Moral authority of the UUA and leadership

I’ve had many misgivings about the UUA over the years: its direction, its leadership, its poor service providence, its continuing exclusion of Christians, its culture of preciousness, its old boys and girls networks, its relevance in today’s world. Here’s something new.

This latest post by Tom Wilson about the departure (trying to be neutral in my terms) of former Clara Barton district executive Lynn Thomas — in her own words — left me shuddering and deserves to be read. One district executive ousted is understandable but now we have the suggestion of a plan.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott, What exactly is the process for UUA initiating a reorganization of the districts? Something I expect needed, and something that would certainly result in jobs eliminated. It seems to me if UUA undertook a reorganization in an explicit way, these DE jobs getting eliminated wouldn’t look so bad… so as opposed to the moral authority, what’s the practical authority? Is it solely with UUA, or maybe the GA… what’s the process?

  2. Bill @1: Reorganization can only partly be initiated by the UUA. For example, the Pacific Central District is an independent 501(c)(3). The UUA can make choices about their employees, but truly re-organizing districts requires the coooperation of the Distrct boards, which often have their own staff and budgets.

  3. I find myself with questions about democratic input regarding Districts and the proposal to reorganize into regions. The pattern of incidents regarding DE’s makes me suspiscious that reorganization is taking place by fiat.

    Additionally, I am not convinced that 5 very large Regions can provide adequate services to congregations; especially when some functions (like congregation Extension) are being progressively devolved to Districts who in turn are underfunded. I need to see a more articulate outline of the goals proposed for realignment, how we measure their success, and the proposed budget / staffing input that is supposed to carry out those goals.

  4. I find very strange that, as Tom says, “Pacific Central District is an independent 501(c)(3)”. How many more like this one have specific status? It sounds like an organizational nightmare that individual districts are separate organizations from the larger UUA. Any intelligent effort that is made to rationalize the structure of the national organization seems to be worthy. OTOH, Ms. Thomas’s report reminds us that in every organization there is room for personal axes to grind (probably on both sides), and the organization should be vigilant of this fact of human behavior so that it does not become disruptive.

  5. @Jaume. This arrangement isn’t so strange. But it should also be the protection one group needs to prevent itself from being abused by another. I, too, want to know what the process was, and what the numbers are. But I’ve given up trying to understand the Gini Courter machine.

  6. @Jaume — the independent 501(c)(3) status that some districts have may reflect their history.

    I know the Southwest District is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. As an organization, it was around before the UUA and I suspect it will be around after the UUA in some fashion.

    Strangely enough, the SW District Board is one of the district boards that has endorsed the “Orlando Platform” (the manifesto that centralizes all governance with the UUA Board). However, it will take votes from congregational delegates to actually make these changes happen. A significant governance change would require significant bylaws changes that congregational delegates would have to approve.

    District finances are done with joint input of the UUA and the congregations within a district contributing to the district’s budget (a portion of annual program fund money is returned to fund district expenses and to promote extension services at the district level — it’s analogous to the US Federal Government providing block grant funding to states and cities).

    An independent 501(c)(3) non-profit like the Pacific Central District or the Southwest District could find itself significantly defunded and de-staffed if the UUA were to change this business arrangement.

  7. @Jaume some of those districts pre-date the UUA if not most of them. Some I’m aware are contemplating a life post UUA. My Church was there before UUA and the Western Unitarian Conference… it will be there after UUA too.

  8. Districts came about in the decades after the US Civil War, when Henry Whitney Bellows traveled throughout the US and its territories trying to replicate the associational interrelationships of congregations laid out by the Cambridge Platform. For decades I have reviled the man for his elitist admiration of “men of business” then compiling great fortunes. However, I was stunned to learn how many of his parishioners were not only “men of business” but visionary philanthropists who now rank among our “saints.”

    However, the UUA has not yet experienced any revision of their low opinion of the “conferences” Bellows gathered together. From the start, they insisted on localist cultural identities, rather than a Boston-ordained central message. That, in fact, is one reason Bellows started them, having been fired at the outset of his career by the Boston Unitarian ministers for a restive editorship of a religious newspaper. Somewhat like his predecessor in exile, Theodore Parker, he immediately began innovating polity.

    Anyway, several of the Western conferences insisted, even in 1867, that “Christian” and “church” should not appear in their names. A huge schism erupted, which ended only with the deaths of the protagonists and a tough compromise on language.

    When the American Unitarian Association acquired executive powers, it set about to absorb these conferences, and redefine them as “administrative units of central government.” Samuel Atkins Eliot was adamant that they be led by evangelical ministers, rather than give in to backwards pastoral pressures, which so often were accompanied by financial distress for small congregations. The consolidation of the districts into UUA structure was completed in 1925.

    This parallel governance has been a festering question, waiting to explode. But behind it lurks a fundamental theological question for our association: to whom is the vision given, and by what means embodied in our society? The social statements of our president are one with the firings of district executives. All of them are giant steps toward turning Beacon Hill(or Newton Hill) into another Mt. Sinai, and whoever happens to be our temporary head as a putative Moses whose God tells him (not yet her) to ignore our pathetic murmurings.

  9. I have a crazy daydream about “Boston” moving to Detroit. Plenty of low-cost real estate. A more central (though still Northern) location. A region with serious needs. Imagine who we might become….

  10. @Scott @Steve @Bill, the fact that some regional organization predates the nation-wide UUA does not necessarily imply that this is the best solution for today’s (or yesterday’s) needs. I am amazed that there has been so much talking about the merger of the AUA and the UCA, and nobody has paid attention to the (lack of) merger of the UUPCD and the UUA? At some point we all need to know what organized Unitarian Universalism wants to be when it grows up, and growing up means accepting changes, and moving beyond the old ways to fit in the needs of a changing world.

    In sum: I find strange that UUism is so bold and daring theologically and so cranky and conservative organizationally. (Sorry, but someone had to say this.)

  11. @Jaume: “Growing up” probably has very little to do with organizational structure. The Baptist churches in the United States, our historical cousins, are also congregational in structure, and have more than 30 million members.

    There seems to a message floating around that if we could just be better (which equal top-down) organized, THEN we would grow.

    I think “growing up” involves figuring out our mission, not re-arranging the deck chairs.

  12. @Tom, Yes, I meant “growing up” and not just “grow”. You can grow with a good evangelizing strategy, but it will be wasted if the organization is unable to handle the consequences of that growth. OTOH, you only “grow up” as an organization when you rearrange your organizational structure so that it becomes more solid, is based on efficiency rather than habits, and handles its resources and services in a way that is both effective and dynamic.

    We cannot apply this kind of requirements to a small, volunteer-based structure that struggles simply to keep going, but to a professionalized structure with people who have full-time dedication and the skills to handle those issues, I think we can.

  13. @Jaume – I don’t want to hijack Scott’s blog here. I will restrain myself and make this my last reply. But.

    Yes, I know you said “grow up.” And I don’t see what an organizational structure has to do with growing up.

    Even though we are on the blog of a minister – I have to say that I do not know who that “professionalized structure with people who have full-time dedication” is. I don’t see it now, I don’t see it being held back by the lack of a central organization. I see UUism being held back because we don’t have a purpose. For the most part we lost it some time back.

    To get grandiose about it – the early Christian church “grew up” when Constantine decided that it needed a “real” organization. Good luck with that.

  14. Tom, yes, you got it right, except that Obama (who is more or less the equivalent of Constantine today) is not willing to follow that path, thank goodness. We will have to figure that out on our own, without state support.

    OTOH, if you mean that “real organization” kills spirituality, then forget the church. Simply follow the path of your heart, you do not need congregations or churches for that.

    Actually, it is better not to have them.

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