The Orlando Platform

This morning, I was chatting on the phone with Paul Boothby, Unitarian Universalist minister in Lynchburg, Virginia, and I gave him a quick sketch of what’s been going on here in the Pacific Central District. Paul asked if I had read the Orlando Platform yet. I hadn’t, and didn’t know what it was. He told me that the four districts in the southeastern United States got together to talk about how congregations could work together better, hold each other mutually accountable to the mission and goals of the association of Unitarian Universalist congregations. “It’s not a perfect document,” he said, “but I think you’ll find it very thought-provoking.”

I’m reading it now, and I am finding that it’s provoking thought. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

Lines of communication, though not broken, need much improvement. District boards need to talk with and listen to our members, our congregations, our ministers, affiliated organizations, district and UUA staff, other district boards and the UUA Board of Trustees. Moreover, our members and member congregations need to talk and listen to each other, their district boards, district and UUA staff and the UUA Board of Trustees. We believe that these communication issues have led, in some part, to a breakdown of trust which needs to be healed so that collectively we can move forward, grow our impact in the global community and get on with the work of our faith: nurturing spirits and healing the world.

That sounds familiar! — it is certainly one of the key issues I have noticed here in Pacific Central District.

I’m still reading through the Orlando Platform, and would love to hear from anyone who has spent some time thinking about it. What do you feel are its strengths and weaknesses?

Please note that I’m in the middle of a major spam attack. I’m having to moderate every comment, and there are lots of spam comments. My apologies, but it may take 24 hours for your comment to appear.

Shake up in Pacific Central District

Yesterday, several lay leaders in the Palo Alto congregation received an email letter from the board of the Pacific Central District (PCD) stating that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had “unilaterally” decided to terminate the employment of the district executive, Cilla Raughley. Today, I received an email letter from the UUA’s Director for Congregational Life, Terasa Cooley, confirming that as of February 11, “Cilla Raughley will no longer be serving as District Executive in the Pacific Central District.”

Since this is a personnel matter, it should be obvious that the UUA is not going to divulge the particulars of why Raughley’s employment is being terminated — they will have both legal and ethical obligations to maintain confidentiality. The PCD board will also be required maintain confidentiality on the specifics of Raughley’s termination. So playing guessing games about “what really happened” is a waste of our time.

It is pretty clear from the two letters that the PCD Board and the UUA don’t see eye to eye on this matter. This is an inherent problem with the co-employment arrangement used with district executives — every district executive has two bosses, the district board and the UUA. From my perspective, I believe co-employment can work only if both co-employers communicate carefully about goals for the employee and ways to measure those goals; at a bare minimum, annual reviews by both co-employers are essential, along with a format for discussing discrepancies in the annual reviews, and a way for coming to agreement on new goals for the coming year — that’s at a bare minimum. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of intentional communication is not part of the co-employment process for districts and the UUA — which opens the door for the kind of disagreement we’re seeing between the PCD Board and the UUA.

I’m also seeing something else at work here. In general, it is difficult to hold districts (or the UUA) accountable to stated goals. This is a common problem in the nonprofit world. Unlike the for-profit world, where we can look at the bottom line to see if a company is doing well or poorly, it is difficult to come up with metrics that accurately measure performance of a nonprofit. This means that it’s hard to say whether a nonprofit is doing well, or poorly.

Even so, it is clear that the Pacific Central District is a declining district. In addition to the obvious decline in membership, my own feeling is that the level of services provided in the Pacific Central District is the lowest of any of the five districts I have worked in. How bad is the decline? Opinions differ. Is this the sole responsibility of the District Executive? In his book Good Boss, Bad Boss, organizational theorist Robert Sutton says that bosses account for about 15% of total organizational performance, or a greater percentage in small organizations. So clearly there’s more going on here than can be accounted for by one person’s performance. Yet as Sutton goes on to say, just as bosses get most of the credit when things go well, inevitably bosses wind up taking most of the blame when things go badly.

The real question facing us now is not whom to blame, but: What are we going to do about it? Pointing fingers of blame is a waste of everyone’s time, and I hope those who want to play that game have the grace either to stop, or to remove themselves from district activities. Instead, here’s what could be done to move in a positive direction:

  • All congregations in the district should engage in a period of reflection on the duties and the responsibilities (not just the rights) of congregational polity. Though it has many faults, Conrad Wright’s book Congregational Polity is one resource to use for this process. Ministers may wish to preach on this topic, and we ministers should make this a topic for our spring meeting.
  • Based on a renewed understanding of congregational polity, PCD ministers and lay leaders should give more time and attention to strengthening the entire district; this is especially true of our larger congregations, since small congregations are too often on the edge of disaster.
  • The entire Pacific Central District should establish achievable and measurable goals towards the district’s stated mission: “to provide services and resources to congregations that will grow the District in terms of its membership, the deepening of our faith, the effectiveness of our structures, and the power of our service to the wider world.”
  • Every district program should be re-thought in terms of these measurable goals, and programs that do not move us towards the district’s mission statement should be rebuilt, or eliminated.
  • PCD congregational ministers should spend some portion of their work weeks in service to the district, and congregational lay leaders need to make sure their ministers have the time to do this.
  • Congregational lay leaders should feel they too have a responsibility to serving the district, and even devote some of their precious volunteer hours to that end.
  • Before a new district executive is hired (or if one is hired; see below), the PCD Board and the UUA need to have careful and open conversations about terms of co-employment, perhaps including the establishment of a regular schedule of staff reviews and goal-setting.

Finally, I would not rule out the possibility of eliminating the Pacific Central District entirely. Given the level of dysfunction that seems to exist in this district, given that the districts to the north and south of us function better and offer more services for the same money, maybe it’s time to get rid of Pacific Central District. Personally, I’m all for being absorbed by Pacific Southwest District.

One final note: I’m going to moderate all comments. Comments that get into personalities or try to delve into personnel issues will not be approved. I will favor comments that focus on the bigger issues confronting the Pacific Central District, and the UUA more generally; e.g., the rights and responsibilities of congregational polity vis a vis the districts. And I’ll close comments on this post in a week or so. So please be nice, and please think hard and seriously about the relationship between congregational polity and the districts.

Playing the numbers game, pt. 2

Which is really the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation?

With the majority of congregations reporting membership and attendance figures, I looked at the online list of congregations to see which are the three largest congregations, measured in terms of average attendance (although Unitarian Universalists tend to measure size of congregation by number of certified members, experts on congregational growth at the Alban Institute recommend measuring average attendance).

Here are the top five congregations as measured by the size of their membership:

(1) First Unitarian Church (Portland, OR), 1068 average attendance, 1041 members.
(2) All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa, OK), 914 average attendance, 1900 members
(3) Unity Church Unitarian (Saint Paul, MN), 774 average attendance, 859 members
(4) First Unitarian Church (Rochester, NY), 687 average attendance, 955 members
(5) All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, DC), 646 average attendance, 878 members [corrected from original post]

Thus, by the standard definition of a mega church (average weekly attendance of over 2,000), there are no Unitarian Universalist congregations that even come close to mega-church size. Just to remind you, there have been Unitarian megachurches in the past — the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society in Boston in the 1850s, Theodore Parker, minister (possibly the first megachurch anywhere); the Liberal Religious Fellowship in Prague in the 1930s, Norbert Capek, minister; People’s Church in Chicago in the 1920s, Preston Bradley, minister.

For the record, here are the top five Unitarian Universalist congregations in terms of membership (note that two of these congregations have not reported average attendance, which I find very curious):

(1) All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa, OK), 1900 members, 914 average attendance
(2) Unitarian Church of All Souls (New York, NY), 1529 members, no reported average attendance
(3) First Unitarian Society (Madison, WI), 1463 members, no reported average attendance
(4) The First Unitarian Church of Dallas (Dallas, TX), 1097 members, 457 average attendance
(5) First Unitarian Church (Portland, OR), 1041 members, 1068 average attendance

A list of Bay Area congregations, listed in order of average attendance, appears after the jump. Continue reading “Playing the numbers game, pt. 2”

Playing the numbers game

The deadline for congregations to certify with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is February 1. As they submit their certification data, the numbers appear on the following UUA Web page: List of Congregations That Submitted Membership Numbers. Some of us — those of us who are fascinated by numbers and hard data — think it is entertaining to watch this Web site, so we can see which congregations have moved up in membership and attendance this past year, and which have moved down.

It’s also fun to calculate average attendance as a percentage of membership; a quick scan of the larger congregations show percentages as low as 34% (West Shore, Cleveland) and as high as 95% (Vancouver, Wash.) — my own congregation here in Palo Alto stands at 71%. I’ve always felt most comfortable serving congregations where average attendance is a high percentage of membership, because I like to imagine that means members are more engaged and that perhaps the congregation is growing or ready to grow, but the reality is that membership numbers often have little relation to the actual size of the congregation. The other reality is that all too often congregational leaders play fast and loose with attendance figures, leaving out low attendance months, or simply guessing at attendance (and I’m betting they generally guess high).

Whatever. It’s still fun to watch the figures come in, and play around with them.