Regionalization webinar

This afternoon, I attended a webinar offered by Linda Laskowski, on “regionalization” — that’s the current catchphrase for a jumble of attempts to reorganize the field staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Like most for-profit and non-profit organizations, the UUA has been forced to look for ways to increase efficiency and reduce staff expenditures; personally, I suspect some form of regionalization will eventually be necessary as a way to cut costs and increase efficiency.

Many of the regionalization ideas floating around include shutting down or merging one or more of the 19 districts; districts are the organizations which provide some of the funding for UUA field staff. But Laskowski said that this kind of regionalization is not something with which the UUA Board is concerned, or with which the Board can be concerned. She pointed out that the UUA Board cannot have a plan for shutting down or merging district organizations because they are all 501(c)3 organizations with a separate corporate existence from the UUA.

Laskowski said the UUA’s regionalization initiatives include a couple of instances of helping districts share staff. More importantly, the UUA assigns districts to one of five large geographical regions (see map below), and appoints one district executive to serve as the head district executive for that region (e.g., Ken Brown, district executive for the Pacific Southwest district, serves as the lead district executive for the far western region). Most importantly, the UUA Board will ask General Assembly to reduce the number of its members; currently, each district elects one board member, so a reduction in the number of board members would mean that would no longer be the case.

Regionalization Map

The current UUA regions

Susan Ritchie, Visiting Professor of Unitarian Universalist Heritage and Ministry at the Starr King School for the Ministry, offered historical perspectives on districts and regionalization. She offered a wealth of details which served to demonstrate that much of the current district governance structure within the UUA is a result of historical accidents. Laskowski expressed her opinion that the current organizational structure of the UUA does not work as well as it should, to the point where some kind of reorganization is necessary.

This webinar was offered to ministers of the Pacific Central District (PCD). A couple of webinar participants pointed out that one significant barrier to regionalization in the PCD will be the negative feelings that have resulted from the UUA’s decision to withdraw from co-employing Cilla Raughley, PCD District Executive; because of the way Raughley’s contract was written, that led to her termination. Laskowski reminded webinar participants that the Pacific Central District is a separate corporate entity, and that regionalization cannot be imposed by the UUA; it will be up to the PCD to decide whether or not to participate in any regionalization efforts that may happen.

A brief footnote: I attended the webinar on site at the Starr King School for Ministry, along with half a dozen other PCD ministers. After the webinar was over, some of us chatted briefly. Susan Ritchie said that it’s remarkable how many people continue to believe that UUA Board has some kind of plot to take over the districts, when that is clearly impossible and clearly is not on the Board’s long-range agenda. I said the UUA needed to pass out tin-foil hats. You know, to protect us all from the evil rays that the UUA is beaming into our heads to convince us to give up our individual identity and become part of the UUA Borg. In fact, I’m wearing mine now:

Tin Foil Hat

Me in my tin-foil hat. Look, you can see the evil rays coming in at me from the skylight behind me.

22 thoughts on “Regionalization webinar”

  1. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

    Have you seen this study from MIT?: http://berkeley.intel-research.net/arahimi/helmet/

    Ah, what grad students discover when they have been up too late, drunk too much coffee, littered the lab with one too many Chinese takeout containers, and just can’t hack one more second spent on their actual doctoral research. Of such moments are great breakthroughs made!

  2. The tin-foil hat seems like a rather dismissive attitude towards those who reject the rationale for regionalization. (Which looks more like centralization to me.)

  3. Wow, what a horrible photo of you. Dan, you need to guard your branding better. ;-)
    I think your irony took two right turns, which looked like a double-negative, as perceived in the above comment.

  4. Amy @ 1 — I had seen a summary of that study; thank you for the link to the actual Web page. Observant people will notice the presence of a Tardis in one of the photos.

    Scott @ 2 — Mmph, rats, I thought I was being sarcastic. Seriously, though, —

    Centralization, to my mind, is very different than regionalization. There is indeed centralization going on at the UUA, driven by (1) the Board’s commitment to the Carver Policy Governance ™ (which I find silly and outdated); (2) Peter Morales’s feeling that he has a mandate for change (which every new UUA president feels); and (3) organizational inefficiency and disorder (which do need to be addressed, but centralization is not the only possible solution).

    Regionalization, to my mind, is a response to a somewhat different set of factors, including (1) first and foremost a rising cost of delivering district services coupled with falling revenues, and (2) the built-in problems of the co-employment arrangement under which district executives are hired. It’s also important to realize that some districts are anxious for regionalization — when I served on the Ballou Channing District Board, we were actively looking for a way to set up job sharing for our religious education consultant — all we could afford at that time was less than quarter time seasonal employment, and we would have loved to split a position with a wealthier district. Then there are the four southern districts that have unilaterally decided to let the UUA be the sole supervisor of their district staff — and given the mess we’re in here in Pacific Central District, a mess cause in large part by the inherent weaknesses of co-employment, I can understand why they did that. Bottom line, though — there isn’t enough money any more to continue funding the current district staffing structure without some kind of modification and increased efficiency.

    There is some overlap in the factors pushing towards centralization and regionalization, e.g., the ridiculously large size of the UUA Board which is necessitated by having one rep from each district causes organizational inefficiency that could be addressed by both centralization and regionalization. But again, to my mind these really are separate issues. Those who are opposed to centralization and/or regionalization need to pay attention to the differences in the factors driving these two issues, if effective opposition is to be mounted. And opposing centralization should be easier, because it’s not being driven so much by lack of money.

    One final thing I think is important to remember: Harper’s Law states: Assume incompetence before assuming malice. I think that applies here — we don’t need tin-foil hats, there is no grand conspiracy, the UUA is just floundering along as usual.

    Carol @ 3 — That’s not a terrible photo of me, that’s what those evil mind-control rays do to you.

    Bill @ 4 — I have to say, I see no indications of Liberalism here. The ideology is straight middle-of-the-road adherence to standard business practices. I mean, how different is this from Apple’s board of directors, who stood up to shareholders recently, telling them that management was going to do what it thought best no matter what shareholders thought? (Of course, the difference is that Apple’s stock is performing extraordinarily well — I don’t think anyone would say that the UUA is performing particularly well at this juncture.)

    Heather @ 5 — Yup.

  5. mostly, I want the Peacebang commentary on the hat….but other than that it was good to see you in person (and hat free!)

  6. Standing on the side of love Dan; that and a emphasis on the seven principles and that UUism would grow if we only clarified ourselves with principles.

  7. I like your hat! Can I get one to wear to faculty senate meetings?

    I also like Harper’s Law. Nice.

  8. Dan, I think you’re right to point out that there are distinct movements toward regionalization. UU World’s reporting suggests that the shared staffing, the recognition of “regions,” and the designation of one district exec in each region to whom the other district execs report are primarily about staff efficiency and service delivery. The question of districts’ roles in the political organization of the UUA is coming more from the Board of Trustees’ governance reforms.

    I’ve put together a complete list of UU World’s coverage of changes at the district and regional level: https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=186387834735753

  9. Footnote: Which may explain my thinking here. This thought comes entirely from reading UU blogs and I don’t believe those are representative of wider UU thoughts, but I think they might reflect what’s going on in UUA.

    Here goes: UUA’s confronted with a fiscal crunch caused in part by the economy and in part by recognition the denomination’s not growing. The response is two fold: seek efficiencies in a reorg, and clarify the message of UUism and that will promote growth.

    The reorg makes sense and probably needed but the approach leaves much to be desired. It’s being poorly implemented. The Theological message is a greater problem though becuase it reflects a very poor understanding of our history, our theologians, and our practice.

    As an example, witness the response I’ve had to the idea one can be a UU Nilhist. In fact we”re a Church Home/Community especially suited to that sort of unbeliever. That’s a notion that doesn’t go over very well with those struggling to define UUism with principles.

  10. Ms. M @ 7 — Um, I don’t think Peacebang would approve….

    Jean @ 9 — If you wear one to a faculty meeting, will you please have someone take a photo?

    Chris @ 10 — Thanks for the resource, very helpful!

    Bill @ 7 & 11 — I was with you until you got to the part about nihilism, which completely does not make sense to me. Could you write a blog post explaining the nihilism thing, and post a link here?

  11. Thanks for the extensive report and thoughts, Dan!

    Echoing Dan @6 — I’m totally on the page with you about how regionalization is only one possible response to the situation, and there certainly seems to be a camp that regards it as The Only Workable Plan. I’d expect more flexible thinking from the premier purveyors of religious pluralism in North America (we’re still sorta that, right?).

    And a slight counterpoint: While there are certainly some bad feelings about Cilla’s dismissal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it made as many friends as enemies — not that it should have been (or was, from what little I know) an intentionally political decision.

    I personally have no objection to that staffing change, but my concerns about major changes toward regionalization are legion. I wonder, am I part of a camp, or is that just me?

  12. Eric@ 13 — Hey, good to hear from you! You write: “…my concerns about major changes toward regionalization are legion.”

    I don’t think that Linda Laskowski has any interest in rushing into regionalization: she said during the webinar that the UUA board has other priorities; and she seemed to indicate that any major initiatives towards regionalization are going to have to come from the district and local level.

  13. @Dan sure…here http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com/2010/08/wishy-washy-unitarian-universalism.html

    Maybe nihilism the wrong word, but I was thinking of my youth and books like William Barrett’s Irrational Man. (Which I still have from High School and has been on my mind of late.

    The Wikipedia sense of the word: “..presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.”

    Nihilist of that sort have a home in UU Churches.

  14. Bill @ 15 — Got it. What I’d call existentialism, or an existential theology. Nihilism in my world (trained in philosophy and theology) usually connotes a somewhat destructive and active disbelief in anything of value along with a denial of any possibility of meaning in the world, whereas existentialism would connote an unblinking acceptance of life’s basic absurdity and acceptance that any meaning has to come from us (existence comes before essence).

  15. That’s what I thought. My poor choice of words. I think thought thoughtlful people lacking answers the best candidates for growing our Churches. And the best response to them may be the offer of a spiritual home to counter the dispair from the reality their may well be no answers; or at least we UUs sure don’t have them. Only the offer of a home.

    Otherwise I think our current response to the prospects of diministhed revenue and no growth: a management reorg, and thin-theology based on thin-Organizing for American politics; protends a real loser strategy for our Churches. Our sort of religios practice always endures, but it won’t be under a UUA or maybe even a successor organization if we don’t get our act together better here.

  16. Re Post of what I wrote on Dan’s Facebook Page – Hey Dan, I agree that regionalization is the direction the UUA will need to head in, it was a big part of the structural findings in the Youth Ministry Consultation, however it will only work if they pair it with drastically reducing the Boston based UUA staff. We need more staff with more generalized specialties out in the regions and less focused specialists at 25.

  17. Heather @5 – well, it sort of does affect Hawaii. No District Executive, (Hawaii is part of PCD) and the Honolulu Church is in search for a settled minister.

  18. Jess @ 19 — Thanks for the comment — that’s an excellent point. And until you mentioned the Youth Ministry Consultation, I hadn’t started to think about the implications of regionalization for youth ministry.

  19. Here’s the sort of heavey emphasis on the seven principles that seems coupled with regionalization http://cerguua.org/blogs/?p=225 Start the pondering on the seven principles and it seems a short hope to contemporary USAmerican Progressive Liberalism of the thinnest sort. My bet…

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