The work of the past year of leadership has been to guide our congregations through the deepest part of an exceptionally deep recession. This has been very hard. In some places the stress of this has caused conflict or has brought conflict to the surface. In some places it has forced tough choices about reducing compensation or giving furloughs. In some places it has pushed congregations to take what have felt like tough steps backward: eliminating staff positions, moving from two services to one, or deciding to move from full-time ministry to part-time ministry or to without a minister entirely. These overall trends were reflected in the drop in our district membership growth to the smallest rate in a long time (from a typical average of 2% to under 1%).
Yet to say that this has been a tough time or an anxious time, does not mean it has been a bad time. Indeed, it has been one of the most interesting times for leadership that either of us has seen during our careers. Congregations are asking tough questions about their spending. Hard as this may be, this is forcing reinvention. Congregations are retooling themselves to think of sustainability in growth as in energy use—and this is a good thing. Some congregations are thriving against all expectation. Five congregations added more than 20 people in the last year and five grew more than 10%. Some that did not grow in numbers achieved amazing things. Most probably remember how Obama made Elkhart, Indiana, into the symbol for the recession. Against all probability the UU congregation in Elkhart has raised money to extend its building and construction began this winter. We sincerely hope that this will be the one of a number of building projects to commence as reduced construction costs meet the increasing hopefulness as we move out of the recession. This could include both Mukwonago, WI, and Naperville, IL.
On a regional basis, our partnership with neighboring districts Prairie Star and Heartland continues to flourish and grow. We’ve continued and are expanding our online offerings of webinars on a wide variety of subjects of interests to our congregations. In a number of congregations, a group assembles to participate in the webinars, and we hear from them that much good conversation and planning results from these efforts. This is very gratifying.
Our regional also started our first Youth Leadership School this past summer. We held this in conjunction with the long-running Midwest Leadership School (for adults), held in July at Beloit College. 22 youth from congregations across our three districts participated. It was a great experience for all of us! We have been especially pleased to see that many of the youth who attended are now involved in their home congregations, serving on committees, starting new multigenerational activities and inspiring their peers to be more involved. Planning is well underway for the upcoming Leadership Schools, and we expect that the Youth School will be a great new tradition.
As you all know by now, a new president of the UUA was elected last June. Peter Morales was elected as someone to bring change and growth to Unitarian Universalism. What this has meant for us as district staff is examining our role in the growth of UUism, and where we prioritize our resources of time, energy and money. Here in CMwD, we have built a strong partnership with our growing congregations. They are already actively engaged in various helping other congregations with many aspects of congregational life, such as planning, governance, faith development, youth and young adult ministries – to name just a few.
We feel strongly supported by our new president’s administration in continuing to focus our energy on supporting growing congregations of all sizes. We find a huge generosity of spirit among the leaders of these growing congregations. They are excited to share what they are learning with others to grow and strengthen Unitarian Universalism.
Another part of this focus on growth includes experimentation. It is good to know that there is support for trying new things – as we all know, trying new things can be risky, but if we never risk, we may lose many opportunities. So, where we can encourage congregations in trying new things, we will offer whatever resources and research to help them have the best chance of success. An example of this is our winter Chalice Lighter grant, which will be given to Dupage UU Church in Naperville, IL. They are expanding their advertising and outreach in a variety of new media and we will be excited to hear about their experiences.
Lastly, we would like to discuss district finances. Along with our district board, almost 2 years ago, we planned for and announced an increase in our district contribution level per member, which was to have gone into effect on July 1, 2009. We had also planned for another increase for this coming fiscal year beginning July, 2010. This was after at least 5 years of no increases.
Due to the economy, we did not institute last year’s increase and we are not going to increase the contribution level for this coming year, either. What this means is that your district staff is providing more services for less money than we had 7 years ago (given the decrease in contributions we have experienced this past year). We feel good that we have been able to continue a strong level of service, largely because of increased use of technology. We have achieved huge efficiencies by creating a virtual work environment and letting go our lease on our physical office space. We have achieved even more efficiencies by eliminating the paper-focus to our work. However, this work of reinvention itself needs support and asks more of our paid staff and volunteers. We have reached the point where staff furloughs of one week each next year will be necessary.
In lieu of asking for an increase, we are hoping that ALL of our congregations can get closer to their fare share contribution level to both the UUA and our Central Midwest District. We are truly appreciative of those congregations that already are fair share. If we can get a greater percentage of fair share contributions to our district and also to the UUA’s Annual Program Fund – for which we receive a bonus based on the percentage rate – we feel that we can continue to offer a high level of service and continue our reinvention work without raising the fair share level. So, anything you can do to help your congregation achieve fair share status will make a big difference for the district.
In closing, we want to offer our thanks to all of you who make our work deeply rewarding.