president-designate, who will become president in July 2010, is the Rev. Bill Hamilton-Holway, co-minister of the UU Church of Berkeley in Kensington, Calif.
Until now, the UUMA president has performed many of the functions of an executive director. Kubal Komoto said that under the new arrangement, the president will continue to be responsible for advocating the vision of the UUMA as well as chairing the UUMA Executive Committee, and the executive director will be responsible for managing the implementation of UUMA programs for its members.
The Rev. Nancy Haley, interim minister at Second Unitarian Church in Omaha, Neb., also supports the changes. “Even though raising dues is a stretch for some,” she said, “professional organizations with a vision for the future need to be supported financially. I think the UUMA is moving forward with clarity and kindness. This has huge possibilities for ministers.”
Haley said her dues, now at $360, will increase by $140 next year assuming her compensation is similar to this year’s.
Other ministers expressed concerns about the timing, wishing the organization had allowed more time for discussion, and fearing that the dues increase comes at a bad economic time.
The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, program minister at First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City, believes the plan was adopted too quickly. “This is a profound change and I feel that it’s being rushed,” she said. “My feeling is that it takes two years to make a change to bylaws or guidelines. I first heard vague references to this plan a year ago.”
She added, “This may well be the right move,” but she is worried that the higher dues might cause some ministers to drop out. “This could also make it tough on young ministers trying to pay off student loans,” she said.
The Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, a UU minister for 30 years and a senior consultant with The Alban Institute, also objected to the speed, as well as the manner in which the changes were adopted, believing that not enough time was allowed for debate.
Hotchkiss questions whether it makes sense for the UUMA to attempt to be the primary locus for continuing education programs. He also has concerns about instituting a steep dues increase at a time when the national economy is struggling.
He said he is sympathetic to the need for more UUMA staff. “I hope that as changes are implemented, the membership will have good opportunities to evaluate and discuss them and to change course as they think best. I continue to have both serious concerns and an open mind on the merits of the changes themselves.”
Kubal-Komoto responded to critics of the change. “I believe the wide margin by which our membership approved the dues restructuring indicates that most of our members support our vision for creating a UUMA that will help to strengthen our ministry,” he said.
Kubal-Komoto added that the membership was made aware in 2008 that the UUMA was moving in the direction of higher dues. “It was made very clear the dues structure would be reassessed,” he said.
Southworth has a two-year contract. He will be evaluated during the second year and the executive committee will decide whether to make him permanent director or conduct a search.
November 15 is the annual deadline for paying UUMA dues. Kubal-Komoto said there is no indication any members would not renew their memberships because of the dues increase.
He said the impetus for the changes came from a visioning session the UUMA held in January 2009, facilitated by the Rev. Clark Olson, which led to the new five-year plan. The plan calls for the UUMA to become the primary source, but not the sole source, of continuing education for UU ministers. It puts emphasis on strengthening UUMA chapters, building collegiality among members, and continuing antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural work. It will also lead to more support for community ministers and retired UUMA members.
As part of the changes, the UUMA will no longer hold Center Day, a day of workshops, which was held each year before General Assembly. Instead, “we’ll be looking at other educational opportunities for ministers, including events at local chapters,” said Kubal-Komoto. The UUMA will continue to hold Ministry Day at the start of GA. Ministry Day includes worship, the Berry Street Lecture, and an annual business meeting.
Hamilton-Holway, the UUMA president-designate, said he hopes congregations will support the UUMA’s efforts to strengthen Unitarian Universalist ministry. “The two most important things congregations can do is to make sure they provide their ministers with both the financial support and the time to be able to participate in UUMA activities,” he said. “It’s so important that congregations encourage their ministers to attend not only continental-wide gatherings, but also local and regional gatherings with other ministers.”
- Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA.org)