Merry Christmas, UUA

OK, today is the first day of Advent, but no fair celebrating Christmas yet. One may, fairly, make plans though.

In the spirit of Christmas gift lists, I’d like to ask Unitarian Universalist readers — and those who aren’t but know the drill — what systemic changes you’d like to see in the UUA. I’m talking institutional and administrative improvements and not metaphysical reframing. If you have ideas how these might be accomplished, feel free to elaborate.

Add your thoughts to the comments, but note they will be held for moderation and they won’t be seen immediately.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Oh please. Where do I start? How about reforming their entire sense of purpose to conform to the ideals of congregationalism? How about doing an internal audit of self-righteous political homogeneity?
    How about figuring out why working at 25 Beacon Street is widely reported to be a totally soul-destroying experience, akin to a date with a Dementor?

    How about PUTTING IT IN THE SYSTEM when I tell them for the third freaking time that my e-mail address is wrong AGAIN in the directory?

  2. – I would like to see a new funding structure for new church plants of all sizes. I would suggest 5-year matching grants. Those planting a mega-church would need to raise a sizable sum. Those planting smaller fellowships in rural Indiana would need to raise a smaller sum. Medium sized spin-offs of large churches would need to raise something in between. And in the end the movement would be encouraging new churches in a wider diversity of sizes and geographic settings; AND the financial risk of the new churches would be shared between the UUA and the church planters.

  3. the UUA HQ to admit that they dont speak for all the member congregrations…
    to fix GA and voting —
    to remove many of the staff in Boston – and put them inthe field, if they are needed at all

  4. I would really love a better system to address the needs of Federated and United churches in the UUA. As individuals, people seem to care. As a system, it is amazingly poor at adapting to institutional differences…

  5. Much as I love the idea of UUs joining the world of religious broadcasting networks, I think there’s a more practical alternative: a UUA-produced weekly half-hour show that would be a mix of news, commentary, and entertainment. A CD could be mailed to every congregation. Then they could show it at their meeting place, or pay to play it on local radio or TV, or use free outlets like public radio and cable access, if they’re available. Individuals could subscribe, if they wished. It should be available on the internet, of course. But getting it on local radio or TV could be very useful for congregations.

  6. As a church administration geek who’s fascinated with systems theory, here’s a thought experiment.

    I believe the biggest problem by far that with the current administrative and instituional structure at the UUA is that it’s really set up to serve a denomination that’s much larger than the denomination we’ve got. Result? –the UUA comes across as a bloated bureaucracy that looms far too large in our lives, and we get resentful of the money we’re supposed to send to them. And a negative feedback loop also comes into play: we pay the UUA all that money so we expect them to fund most or all growth initiatives; growth initiatives come from the UUA but they are too few and they do not take into consideration regional and local differences in religion; growth initiatives fail leading to even more discontent with the UUA’s bloated bureaucracy. We could identify other, related, negative feedback loops, but you get the idea.

    Even while this is going on, I believe it is right now quite possible to double the membership of our congregations in five years. (I base this on anecdotal evidence: the high number of visitors most UU congregations get, and the very low retention rate of these visitors). What would happen if we did double membership at the congregational level? Since the UUA and district staff primarily serve congregations, rather than members, the actual work load for the UUA wouldn’t increase that much. At the same time, I believe resentment against the UUA would drop because the perception of the UUA’s efficiency would improve; therefore fair share contributions would rise, allowing the UUA to pay more competitive salaries that might attract some really interesting people onto their staff, like maybe some more people with degrees and experience in non-profit management. All this could create positive feedback loops in the system of the UUA wherein the overall level of management expertise gets raised considerably, and in the overall denomination whereby local congregations became less dependent.

    In short, such a situation might lead to one or more positive feedback loops, instead of the current negative feedback loops. In addition, another very interesting positive feedback loop might come into play: if local congregations doubled in size, they would tend to place themselves in a better financial situation such that they weren’t constantly struggling for survival. This could lead to more growth being initiated by congregations, e.g., through establishing new congregations in the way the Wilmington, Del., congregation did beginning in the 1950’s when they were able to start more than a dozen nearby UU congregations.

    Of course, this will remain merely a thought experiment if the majority of Unitarian Universalists and local congregations remain happy with the status quo and refuse to grow (note that when they face the inevitable consequences of the choice not to grow, it’s far easier to blame the UUA than to look unblinkingly at what’s going on in the system and accept the responsibility for their choice). From a systems perspective, I believe that’s what’s going on right now: the UUA has become the symptom-bearer so that individuals and congregations don’t have to face up to their own contribution to the system’s problems.

    But also remember that systems thinking indicates that if *you* decide to take action to change the system, you *can* become an agent of change *on your own,* without asking permission from others in the system. You want a half-hour UU TV or radio show? –don’t wait for the UUA, get together the funding on your own and just do it. You don’t like GA? –don’t wait for the UUA to fix it, start a coalition of congregations to send delegates to change it from within. You want to add an eighth principle? — don’t wait for the UUA, go ahead and add one. You want to double the membership of the denomination? –don’t wait for the UUA, quadruple the size of your own congregation, and then start spinning off nearby congregations, congregations that aren’t afraid of some change. Systems thinking tells us that, while it may be more comfortable to blame a symptom-bearer (or use a similar strategy to stay locked in current behavior patterns), we can institute change if we wish to.

    My $.02 worth.

  7. >You don’t like GA? –don’t wait for the UUA to fix it, start a coalition of congregations to send delegates to change it from within.

    I think I heard murmblings of that being attmepted….

  8. I have never understood why the UUA needs such a large bureaucracy. I am not saying that they don’t, just that as an ordiniary church member I have no contact with the UUA or sense that they are doing anything useful other than publishing a pretty good magazine that comes out rarely. GA seems to be some unattractive festival of political conformity, so I never attend. Viewed from my pew, the UUA looks like just another overgrown bureaucracy which has stumbled onto a stable funding source and exists mostly as an employment scheme for the staff. I am not saying that any of that is true. I am sure that most UUA staff think they are doing important work. They may well be. I literally don’t know what I am tallking about. I am only describing perception.

    My conclusion from these suspicions is that my life is going to be happier if I ignore the UUA. Trying to reform entrenched bureaucracies is an enormous amount of work. What is the point? I don’t think the UUA is doing anyhing bad. It may be wasting money but only a few million dollars a year. It makes much more sense to me to put my finite energy into things that are more important and where I am likely to have a bigger impact.

    I think the vast majority of our congregation feels the way I do. It isn’t that we are “happy with the status quo”, it just that reforming a tiny religious organization isn’t that exciting.

  9. Given the present hierarchal form of organization, the staff must go to a lot of staff meetings:

    1) in order to be on the same page about the UUA staff culture

    2) in order to participate in shaping their various projects.

    3) and in addition they must spend time communicating information to congregational leaders who ask the same questions again and again.

    Thus the staff work hard, but “getting stuff done” is not the major outcome. Processing information is accomplished, staff become well informed about things the staff are aware of.

    Reform? perhaps we need to rethink how services are conceived, produced and delivered.
    We need a positive vision of what we want the Association to do. Minorities can always be generated around this or that the Association shouldn’t do, but since the Association fills a role in the “UU” identity the idea of the Association as staff needs to changed, and a new understanding of the Association as a community of congregations tale its place.

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