Thinking about the UUA staff cuts

  • I’ve heard two attitudes that see some good come out of the staff cuts. One which disagrees with the Washington Office — though others will be losing their jobs too — for political, policy reasons and another which thinks the Washington Office shouldn’t exist for polity reasons. I have no sympathy for either argument. The work of the Washington Office comes from decisions, democratically-made, and rejoicing it its loss for financial reasons is cynical and anti-democratic. Also, we’re not in the seventeenth century and the polity reflects centuries of development. Praising this loss as a triumph for an atavistic view of mutual relations is ideologically twisted, and (again) anti-democratic.
  • Not to mention these are the livelihoods of people who have served loyally.
  • Before people start clinking their tongues about how expensive the UUA is to run, I’ve always thought — based on job listings — that the staff was underpaid. It will be hard to recover that capacity should the economy improve.
  • That said, I would be more convinced by UUA President Peter Morales’s upbeat announcement about staff restructuring if (1) it came apart from the staff cut announcement and (2) if this wasn’t a well-worn path for institutions in trouble.
  • Would be nice to take down the Washington office job listing.
  • So the Washington office space is staying open. Lemonade from lemons, I suspect — hoping for times to get better before the lease runs out, perhaps? (And breaking the lease, plus relocating the UUSC and Holdeen India staff, might be impractical.) The Washington office at 1100 G St, N.W. is in a good location but is Class B. Not terribly expensive (and I doubt the UUA paid $48 a square foot when it moved) and might be a desirable sublet — should it come to that — for a downsizing group. That’s becoming common here.
  • The Universalist historian in me thinks, “oh no, not again.”

By Scott Wells

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


  1. I was at a meeting recently with the President of the UUA in attendance. Though it came as no surprise that the UUA budget was shrinking and that programs would need to be cut, like the Washington office, what really shocked me is that the UUA has no intention of funding any new church start-ups in the near future. This might lead one to wonder where and how the new congregations will come from. Spontaneous congregational generation does happen but it still needs cultivation. All this entropy reminds me of our movement in 1971. I worry for our religious heritage. . .

  2. ‘The Universalist historian in me thinks, “oh no, not again.”’

    Explain, please, for all those who aren’t Universalist historians…

  3. The Universalist piece is about how the Great Depression weakened church-wide program, setting the rot whereafter many churches failed and gravely diminished the denomination.

  4. For the record, no one is gleeful about people losing their jobs. But it is the nature of budget cuts that some people are going to. And if those cuts must happen someplace, having them happen somewhere that has had, as far as I know, no measurable success* seems pretty reasonable. I’m much more bummed about the loss of Deb Weiner, whose efforts and work on online stuff seemed to do a lot of good.

    As far as Democracy goes the UUA Washington office seemed to run rather fast and loose with their mandate. I’m sure GA has said something that can be twisted into their big campaign to save the filibuster a few years ago, for example, but that was the campaign of theirs that truly lost me. Between sending me an email that said that the filibuster was about “free speech” (lying to people is WAY unDemocratic), encouraging ministers to preach about the filibuster, and being so blatantly partisan in they way they went about it (meanwhile the people who actually solved the problem were legislators who made a bipartisan effort), I was just done. And yeah, the fact that they’ve been utterly silent about filibuster concerns now that they run to the other direction doesn’t endear them.

    But yeah, I get that people have lost their jobs and am in no way cackling over that. I just think that the cuts were going to happen and this really does seem like a more logical place to make them than anywhere else I know.


    *To my memory, the highest profile thing they’ve done in the last few years was that joint anti-war petition they did with the UCC several years ago. My memory is that they got a decent number of signatures, but when Sinkford et al tried to deliver the petitions, they ended up delivering them to mere “Representatives” of the Congresspeople they intended to see. (Almost anyone can get an appointment with a “representative” of a congressperson.) For all the sturm and drang over those petitions within UUism, the joint effort was only even written about in ONE media source outside of UUism and the UCC (Bay Windows). Further, pretty much nothing in that petition came to pass until Obama was elected three years later.

  5. I think CC has set the balance on this one pretty well. Especially noting the save the filibuster effort.

    I wonder if that kind of flip flopping on principle isn’t more reflective of the threats to UUism than any economic crisis.

  6. “big campaign to save the filibuster a few years ago” — really?

    Without conceding your point, if you have to go back that far to make a point then I don’t think you have much of a point. At best, for you, this would be an edge case. And people use these as normative when they want cover for gunning for something they’ve already decided not to like.

    And legislative action like this isn’t for press. (Can you imagine what the papers would look like if it was?) Both the church people and the legislative staff sound like the did what they should have done. (The odd one out wasn’t the Hill staffer but Bill Sinkford. While I was never a fan of him, he might have reasonably been there to attract an internal Unitarian Universalist audience to the work of the Washington Office, for funding and institutional purposes.)

    No, not just anyone can get a congressional staffer; just try to see someone who doesn’t represent you. You’ve better bring some voters with you, literally or with the heft of an entity.That’s one thing the Washington Office provided, in a network — no doubt — with many other groups.

  7. The reason I brought up the filibuster is that several years ago when the Republicans were threatening filibuster, the UUAWO was encouraging ministers to actually preach on its sanctity and holding rallies to save it. In the past year, when threats to the filibuster have come from DEMOCRATS their silence has been deafening, making it clear that the justice of the filibuster wasn’t the issue, it was their desire to carry water for the Democratic party.

    I’m not bringing up something old just to do it, I’m highlighting the difference in attitude that a change of parties makes for the UUAWO and suggesting that the filibuster isn’t a religious issue or that change wouldn’t happen.

    I’d like to think that if the Republicans one day supported gay marriage and the Democrats were against it, the UUAWO would still support gay marriage, but the filibuster example suggests this might not be the case.

    (((And legislative action like this isn’t for press)))

    Ok, in the past when I’ve brought this up, some have made the argument that big petitions raise the visability of issues and create press interest and I was heading that argument off at the pass.

    But fine, it wasn’t for the press, it was handed off to flunkies for members of congress that more or less agree with it anyway and it pretty clearly made no legislative impact whatsoever.

    So what was it for? The best I can come up with is that it made the people who signed it feel good. And with the amount of publicity and production costs that went into it.

    My friends on the Hill tell a slightly different story about the ease of getting in to see a staffer, especially if you want to talk about an issue the congressperson has expressed interest in and Pelosi was certainly interested in stopping the war. But you don’t have to believe them. A reporter from Slate invented a fake animal rights organization with no apparent membership and got meetings with representatives from the offices of Barbara Mikulski, Paul Sarbanes, John Ensign, Ted Kennedy, and Chris Van Hollen.


  8. Re: I’d like to think that if the Republicans one day supported gay marriage…

    Dick Cheney’s come awfully close. Closer than Obama has… and CATO institutes Director has made an excellant conservative case for SSM.

    No UU’s going to cheer them for standing on the side of love though…

    I don’t like to see people lose their jobs. Especially for advocating something they many not be in much of a position to decide. (I don’t have a clue on their mission was determined and their agenda set.)

    I do think the selectivity though about positions, and the filibuster is a good example, is good example of a arbitrariness that will do UUA in quicker than a financial crisis.

  9. In all fairness, CATO is libertarian, not Republican. Republicans don’t listen to CATO much either, what with CATO’s ‘the drug war is a big waste of time’ position, etc.

    Also, I should make the point that the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which had a UU I knew as a founding executive director, is really not much bigger than the UUAWO with seven staff members and is only three years old. It has done everything from submitting amicus briefs in torture cases to recruiting 270 churches, temples and religious organizations from a wide variety of faiths into ther work, to running a well-trafficked website that can teach one a truly staggering amount about torture to creating “Evangelicals for human rights” to recruit those who might be expected to disagree to running a “countdown to end torture” program with petitions and rallies and meetings with the transition team and multiple press conferences and that got covered multiple times by the NYT (eight days later, President Obama signed an executive order ending torture by Americans).

    Etc, etc, etc.

    If the UUAWO were that focused and that effective, I think a different office would have been cut, no matter my philisophical differences with their mission and the way they went about it.


  10. CC…. Libertarianism is the great bridge builder on many issues. When someone lays down a few planks on a bridge, it’s smart to applaud that… I didn’t hear any applause from UU powers-that-be for CATO, or Cheney… that was a mistake.

  11. As for the filibuster issue, there are a lot of facts not in evidence, and refuse to concede anything about the situation from what has been presented. Perhaps CC or BB can begin a discussion about it, laying-out the facts. But I expect chapter and verse and a strong argument about how this mistake — if it happened — before I amend my defense of the Washington Office. And only if it was egregiously worse than mistakes — forgiven, forgotten — in other UUA divisions.

    As for Dick Cheney being some defender of gays, I’ll let the eight years when he was in a position of power speak for his true views.

  12. Bill, merely because one finds *a* point of agreement with someone does not call for public acts of adulation–particularly when the constellation of serious disconnects (some of them, in the view of many, being criminal, even crimes against humanity).

    But let’s look at Cheney’s position. Prior to his election, he said nothing. In the run-up to re-election he did indicate some support… but not in a way that I recall being of the I stand up and disagree with the party on a point of principle variety. Hardly get up and get excited about it grounds. And then–now that he’s out of office–what’s he say?

    He supports SSM as long as it is deemed legal by state and not federal government.

    Which is a lovely bit of rhetoric. He thinks that states have the right to decide–but that the federal government *doesn’t*. Given the state of the law (as currently unconstitutionally established by DOMA) that means that in those states that decide to permit SSM, he think’s that is nice. And that other states should be free to reject it AND to have the federal government affirm and support those acts of bigotry. Since he thinks the feds should NOT support SSM, it means that all the federal rights that come with marriage will be denied gays and lesbians.

    How… supportive. Cast that in terms of interracial marriage so that we can see how that feels and looks and plays out.. it is precisely analogous to “permitting” those states that decide that interracial marriage is a civil right can do so–and that those states that don’t are free to reject it, they’re free to ignore interracial marriages that are lawfully performed in other states, AND the federal government is NOT to treat interracial marriages as “real” marriages.

    Man, with support like that, who needs opponents?

    “I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish. The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute to protect this, I don’t support.”

    Y’all can do what you like… but don’t expect the society to provide you any legal rights.

    Mmmm-hmmm, that’s some kind of support for SSM that UUs should just have fallen down in paroxysms of job over.

    I’d translate it as a nice bit of rhetoric wrapped around “We managed to jam DOMA through, and y’all can suck on it.”

    Come the day that a Republican of stature and still seeking or in office comes out for SSM without all the caveats and weasel wording, I’ll say something nice. The only person I can think of who comes close is the Mayor of San Diego, whom I do applaud.

    Cheney? That’s a bad joke. He’s not for SSM. He’s just not agin’ it, but insofar as others are, he understands that and thinks they should get their way.

  13. My point isn’t to make you admit that you’re wrong, merely to present an alternate point of view. Further, I’m not sure what you’re asking for here.

    Do you need evidence that the UUAWO made a big fuss about the filibuster when some Republicans threatened it over the Alito nomination or do you need evidence that the UUAWO isn’t saying anything about it now that some Democrats are threatening it over healthcare? (That second part is proving a negative, of course.)

    Or do you need evidence that a filibuster is a procedural manuever that benefits one party or another depending on who is in power, but is fundamentally not the sort of justice issue that the UUAWO should have been organizing for and making statements about in our name? (To me, that seems clear enough, but I couldn’t say I could prove it as it is a statement of opinion.)


  14. Taking a break from the heat around the Washington Office, Larry’s comments about church planting are chilling. Our efforts at church extension in the past 10 years have been few, and will soon become much fewer.

    Research by the Alban Institute has shown that healthy denominations usually have an “ecology” where about 30% of their churches were founded in the past 30 years. Percentages higher than 30 tend to result in denominational volatility (and I guess difficulties with assimilation). Numbers lower than 30% lead to stagnant membership and eventuall decline. For examples I would cite church statistics from the Universalist Convention of Ohio 1930-1960, as well as United Methodist statistics from North Carolina in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

  15. Re: Church planting…
    • There’s not going to be (much) money for it.
    • That means it better be used very effectively, and very frugally.

    Which leads me back to the Fellowship movement. All issues with it aside (some valid, some not, and some entirely creatures of that era…), it’s the *only* significant planting effort that’s had a noteworthy result in something like (over?) a century. I wouldn’t urge doing it just like it was done in the ’50s (duh), but the bare bones of the concept ought to be recovered and updated and unleashed. It was every effective, and not very costly (particularly on the basis of churches planted or members drawn…).

  16. Re: And only if it was egregiously worse than mistakes — forgiven, forgotten — in other UUA divisions.

    Scott, I don’t think the “it” here is worse…if that “it” is arbitrariness. If our advocacy isn’t a bit malleable depending on who’s in office. UUism’s public face can stand accused of that charge and making this office the fall guys for it wrong.

    As for Cheney, well, an ally willing to go before big audiences and proclaim a sympathetic view valuable late or not.

    Someone should have put out a public thank you and widened the circle of consensus.

  17. Ogre: Your going to have to give us more on the fellowship movement… I think I know what you’re talking about but a post on this would be helpful.

  18. Bill: I’m not going to thank someone who could have done something and didn’t when he was in a position to do so. (I don’t forgive the Clintons, either.) It looks like grandstanding on Cheney’s part, and drive a wedge between liberals and the Obama administration. I don’t blame anyone for not taking the bait. I certainly won’t, because I don’t trust him.

    What you call arbitrariness, in this setting because I’ve still not seen evidence, one can also call the willingness to change given new facts. Indeed, the ability to change direction in the light of new information is at the cornerstone of modern, democratic practice and humanistic thought.

    Now also to CC: I want to see evidence — not assertion — that the Washington Office regularly (even if infrequently) acts outside its mandate. I’m willing to change my mind, but not to make nice.

    As for focus, that’s not the Washington Office’s call. Set the blame where it belongs: with the magpie-like attention of the General Assembly. But that’s the structure we have, and so the successes the Washington Office has — when it has them — will only be in coalitions. For that, it’ll never have a clear, marketable success. But it keeps Unitarian Universalists participating, and that’s our duty.

    And CC: one other thing, you say “If the UUAWO were that focused and that effective, I think a different office would have been cut, no matter my philisophical differences with their mission and the way they went about it.” All of the Regional Subcommittees staff were cut, too. Do you repeat your assertion that they were unfocused and [less] effective?

    And the ominous language about a first phase suggests that other offices — indeed, isn’t that the subtext to a regional (in lieu of district) structure — might indeed be next. The Washington Office, being small, might simply be an easy first start.

  19. The Fellowship Movement was a mostly Unitarian effort (although it had a small echo on the Universalist side). It began in the 1950’s as an effort to plant new congregations using very little money, and no trained clergy. The results were largely lay led. I don’t remember the date historians set for the end of the official movement.

    On the positive side it brought Unitarianism, and then UUism to many geographic areas where it had no historic pressence (eg. Montana and Alaska). It also brought in a steady stream of new members with no prior affiliation to AUA and later the UUA. Financial investments from the denomination were small. Fellowships were very empowering of lay ministry.

    On the negative side a high percentage of fellowships folded within 10 years, and many that survived stayed stuck at small sizes with unfriendly attitudes towards newcomers. Many fostered an anti-clergy bias. Some cultivated a hostility towards liturgy and ritual.

    In the mixed results category, while many fellowships folded, some grew to be quite large (eg. Eno River Fellowship in NC). Also, there was a tendency by people with no UU background to re-define the faith, sometimes in open hostility towards historical Unitarianism (and later Universalism). Is this openness to innovation? Or poor spiritual formation, and the hijacking of the tradition?

  20. I believe it began in 1946 or ’48 and ended in 1964, paralleling the Baby Boom. That one reason not to get too hopeful of a second movement, though I think it’s the best historical model we have. Bright galaxy: ten years of Unitarian fellowships, by Laile E. Bartlett, is the standard reference. Older congregations may have a copy in a church library; it is, alas, out of print.

    Addendum. This is interesting:

  21. I find it very worisome, with regards to the credentialling of ministers, that the paid support staff for the Regional Subcommittees on Candidacy (RSCC) have been cut. The RSCC’s were created to balance out the problem of a distant MFC that does not see seminarians until the end of the process. And it is a process frought with unhelpfull hoop-jumping, inadequate non-scholarly nurture, and insufficient concern for very basic issues of gifts and callings.

  22. There is a recent (2008) book called “the Fellowship Movement”. My copy hasnt made the move yet, but its author has the time frame as 1948 to 1967.
    some of the book can be read on Google Books.

  23. The book steven rowe points to (that’s gotta either be the wrong pub date, or that’s a second edition–I bought 10 of them and passed them around the board… to be passed on, through the fellowship (I know one ended up residing in our library there), when I was president of the board. And that had to be 2006, I think. Maybe 2005.

    Very short summary; my love and I howled, reading it, at times. Some of the critiques are bullseye hits; there were moments of “I know who this is…”.

    Points worth forwarding, according to the author’s data, about 30% of the current UU population is in a congregation that was once or is still a fellowship. And about 30% of our congregations are or were fellowships. That’s huge. Regardless of the failure rate (and the author discusses it–it’s significant, but it’s not unspeakably high, particularly considering that these were established in places that were far beyond the pale of Unitarianism, frequently in places that no one could imagine would ever be large enough to support a UU congregation, and certainly not one that could grow to church size and support a minister). The author also went through and made an estimate of the failure rate, and concluded that it wasn’t that bad, really–certainly not compared to startups in business, whether for profit or non-profit.

    Yes, many folded–and many of the huge dollar/effort investment plantings fail (or effectively fail). So? The parable of the sower might well apply here.

    Yes, many of them fostered an anti-clerical streak. That’s slowly been/being corrected (I’m watching it in my own, and in the neighboring fellowship, too). And in part, that’s a result of the times (anti-clericalism throughout the society). It need not be so today, in a fellowship movement II. Modern communications and the net permit new fellowships to be vastly more integrated into UUism and in contact. And there are other things that could be done as part of planting/fostering such congregations that would lessen such tendencies.

    It would be crazy to try to just repeat something that worked well, but with serious problems, without trying to build in correctives. But it’s even crazier to just ignore something that actually did work. And still is, really. I know of a couple congregations that are developing in the fellowship model, essentally, and are still too small to be members of the UUA. But they’re vibrant. And I know of one other that appears to be failing. Not all plantings will succeed. If that’s the measure, we can just give it up now.

  24. Oh, Scott, thanks for the pointer to Bartlett. I wasn’t familiar with it!

    (One last–the failure rate was substantially higher, FWIW, in the region of New England, for whatever that may say…).

  25. Thanks, Steve.

    “Few people today have as broad a perspective on the fellowship movement as John Morgan and Tom Chulak, who studied it intensively in an attempt to develop new strategies for extension.
    … The ones that continue to thrive, he describes as “vital, open to change, *willing to accept ministers in partnership for growth, and eager to share their faith with others.*”

    *He stresses that the assumption that fellowships were uniformly antigrowth and anticlerical is wrong. “Of the five fellowships I have served,” he says, “only one exhibited these characteristics.”*

    The thing that I’d missed in the articles Steve pointed to is that in 1974, at GA, the delegates were asked how many of them had come to UUism through a fellowship. *Half of them stood up.*

    As a minister-to-be, I’ll put up with a lot for that kind of growth and engagement….

  26. Re: Bill: I’m not going to thank someone who could have done something and didn’t when he was in a position to do so. (I don’t forgive the Clintons, either.)

    Well, your going to be awfully lonely then. Politics is about coalitions and inclusion. Find a comminality, build on it, welcome it…. thank someone for seing the light.

    ….otherwise we’ll destroy ourselves far quicker than any fin crisis will.

  27. Bill, that’s not what I said. Read again. But it seems pretty clear by his actions — a prior inaction, and associates — that Cheney is an insincere manipulator here. You have to be wise about who you work with.

  28. I’m not asking you to change your mind, especially not to make nice. I’m not sure where that came from.

    And I never said that the UUAWO acts OUTSIDE their mandate, I said they run “fast and loose” with their mandate. GA being what it is, their mandate is often fuzzy and open to wide interpretation. (Note how they interpret filibusters to have been a part of it five years ago and apparently no longer do. That suggests to me that focus IS the Washington Office’s call. Note also, how they don’t work on every single issue GA votes on, they pick.)

    To take a couple of the more widely-discussed things they’ve done, I doubt that either fussing about judicial nominations or acting as propagandists for the Iranians are explicitly within their mandate, but I’m sure something has been said at some GA that they could stretch to back it up.

    ((But it keeps Unitarian Universalists participating, and that’s our duty.)))

    Really? Do you know of anybody who does anything becase the UUAWO tells them to? I was in the middle of the crowd at the gay rights march a few months ago and the people surrounding from my church were either gay themselves or personally committed to the issue, not there because the UUAWO sent them an email.

    For another example, I’m pretty sure the UU who started NRCAT did it becase of her personal commitment to stopping torture, not because the UUAWO said she should.

    ((( All of the Regional Subcommittees staff were cut, too. Do you repeat your assertion that they were unfocused and [less] effective?))

    Erm, I have no idea how focused they were, but given NRCAT’s huge presence and national attention, that they were less effective seems clear enough.

    (((And the ominous language about a first phase suggests that other offices — indeed, isn’t that the subtext to a regional (in lieu of district) structure — might indeed be next. The Washington Office, being small, might simply be an easy first start.)))

    It’s a crap economy. I hope congregations pay their dues so that can be averted.


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