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UUA board cuts funds to seminaries

Board approves plan to develop new approach to supporting theological education.
By Tom Stites
6.22.07

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The UUA Board of Trustees approved $25,000 cuts in funding for both of the Unitarian Universalist theological schools this week and set in motion an 18-month process to develop a long-term strategy to foster excellence in UU ministry.

The steps furthered an initiative by the board that, in the words of a motion it approved in April, seeks to give priority to “the funding of ministerial formation, development and excellence” rather than “the current singular focus on support for theological schools.”

The funding cuts and strategy process were approved Tuesday as the board met in Portland, Ore., on the eve of the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The meeting room was crowded with representatives of the theological schools, including the chairs of each school’s board, as well as officers of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. None offered any comment and they all filed out silently after the vote was taken.

The board’s initiative arose after consolidation talks broke off between the schools, the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.* Each school received $250,000 in UUA funding in the fiscal year ending June 30; the amount approved for the next fiscal year, $225,000 each, represents a 10 percent reduction.

“At Starr King, the support we receive from the UUA is essential,” the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King, wrote in a June email to the school’s supporters. “I do not believe our Association of Congregations can possibly be better off if it decides to abandon its investment in our Unitarian Universalist theological schools.” She urged supporters to contact UUA trustees, emphasizing “that support for our Unitarian Universalist Schools is critical to the future of the movement.”

The motion before the board in Portland was to approve the budget put forth by the Panel on Theological Education (a board-appointed committee), which is responsible for allocating money generated by the UUA’s Theological Education Endowment Trust. The panel, in response to a board request, also presented a plan for the 18-month strategic planning effort, for which it budgeted $60,000.

Trustees debated this amount before the vote. The Rev. Charles Ortman, trustee from the Metro New York District, asked if the $60,000 could be found elsewhere in the UUA budget rather than affecting the school’s funding this year.

Tamara Payne-Alex, an at-large trustee who is also a member of the Panel on Theological Education, said that while she could not speak for all panel members, it was her sense that even if the $60,000 came from another source the panel would have cut the schools’ allocations. She said the panel had a backlog of projects that were awaiting funding.

Ortman replied that while he supported the planning process, he would vote against the motion.

Lyn Conley, trustee from the Mid-South District and chair of the board’s finance committee, spoke in favor of the motion, saying that the initiative represented a shift “from gifts to grants, away from the expectation that the money will always be there.” Added the youth trustee, Julian Sharp: “We want to support the schools in other ways. This is not about cutting funding of the theological schools, it’s about greater accountability in the ways we work together.”

Payne-Alex said that conversations about such a shift had been going on since before she joined the panel seven years ago and that it had been the subject of conversations with the school presidents.

When the vote was taken, three other trustees joined Ortman in voting no. The April motion that set the initiative in motion had passed unanimously.

The 18-month process is to include a survey to be conducted in the fall, a request to schools and other stakeholders for proposals for new approaches, and a goal-setting conference in October 2008 for representatives from “all relevant stakeholder groups.” The panel is to present a report on the conference’s vision to the board in January 2009 and, in April, present recommendations to the board.

In other action, the board:

  • Approved a policy that, in the event a General Assembly has a surplus of income over expenses in a fiscal year when the UUA budget also finishes in the black, allocates 33 percent of the GA surplus to a fund for enriching congregational participation in future GAs. The Board, in consultation with the General Assembly Planning Committee, is to decide how the money will be used.

    The finance committee reported that the UUA was expected to finish the current fiscal year in the black and that attendance at the Portland GA was expected to be the second highest ever, resulting in a surplus that would be subject to the new policy.

  • Discussed continuing conversations with UU organizations that wish to be affiliated with the UUA. Payne-Alex, head of the board working group that is shaping new affiliation rules, said several organizations were working on ways to fit the new rules, which she has characterized as a “movement to ground our ministries in congregational life.” The board has scheduled four sessions for conversations with groups during General Assembly.


Correction 6.22.07: As originally published, this article said that both schools had protested the decision to cut funding. Meadville Lombard officials say that they have not protested the decision. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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