Paying up

The email message from the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) was concise: “Your membership is going to expire in 60 days.” The question that now confronts me is whether I’m going pay their new, greatly increased fee in order to renew my membership. And therein hangs a tale.

A couple of years ago, the leadership of the UUMA made what seems on the face of it to be a logical decision: they decided that they were going to hire an executive director to oversee the activities of the association. There had long been a paid administrator of the UUMA, but the volunteer board saw great possibilities in adding another employee, someone who was more than an administrator, someone who could provide leadership to move the organization in exciting new directions. So far, so good.

Since the rest of this post will be of primary interest to a small number of my readers, I’ll continue it after the jump…

The board brought this idea to the UUMA membership at several annual meetings; these meetings take place during the professional days for ministers, a few days just before General Assembly. They got some good feedback from the UUMA members who were there, lowered the membership dues from the higher initial proposal, and decided to proceed. I was not at these meetings due to the cost of staying in an expensive convention hotel another couple of nights. I chose to spend my limited professional expenses budget on attending General Assembly, choosing to attend to the business of the denomination than to attend to the business of a professional association. So right from the start, I removed myself from the decision-making process — you gotta pay to play, and I didn’t pay.

As part of this change, the UUMA revamped its mission, and decided to focus its efforts on providing continuing education opportunities, and opportunities for collegiality. UUMA volunteers and staff have set up a major new continuing education program: this February, the UUMA will offer a week of workshops at Asilomar conference center in California over a several-day period. I looked at the offerings, and there was nothing there that I found particularly interesting — or, to be more precise, given that this conference is going to cost the equivalent of a graduate-level course, there are many graduate-level courses in ministry that I would take before I spent the same money on a week-long set of workshops.

Of course the conference at Asilomar is also intended to provide collegiality, that is, time to hang out with other ministers and talk about subjects of mutual concern. But I already hang out with other Unitarian Universalist ministers and talk about subjects of mutual concern twice a year at retreats of our district UUMA chapter. And I meet regularly with two other ministers for mutual support and accountability. I decided I don’t need another, very expensive, conference at Asilomar to meet my needs for collegiality.

Gradually, I have come to the realization that the UUMA is restructuring itself to meet the needs of a certain subset of Unitarian Universalist ministers. That subset includes senior ministers of larger congregations who are relatively well-compensated; second-career ministers who have financial assets from their previous career that give them some additional financial stability; and ministers whose primary financial support comes from their spouse’s job. These ministers prefer to get their continuing education in an attractive setting like Asilomar, rather than schlepping to a grungy classroom in a nearby theological school, or taking an online class, or attending a low-budget workshop in a nearby church. This subset of ministers also prefers to get their needs for collegiality met in a group that draws other ministers like them from across the United States, with meetings that take place in hotel function rooms and high-end conference centers; they are not satisfied with meeting with neighboring ministers in the cramped, stale-smelling office of a nearby small church. The UUMA is restructuring to meet the legitimate needs and desires of this subset of ministers. I am not in that subset.

The UUMA is now using a sliding scale of fees for membership; you can view that scale here. They will allow me a one hundred dollar discount because of my membership in the Liberal Religious Educators Association; they allow no discount for membership in the (non-UU) Religious Education Association. Now, in my new position here in Palo Alto, I am a lot more financially stable than I have been in the past, and I have a much bigger professional expenses budget than I have had ever before. I could pay the money. But do I want to pay a little over four hundred dollars a year on UUMA dues, when I used to pay two thirds of that?

If I thought the UUMA was restructuring to meet my needs, I would swallow hard and pay up. But I don’t feel that way. I get my collegiality through my local chapter of the UUMA, to whom I pay additional dues, and I get so much from the collegiality of my local chapter that I would gladly pay two or three times as much to them. As for continuing education, I have never been impressed with the continuing education offered by the UUMA, and I continue to be unimpressed. I’d like it if the UUMA to act more like a union: I’d be willing to pay more dues if, instead of an executive director, we got financial support when a congregation dismissed us unjustly (the equivalent of strike pay), advocacy for fair salary and benefits with local congregations (I mean someone who will go in with you to fight for fair salary, and sanctions against churches who don’t pay up), etc. In short, I don’t want expensive conferences and an executive director, I want financial support in an emergency and a tough-minded negotiator who will go to the mat for me if I need it.

I have sixty days to decide whether or not to renew my membership to the UUMA. Yes, I’ll probably pay up. Peer pressure will drive me to it. This year, anyway.

I would love to hear from you if you’re a minister who is not going to pony up the cash. Leave a comment below (anonymously if you think it’s best), and tell me why you’re not going to pay up. (Oh, and if you’re a big supporter of the UUMA, you should know that when I’ve criticized the UUMA in the past I’ve been the target of some really self-righteous and unattractive invective, so my gastritis would appreciate it if you could aim for non-defensive politeness.)

15 thoughts on “Paying up

  1. Heather

    If/when I become eligible for UUMA membership, I hope you’re there. You’ve been an important teacher in my journey toward understanding what being UU means. I know it sounds funny to ask someone to pay $400 for the privilege of being of service to others, but I think I’m saying something like that. You have so much to offer to the ministerial community–not the least being this critique.

  2. Anon...

    Got the same email. And I think everything you say makes sense. Asilomar may be lovely, but gosh golly, it’s a long expensive trip. Even with all the “scholarships” and support, I don’t see how anyone outside the rare full-time well-paid parish minister can afford to take the time to get there, and back! (It must be a full day+ of travel for almost everyone further than Palo Alto!). I’d need to take days off of my paid work (where there’s no paid vacation anyol’time I want available). Dues for the privilege of being to service to others is really hard to rationalize for those of us who have to work to pay the bills…

    And there are great continuing ed options offered by a variety of seminaries, other denominations, and professional organizations. Continuing ed that includes reading books! Group process! Lecture! Accountability! Paper writing!

    Thanks again, Dan for making me sad about this whole UU thing…


  3. hsofia

    Well, I am NOT a minister, but want to say thank you for explaining this in such a clear, concise way.

    As an aside, I think the retreat method of education has gone overboard within UU settings.

  4. ogre

    Trapped. Those of us in the process to become UU ministers are obliged to be members in order to be able to be fellowshipped.

  5. Elz Curtiss

    And you’re required to be fellowshipped in order to join the UUMA. Can you say “Interlocking Directorate”?

    Dan, thanks for this. It appears that the UUA Board of Trustees, with its UUMA henchpersons, are driving themselves into an irrelevant ditch, while the rest of us soldier on through formerly affiliated organizations. Perhaps the next step is formerly-affiliated UU ministerials clusters.

  6. Dan

    Elz @ 5 — You write: “And you’re required to be fellowshipped in order to join the UUMA.”

    It’s more complicated than that at the level of district chapters. One district chapter that I belonged to had a clause in its bylaws that stated that ordained ministers in sympathy with the goals of the chapter could belong to the chapter, if they agreed to adhere to the UUMA’s professional guidelines for behavior. I believe other district chapters have allowed exceptions for those who were not UUMA members.

    On the flip side, while I believe that you still have to join the UUMA to be accepted into fellowship with the UUA (a peculiar requirement that I believe should be dropped), once you’re in final fellowship you do not have to belong to the UUMA.

    You write: “Perhaps the next step is formerly-affiliated UU ministerials clusters.”

    This reminds me of an interesting situation I heard about while I was in the Central Midwest District. One of the Illinois congregations had had an unpleasant run-in with the UUMA (I think I’ve got this correct), and therefore required that their minister not be a member of the UUMA (or maybe it was they were mad at the UUA, and their minister could not be in fellowship). A local liberal minister’s cluster formed that did not require its members to be affiliated with the UUMA or to be in fellowship with the UUA.

    What I’m getting at is that the boundaries of the UUMA are already somewhat porous, when you get down to the district and local level.

  7. Victoria Weinstein

    Thanks so much for this, Dan. I hadn’t thought about the UUMA restructuring to meet the needs of a certain type of minister but since you’ve laid it out so clearly, I can see what’s going on. I resigned my membership for a year and joined up again but I feel really torn about this. I don’t think I can in good conscience spend my money this way. I feel alienated from the organization — not in a personal way but in an institutional way. Quite practically, $400 is just too much to spend for the privilege of affiliating with awesome people, all of which happens between us gratis. And I’m pursuing a doctorate, which is obviously where my continuing education dollars go. Not sure what I’m going to do. I wish we could just opt out without feeling like we’re betraying the family or something.

  8. Amy

    I have much less of a problem with the increase in fees than with the fact that ministers earning $100,000 pay exactly the same rate as ministers earning $20,000. I expect progressive taxation from an organization like the UUMA, and would happily pay more if it meant that ministers earning half what I make had their fees lowered.

    Instead, we have regressive taxation: the rate is capped at 0.75%, so that if a minsiter earning $100,000 gets a raise, poor baby, they won’t have to pay more than $750. Ronald Reagan would have been proud of us.

    But as you say, you have to pay to play. Part-time minsiters, ministers of small congregations, and ministers getting less than the UUA-recommended pay were vastly underrepresented at the relevant meetings.

  9. Dan

    Victoria and Amy — Your comments have helped me understand that what I’m most concerned about is not the money, but the fact that the UUMA may be (unintentionally) heading in the direction of a narrower membership.

  10. Scott Wells

    Dan @9. And why not? It’s clear from the size of the ministerial college, the current models of ministry and the number of calling churches that there isn’t room for all of us. (Or is that too bitter? To tell the truth, it’s hard to stir up much feeling of any kind about the UUMA.)

  11. Dan

    Scott @ 10 — You write: ” To tell the truth, it’s hard to stir up much feeling of any kind about the UUMA.”

    Actually, that’s true for me, too. And that should be a major concern for all of us — including for those of us who aren’t feeling much of anything about the UUMA.

    I should add that when it comes to the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) and the Religious Education Association, my other professional associations, I’m pretty passionate and emotionally engaged. I’m also proud of my affiliation with the Freelancer’s Union. So for me, this lack of feeling is specific to the UUMA.

  12. Carol

    I’m not a minister. I belong to an independent publishers’ association and a media freelancers’ organization. The first offers discounts, business insurance, arbitration representation, a conference, a meaty monthly journal with information that directly improves my business profitability—all for $119. The other organization costs $49/yr, and offers health insurance (altho’ not the best deal), online and live seminars (extra cost), a Website with great how-to articles and classified ads, discussion lists, free networking gatherings, and more. If you are not getting all that for $400, then I’d say the UUMA is not offering a sound value proposition.

  13. Dan

    Peacebang — I’m also a member of the Freelancer’s Union, which lets anyone join for no fee, and then once you join everything is offered on a fee-for-service basis. They bring in enough revenue from this funding approach to have a couple of administrators. They also offer health insurance, political advocacy, and a sense of identity. Truth to tell, I’m more proud of being a member of the Freelancer’s Union than of being a member of the UUMA.

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