An open letter to the UUMA Board

Dear friends,

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

22 thoughts on “An open letter to the UUMA Board”

  1. I completely understand. After being a member of the UUMA for more than 30 years I also resigned over the dues issue. As a Community Minister the UUMA simply didn’t offer much for me, and I felt the dues they wanted were simply unreasonable. Even at the “temporary” Community Minister rate of .5% of income, the dues would be more than a thousand dollars per year in my case.

    No other professional association in my world charges dues anywhere near that. I get credentials, client referrals, insurance, academic-level continuing education, research journals, collegial chapters, annual conventions, political advocacy etc. from the Association of Professional Chaplains and the National Guild of Hypnotists. But they charge only a few hundred dollars per year in dues.

    I reluctantly had to conclude that the dues requested were disproportionate to the benefit received, and I did exactly what you did. I’d be willing to pay a few hundred dollars per year to be in solidarity with my UU colleagues, but not dues in four figures. That felt predatory.

  2. That is a very high rate for dues. I’m a member of my professional association — Association of Writers and Writing Programs — and our annual due are $240, which includes admission to the annual conference. Which is, by the way, a fantastic conference and very valuable for me as a writer and academic. And, any voting that has to take place can be done online. And, more perks: membership affords me access to valuable information on the AWP website about publishing, career management, teaching, and more.

    In contrast, I did not renew my Modern Language Association membership a long time ago for the very reasons you cite about the UUMA membership. Too costly, not enough professional benefit, and the conference itself is not so useful for my profession — creative writing. It’s been several years since I was an MLA member and I don’t miss it at all. Interestingly enough, AWP has grown in members even as I suspect MLA has shrunk. It’s just good business sense to figure out what your members need and want, and then deliver at a reasonable cost.

    So, I think you made absolutely the right choice in not renewing. It’s not a very robust professional organization that doesn’t support your profession. In fact, it doesn’t sound professional at all.

  3. FWIW, membership in the Virginia Bar dor a year costs less than half of what the UUMA wanted you to pay for a year, and does not have a sliding scale.

  4. Thanks for this post, especially for your words about the REA. As a new DRE, the only real professional group I was aware of is LREDA – I had never heard of REA before and now am contemplating membership :-)

  5. Scot, Jean , and ChaliceChick — Thanks for your comments on other professional organizations, which provide a very helpful wider perspective.

    Tim, not sure how helpful the REA conference would be to a new DRE. (There’s a debate going on within the REA right now about the lack of support to practitioners at the conference, and I’d say one of the UU summer RE institutes would be more useful.) The REA journal is definitely worth receiving, however, and that would be worth the price of membership.

  6. “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.”

    Of all the issues raised in this thoughtful article, include cost-of-living comparisons, value, etc., I found this most alarming. As a newly retired teacher with grandchildren (who don’t go to church, period), I fear that a lack of emphasis on children and youth is the (further) beginning of a steep decline in our denomination. While I don’t participate in our children or youth programs directly, they are key to my identify as a member of my local congregation because they are key to who are are as a church and a loving, nurturing community. I value the young people, and the adults who guide them; without them, where will we be in the near future?

    It may not help the argument to say how much more this cost is than the National Council of Teachers of English, but we get excellent publications and reduced registrations for the fee.
    @PaulaAtlantaGA twitter

  7. There is much to talk about here. I’d like to point out, though, that professional organizations with a ton more members can provide more services to their members (more diverse conferences, more publications), etc, at a smaller cost per member. Just an aspect of the discussion that ought to be considered.

  8. Evin, good point to bring up. Actually, that was part of my thinking on this issue. The REA has 150 members as compared to several hundred in the UUMA; but for the base price, the UUMA offers less to me than does the smaller REA.

  9. So just so this is clearly pointed out, Dan. What you are saying to Evin’s point is that the REA– with way fewer members than the UUMA is able to offer far superior resources and supports to you as a Minister of Religious Education than the UUMA at a much lower cost per member.

    I am a member who pays the full amount in membership dues that you would have paid had you lived in Rochester, NY. I am re-evaluating how I spend my professional fees as UUMA and chapter dues now makes up10% of my professional expense account. It has diminished my ability to do ministry in the rural deep south. My hope is that some of the new offerings that the UUMA is unveiling this year will increase the value of my membership to where it is not just a professional expense but rather an investment in my ministry. I think that is where the UUMA wants to head but will it get there in time so that Community Ministers and Ministers of Religious Education will see it that way as well?

  10. I admit to being more than a little disappointed with reading this post. Over the last year and a half that I’ve spent as a semi-itinerant minister I have grown increasingly appreciative of the UUMA. I left the parish ministry in the autumn of 2012 to begin working on a PhD and have been supporting myself and my family partially through pulpit supply and officiating rites of passage. The experience of not having my own pulpit has helped me to understand exactly how much the UUMA does for me (I discuss this realization at length here http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/13897756). My membership in the UUMA has provided me with connections that have allowed me to earn higher wages and find more opportunities than I would have otherwise found. In addition, I have been taking advantage of the UUMA’s excellent coaching program this year. The cost of the program is $100 for ten sessions. I’m getting far more from the peer coach that I’m working with than from the professional speech coach I paid close to $700 for a couple of sessions a few years ago.

    Frankly, I tired of hearing settled ministers with good salaries and housing allowances complain about how much UUMA dues are. When I was a parish minister I simply paid for my UUMA dues out of my professional expense account. I suspect that most of the settled ministers who complain about the cost of UUMA dues do the same.

    These days, I pay for my UUMA dues out of pocket. I live in the Boston area, which is close Silicon Valley cost-wise. My wife and I support our family on my graduate student stipend, pulpit supply fees and her very part-time DRE salary (we are food stamps and receive other forms of public aid). Yet I still think supporting the UUMA is worthwhile.*

    In my experience, most of the people who complain about UUMA dues are fairly highly paid and skilled workers (Dan earns almost twice the median wage in the US, and 140% the median household income in California). One of the reasons why UU ministers earn relatively good wages is because of the advocacy, over time, of our professional association.

    As for the community minister who makes $200,000 and doesn’t want to pay .5% of his income to the UUMA, all I can say is that maybe he doesn’t value his identity as a UU minister enough. He certainly don’t seem to feel a need to support the organization that helps minister maintain professional standards and wages which, at the end of the day, is what the UUMA does. Those standards are crucial in maintaining the viability, if that is possible in this changing religious landscape, of our profession.

    *As a graduate student I also belong to a number of professional academic associations and a labor union. I don’t complain about paying dues to those groups either.

  11. Fred, thanks for your thoughts, particularly on the possibility that the UUMA will be unveiling some new offerings. I’ll be watching for two things in those new offerings: (1) Will they be included in the base price for UUMA membership, or will UUMA members have to pay additional fees to access those offerings? and (2) Will those offerings duplicate products and services that we can already get elsewhere?

    Colin, thanks for pointing us to your own blog post on why you like the UUMA — it’s good to have that perspective. Unfortunately, for me your blog post helps heighten the lack of support I feel from the UUMA as a minister of religious education.

    And sorry to hear that you are so close to the edge financially — been there, done that, don’t want that anxiety ever again. Indeed, my experience as a low-wage DRE who qualified for food stamps is probably one of the unconscious motivations that’s pushing me to let my UUMA membership lapse. Here I am, getting closer to retirement with little wealth (no house, not much in the way of retirement savings) due to the fact that I spent quite a few of my peak earning years in low-wage jobs; I joke that my retirement plan is a massive coronary at age 67. These kind of feelings and experiences turned me into a cheapskate. No wonder I don’t want to pay $725 for UUMA dues. And no wonder you get angry with people like me (and Scot), because those high dues that I’m no longer paying would help subsidize the programs that you need and want.

    An interesting piece of the story about wages for religious educators needs to be told here: In the world of religious education, women (for most religious educators were and are women) fought for their own wage increases, sometimes against the male-dominated UUMA. Most of the work to raise religious educators’ wages (for both DREs and MREs) was done by religious educators, mostly through the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA). I started as a DRE at the tail end of that fight, in the mid-1990s, so I saw a little bit of this first hand. In the intervening years, my strong sense has been that most of the push to raise wages of MREs and DREs has come from LREDA, not the UUMA.

    It’s also worth mentioning that my experience has been that local UUMA chapters have been the real advocates when it comes to setting fees for preaching, memorial services, etc.; and one of my real regrets in letting my UUMA membership lapse is that my local chapter requires membership in the national UUMA (not all chapters do).

  12. Dan, I share your disappointment that your local chapter requires national membership — because of scheduling and costs, I had only been attending parts of chapter events, and I can’t even do that now.

    I need to add that the UUMA leadership has been very encouraging that I avail myself of their hardship dues rates. But again, since I can’t generally make it to chapter meetings, never attend larger UUMA gatherings, and long ago washed my hands of the UUMA listserve, it’s not clear to me why I would continue my membership, even at those rates. As Scot said above, I not only get so much more from the Society for Community Ministries, I also feel considerably more support for ministries that don’t look like the standard parish ministry.

  13. I, for one, really appreciate your posting these concerns in an open letter. I have been at both the very high and extremely low end of the income bracket during my time as a UU minister. I have felt both the financial pinch and the professional drive your letter well describes. I recognize the urgency in both the voice that cries of needing to find value for my money and the one demanding that my values be expressed in my religious conscience and integrity. Each voice danced the point-counterpoint tango in my head while I’ve balanced my checkbook.

    I’ve been a member of OUR association when the dues were relatively insignificant and I am still a member now that they feel very significant. The reason I have chosen to remain, frankly, is because I have also watched the association which calls for these dues moving from something insignificant to something very significant.

    Specifically, I got tired of witnessing our collective goals and aspirations – the higher achievements of which I knew we were capable – get washed away by the surging tides of individualism, consumerism and skittish self-interest. It is the same thing I’ve seen threatening many of our congregations with irrelevance. When our infrastructure fails to rise above our penchant for dissent and contrary natures, there is nothing beyond a few lone voices to call us toward some collective awareness and response-ability to work for our common good. Honestly, I am not sure I could continue to work so hard to create order and direction and vision in our congregations if we were to have continued to declare that such aims were unimportant in our association.

    I am a huge fan of community organizing and the IAF motto that understands power as the product of bringing together organized people and organized money. As a former biologist, I understand evolution to be the outcome of increasing the complexity of a system by expanding, clarifying and refining channels of communication and establishing feedback mechanisms.

    So thank you for communicating your concerns. Because, now that we have a significant association, I know that your letter will be read by staff who appreciate the feedback and are accountable to address the concerns you describe. I know, because I have been in the meetings, that responses to the needs of religious educators and community ministers – as well as our ministries of music and administration – are part of the real work of bringing cohesion and common purpose to our individual efforts.

    In short, I know you wrote your letter with good intention that it be read by a network of committed people who might take it seriously enough to act. Your concerns deserve to be taken seriously and I am certain they will be. But, ironically, it will be the network you don’t support who works on your behalf to achieve the results you won’t be part of. This is the part of our movement’s heretical nature that leaves me scratching my head.

  14. Dan,

    I’m glad that you’ve found support and enrichment in so many places. But I’m sad to see you go from the UUMA.

    I’m curious about what has led you to conclude: “the UUMA is charting a course that is moving ever further away from any kind of ministry with children and youth.” That’s a big claim.

    I do know that fewer and fewer ministers are fellowshipped as Ministers of Religious Education, and I see this as related to individuals’ interests, the development of the RE Credentialing program, UU cultural changes, and a variety of factors – not just the UUMA.

    Wishing you well,
    Sarah

  15. Hi Colin-

    I sympathize with the financial difficulty of your situation. At one time in my life I was in a similar circumstance, and I appreciate how stressful it can be.

    Some community ministers earn well. It is true that I earn more than $200K from the paid portion of my ministry (I also give away a lot of my time running three free clinics). However, I think you are missing the point of my post. The issue isn’t whether or not I could afford to pay the UUMA dues if I wanted to. The issue is the justice issue of an organization thinking it’s okay to overcharge people who feel they are being underserved.

    If the price you seek to charge for a service is more than someone feels it is worth, your organization will lose that part of the market share. So it has always been, and so it will always be. There is nothing about being a ministerial association that insulates one from that dynamic.

    Regarding your comment about me when you wrote, “As for the community minister who makes $200,000 and doesn’t want to pay .5% of his income to the UUMA, all I can say is that maybe he doesn’t value his identity as a UU minister enough,” you might be interested to know that I am the current President of the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries (www.UUSCM.org). We are a ministerial association for community ministers, and we have the same legal relationship to the UUA as the UUMA does. I volunteer a substantial amount of time to UUSCM precisely because I do value my identity as a UU minister.

    UUSCM dues are $75 per year, and have not been raised in a long time. With energized volunteers and a good grasp of technology we don’t find it takes a lot of money to run our organization. Of course, the scope of our mission is different from that of the UUMA. We seek to serve a specialized constituency and that is a more limited task.

  16. Scott, good to know that UUMA has been generous with hardship rates.

    Greg, sorry I left you scratching your head. I tried to address your concern in the second to last paragraph of the original post. It boils down to this: sometimes those of us who are strong institutionalists are forced to make unpleasant choices.

    Sara, it’s a basic analysis of power and money. Five years ago, the UUMA could have said that it was not able to provide children’s programming for UUMA events due to lack of financial resources. Now, with increased dues, clearly there is now money available, yet that money is going towards staff salaries rather than children’s programming. Similarly, when I look at the programming offered during the Institute for Excellence in Ministry, I saw nothing that specifically targeted our shared ministry with children and youth. In response, one could fairly argue in turn that children’s programming would not be used, and no one would sign up for classes in ministry with children and youth — but that also reveals the choices that UUMA members are making, and that UUMA leaders are choosing not to challenge. The UUMA has charted this course, it is not an inevitable course.

    Attend UNCO sometime (you can find them online at http://www.unco.us), and see how they intentionally integrate kids into worship and programming — and you’ll see how the UUMA could do this. Or, for an example that’s closer to home, I know you’ve attended one of the UU summer institutes for religious education — these programs are for professionals, and they provide programming for children, and some of them do a great job of integrating children, youth, and young adults into an intergenerational community with religious professionals. Would this mean a radical change for the UUMA? Sure, just about as radical as hiring several full-time staffers. Would there be resistance? Sure, and I’ll bet there would be people who would resign from the UUMA because they would object strongly to such a change. So I’m really not suggesting that the UUMA take this path — but I do want to make clear that the UUMA has chosen a certain path, and that the choice of that path was not inevitable. I also want to make it clear that a path the UUMA has not taken is the path of providing additional support for our shared ministries with children and youth.

  17. It would interesting to compare the relative sizes of the various professional organization referenced here. The UUMA is surely considerably smaller than some. Could it be that those larger organizations provide these perks and services at less cost because they have far more members? The UUMA has about 1500 members, if memory serves. Were its dues to be as low as $300 per years, that would give it an annual income of $450K. Out of that it would have to pay for staff, an office, and all those services and perks you are asking for. I doubt it could actually do that.

  18. Ken, this argument comes up in a somewhat garbled form in the comments above; see the interchange between Evin Carvill-Ziemer, me, and Fred L. Hammond.

    Again, a comparison with the REA is instructive. Dues are a sliding scale, from about $40 to $105 — say the average is $50 a year. There are about 150 members. That money about pays for the journal. The salaries of the part time executive secretary, and very part time Web manager, come out of profits made from the annual conference, and fees from the REA gets from universities when its journal is accessed online. In other words, staff is funded from add-on services rather than from the core membership benefit. The UUMA has chosen to use a different funding model that makes members pay for staff up front, then members also pay extra for additional benefits.

  19. Thank you, Dan, for this thoughtful post. I am left feeling ver conflicted. I am a current DRE at a large church and about to finish my final year of seminary. I do want to ultimately serve as a parish minister but have always been clear that my work as a DRE has been integral to my call to ministry and shaped my formation deeply. I do not want to let those deep ties and understandings dissolve. I hope to keep my membership in LREDA and the UUMA but I often fear I will not be able to afford UUMA dues once I am fellowshipped. You also bring up important concerns about the lack of attention toward our ministry with children & youth…it concerns me too. I read your blog often and feel like you are one of the trusted experts I turn to. Thank you for your work, I hope we are able to meet sometime.

  20. Sara, “conflicted” is a good word. I think joining the UUMA was very good for me for my first few years in ministry — it allowed me to attend chapter meetings where I could meet lots of other ministers, and that was very helpful.

    By the way, I think you will find that many search committees really like parish ministers who are comfortable with children and youth!

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