Thoughts about the UUA #8, Money

I’ll wrap up this series tighter than I like so I can move on.

I don’t like how the Unitarian Universalist Association spends money, and the common “that’s scarcity thinking” line reads as self-serving. I’ve been reading and thinking about the Effective Altruism movement, which advocates making change though the most effective and tested means. It’s not sentimental, nor should it be, if wasted time, money, patience and effort risks the lives of the world’s most poor. Even wasted on the merely good, when we can support the exceptionally good.

It’s as much an accident of the tax code as anything that lumps churches in with these charities, but since so much of American charitable giving goes into our churches and denominations, their work must be scrutinized. Not so far as saying no money for churches before the end of extreme global poverty, but that equation remains in the background. At least, is the money well spent? Does it set out to fulfill the church’s mission? How do you know? These are questions for each church, too, but the answers would be too variable to make judgments here. (I also avoid meddling in the internal matters of churches.)

The problem with the Unitarian Universalist Association is that so much of its work today is focused on itself. As if the UUA is its own problem — and cure. The old liberal slogans are gone, the ones that pressed us to “the vital issues of the day”; the ones about religious liberty, international peace, even spiritual growth. So much of the external good work would happen without us, if ever so slightly smaller. If you read the board of trustee’s minutes and packets, you end up feeling like the UUA is itself a special and profound seat of sin. Why, then, give it money?

But my beef is the services that are gone. It will be fascinating to see if the five regions can do what the many districts once did, or were supposed to have done. Church planting was relegated to the districts and the pipeline of new churches has dried up. There has been no new church join the UUA in two years despite it being one of the primary purposes (as in Principles and Purposes) of the UUA. (See below.) No extension ministry program. No new hymnal in horizon. No national youth and young adult program.

Lacking competition and having the donors, the UUA has lost its way as a service provider. Unless it finds its way back, it can do without our money. Money and effort that can be applied to find an alternative.

From the UUA Bylaws, Section C-2-2 “The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.”

5 Replies to “Thoughts about the UUA #8, Money”

  1. When I got to seminary I was asked to describe myself in a sentence or two:. “My name is Michael F. Hall, I am an evangelical Unitarian Universalist and I want to start a megachurch because we need a few more megaphones. I came to Unitarian Universalism as an adult not thinking there was anything for me in organized religion. Then I read the Principles and Source on a poster, and that led me to change my mind. Scott, there is a lot of meat on the bone here, as in the previous post in this series, much truth and light. Thank you.

  2. At some point UUA lost focus on its primary purpose which you’ve thankfully cited since I suspect many have forgotten. UUA toyed with becoming a Movement modeled after Sojourners but could never figure out how to implement that within the UUA framework. I believe the shift towards Movement rather than serving Churches contributed to the loss of mission.

    One only need read the April UU World’s: “Lives are being destroyed” by white supremacy culture in Unitarian Universalist communities, trustees say; board will address congregations this month.” to appreciate your comment, “If you read the board of trustee’s minutes and packets, you end up feeling like the UUA is itself a special and profound seat of sin. Why, then, give it money?”

    UUA’s old as denominational bodies go. Money is indeed at the root of its problems and it won’t solve the money problem until it can focus on what’s its purpose because few will want to contribute to this mess.

    Thanks again for your analysis. You’re one of the few UUs I read thinking clearly about what’s happening.

  3. I’m going to predict that the newer and larger regions will not do more than what the old districts got done. A huge criticism I’ve had of the drive to merge districts into larger consolidated regions, is that we’ve promised too much regarding what the regions will produce: church planting, local congregational growth, new and innovative programs (service, youth, RE, etc.). What the regions have largely done is to preserve district staff, and to move them around (like deck chairs moving moved around on a floundering ship). Which is a disappointment, when the establishment of these regions was supposed to bring about a new and more vibrant era. But I don’t really see more outward ministry being conducted than I saw before.

  4. When I look at the numerical data, I believe the decline in the UUA began in 2005, the first year we saw a decline in nationwide Sunday school enrollment since c. 1980. This was before regionalization started, so I tend to believe regionalization is a symptom rather than a cause of the current decline.

    Very early in the UUA budget cuts of the early 2000s, I noticed big cuts being threatened to, then carried out on, children and youth ministries. To me, these cuts were significant because I’d argue that during the last century or so, Sunday school and youth ministries have been our most important evangelical efforts. These cuts, in other words, de-funded our biggest evangelical effort. Using your term, Scott, these cuts went directly against the principles of effective altruism.

    The decline in interest in UU ministry to children and youth is a complex phenomenon. Among other causes, this decline is related to something you mention in this post: so much of the work of the UUA is focused on itself, on what I’d call institutional maintenance instead of institutional outreach.

    But we can also challenge the UUA on its own terms. While the institution that is the UUA states its goal of becoming more racially diverse, a primary mechanism for doing that should be to reach out to the current generation of children and youth, a generation that is now white-minority. However, I see great institutional ambivalence towards providing adequate funding to children and youth ministries. In short, the UUA wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to have racial diversity while at the same time inadequately funding outreach to the most racially diverse generation ever.

    But there’s a deeper malaise here: a deep reluctance to engage in evangelism or outreach of any kind, under any name. This is tied to a serious lack of vision, a lack of understanding of Unitarian Universalism’s saving message to the world. There are many fine people working in and volunteering for the UUA who believe passionately in spreading the good news about UUism, but they are trapped in a systemic problem: institutional maintenance, not institutional change and outreach, has become the name of the game.

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