Shift toward regionalization aims to create greater connections among congregations.
On April 27, delegates at the Central Midwest District annual meeting voted to give up their district structure and become the MidAmerica Region in company with the Prairie Star and Heartland districts.
Delegates in the Prairie Star and Heartland districts had voted earlier in April in favor of regionalization. At all three meetings, the votes were overwhelmingly in favor.
This means that sometime this summer—the official date is July 1, but it may take the Internal Revenue Service longer to grant nonprofit status—the MidAmerica Region will be born. The three districts will continue to exist for some time after that, to permit a winding down of business affairs.
One final approval is needed. Delegates at General Assembly in June must approve the creation of the region. No major opposition is expected.
The mood at the Central Midwest meeting was “very serious” as delegates prepared to vote, said the Rev. Bill Sasso, who has been elected by delegates of the three districts to head a new MidAmerica Region board.
“People recognized this was a big decision,” Sasso said. “And there was definitely an undercurrent of excitement.” He said the vote was 113 for, three against, and one abstention. Each of the three district assemblies voted first to create the region, then cast a second vote electing a nine-member regional board and a nominating committee. The new region extends from North Dakota and Kansas on the west to Michigan and Kentucky on the east.
The move is expected to reduce administrative costs, allow staff to spend more time working with congregations, and make it easier for congregations to work together. The move is made possible by new methods of electronic communication that permit long distance learning and reduce the need for in-person meetings.
The other 16 UUA districts are in various other stages of moving toward regionalization. All are sharing staff across district boundaries. Some are combining newsletters and sharing accounting and technology expertise. The four districts in the Pacific Western Region held a combined regional assembly in April. The Central East Regional Group, also comprised of four districts, has adopted a regional staffing structure, which is allowing it to not only serve all congregations better, but also to focus on “threshold congregations” that will benefit from additional attention over multi-year periods.
The four districts in the Southern Region, in addition to sharing staff, are trying out a pilot stewardship program, which asks congregations to contribute a percentage of their certified expenditures to the region and the UUA rather than an amount based on membership totals.
The fifth region is the New England Region.
Other changes are also underway. Starting at the General Assembly in June, the UUA Board of Trustees will shrink to 14 members from 26. All members will be elected at-large, rather than from districts.
Kathy Burek, president of the Prairie Star District and one of the architects of the move to regionalization, said the votes at the three district assemblies in April do not end the work.
“Now we have all the mechanical things to do, filing articles of incorporation and amending UUA bylaws so they refer to the MidAmerica region rather than the three districts.” Within a year the Prairie Star district will close its office in Minneapolis. The other two districts do not have physical offices, nor will the region.
Burek noted, “The primary motivation for this was a desire to really create a new energy and vision for what Unitarian Universalism can be in our area. We want to create connections among congregations. We heard repeatedly from people that they want to feel connected with other congregations and UUs.”
She added, “This has been a marvelous experience. I can’t say enough about the way the board members and volunteers in the various districts stepped up and pitched in. It was incredibly enriching. It showed me there’s not a problem we can’t work out.”
Burek and Amy Taylor, Heartland District president, will serve one-year terms on the regional board. Sasso will have a two-year term.
Taylor, who has been involved in the regionalization process since 2010, said, “It’s been a wild ride, a second full-time job for a while. I feel so fortunate to have worked on this with people from the three districts who were so dedicated. We just kept reminding ourselves this was spiritual work. I’m very excited about the opportunity now to covenant and create community with this broader association.”
The Rev. Ian Evison, who has been Congregational Services director of the Central Midwest District and is lead staff person for the new region, noted that, with the votes, one set of tasks is completed, but others remain. “The hard part of all this was not so much redoing the district structures. It was figuring out how to work differently—with each other and with congregations. There is still work to be done. At one level we are moving on from regionalization. Now we’re working on living in this house we’ve created.”
Evison said he does not anticipate that other districts will follow the MidAmerica path. “We do not look forward to others repeating or copying what we have done. That would be boring. The thing I am excited to watch is others making their own innovations informed by our experience and even more informed by what works for them in their situation.
“I want people to think of what we have done as perhaps a 'beta version.' I look forward to seeing other and very different things happening in other regions,” Evison said. “And since it is a creative process rather than copying process, we can expect that this might take time, perhaps several years. I am sure that much will be invented that will help us in MidAmerica as we continue to reinvent ourselves.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.