Whining and complaining post

I need to whine and complain about one of my professional associations, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). Not everyone likes to read whining, complaining posts; therefore I’m warning you right at the beginning so you can skip this post if you want.

To begin my whining and complaining, let me start by describing the recent changes in the UUMA. Up until a couple of years ago, the UUMA had one employee, an administrator, but everything else was done by volunteers. The national Executive Committee of the UUMA decided running the organization was too much work for volunteers to manage. And they had ambitions for the UUMA: they wanted to provide more services for members. The Executive Committee brought a proposal to the annual membership meeting: UUMA dues would rise from a couple hundred dollars to one percent of a member’s gross annual salary, and the UUMA would hire an executive director.

Now, perhaps half of all UUMA members attend the annual membership meeting in any given year. The annual meeting takes place in the days before General Assembly; attending General Assembly is expensive, and adding on two days beforehand is more expensive. Thus those who attend the UUMA annual meeting tend to be the ministers who have good salaries and ample money for professional expenses. Not surprisingly, the members who attended the UUMA annual meeting voted to support the increased dues: they’re the ones who could best afford it.

At the time this vote took place, I was serving a small congregation and getting paid at a rate lower than the UUA’s recommended salary guidelines. But I was receiving a good deal of benefit from the UUMA — my local chapter of the UUMA was a supportive community, I was receiving support from one of the chapter’s Good Offices Persons, and the national UUMA sent out an excellent newsletter that contained useful information. I wasn’t too concerned that I couldn’t afford to attend the annual meeting to vote on this issue. While I was wary of the huge increase in dues, I felt more or less supportive.

I no longer feel so supportive. My dues have gone up enormously, as expected, but I have come to realize that I am getting no additional benefit. My local chapter still provides excellent services to me — but I pay separate dues to my local chapter, and my local chapter doesn’t receive financial support from the national body because we meet in a location that is not handicapped accessible (which is reasonable, and we are currently working on finding an accessible site). The national UUMA has begun to offer an annual continuing education conference — but it costs more to attend than I can afford (especially now that my UUMA dues have gone up so much), and the quality of the courses is lower than what I could get through a local seminary, or by attending an intensive class offered by a distant seminary, or by taking an online class. The national UUMA offers a “coaching service,” for which they have trained a small group of ministers to coach other ministers — but there’s a fee for that too, and besides I already work with a professional coach, and I get valuable informal coaching through my local chapter. The national UUMA offers various Web services to members — but their Web services are of poorer quality than I get for free through Google Docs, Skype, Dropbox, etc. The national UUMA still sends out an email newsletter — but it’s of lower quality, with less useful information, than was true in the past. And finally, whenever I look over programs the national UUMA offers, they offer a lot of support to parish ministers who work solely with adults — but they almost never have anything to offer those of use who have ministries with children and youth, or religious education ministries.

In short, I feel like I’m paying lots of dues to subsidize services that cost more and either don’t serve me, or are less effective than services I already get elsewhere. Worse yet, it feels like the services I’m subsidizing are aimed primarily at the ministers who receive good salaries and have ample money for professional expenses and can afford to pay for extra services above and beyond their UUMA dues. As a side issue, I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that the executive director hired by the Board (they’re now a Board, not an Executive Committee) was a member of the Executive Committee when this change was made. While I am convinced that the entire decision-making process was well-intended and ethical, I am also convinced that those who made the decisions had some big blind spots: they were simply unaware that they were setting up a costly system that primarily supports their circle of insiders, but which provides little to people like me, even though I have to pay more to subsidize the system.

———

I can’t help contrasting the national UUMA with two other professional organizations to which I belong:

(1) The Religious Education Association (REA), an international and interfaith organization of scholars and practitioners, charges me 70 USD per year. For that, I get a subscription to a highly regarded academic journal. The annual conference is mostly self-supporting, i.e., my dues don’t help pay for the conference; if I want to attend I pay separately; if I can’t afford to attend at least my dues don’t subsidize people who have more money than I. And when I do go to the conference, I get to meet top scholars in the field — at the last conference, I ate dinner with Gabriel Moran! I stood next to Thomas Groome at a social event! — and I get to hear cutting-edge research that pertains directly to my ministry. Compared to the national UUMA, my base dues are a tenth of what I pay the national UUMA; beyond those base dues I only pay for the services I actually use; the services I receive are relevant to my ministry and are of far higher quality than UUMA services.

(2) The Freelancer’s Union (FU) is an organization that advocates for freelance workers and provides services to them. Ministers are natural allies of freelancers. The Internal Revenue Service considers ministers self-employed for some purposes, and employees for other purposes. And practically speaking, ministers face many of the same problems that freelancers do: we may not have access to employer health care, when our employers stiff us of money owed to us (which has happened to me) we have little or no recourse, etc. Joining the Freelancer’s Union was a natural step for me to take. They have an excellent and informative newsletter. And it costs me nothing, because the Freelancer’s Union supports itself entirely through the fees it gets for direct services it supplies (e.g., you can buy health insurance through them in several states). With the FU, I get more than I pay for!

And I can’t help contrasting the national UUMA with my local chapter of the UUMA. I pay 60 USD a year to my local chapter. For that, I get access to “Good Offices” services; a “Good Offices Person” is another minister who will come and serve as my representative should I ever have problems with my employer, or who can provide advice and counsel should I find myself in a sticky situation, or who can some provide conflict management services as needed (and my dues help pay their travel and incidental costs when they provide these services). My dues also provide scholarship money to retired ministers, low-paid ministers, and students, so they can attend our biannual retreats and the annual continuing education workshop. All retreats and continuing education programs are self-supporting, so if I don’t (or can’t) attend, it doesn’t cost me anything.

It’s actually kind of depressing for me to compare my local chapter and the REA and the FU — great services for little money, and I mostly pay only for services I actually use — with the national UUMA — second-rate services for a great deal of money, and I have to pay for services I can’t afford to use.

———

By now, you’re probably wondering why I don’t just drop my membership in the national UUMA. Unfortunately, if I drop my national membership I can no longer belong to my local chapter (even though my local chapter gets no financial support from the national UUMA). And there is subtle but powerful pressure on Unitarian Universalist ministers to maintain their UUMA membership: UUA staffers look askance at you when you suggest that you might not want to maintain your UUMA membership; many local congregations want their ministers to be members.

And you may be wondering why I don’t offer my critiques directly to the national UUMA. Well, the few times I’ve tried it, it felt like I was wasting my time and their time. The Board members are all good people, but but why should they want to hear my whining and complaining? Once when I offered a criticism of the national UUMA, a member of the leadership offered to call me and talk over my criticism, but they were too busy to ever schedule a call with me. A couple of other times, national UUMA leaders listened respectfully for a short time, then rightly said that they were committed to the leadership’s current direction. UUMA national leadership has to deal with over a thousand members. And as both an associate minister and a non-parish minister, I am not part of their core constituency. The national leadership has already given me more time than I deserve.

So rather than waste everyone else’s time, I decided to whine and complain in this blog post and waste your time. Bless your heart if you’ve read this far! I feel better already, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest. I guess I feel enough better that, even though it means I won’t be able to afford to attend the REA annual conference this year, I’ll pay up when my UUMA dues come due again this fall.

19 thoughts on “Whining and complaining post”

  1. Oh Dan, I feel exactly the same way. There seems to be so very little available for anyone who doesn’t fit the norm–a norm that it doesn’t even seem like the leadership know is so strong. It’s invisible to those who fit and all to visible to those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t.

    I find no need for the national UUMA. Like you, I’ve already attended to my need for coaching and continuing education. I find the national gatherings mostly uninspiring.

    And I was heartbroken when our Accountability Group for Justice GA tried to reach out and build relationship with the Exec and were told “Oh, yes we want to be in right relationship” and then were completely ignored.

    Basically, what I think we’ve gotten for our increase in dues is guaranteed employment for the Executive Director. Everything else is still expensive and no better than when volunteers ran things. We’ve done what so many churches do: We spent our time and energy building an infrastructure with little or no attention to a mission and whether or not we are actually doing something to achieve it.

    It makes me sad and mad. I want to be a part of my district, but paying 1% of my pay feels like a waste. I feel like there is a not-so-subtle message that if you can’t afford all this, you must not be a very good minister. And that hurts.

    I chose to come to a congregation that has great potential, even though they aren’t paying me what they should. I call on a lot of resources to keep my ministry healthy and to continue to develop my talents and skills. The UUMA is completely unhelpful to any of that.

    Sean Dennison

  2. Amen, my friend. Love the players (good people, indeed) but this is a ridiculous system and the areas where there are attempts at “program fixes” for adaptive challenges strikes me as…sad…and something someone should have learned from all this expensive continuing ed.

  3. Sean — You write: “…if you can’t afford all this, you must not be a very good minister…”

    I hadn’t thought of that, but the Unitarian Universalist ministry is permeated with that sensibility. Maybe it’s a residuum of a perverse sort of Calvinism: we don’t know who the Elect are, but it’s probably those who are materially successful. Or perhaps a UU form of the Prosperity Gospel: those who are most devout will be blessed with material success, and therefore those who don’t make as much money are probably doing something wrong with their lives. In any case, it’s bad theology.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this.

    Anon… — As you say, I love the players. Yes, they are all good people. It’s important to remember that this is a systems thing, not a person thing.

  4. After reading this, next up was this “The UUA currently has a career opportunity for an experienced Campaign Manager to lead our Standing on the Side of Love campaign.” What distinguishes that from “The X Corp. currently has a career opportunity for an experienced Campaign Manager to lead our new improved detergent campaign.” Sometimes I think we’v have lost our way and fallen in the prosperity gospel. (And maybe it is those New England Calvinist roots – we should pay more attention to the Universalists ;-)

  5. As a lay person, I don’t know how much or little ministers benefit from such professional organizations, but I have some idea how the congregations benefit. About a year and a half ago, the congregation I was a member of was going through a tough patch, and the Board of Trustees received advice, and assistance in the form of a consulting minister, and the results were dramatic: a blow-up in which a third of the pledging members resigned. I began to attend another congregation, and after some time joined that one. I had no idea that behind the scenes, that Board of Trustees was also taking advice and following guidelines- when that came to a head, the cost was over a hundred pledging members, more than 40% of the congregation.

    If I were a member of the search committee of a new congregation, I don’t think I would count membership in any such organization a plus.

  6. I am a minister who is in the main “target” group of the UUMA, and I could afford the dues. But I was so disgusted at the process by which the change was made..(not much information, not much discussion, and you can be glad you missed the meeting, in which people who disagreed with the Exec were sneered at and the presiding officer’s advocacy was so strong that a brave member took him to task, got sneered at, and the obvious bias didn’t change.) I did write a letter and months later, got some phone calls, but in the meantime, I’d gotten so disgusted that I could never bring myself to renew my 30 year membership.

    I’m not whining, but I am sad to be feeling this estranged from my colleague group. It was quite a wrench to leave, but this was one of several decisions that I had disagreed with over the previous three years. I belong to a chapter which has voted to invite guests to its meetings if they agree to abide by the guidelines. We guests pay an extra fee because our chapter is subsidized by the National. I’m very glad to do that. I didn’t do this to save money. Since then so many people have told me that they were quietly cheating…not paying the full 1%…. that the whole thing just feels bad to me.

    I manage a cluster group, go to some chapter meetings, and try to support my colleagues in non-UUMA ways. And like you, pay for coaching and continuing ed on the open market. It would be unrealistic to expect the UUMA to be able to meet my specialized needs. But I just can’t bring myself to sign up again…and for all that I’m pretty well paid, parting with that much money for so little benefit to me and for an organization I feel so estranged from…it just doesn’t happen.

  7. Joel, sorry to hear about the troubles in your previous congregation.

    Christine, thanks for telling your story. One local chapter I was in, like yours, allowed ministers who didn’t belong to the national body but who agreed to the guidelines to join — alas, not my current chapter.

    You write: “It would be unrealistic to expect the UUMA to be able to meet my specialized needs.” — It occurs to me to ask — maybe there’s actually a lot of us who have specialized needs that can’t be met by generic programs?

  8. Dan, well written. As a new minister, I feel out of the loop on much of this but it hasn’t felt right. At the same time, there is a feeling (for me) of “this is what you have to support or it looks bad.”. I wonder if that’s my own insecurity or not but truthfully, there seems to be a lot of pushback about the process and dues structure and I don’t hear or see a lot of deep engagement about this. Maybe that happened before I became a member of the UUMA though. Anyway, thanks for writing about this – good to learn more!

  9. I’m really sorry to hear that you feel so unserved by our national UUMA, Dan. Because there are many volunteers still working to make it a strong organization, myself included, offering hundreds of hours a year in service of our collegial association. Having staff devoted to this work is one of the necessary steps to make the additional fund-raising for quality programs possible. Two full-time staff members for a 1500-member organization is not exactly luxurious. Volunteers are still doing a lot of work.

    If you are feeling well-served by Good Offices and your local chapter, you should know that those Good Officers are indeed trained and supported by the continental UUMA, including the paid staff thereof. Chapter leaders also benefit from training and support from the UUMA as a whole.

    I am not sure what your basis is for comparison of the quality of the continuing education at the Institute, but I will testify that the continuing ed, worship and collegiality I experienced at the last CENTER Institute was far greater than *any* professional development I’ve done via ecumenical conferences, Alban trainings, or from secular organizations.

    I agree that we have a lot of work to do in terms of our class biases and assumptions, in the UUMA as well as in the UUA. You should know that the UUMA Board and staff are working hard to raise money to equalize costs and explore options for funding that can make quality programs available to all ministers regardless of income or location of ministry. We are working hard, but we have not gotten there yet.

    As one of the volunteer leaders busy with my own ministry and the demands thereof, and also committed to supporting our collegial relationships and creating quality continuing education for us all, I wish very deeply that we were done, and had all of this solved. In the mean time, I’m working hard to help us get there. I sure wish you’d join us.

  10. And what’s nifty about the arrangement… is that in order to be a fully-fledged UU minister, with access to the UUA settlement process, etc, one *must* be a member of the UUMA.

    Which is not an objection to the fellowshipping idea and ideal. It’s just that so many things are tied into being a UUMA member that one cannot really dissent without paying a potentially high price, in non-monetary terms. It’s ironic. But I think I’ll let it go there.

    One wonders how many fellowshipped ministers–people like Christine–would remain members if there weren’t all kinds of systematic penalties for just objecting to the system; perhaps willing to pay the “market price” for actual services, but in dissent against the system.

    Having been at the meeting that so disgusted Christine, I’ll just say I was appalled by it, too. It was aggressively classist, and that was with those in the room, who could (or managed to) afford to be there. And for all those who couldn’t, and therefore were disenfranchised in a vote that was going to tax them much more heavily for services that (as Dan observes) don’t seem to have changed or improved for all those who aren’t well-off enough, the classism is pretty shocking.

    This, however, will get some sort of apologia, I am sure. Yes, Parisa, the volunteers for the UUMA are hard working–and they were before, too. That’s not an argument for the new system, just as the critique of the system isn’t an attack on the *volunteers*, but on the system. Dan’s critique is that the services didn’t change or get better for the majority of UUMA members, who are *paying* for whatever it is that improved, for those who can get it. And that deserves a responsive answer that isn’t gently dismissive.

  11. Parisa and Pat, thank you both for pointing out the class bias that may be inherent in the new membership dues structure. I hadn’t thought about that. At least, not consciously — as someone who spent the first 12 years of his working life in the residential construction industry, I know I am very sensitive to the upper middle class bias that seems to pervade Unitarian Universalism, which may explain why this dues structure annoys me so much.

    Pat — Just to clarify, I checked with the UUA Transitions Office a couple of years ago: once you’re in final fellowship, you do not have to be a member of the UUMA; although they strongly encourage membership, lack of membership would not affect your access to the settlement system. I don’t know the current rules for seminarians and ministers in preliminary fellowship, or interim ministers, and you may be referring to ministers in one of those categories.

  12. In terms of class bias the current dues structure is in my opinion much better than the old one – at least now it is a percentage of salary rather than a flat rate for all. A higher percentage at the higher end might be an improvement and make it more affordable for many of us.

    I am also a bit disheartened by what I see as a continued attitude of “what do I get from the UUMA” (you could say UUA here too and too few of our congregations are fair share) For me it is about supporting my colleagues and the professional ministry and about supporting our faith through the UUA. I may not have need of a good officer or the coaching program, but I want to support others who do. It sin’t just about me. In our congregations, not everyone has children in RE, but all members support the program financially.

    Our chapter actually gets a lot of services from the national – training for officers, great programs, and also a chapter subsidy which will hopefully eliminate the need for chapter dues in the not too distant future. If you aren’t getting a subsidy then move to an accessible retreat center! If we can find them in the mountain west,surely everyone can.

    Having a full time executive director also gives ministers perspectives more influence at the UUA. You can’t do it all with volunteers, especially not with ministers whose free time is especially limited. I belonged to a professional association in a prior career. Higher dues, professional staff, it all makes a positive difference in my experience.

    I also wish that folks who are unhappy with the direction of the organization would do something about it rather than just snipe. Democracy works if you work it. Start a petition, run an opposing slate of officers, and/or repeal the dues increase if that is what you want. Democracy doesn’t mean, however, that everyone gets their way all the time. It doesn’t work that way in congregations or in the UUMA. There was a vote. There can be another vote. I am not at all sure, however, that the results would be any different.

    You can chose to leave, of course you can, but part of living in covenant is continuing to try to work things out.

    Sorry for the rant, but frankly much of this sounds too much to me like what goes on in our most dysfunctional congregations. If ministers can’t work it out faithfully, directly and honestly, how can we expect our congregations to?

    Rev. Theresa Novak Ogden Utah

  13. Teresa, your point about dysfunction is a good one. While the UUMA is not analogous to a congregation, it does strike me as an example of a dysfunctional organization. I’ve actually had a successful ministry in a congregation that was deemed “dysfunctional,” and I think viewing the UUMA as a dysfunctional organization using the framework of family systems theory (a la Friedman) may help us reframe the discussion so that we can move things forward.

    First, in the dysfunctional organizations that I’ve been a part of, the dysfunction typically has its roots in a past trauma that is not spoken about (if it were spoken out loud, the trauma could be addressed, and the dysfunction would go away). For me, the unspoken trauma in the UUMA is clergy sexual misconduct, and the UUMA’s role in covering it up and giving aid and comfort to misconductors. There may be other past UUMA traumas that can’t be spoken, but I’m less sure of those — maybe the failure of the feminist revolution to fully work itself out in the UUMA context? maybe ongoing racism? (does the fact that the ED of the UUMA is an upper middle class white man have something to do with this?) — I don’t know.

    Second, dysfunctional organizational systems maintain silence about the past traumas by designating symptom-bearers who serve as a kind of scapegoat — if we can just get rid of or silence those symptom bearers, the thinking goes, then we can move forward. This is coupled with a strong organizational culture that says that what’s past is past, we can’t fix old problems, so let’s just move forward into a new future. This sets a pattern of behavior in which dissent is silenced — dissent is feared by the organization because alternative points of view might bring up the old trauma.

    So in the current UUMA context, we’re seeing the revision of the sexual ethics guidelines slowly moving forward (and the slowness is actually probably a good thing, these things take time). While there remains significant resistance to those guidelines, basically it’s moving forward. So if we’re solving the sexual ethics issue, why doesn’t the dysfunction go away? Well, the old leadership patterns continue, where a small group of people determines course of action and squelches dissent (see comments above for how this played out). And while we’re going to have new sexual ethics guidelines, we still haven’t addressed the damage done by the UUMA to victims of clergy sexual misconduct. So part of the answer may be a public admission of guilt, and perhaps reparations — or something like that, I’m not really sure.

    I’m making a lot of this up. I don’t really know where the dysfunction lies. But dysfunctional? — yes, I think you’re right. Which means the way to move forward is to figure out what the dysfunction is, and deal with it.

  14. Re: “For me, the unspoken trauma in the UUMA is clergy sexual misconduct, and the UUMA’s role in covering it up and giving aid and comfort to misconductors.”

    That’s a heck of a trauma to hang on UUMA.

  15. Very interesting. It seems the ministers should practice what they preach about “progressive” values, Occupy Wall Street support and other “tax the rich” schemes. Dues are equivalent to a tax for comparison and the “1%” are taking advantage of the downtrodden. Up with the banners, drums and horns, lead a protest march demanding JUSTICE by Standing on The Side of Love for less compensated ministers.

  16. My letter to the UUMA Board.

    Friends,

    I want to thank you for serving on the Board of the UUMA. I know that the demands of ministry are endless and that it is difficult to carve out time to serve our colleagues. Thank you.

    I must confess, however, as I looked at the amount that I am expected to pay in UUMA dues, I seriously considered not renewing my membership, which I have held starting as a student member in 1974. I finally decided to renew my dues because I have been ask to serve as a “UUMA Good Officer” in Florida, which I could not do, if I was not a member. I have served in this role in the Chicago area, the Washington D.C. area and now in Florida. I am paying my $675 dues to do this volunteer work.

    When I started serving as a minister in 1978, the dues were $65, equal to $230 today. The dues for over 30 years were the same for everyone, big or small salary. Now, after paying the same as everyone else for 30 years, at the end of my ministry I am subsidizing those who are paid less than me.

    I understand one of the reasons for the increase is because of the increased numbers of ministers. I suspect that the number of ministers serving as ministers in congregations has not dramatically increased between 1978 and today, because the number of Unitarian Universalist members has remained about the same. The increase has come in the number of community ministers. Yet they pay one-half of what I pay. Therefore, I am subsidizing them.

    I also understand that volunteers found the planning of these big ministerial conferences such as the one in California and the one in Canada overwhelming. The dues increases are necessary to pay staff to plan these conferences. I did not attend these conferences in California or Canada. I find studying in a small group of 30 or so colleagues from several different denominations helpful to my ministry. I have studied with Lyle Schaller, Ed Friedman, Speed Leas, Roy Oswald, Ed White, and others. I feel lost in a gathering of 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers. If the dues increases are for UUMA conferences, I am subsidizing conferences, in which I have not participated.

    For most of my ministry, once a year at chapter meetings, someone from the UUMA Ex attended and reported to us about association news with respect to ministers. I have attended two chapter meetings in Florida, 2011 and 2012. No one from the UUMA board attended. My dues are way up, but I feel isolated from my professional organization.

    There is an illusion of fairness and equality in the dues structure. One person may be paid $70,000 from their church, but have a spouse who makes $150,000, or may have inherited two million from their parents, or may have a pension from a previous career, or may have no dependents. Another person may be paid $100,000 from a church, but have $80,000 in debt from seminary, three dependents, and no other source of income. Yet the person who receives $100,000 from their church, pays higher dues to the UUMA.

    Of course, there is no way for our small organization to take into account all these possibilities. Therefore, I voted against this dues change at the Salt Lake City UUMA meeting.

    It is time to vote on this again. I encourage the UUMA board to place on the agenda a motion for the dues to return to a flat rate for all members both parish, or community starting in 2013. I suggest $250.

    Thank you for your service on the UUMA Board.

    Sincerely,

    Rev. Roger Fritts

  17. Thanks for sharing your letter, Roger. Writing directly to the Board — direct action, directly trying to influence policy makers — is a more powerful action than writing a blog post (though I justify this blog post as a form of “social education,” pointing out the alternative viewpoints that are possible regarding the dues increase).

    By the way, you and I have an interesting albeit trivial connection: we have both served as minister of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford for four years.

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