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UUA team studies resource distribution to congregations

'Congregations Come First' task force looks at ways to support Unitarian Universalist congregations.
By Donald E. Skinner

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As the Unitarian Universalist Association continues its drive to become more focused on, and better serve, congregations, a key part of that effort is moving forward with little fanfare.

The Congregations Come First initiative was created in 2006 by UUA Moderator Gini Courter following several “summits” with district presidents, district staff, and others to explore ways the Association could better use national and district staff and other resources to support congregations. The team’s official charge is “to recommend systemic changes and influence culture and practices that will ensure a more equitable and effective allocation of resources to support our congregations in their missions.”

The 13-member task force, now the CCF team, has met a half-dozen times and talked with hundreds of UU leaders, but has made few headlines. What it has done, said team member Elyse Reznick, is to start conversations among UUs on what changes might best serve congregations.

Reznick is a member of the First Unitarian Society of Wilmington, Del., and former district president of the Joseph Priestley District.

One of the team’s suggestions turned out to be mildly controversial. Two years ago it proposed the idea that some services to congregations be provided by a broader regional network, rather than by districts. The idea was that a regional structure would be able to offer more comprehensive services than a district, much in the same way that a regional medical center provides more varied services than a local clinic.

The suggestion started conversations across the Association, said Reznick. “That’s what we wanted. For instance, what would it look like to have regionalized staffing? What if there was a small-congregation specialist in each district? What might happen if districts worked together?”

The idea generated some support, but also much criticism. “Some people were taken aback by our suggestion,” said Reznick. She noted that some feared that the CCF Task Force was attempting to realign or consolidate districts. Not true, said Reznick. “We were just looking at how best to use district and national staff. What we were saying was, ‘Here’s something to think about.’”

She noted that there is not consensus among districts as to the issues the team should be looking at. “Some people said they didn’t see anything wrong, that everything was working fine in their district.”

The team’s most recent report, delivered to the UUA Board of Trustees in January, provided fodder for many other conversations. The report notes that there is an increasing amount of cooperation among districts. Four districts—Metro New York, St. Lawrence, Ohio-Meadville, and Joseph Priestley—organize a summer institute taught by staff from all four districts. Five New England districts organized a regional conference on ministry and leadership, rather than hold separate conferences. Congregations are networking to create statewide legislative ministries.

The report raised other issues. Some congregations pay only part of their Annual Program Fund contributions to the UUA. The Annual Program Fund is the mechanism used for collecting funds annually from congregations to support the UUA. Currently congregations are asked to contribute $54 per member. Without this support the UUA could not fund programs and services that benefit congregations.

Congregations are also asked to contribute an additional amount to their UUA district to support programs and services provided by the district office. Some districts receive more support than others and are able to hire more staff members. The districts are supported both by the congregations in the district and by the UUA.

The report notes that the CCF team was created to provide an “eagle’s eye” view of the system. It states, “Our view is long-term, extending back through seven administrations and forward for the next few. The problems we feel charged to address are the result of organizational decisions made many years ago and do not reflect on the work of any one of the past administrations.”

The CCF team is in partnership with the UUA’s Annual Program Fund Committee, District Presidents Association, district staff, and the UUA Board of Trustees. Representatives of each group are on the task force, as well as a parish minister and several UUA staff members. Courter and the Rev. Harlan Limpert, director of District Services, are co-conveners of the CCF team, which will present a workshop at General Assembly this month.

The team will issue another report this fall. When it completes its work in 2009 it will make a final report to the Board of Trustees, which will decide which changes should be made. “After that it will be up to the new administration,” Reznick said. The UUA elects a new president at General Assembly in June 2009.

Why should lay people care about CCF? “Because what we’re doing is about what’s available to congregations,” said Reznick. “It’s getting the resources out to them and finding the best ways to do that.” And lay people do care, she said. “This is also about our UU values and looking to the future.”

Congregations are invited to share their stories of their relationships with other congregations and their district, by sending them to ccfcomments@uua.org. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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