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Districts begin changing their governance role

Four district boards agree to recognize UUA Board of Trustees as sole governing board.
By Jane Greer
12.13.10

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The District Presidents Association issued a statement December 6 indicating its intention to work with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees and administration on transforming UUA governance at the district level. Also earlier this month, district boards and trustees from four southern districts met with UUA staff and UUA Moderator Gini Courter and agreed to take the first steps towards advancing that goal.

The District Presidents Association’s Statement of Intent said that the DPA would be examining “organizational structures and practices that have been in place for many years,” including the size and selection process for the UUA board; co-employment of district staff; the duplication of policies at the district and UUA level; a “static, inorganic decision-making structure”; and inequities in district funding.

The four district boards of the Southland Region, including the Thomas Jefferson District, the Florida District, the Mid-South District, and the Southwestern Conference, met in Orlando, Fla., December 3–4, where they agreed that there should only be one governance board in the UUA—the UUA’s own Board of Trustees.

The DPA statement represents a commitment to changing governance at the district level; the results of the Southland meeting are the first steps toward actually achieving that change.

In a resolution passed at its February 2010 meeting, the UUA board promised to initiate governance changes at the board, district, and General Assembly levels. These changes, according to the document accompanying the resolution, are part of a multi-pronged approach to help simplify governance at the UUA. “Over the last 49 years, at least five separate task forces have studied governance in our movement,” the document reads. “These task forces have all described the same basic condition: our governance is too complex.”

This complexity is especially evident at the district level. The UUA is comprised of 19 districts, each with its own district board and district president, elected by delegates at district assemblies. Each district also has its own district executive, chosen by the district board and the UUA, and one or more district staff people. Each district elects its own trustee to sit on the UUA board.

Districts have garnered additional attention because of the one-trustee-per-district policy. (The UUA board also includes four at-large trustees elected by the General Assembly.) In its February 2010 resolution, the board pledged to reduce its own size. Then, in October, the board instructed its delegation to the DPA’s November meeting to propose decoupling the election of trustees from the districts.

The UUA’s districts were set up in 1964 following the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961. At that time 21 districts were established based on geography. Since then, the number of UUA districts has been reduced to 19.

The districts vary greatly in size and the number of congregations they comprise. The Mountain Desert District spans eight large states while the Florida District consists of one. The Mid-South District serves 33 congregations while the Northern New England District serves 71.

Districts also vary greatly in assets. Some own camps and/or conference centers; some have endowments; some own church property. In some districts, board members can easily drive to a district board meeting and come back the same day, while in other districts board members would have to fly in and spend the night.

Districts’ financial resources can vary dramatically, according to the Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president for Ministry and Congregational Support. “The number of adult members in districts varies between 3,650 in the smallest district and just under 15,000 in the largest,” he said. “They each have district dues ranging from $17 to $26 per adult member, with $22 being the average. That brings in a tremendously different amount of money.” Another factor, he said, was the number of congregations contributing to the district Fair Share fund, which ranged from a low of 48 percent to a high of 94 percent.

District executives and some additional district staff are co-employed by the UUA and the districts, which means that the UUA and the district share the costs. However, the net percentage of the UUA's contribution to support district staff differs from district to district. The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, UUA director of Congregational Life, said that the differences were originally based on the districts’ assets, a system that was implemented in the early 1980s. The remainder of district staff salaries comes from district dues that the congregations pay. Cooley said that the system has created inequities in the amounts given to each district and has become extremely complex to administer.

Co-employment also means shared supervision. District executives and any other co-employed district staff must be evaluated by both the UUA administration and the district board.

* * *

Districts have both a service-delivery role and a governance role. District staff provide congregations with programs, consultants, and training. In their governance role, district boards set policy and provide fiduciary oversight of assets.

The UUA board has asked each district to contemplate a future role for itself that does not include service delivery. Districts have already started working toward that end by sharing staff and resources across district boundaries, formally or informally.

As districts have collaborated more and more, the UUA has started to group them in five geographic regions. The regions have an informal structure, and no governing body, according to Limpert. “Regions originally developed organically by district staff members primarily for the purpose of collegial support,” he said. “They quickly began exploring and implementing ways of supporting congregations more effectively across the borders of the districts.”

“People are beginning to question whether district boards as a governance body need to exist,” Limpert said. “The district boards are saying, ‘We do spend a lot of money on governance at the district level; we do spend a lot of time on creating ends; we do spend a lot of time on monitoring reports. Maybe there’s a level of redundancy here that doesn’t make sense.’”

Limpert said that district boards had been asking these questions for years, but that interest increased dramatically at the November 2009 DPA meeting, when UUA trustees attended to talk about shared goals. John Sanders, DPA president, described the meeting as a “wake-up call.” “The district presidents realized that there were some issues we had to face and no one else was going to do it,” Sanders said. “The DPA was the only group in a position to start talking seriously about how to start addressing some of these problems.”

The DPA’s commitment to change was one of the inspirations for the Southland Region’s December meeting, which was the first regional meeting to deal specifically with the issue of governance, according to Jim Key, president of the Thomas Jefferson District. “The four boards agreed that there was only one governance board in our Association, and that would be the UUA board,” he said.

“What survives of the middle judicatory could be districts, regions, clusters, or even councils of elders,” Key said. “All the districts agreed that we should not be in the business of governance and spending time on that.” Key said that the group had imagined that if board members were liberated from their governance obligations, they would have more time to offer ministry and other services to their congregations.

The group plans to issue a statement, called the “Orlando Platform,” later in December. The name is a play on the “Cambridge Platform,” a 1648 Puritan document outlining congregational polity that has informed Unitarian and UU governance ever since.

The UUA’s Thomas Jefferson District had already taken the first steps towards transforming governance at the district level. In a motion passed at the district’s board meeting October 8, 2010, the district voted to suspend its own ends statement in favor of adopting the UUA’s ends statement. The motion also designated the UUA as the sole supervisor of its co-employed staff, approved conversations with neighboring districts about working together, and pledged to work with the UUA board on linkage.

Why doesn’t the UUA board simply tell the districts what to do? They can’t, said Cooley. The districts are independent of the UUA. “The district boards are the empowered body to make decisions about the future of the districts,” she said. “The UUA can’t tell the districts what they can and cannot do. We’re in partnership with them.”

Despite the prospect of big changes in governance, Cooley said that the UUA is “committed to making sure that there is some kind of local body to interpret culture and the particular circumstances of congregations in different settings [to the UUA]. . . . We will always work to find some kind of interpretive group to help us understand how to serve congregations better that will be geographically based.”


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