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MidAmerica UUA Region: Consider Our Future Together

Why are you writing this blog?

The boards of the Prairie Star, Heartland, and Central Midwest districts voted unanimously last Fall (2011) to propose to our districts that we move from district governance to regional governance. We will discuss this at our District Assemblies this Spring (2012). We will vote at the DAs of 2013.

We advise congregations to prepare their congregations for important decisions by communicating proactively and encouraging full discussion. The staff of the region, with invited guest bloggers including our district presidents, aim to do this with this blog. We need your wisdom to create our future together.

This is more than a conversation about district and regional structures. We are all learning to minister in a very different emerging world. We need to figure out how to do this together. We invite you into a conversation about these things.

Rev. Lisa PresleyAt a Spring 2012 Heartland District Ministers’ Chapter meeting, once again I presented information about the planned move from District-based service delivery and governance to Regional-based models. I’ve been talking with the ministers and religious education professionals about this for the past 18 months, and once again I asked “What are your questions?” One of the ministers sent me four specific questions. I’ve addressed each of them in a separate blog entry.

Here’s the fourth one: Is there a regional presence regarding justice, support of other non-congregational UU institutions in the region, state legislatures, embodied by . . . ?

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In the past few years, we’ve noticed a new staff position in some of our growing mid-size and larger UU congregations in Prairie Star District. Known as the Director of Congregational Life, the position is that of a “generalist” – taking responsibility for a variety of aspects that support vitality in congregational life – areas such as Sunday morning hospitality, newcomers’ classes, new member integration, member retention, community-building events and activities, and small groups. Oversight of leadership development and faith formation may also be part of the job description. These people serve as important connection points for visitors and newcomers with other staff and programs. They are enthusiastic about meeting people and helping them to find places in our congregations.

loriemisonclair-croppedLori Emison Clair, DCL at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, IA

In some of our congregations, the person doing the work of the Director of Congregational Life was formerly a Director of Religious Education. In others, this position grew from a part time Membership Director position.

Here’s a description of the responsibilities of the Director of Congregational Life in one of our midsize congregations:  Manage or direct Congregational Life Programming, including Religious Education for Children, Youth, and Adults, new member development and integration, small group ministry, fellowship and social justice programs. Supervise Religious Education staff; collaborate with church leaders and committees. Recruit, train, and support volunteers in shared ministry. Takes part in ongoing professional development.

In our larger congregations, the Director of Congregational Life may or may not be part of the senior management team, serving alongside the Minister/s and the Director of Finance and Administration. Senior management team members are able to hold an overview of the whole life of the congregation, and they help to connect the more specific program work of those they supervise into the larger whole. They may have several program-level specialists reporting to them, but they hold the larger picture and help to integrate the programs into the larger whole.

In an important way, Directors of Congregational Life are weaving together the pieces of the congregation, creating a network of connections for newcomers and members.

The congregations who currently have Directors of Congregational Life are First Unitarian Church of Des Moines IA; First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, MN; Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park KS; Unity Church Unitarian in Saint Paul, MN; and White Bear UU Church of Mahtomedi, MN.

Rev. Lisa PresleyAt a Spring 2012 Heartland District Ministers’ Chapter meeting, once again I presented information about the planned move from District-based service delivery and governance to Regional-based models. I’ve been talking with the ministers and religious education professionals about this for the past 18 months, and once again I asked “What are your questions?” One of the ministers sent me four specific questions. I’ll be addressing each of them in a separate blog entry.

Here’s the third one: What is the responsibility for “territory” e.g. regional staff serves region? What of traditional/untraditional extension work, is the region, or the UUA, or a congregation, or no one responsible?

Here’s the heart of the answer: It’s complex. I read in this question the desire for someone to be responsible for helping with the growth of congregations, and of new congregations, and wondering where that is located.  Right now, the District/Regional Staff are responsible for growing Unitarian Universalism and growing healthy/healthier congregations in the geographic land mass that is currently the Central MidWest, Heartland and Prairie Star districts. We do this by providing webinars and workshops, in coaching and teaching, and helping folks realize what’s necessary for the future, and we will continue to do that. We know that Unitarian Universalism is a message that people need, and we get pretty darn evangelical about that, and that belief and approach won’t change moving forward into regional structure.

The problem is that with all our experiments in ministry and starting congregations over the past 30 or so years, the “success” rate in doing that (with some notable exceptions!) has not been very great. Most of the extension congregations or new starts have leveled out in the small to small-midsize congregations, most of them at or well below 150 members. One congregation in Heartland is under 100 members now, despite somewhere between $70-100,000 being “invested” in its new start. Many of the former extension or new start congregations have hit a wall when the funding was reduced/eliminated, or when they got to the point of needing their own space in size, but not having the critical mass of numbers to be able to afford a building, or a building and a minister.

We have not figured out how to do this well, or what will catch fire. And at the same time, there are new developments happening where we hope to make a difference. There is a new UUA Growth Office, and they are looking at what is working, and will be looking to partner with districts and regions. And here in MidAmerica, we’re working with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) to see how we can partner with the smallest of our groups—those who are already affiliated, and those who may never amass the numbers required for congregational affiliation, but who share our UU theology.

We’re also looking to see how the Congregations and Beyond emphasis that is designed to connect with the thousands of people who claim they are UUs but who don’t come to church can help us foster healthy UU communities here in the region. How can we help our congregations reach out to and connect to these folks, provide mutual support and understanding, and help congregations lower their walls? How can we connect with the folks who grew up UU but don’t come to church? All good questions, and frankly, there isn’t much funding at either the national or district/regional level to do this work. But again, here in MidAmerica, we understand how to connect with folks with our Midwestern approach to live. Growth is about congregations understanding what it means to be hospitable, and how to lower those walls, how to reach out to the community, and we believe that we understand how to help MidAmerica congregations that want to do this work learn how to do it. Phil Lund, one of our MA staff currently in Prairie Star, is considered one of our national experts in this work, and I’m excited we get to work together.

Rev. Lisa PresleyAt a Spring 2012 Heartland District Ministers’ Chapter meeting, once again I presented information about the planned move from District-based service delivery and governance to Regional-based models. I’ve been talking with the ministers and religious education professionals about this for the past 18 months, and once again I asked “What are your questions?” One of the ministers sent me four specific questions. I’ll be addressing each of them in a separate blog entry.

Here’s the second one: What role does a region play in the Ends of the UUA?

Here’s the heart of the answer: There are two aspects. From the service delivery side, the District/Regional staff (Ian, Nancy, Nancy, Dori, Phil and Lisa) are charged with fulfilling the Ends of the UUA—the difference that the UUA hopes to make in the world. One of the delights is that when all three District Boards (Central MidWest, Heartland and Prairie Star) reviewed the UUA Ends in the fall of 2011, they were pretty much seamless with the various ones the Districts had created. So it was easy for the Boards to say “make the District Ends the same as the UUA Ends.” That will continue in the future.

And then, there’s the governance side. For the governance side, I’ve discussed these issues with the Steering Committee (the three Districts’ presidents!), and they agree that this answer is at least a partial answer. They’re still working on the design of the new governance structure, and so some of this might change. They are still early in the design phase.

One of the possible outcomes of a downsized UUA Board (moving from representatives from each district to fewer at large elected members) is that the UUA Board may have a harder time being in touch with the congregations other than those in their immediate geography. For those who aren’t familiar with Policy Governance, the job of the UUA Board is to “link” with the “owners,” who are, in our case, our congregations and affiliated bodies. From this linkage, the UUA Board then determines the Ends, or the major goals/objectives that they charge the staff with accomplishing. Ends are often an articulation of what difference the work of the body should make, for whom, and at what cost.

As a result of the reduced size and changed nature of UUA Board composition, I believe they will be turning more and more to district/regional Boards to make the connections and provide feedback to the UUA Board. This feedback will in turn influence the Ends of the UUA. So I believe that the district/regional boards may take on an even greater role in helping the UUA Board know what’s happening “on the ground.” Will the Board have more input as a regional body than they would as a district body? Since the transition away from District Trustees on the UUA Board hasn’t happened it, we don’t know. However, the UUA Board has already formally partnered with District Presidents’ Association to collaborate on linkage, and I believe that would include Region Presidents, too. I believe that reliance on folks outside of the UUA Board will only increase as time goes on, if they want the linkage to be done well.

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