I need to whine and complain about one of my professional associations, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA). Not everyone likes to read whining, complaining posts; therefore I’m warning you right at the beginning so you can skip this post if you want.
To begin my whining and complaining, let me start by describing the recent changes in the UUMA. Up until a couple of years ago, the UUMA had one employee, an administrator, but everything else was done by volunteers. The national Executive Committee of the UUMA decided running the organization was too much work for volunteers to manage. And they had ambitions for the UUMA: they wanted to provide more services for members. The Executive Committee brought a proposal to the annual membership meeting: UUMA dues would rise from a couple hundred dollars to one percent of a member’s gross annual salary, and the UUMA would hire an executive director.
Now, perhaps half of all UUMA members attend the annual membership meeting in any given year. The annual meeting takes place in the days before General Assembly; attending General Assembly is expensive, and adding on two days beforehand is more expensive. Thus those who attend the UUMA annual meeting tend to be the ministers who have good salaries and ample money for professional expenses. Not surprisingly, the members who attended the UUMA annual meeting voted to support the increased dues: they’re the ones who could best afford it.
At the time this vote took place, I was serving a small congregation and getting paid at a rate lower than the UUA’s recommended salary guidelines. But I was receiving a good deal of benefit from the UUMA — my local chapter of the UUMA was a supportive community, I was receiving support from one of the chapter’s Good Offices Persons, and the national UUMA sent out an excellent newsletter that contained useful information. I wasn’t too concerned that I couldn’t afford to attend the annual meeting to vote on this issue. While I was wary of the huge increase in dues, I felt more or less supportive.
I no longer feel so supportive. My dues have gone up enormously, as expected, but I have come to realize that I am getting no additional benefit. My local chapter still provides excellent services to me — but I pay separate dues to my local chapter, and my local chapter doesn’t receive financial support from the national body because we meet in a location that is not handicapped accessible (which is reasonable, and we are currently working on finding an accessible site). The national UUMA has begun to offer an annual continuing education conference — but it costs more to attend than I can afford (especially now that my UUMA dues have gone up so much), and the quality of the courses is lower than what I could get through a local seminary, or by attending an intensive class offered by a distant seminary, or by taking an online class. The national UUMA offers a “coaching service,” for which they have trained a small group of ministers to coach other ministers — but there’s a fee for that too, and besides I already work with a professional coach, and I get valuable informal coaching through my local chapter. The national UUMA offers various Web services to members — but their Web services are of poorer quality than I get for free through Google Docs, Skype, Dropbox, etc. The national UUMA still sends out an email newsletter — but it’s of lower quality, with less useful information, than was true in the past. And finally, whenever I look over programs the national UUMA offers, they offer a lot of support to parish ministers who work solely with adults — but they almost never have anything to offer those of use who have ministries with children and youth, or religious education ministries.
In short, I feel like I’m paying lots of dues to subsidize services that cost more and either don’t serve me, or are less effective than services I already get elsewhere. Worse yet, it feels like the services I’m subsidizing are aimed primarily at the ministers who receive good salaries and have ample money for professional expenses and can afford to pay for extra services above and beyond their UUMA dues. As a side issue, I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that the executive director hired by the Board (they’re now a Board, not an Executive Committee) was a member of the Executive Committee when this change was made. While I am convinced that the entire decision-making process was well-intended and ethical, I am also convinced that those who made the decisions had some big blind spots: they were simply unaware that they were setting up a costly system that primarily supports their circle of insiders, but which provides little to people like me, even though I have to pay more to subsidize the system.
I can’t help contrasting the national UUMA with two other professional organizations to which I belong:
(1) The Religious Education Association (REA), an international and interfaith organization of scholars and practitioners, charges me 70 USD per year. For that, I get a subscription to a highly regarded academic journal. The annual conference is mostly self-supporting, i.e., my dues don’t help pay for the conference; if I want to attend I pay separately; if I can’t afford to attend at least my dues don’t subsidize people who have more money than I. And when I do go to the conference, I get to meet top scholars in the field — at the last conference, I ate dinner with Gabriel Moran! I stood next to Thomas Groome at a social event! — and I get to hear cutting-edge research that pertains directly to my ministry. Compared to the national UUMA, my base dues are a tenth of what I pay the national UUMA; beyond those base dues I only pay for the services I actually use; the services I receive are relevant to my ministry and are of far higher quality than UUMA services.
(2) The Freelancer’s Union (FU) is an organization that advocates for freelance workers and provides services to them. Ministers are natural allies of freelancers. The Internal Revenue Service considers ministers self-employed for some purposes, and employees for other purposes. And practically speaking, ministers face many of the same problems that freelancers do: we may not have access to employer health care, when our employers stiff us of money owed to us (which has happened to me) we have little or no recourse, etc. Joining the Freelancer’s Union was a natural step for me to take. They have an excellent and informative newsletter. And it costs me nothing, because the Freelancer’s Union supports itself entirely through the fees it gets for direct services it supplies (e.g., you can buy health insurance through them in several states). With the FU, I get more than I pay for!
And I can’t help contrasting the national UUMA with my local chapter of the UUMA. I pay 60 USD a year to my local chapter. For that, I get access to “Good Offices” services; a “Good Offices Person” is another minister who will come and serve as my representative should I ever have problems with my employer, or who can provide advice and counsel should I find myself in a sticky situation, or who can some provide conflict management services as needed (and my dues help pay their travel and incidental costs when they provide these services). My dues also provide scholarship money to retired ministers, low-paid ministers, and students, so they can attend our biannual retreats and the annual continuing education workshop. All retreats and continuing education programs are self-supporting, so if I don’t (or can’t) attend, it doesn’t cost me anything.
It’s actually kind of depressing for me to compare my local chapter and the REA and the FU — great services for little money, and I mostly pay only for services I actually use — with the national UUMA — second-rate services for a great deal of money, and I have to pay for services I can’t afford to use.
By now, you’re probably wondering why I don’t just drop my membership in the national UUMA. Unfortunately, if I drop my national membership I can no longer belong to my local chapter (even though my local chapter gets no financial support from the national UUMA). And there is subtle but powerful pressure on Unitarian Universalist ministers to maintain their UUMA membership: UUA staffers look askance at you when you suggest that you might not want to maintain your UUMA membership; many local congregations want their ministers to be members.
And you may be wondering why I don’t offer my critiques directly to the national UUMA. Well, the few times I’ve tried it, it felt like I was wasting my time and their time. The Board members are all good people, but but why should they want to hear my whining and complaining? Once when I offered a criticism of the national UUMA, a member of the leadership offered to call me and talk over my criticism, but they were too busy to ever schedule a call with me. A couple of other times, national UUMA leaders listened respectfully for a short time, then rightly said that they were committed to the leadership’s current direction. UUMA national leadership has to deal with over a thousand members. And as both an associate minister and a non-parish minister, I am not part of their core constituency. The national leadership has already given me more time than I deserve.
So rather than waste everyone else’s time, I decided to whine and complain in this blog post and waste your time. Bless your heart if you’ve read this far! I feel better already, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest. I guess I feel enough better that, even though it means I won’t be able to afford to attend the REA annual conference this year, I’ll pay up when my UUMA dues come due again this fall.