Consultant to aid impasse between UUA board, administration

Consultant to aid impasse between UUA board, administration

Trustees and executive staff agree to hire help to resolve long-standing tensions.

  Members of the UUA Board of Trustees worshipped at Arlington Street Church during their April meeting in Boston.

Members of the UUA Board of Trustees worshipped at Arlington Street Church during their April meeting in Boston.

Dea Brayden/UUA


The week surrounding the April meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees took dramatic turns in Boston. So did the board meeting itself.

As trustees prepared to meet in Boston, bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15. Trustees held their scheduled meetings throughout the day on Friday, April 19, as the manhunt for one of the suspects in the bombing accelerated, and as Boston and surrounding communities were in “lockdown.” With the arrest of the suspect Friday evening, the anxious mood in the city lifted, and normalcy began to return to a region that had endured bombings, four deaths, and more than 200 injuries.

During the lockdown, a familiar tension emerged in the boardroom, with trustees and the administration disagreeing over “monitoring reports” the administration is required to submit under Policy Governance. Some trustees intimated that they would not approve the association’s budget for fiscal year 2014 without sufficient metrics to demonstrate that the administration was meeting the “Global Ends,” or goals, of the UUA set by the board.

After two days of difficult conversations and comments that the disagreements were “déjà vu all over again,” a solution emerged. On Sunday, the last day of the meeting, the board proposed that $100,000 be added to the FY2014 budget to hire a consultant to work with the board and the administration on connecting the administration’s strategy with the budget and the association’s ends. The suggestion was welcomed by the administration, and the meeting ended with a sense of hope and optimism. Outside, meanwhile, chants of “Boston Strong” echoed throughout the city as people expressed relief over the capture of the bombing suspect and pride in the city’s response to the attack.

To make time for conversations about how to move past the long stalemate with the administration over monitoring reports, the board postponed votes on several issues until its May conference call. It did receive a report from UUA President Peter Morales about membership in the UUA, which has remained flat. (See “UUA Membership Flat in 2013,” 4.29.13.) And it brainstormed about possible changes to the General Assembly, which it will ask GA delegates to discuss in Louisville, Ky., in June.

During the meeting, held April 18–21, the board also agreed to send a letter to the members of the three congregations in the New Orleans, La., area about the UUA’s response to them in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—a response that generated controversy and misunderstandings about the way emergency relief funds raised jointly by the UUA and the UU Service Committee were allocated to UU congregations and to non-UU agencies and organizations. In addition, the board agreed that it would arrange for a special collection for the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists during a plenary session at GA 2013.

It was a meeting of many “lasts.” It was the final Boston board meeting attended by Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, who is retiring in June after 28 years in the role. And it was the last board meeting Moderator Gini Courter will preside over at 25 Beacon St., as she completes 10 years as moderator. A new moderator, a new financial advisor, and a newly configured board will be elected by delegates in Louisville in June—and the new board will meet only once at 25 Beacon St., in October, before the association relocates its headquarters to 24 Farnsworth Boston’s Seaport District in early 2014.

Update 5.6.13: The board published its quarterly letter to congregations describing the conversations and outcomes of the April meeting on May 6.

Deficit leads to layoffs

Tim Brennan, UUA treasurer and chief financial officer, presented some challenging budgeting issues, including a $279,000 projected shortfall in the FY2013 budget, which ends in June. “It has been a tough year,” Brennan said, with decreased congregational revenue, fewer bequests, and decreased individual giving. In light of the deficit, the UUA laid off the equivalent of 10.15 full-time employees in March. “What we spend money on is people,” Brennan said. “There is no way to get at a deficit that size without reducing the level of staffing.”

Although the layoffs represented a savings to the association of $762,000 in salary and benefits, they also triggered severance payments that are assigned to FY2013. The association also cut $200,000 from program areas across the staff. “It was a painful process, but we feel we are still able to deliver the services we need to the congregations,” Brennan said. He noted that there were no staff reductions in any of the districts or regions.

Giving to the UUA has been down from individuals and congregations, a trend that mirrors national charitable giving, Brennan said. Although the overall economy has improved since the massive recession, charitable giving nationwide has yet to return to 2007 levels.

Discussion about the $24 million FY2014 budget quickly evolved into a discussion of the “ends” or goals of the association and whether the administration was demonstrating that it was meeting them. At its January meeting, the board had asked the administration to submit “remediation reports” to correct areas where it determined the UUA was out of compliance with its “ends.”

(Update 5.3.13: The administration’s revised Global Ends Monitoring Report, submitted to the board in December 2012, and the Remediation Report, submitted in March 2013, have now been published along with other monitoring reports.)

The Rev. Sarah Stewart, trustee from the Northern New England District, expressed frustration with the lack of metrics in the remediation report or the budget, particularly as they relate to programs expected to create growth in UUA congregations. Without metrics, she said she would have a hard time voting for a budget.

“I hardly know how to respond to that,” said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support, who will become the chief operating officer in July. “Most of the work we do in religious life is based on faith. The work we do to grow our faith informs every decision we make. . . . All the work we do as an association is toward that end. We don’t have complete control over what congregations do. We provide resources to them, and hope they use them,” but he said he didn’t presume they could show a direct correlation between each of the UUA’s efforts and numerical growth.

Moderator Gini Courter said she felt like they were having an “incredibly familiar conversation. I’m having déjà vu all over again.”

Donna Harrison, trustee from the Southwestern Conference, said she was “looking for the golden thread” that described the administration’s overall approach, and that she wanted metrics to assess their strategy. She said the Governance Working Group planned to draft a motion to ask the administration to rewrite the Remediation Report by May 20 to show accountability in the FY2014 budget.

Expanding executive session?

As at the January meeting, the board struggled to come to consensus on how to respond to the monitoring reports and how to address frustration the administration has expressed about them. Prior to the January meeting, Morales had submitted a memo to the board calling the reports “demeaning” and “of little value.”

In January, the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio Meadville District, said she sensed the board struggling to speak with one voice and struggling to figure out what the board, as a group, thought about challenging issues.

Stewart said the board could use executive session to discuss issues about the relationship between the board and the president, interpreting them as “personnel matters.”

Morales was uncomfortable with this interpretation, saying that executive session should be reserved for legal issues, buying and selling property, or personnel issues affecting the privacy of an individual. “The board’s stance toward the administration around something like monitoring” doesn’t fall in that category, he said. “The value of transparency should apply.”

Board members clearly disagreed. Jackie Shanti, Clara Barton District trustee, said that the board didn’t have a place where it could talk privately. “We have to do all this talk in open meeting with observers and with UU World. It puts us at a disadvantage,” she said, noting that staff had the opportunity to come to consensus with one another.

Trustee-at-Large Katherine Allen said she saw executive session as “a way to protect individual board members who don’t feel comfortable with sensitive issues talking about it in front of the entire room.”

Morales called it a “dangerous precedent” to have conversations in executive session merely because they are difficult. “I would ask that the standard be applied that if you were not on the board but very interested in Unitarian Universalism, would you feel that you had a legitimate interest in hearing the content of that conversation? If the answer to that is yes, then it should be an open conversation.”

A decision on executive sessions was tabled. Later Saturday afternoon, the board reviewed monitoring reports from the administration and rejected a series of “operational definitions” the staff had written interpreting board policy. Clearly frustrated, Limpert asked, “Am I the only person in this room who wonders when one operational definition after another is rejected at one meeting after another that were written by arguably intelligent people that there is something wrong with the system? Am I the only one?”

Trustees alternately discussed the remediation report and the budget. With some trustees signaling they would not approve the budget, Financial Advisor Dan Brody noted that the bylaws require the board to approve a budget and present it to GA each year. “I would be really uncomfortable going before GA to try to explain why the board didn’t meet this responsibility,” he said.

Saturday evening’s meeting ended with Courter announcing that the board would meet in executive session Sunday morning, without the administration.

Hiring a consultant

During the public meeting on Sunday, the board’s recommendation emerged. The Rev. Jeanne Pupke, trustee-at-large, said that the board and the staff could benefit from advising on “how to operationalize strategy that is driven by ends,” and should add $100,000 to the FY2014 budget to hire a consultant.

“This is an optimal time for us,” she said, noting that a new board will be elected in June, and the ends of the association are being rewritten in a joint effort by the board and the administration. “We don’t want to replay the same conversations. We are in a trend of losing members, giving is down, and we don’t want to lose any more time.”

The consultant will be jointly selected by the administration and the board. Unrestricted funds from the endowment will be used to pay for the consulting.

The executive staff was pleased with the recommendation. Morales said, “Sure!” and Brennan said, “Amen.” Limpert called it an excellent idea that was “future-oriented and collaborative.”

The Governance Working Group withdrew its motion asking for the revised remediation report. And the board agreed to vote to accept the budget during its May conference call, after the addition of the line item to fund the consulting work.

Near the finish line

The board paused its work to worship Sunday morning at Boston’s Arlington Street Church, three blocks from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Earlier in the week, the church had hosted a prayer vigil and interfaith healing service.

“This has been a difficult week,” preached intern minister Catie Scudera. While people are shocked by the violence they have witnessed, she said they have a choice whether to choose fear or love. “We can choose love,” she said. During its offering the church took up a collection for the victims of the bombings, which will go to the One Fund Boston.

In other business, the board:

The board also heard reports from UUA staff about:

  • The launch of a $100 million comprehensive capital campaign over the next five to seven years, the “silent phase” of which is being launched this summer;
  • Changes to the UU Organizations Retirement Plan, which will be presented to the board for approval at its June meeting; and
  • Recommendations for youth involvement and safety guidelines from the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.

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