When I received my renewal notice from the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) this year, I faced a tough choice.
This fiscal year, I had decided to attend both the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), an international, interfaith organization of scholars and practitioners, as well as Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach Unitarian Universalist conference center in Maine. These two conferences each provided me with professional development that specifically addressed my needs as a minister of religious education. The REA conference was especially fruitful for me this year — I had an opportunity to attend workshops and have informal interaction with people like Thomas Groome and Siebren Miedema, scholars with an international reputation in my field, and to spend time with colleagues and former mentors, people who are facing many of the same issues and concerns that I face in religious education. Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach was also very fruitful, as I was able to take a graduate-level class with Mark Hicks of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in an intergenerational setting where we could both learn about religious education for young people, and watch it happening around us.
The basic issue for me is a cost-benefit analysis: as a minister of religious education, the UUMA provides me with very little benefit for the cost. And the cost is very high. My salary is $80K a year. The UUMA sliding scale means I pay $825 (10% of gross salary + housing), minus $100 for my membership in the Liberal Religious Educators Association, yielding a total cost of $725. It’s interesting to compare this to my REA membership: the REA also has a sliding scale, but for the same salary I pay only $105 per year.
You may be thinking that with a salary of $80K a year, I shouldn’t be whining. But I live in Silicon Valley, which has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. According to relocation Web sites that calculate cost of living across the country, $80K in Silicon Valley provides about the same standard of living as $40K in Rochester, New York. So it’s not like I’m getting rich (indeed, according to a recent newspaper article, my salary is below average in Santa Clara County). If I lived and worked in Rochester, New York, and made an equivalent salary providing about the same standard of living, I would pay about $325 for UUMA dues.
Nor are the benefits of UUMA membership particularly enticing for me. If I’m a member, I can attend and vote in the annual meeting, which I consider a valuable privilege — but I have to pay to get to the annual meeting, and most years I cannot afford to go. If I’m a member, I can join my local UUMA chapter and attend chapter retreats — but I have to pay chapter dues, and I have to pay even more to attend chapter meetings. If I’m a member, I can attend the biannual Institute for Excellence in Ministry — but I have to pay quite a bit of money for registration, food, lodging, and transportation, and for the same price I can attend the annual REA conference which, unlike the Institute, has programming that meets my professional development needs.
When I look at what I get for my basic membership fee, what I get on a year-to-year basis without having to incur additional costs, I really get nothing that specifically supports me as a minister of religious education. Nothing, that is, except the privilege of considering myself a part of the UUMA — a privilege I do not take lightly, but a privilege which comes at a very high price. Worse yet, even if I incur those additional expenses beyond my basic UUMA membership, the UUMA doesn’t provide much to specifically support me as a religious educator — no religious education workshops at the Institute, nothing on religious education at chapter retreats, etc.
Chapter meeting are the one aspect of UUMA membership that I will miss, since they can serve as a form of mutual accountability group, which is so important for ministers (and indeed for anyone in the helping professions). However, I also belong to a local UU clergy group that meets monthly (we do not require UUMA membership to belong to this clergy group), and this serves as the primary mutual accountability group for me. As a further form of accountability, I also consult monthly with Rev. Dr. Deborah Pope-Lance, a licensed family therapist and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. Thus, meetings of the local UUMA chapter can be replaced.
It is instructive to contrast my UUMA membership with my membership in the REA. REA membership is based on a sliding scale, and it costs me $105. For that base price, I receive a peer-reviewed journal with a high citation rate that specifically addresses my professional interests. For about the price of attending the UUMA Institute, I can attend the annual REA conference, an interfaith and international gathering of scholars and practitioners, which focus on urgent and vital topics (e.g., the 2011 conference was on neuroscience and religious education, the 2012 conference was on social justice and religious education, the 2013 conference was on religion and religious education in relation to the public sphere, etc.). With my REA membership, I get a lot of bang for my buck!
And when I attend a summer institute for religious education, like Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach, I also get a lot of bang for my buck. Not only do I get relevant professional development at a high level, but summer institutes incorporate intergenerational community — whereas UUMA meetings typically do not allow children and youth to be present. I sometimes suspect that part of the reason why Unitarian Universalism has been seeing declining enrollment of children and youth for some years now is due to the fact that the UUMA has so effectively insulated itself from real, live children and youth. I found it very interesting to attend UNCO 13 this past fall, a gathering of progressive Christian clergy organized by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, which included children and teens in worship services, and which provided an excellent children’s program that many clergy participants volunteered in. Based on my experience at UNCO 13, I can say with assurance that the UUMA could develop conferences that would appeal to clergy and support the ideal of intergenerational community.
Thus beyond the basic cost-benefit analysis, it seems to me that the UUMA is charting a course that is moving ever further away from any kind of ministry with children and youth. So my concerns about the UUMA’s lack of attention to ministry with young people is not merely professional selfishness on my part; I am also troubled that a professional organization like the UUMA could pay so little attention to the needs of a vulnerable and important population within our congregations.
I’ve gone on at some length to explain my reasons for letting my UUMA membership lapse. As a strong institutionalist, when a democratic institution of which I am a member heads in a direction that I think is wrong, I prefer to remain a part of that institution. That’s what the democratic process is all about — you stay engaged even when you disagree with democratically-made decisions. But at the same time, my professional expenses budget is not mine to spend however I wish — it is money entrusted to me by my congregation to provide professional development that will benefit me, the congregation, the wider ministries of the congregation, and Unitarian Universalism as a whole. At this moment, a UUMA membership provides little benefit to me, to our congregation’s young people and families, to the wider ministries of our congregation to young people, nor to the young people of Unitarian Universalism. At this point, my responsibilities as a minister to young people and families trumps my responsibilities to remain engaged with a democratic institution. That’s why I’m letting my UUMA membership lapse.
One final note: before taking this step, of course I consulted with the Committee on Ministry and the Board of Trustees of the congregation I serve, as well as my ministerial colleague in the congregation. The Committee on Ministry’s response was instructive: one member of the committee said something to the effect of, why would you want to belong to a professional organization that doesn’t meet your professional needs? The Committee didn’t seem to think the choice was as tough as I did.
Sincerely, Dan Harper