Districts recede as 'regionalization' takes hold

Districts recede as 'regionalization' takes hold

UUA governance is moving toward a regional model, lowering costs and increasing efficiency.

Donald E. Skinner


A movement that began in 2009 to streamline the governance of the Unitarian Universalist Association is gaining ground without a lot of fanfare. In UUA districts across the United States, staff are working more frequently across district lines in larger regional groups. And in June, members of the UUA Board of Trustees will no longer be elected to represent individual districts.

Several things are happening at once in this move toward “regionalization.”

  • The UUA’s 19 districts, organized in the 1960s—each with its own governing board, bylaws, and budget—are moving to organize themselves into five regions of three to four districts each. Some districts may decide to keep their boards while others give theirs up in favor of a regional board. The result of all this resizing will be many fewer governing units.

  • Staff in districts increasingly serve entire regions rather than just single districts. That means there’s a larger pool of staff with a broader range of specialized knowledge. And it means there is a higher likelihood that a congregation will have a specialist it can call on when a critical issue arises. Most staff will also be employed solely by the UUA. Traditionally they’ve had two bosses—their district boards and the UUA.

  • Districts are beginning to merge other functions, including newsletters and accounting services.

Districts are at different places in their evolution toward regional structures. The three districts that comprise the MidAmerica region—the Prairie Star, Central Midwest, and Heartland districts, serving congregations from North Dakota to Michigan in the north and Kansas to Kentucky in the south—are as far down the road as anyone.

In the spring of 2013 the three district assemblies will vote on creating one regional board and administrative structure. If the vote is for a merger, then in July 2013 the three districts will pass out of existence and become the MidAmerica region.

Kathleen Burek, president of the Prairie Star District since 2009, is one of the architects of the move to regionalization—a move that started, she says, in late 2009 at a meeting of the UUA’s District Presidents Association.

“There had been conversations among the district presidents and with the UUA board about whether the UUA was well-served to have 19 corporations that had the authority to pursue different missions than the UUA board,” Burek said. “It seemed very clunky and inefficient, especially in an era of tight resources.”

Then in June 2010, at General Assembly in Minneapolis, many members of district boards had a meeting with senior UUA staff and reached a general consensus to begin thinking about regionalization.

The recession had come on strong at that point, but Burek said that was not the primary motive for thinking about going to regions. “Declining revenues were just one more good reason to rethink our governance. Very quickly people saw this as an opportunity. In addition technology was improving and that created new ways for boards to communicate without face-to-face meetings. We just came to the conclusion we’d be better off working together rather than separately.”

Burek said there has been no resistance thus far in the Prairie Star District to giving up its identity. She acknowledged that for most UUs in the district “regionalization is probably not much on their radar. As the time gets closer I expect we will hear from more people.” She said she expects there will be some “grief” at giving up the Prairie Star identity, “but as long as services are maintained there shouldn’t be significant concern.”

Streamlining governance

Burek said she expects that regionalization will save money and that those savings will show up two or three years out. Some savings will come in the form of less staff. Rather than three district administrators, the MidAmerica region will have one and a half, for example. But the major savings will come from fewer meetings. Getting one regional board together is significantly less expensive than gathering three district boards, said Burek.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter has pushed for streamlining of governance. She said in 2010, “One of the things that disturbs me the most is that we spend a lot of time doing governance as if governance were the whole reason the association existed. I don’t feel that the most appropriate thing to do with everyone who loves our faith is to put them on boards at every level of the association.”

Districts and the UUA are also looking at the possibility of restructuring the way that district staff are funded, said the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s director of Congregational Life. Until recently each individual district was billed by the UUA according to 19 different formulas. A proposal is now under consideration to simplify funding by doing it by regions, and giving regions flexibility as to how to spend funds, noted Cooley.

The mission, she said, is to serve congregations in the best ways. “In order to have a range of people and a range of skills to best serve our congregations, we are moving toward a shared staff team model,” Cooley said.

The UUA is also experimenting with the APF (Annual Program Fund) structure. An experiment will begin with the 2014 fiscal year (starting in July 2013) with the Southern region, allowing all congregations to contribute a percentage of their budget, rather than paying for each individual member, for the support of districts, regions, and national programs and services.

Different approaches

Districts are proceeding in different ways on regionalization. In the central eastern U.S. four UUA districts—Joseph Priestley, Metro New York, Ohio Meadville, and St. Lawrence, serving congregations in Ohio, New York, southern Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, northern Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, and the District of Columbia—have formed the Central East Regional Group. Early on, three staff members were declared regional consultants and are working across district lines. For now, the four districts will keep their own structures, but talks are continuing.

In the New England Region—including the Massachusetts Bay, Ballou-Channing, Clara Barton, and Northern New England districts, serving congregations in the six New England states—staff are collaborating on programming around youth and young adult ministry and the UUA’s Leap of Faith program. Leap of Faith pairs congregations so those with specific expertise can help others. District structures remain in place. A regional leadership team has been formed.

In the Pacific Western Region—including the Pacific Northwest, Mountain Desert, Pacific Central, and Pacific Southwest districts—geography is a challenge. Including Alaska and Hawaii, this region comprises more than half of the U.S. The Pacific Northwest and Mountain Desert districts have hired two staff members that they will share. The four districts are considering a regional webmaster and a single accounting system. A regional task force has been formed to explore further steps. There will be one regional assembly in 2013, replacing the four district assemblies.

In the Southern Region—including the Southeast, Mid-South, and Florida districts and the Southwestern UU Conference, serving congregations from Florida to Texas—the four district boards met in 2010 to create the Orlando Platform, which is a covenant to cooperate with and be accountable with each other. Districts will remain in place for now. A committee has been formed to explore “practical next steps” toward regionalization. All district staff are working across the region as one staff team within a regional budget structure.

Each region is overseen by a “regional lead,” a staff member of one of the districts in the region. The Rev. Ian Evison leads the MidAmerica Region. The Rev. Sue Phillips heads the New England Region. The Central East Regional Group is led by the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere. The Rev. Nancy Bowen leads the Pacific Western Region. And in the Southern Region, the Rev. Kenn Hurto is the regional lead.

Terminology is changing as well. Most field staff are beginning to be known as “congregational life consultants” rather than as “district executives,” “program consultants,” or other titles. Some staff people will be generalists, while others will develop deep expertise in key areas of congregational life such as faith, evangelism, or leadership development.

Cooley and Burek presented a report to the UUA Board of Trustees in October 2012 on progress in regionalization. They observed there are significant challenges in changing a governance structure that has been in place for more than 50 years.

The report notes, “While there has been widespread acknowledgment that the system is inefficient, inequitable, and confusing to say the least, it has been extremely challenging to make changes, given the multiple authority structures involved.”

There is no intent, say Cooley and Burek, to make each region the same or to force regionalization, but there is “a desire for the work to grow out of the particular needs and ethos of the area,” the report notes.

Hurto said the Southern Region is creating an elders program to train specialized volunteers to help congregations—to do startup retreats, for example. “I can identify several places in Florida where with money, expertise, and time, we could start congregations tomorrow. That wouldn’t happen under the current model because staff could not spend that much time with an individual group. But volunteers could," he said.

“We’re hoping to also create networks where information flows in different directions rather than just out from district staff,” Hurto said. “We want to link congregations with similar interests and needs and reframe ourselves into a learning community. With consolidation of administrative tasks, staff will be freed up to be more directly available to congregations and we’ll become coaches to teach others what we do rather than doing it all ourselves. That’s the real benefit to congregations.”

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Correction 11.26.12: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to five New England states; there are of course six. In addition, a map featured in earlier versions of this story was taken from what appeared to be current information on the UUA website, but did not include the current names of the regions. An updated map now appears above.