Conrad Wright is dead

Conrad Wright died Thursday. Here’s the obituary on the Harvard Divinity School Web siteand here is the obituary on the Boston Globe Web site. (Thanks to Bill for this.)

Wright was a towering figure in Unitarian history scholarship. His book-length history, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, and his essays, many of which are collected in The Unitarian Controversy: Essays in American Unitarian History, have not been surpassed. Later generations of historians have offered minor corrections to his narrative, by e.g. filling in more details on early Unitarian history outside New England, but we pretty much still accept his basic narrative as the default.

In 1998 Wright published a study of Unitarian Universalist polity, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches, which collects some of his earlier writings on Unitarian history and adds material about Universalist polity. Unlike his work on Unitarian history, his work on Unitarian Universalist polity is somewhat problematic, particularly in the lack of in-depth treatment of Universalist polity, and in the way it does not place enough emphasis on how Unitarian Universalism has been affected by Universalist polity. Nevertheless, Walking Together is an essential book for anyone involved in or interested in the issues facing congregational polity.

But the reason Wright stands as one of my heroes has nothing to do with his scholarship. He’s one of my heroes because of (to use a now outdated word) his “churchmanship.” Wright was a long-time lay leader of First Parish of Cambridge. When I was involved in young adult activities in the Boston area some fifteen years ago (back when I still was a young adult), I got to know several young adults who were members of the Cambridge congregation, and they spoke of Wright with a certain amount of awe. In addition to serving his local congregation, he also used his talents in service of the denomination; it seemed to me that he was always a part of any denominational effort that reviewed our polity.

Wright was someone who cared deeply about the institutional health of Unitarian Universalism, and used his considerable intellect and talents to strengthen our institutions. We have lost one of our Titans.

According to the Globe obit, services will be private. I imagine that Harvard Divinity School will have some kind of memorial service in his honor. I hope that there will be a more public forum within Unitarian Universalism to recognize Wright’s contributions, perhaps at General Assembly.

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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.