Making sense of the last UUA Board meeting

The news about the recent Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees meeting, in UUWorld online magazine (“Consultant to aid impasse between UUA board, administration“) deserves plenty of attention. And you are welcome to leave comments here.

I’m left wondering if the board is micromanaging, if the higher reaches of the management team is incompetent, or (what I think the real issue is) that the Association is governed by a corporate management style that is unsuitable to our policy, tradition and culture. And perhaps even good sense: if you’re given to self-punishment let me recommend you read the Board packets from the last several years. It’s impossible to think anyone not on the Board would have the time or stamina to be able to follow the process, and its product looks more like generating more process than say, new congregations, building loans, print or online publications, a new hymnal, religion education materials, etc. etc. etc. And need I remind anyone that the President is as much an elected official as the Moderator?

Performance metrics, however well-loved in the nonprofit sector today, can lead staff to “work to the test” and (at their worst) can become a kind of performance art which steer the work of the Association staff away from practical work.

Unlike Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, I think the $100,000 the board reserved for a consultant is a valid point of discussion. (I agree about the high dudgeon, though.) $100,000 is unlikely to go very far in the world of organizational management consulting; and perhaps no do more than a few elections to change the dynamics in the board and administration. Do the remaining staff members, already with constrained budgets, wonder how seriously their work is taken? If I was one of the ten staff members who lost their jobs in the last round of layoffs the idea, that $100,000 worth of consulting would be a bitter bit of news. Congregational leaders, themselves under tight budgets, are asked to make the “fair share” to the Annual Program Fund, and I would wonder if it was being well used.

In short, the UUA acts like the kind of legacy organization or corporation that persons my age and younger than I mock. (TPS reports anyone?) Losing the old headquarters building and the new regional structure — belt-tightening dressed as progress — will lessen long-cultivated emotional warmth to the UUA. This latest performance will convince “the next generation” (younger than me) that the best place to lead, to serve and to share resource may well be some place different than the current structures of the Unitarian Universalist Association. If you don’t like what you see, vote with your feet and support new ways.

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

10 thoughts on “Making sense of the last UUA Board meeting

  1. The reason why I say I am not bothered by the $100K is not that I don’t think it is a lot of money. It is, although not as much as is needed to get an extensive consultation. I just don’t want to give the impression that I am in high dudgeon because I am cheap, or some kind of populist yahoo. Even if it was free, hiring a outside consultant to do the work of religious leadership — inspiring people to a common and dynamic sense of mission and getting the work done — is a mistake.

  2. That’s fair, and perhaps we’re taking two tacks around the same lake. I don’t mind looking cheap when people are being laid-off. And I also don’t mind a consultant when an organization needs help, but the work of the Board seems to be work itself. Organizational management of this kind has its own predictable outcomes — that is, demanding outcomes of others — which has the appearance of progress and best practices. It looks like a too-large group of people (board cuts anyone? ah, yes) fighting over a shrinking pool of authority. We can let them: not only can we put our resources into new systems, but we escape the same fight for attention, validation and control. Or the delegates demand accountability at General Assembly: unlikely.

  3. Amos 5:21-24 (MSG)
    “I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
    I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
    I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
    I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
    Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
    I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

  4. As a side issue to the discussion thus far, I wonder how much of the problem has been the attempted reliance on Carver Model Policy Governance? In some circles to question its appropriateness for the UUA is treated as blasphemy. But in this case it seems to be promoting discord, or at least is serving as a catalyst for much deeper problems in our shared sense of ministry.

  5. As I said at Tom Schade’s blog, I think the Carver model is often problematic for non-profit organizations, as it really is designed based on the corporate world in which the only real goal is profits and that goal is easy to quantify.

    I think this is actually a case which illustrates the problem. I find it difficult to believe that the REAL issue here is that the UUA administration has not submitted proper quantitative progress reports on goals to the Board. I suspect the real issue here is some substantive disagreement over goals between the Board and the Administration. I have no idea what the disagreement is. Does anyone know what is really going on? I suspect that the Carver model has led to the real disagreement being expressed as a conflict over reporting requirements. This confuses things and wastes time.

  6. @ Kathleen – I wasn’t able to make the link work.

    @ Everybody Else – The rigidity of the Carver model has been one of my concerns. I’ve had the experience at the District level of questioning if the Carver method is working. The response I’ve gotten from the Carver Disciples has been, “If the model has failed it is not that there is a problem with the model, but that policy governance was not precisely adhered to.” In other words the system has no flaws, and if it fails it is because you didn’t use the system correctly. If we don’t welcome this kind of absolutism in theology, why would we trust it in terms of organizing religious community?

  7. I had a poor experience with the Carver model at the district level. Staff used it as a way to exclude input and involvement by volunteers. I ended up resigning my chairmanship of a district committee; let the staff do it their way without me. I also had a prior experience with a DE who wasn’t quite as evangilisttic about Carver- but her successor had to toe it to the nth degree, and to me it didn’t work. I understand pros and cons of it, but like any system, flexibility is key.

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