The Joseph Priestley District and the Future


The Joseph Priestley District and the Future

            Several people have asked me to reflect upon the many changes that are happening both within the Joseph Priestley District as well as the larger UU world of which we are a part.  As I head toward retirement in less than five months, I know that I will not be a part of those changes if or when they occur.  But having been involved in the discussions around these changes, I have a deep understanding of what might occur as the future unfolds.  I will address them in five broad areas.

 Regions and Districts

            The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Administration has designated five groupings of congregations called Regions.  The five regions encompass the boundaries of existing districts.  To see a map of the five regions go to  The Joseph Priestley District (JPD) has been working within the Central East Regional Group (CERG) in a voluntary cooperative to share staff and resources for the past several years.  The four districts in CERG along with the UUA jointly fund three regional staff in growth, lifespan faith development, and leadership development as well as a part time communications consultant. 

            The four districts (JPD, Metro New York, St. Lawrence, and Ohio-Meadville) through their boards have been discussing what the future might be for this region.  There are several task forces exploring all aspects of the regional cooperation and a master plan for moving forward will take shape within the next year.  There may be a recommendation to merge all four districts into a single region similar to what happened in the Mid-America Region last year where Heartland, Central Mid-West, and Prairie Star Districts voted to dissolve and form one large region with a regional board. 

            If merger doesn’t happen, there may be other newer configurations such as the merger of districts or other collaborative solutions which haven’t been discussed.  Any plan for abolishing the districts will have to be voted on by the member congregations at an annual meeting in each district.  Any such consideration is at least one year away at the earliest.  The four boards may also find that keeping the districts and adding a regional board might make sense.


            This leads to a discussion of what form of governance will be used within any regional formation.  Currently, the CERG steering committee is made up of the four district presidents along with Rev. Scott Tayler, Director for Congregational Life.  Right now CERG is a cooperative agreement between the four districts.  The four boards have met together once a year for the past three years as the discussion of a region has evolved.  They have voted on a process for reaching a decision and are in the midst of that process now. 

            There are at least three possible ways that regional governance could occur.  The creation of a regional board with representatives from the existing districts would manage regional operations, finance, and staff.  They could receive mandates from the four districts on how to govern appropriately.  This would create a new level of governance with a wider view than a district. 

Another approach would be for the four districts to give up governance completely and use the UUA Board as the governing body for the region.  This has occurred in the Southern Region where they are functioning as “Elders” and not board members. 

The third governance possibility is to create a regional board elected by a regional assembly with governing responsibility for staff, finances, and overall fiduciary responsibility.  The Mid-America Region has chosen this model for their use.   See  for how this works.

See for a fuller description of regionalization in a report to the UUA Board.


            Currently, there are two streams of contributions that finance most districts.  The congregations give directly to a district for support and also give funds to the UUA.  A portion of the Annual Program Fund (APF) is returned to districts in the form of a grant based upon how successful districts were in encouraging congregations to be full fair share to the UUA.  Each district then decided how it would allocate those grants and contributions in serving the congregations within its boundaries. 

            The Southern Region is experimenting with a new way of funding the UUA and the region.  It is called GIFT – Generously Investing for Tomorrow and it asks congregations to contribute a percentage of their budget to the UUA and the UUA in turn sends a grant to the region for its use.  The amount asked for will be on a percentage of the congregations certified expenditures, rather than on membership totals.  This means that the percentage allocated to GIFT remains constant; the total amount of funds allocated will go up or down as the total expenditures of the congregation goes up or down.  See  for additional information on how this works including a PowerPoint.  There is a possibility that this will be rolled out nationally in 2015 or 2016.  A portion of what is collected by the UUA is sent back to the region on a quarterly basis in a formula in development.

            One other possibility exists in a regional structure.  The funding stream could flow to the region and the region then send a portion of funds on to the UUA under a mutually agreed formula.  There has been no discussion of this methodology to date beyond mentioning it. 

            CERG is funded through an appropriation from each district based upon membership.  As the largest district with just under 15,000 adults, the JPD provides over 40% of the funds to support the shared specialty staff.  Each district also contributes to pay one fourth of the cost for a communications staff member who is ¼ time with CERG. This staff person is also ¾ time with OMD.  The UUA also contributes about ¼ of the total for staff costs.  An additional amount is contributed for funding quarterly meetings of the CERG staff.  In Fiscal Year 2014-15, the budgeted amount for all CERG related expenses is projected to be $98,000 or 15.4% of the JPD budget. 


            Currently, the District Executive of the JPD is co-employed between the JPD and the UUA with each contributing a portion of the funds for the salary and benefits of the position.  The present board is seeking a new DE under the same employment arrangement after I retire at the end of July.  The UUA has created a Regional Lead position to supervise all other UUA staff whether co-employed or not in districts.  At present, there are seven UUA employees in the region.  Each district had a staff person called a District Executive and there were three regional staff. 

            Each district board is deciding on whether to end co-employment or not.  Those who do are changing the name of the district executive to congregational consultant.   The former District Executive reports to a Regional Lead who is the supervisor of all UUA staff in the region. 

            In addition, CERG has three specialist consultants in the areas of growth, lifespan faith development, and leadership development.  The CERG communications person is ¼ with CERG and ¾ with OMD. 

            Each district also employs various people to provide additional services such as fund development, stewardship, youth and young adults, racial and social justice, adjunct staff direction, and administration.  Under one possibility, all currently district only staff might be absorbed into a regional staffing group which might allow for greater ability to provide expertise in more areas than at present.  This would merge district paid staff into a UUA or CERG employed status which would equalize benefits across the region or with the current UUA employed staff. 

            The JPD currently matches all benefits offered through the UUA and is funding those benefits through district only contributions from congregations.  Should a single stream request for financial support become a reality, the amount requested needs to bear these obligations in mind. 

Service Delivery

            The main reason for the creation of districts over fifty years ago was to provide services to congregations.  This is still the reason for any entity beyond the local congregation.  At the creation of the UUA, a plan was proposed for districts and regional service centers.  The finances of the times were such that both could not be funded and districts were chosen as the service provider model. 

            With the advent of long distance communication capabilities such as webinars, video conversations, and web based learning opportunities, there are more ways to connect to congregations other than by telephone and in person.  Some people feel that the day of districts is fading and regionalization is the future.  In at least the middle of the country, the Mid-America Region is now the only entity linking the congregation to the UUA as a middle representative.  The three districts that comprise this region (Central Mid-West, Prairie Star, and Heartland) voted themselves out of existence in 2013.  All UUA staff who worked in one of the three districts now work in a larger combined staff structure.  There has been some elimination of duplicate district staff positions such as administrators. 

            The JPD has focused on service delivery to congregations throughout my tenure as DE.  We added district only staff to meet the needs and requests that we received.  As the possibility of regionalization has moved forward, we decided upon a strategy of bringing congregations closer together with one another and putting an adjunct staff person in a leadership role to keep the congregations connected.  We are presently organizing up to eight clusters throughout the JPD and have three functioning and two more in formation.  The other districts in CERG are also organizing clusters of congregations for the same purpose of networking and communications between congregations.  Clusters of congregations can identify common needs that will make service delivery more efficient.  One workshop or presentation on a topic to many teams from local congregations will result in better dissemination of those ideas within the congregations and support between them as they implement those new ideas. 

            As clusters develop, there will probably be some mixing of congregations that are on the borders between existing districts.  Should districts cease to exist in the CERG region, these clusters will become a central connection between the region or UUA and the congregations.  One possibility is that each existing UUA CERG staff person will be assigned to connect to two or three clusters and be known to the leadership of those congregations.  The staff person would spend time with the congregations in that cluster finding out what types of services would most help the congregation be stronger and healthy.  The CERG staff person could work alongside an adjunct staff person in making sure high quality services were delivered to the cluster and the congregations depending upon the specific needs. 


            The next several years will be full of surprises, some pleasant and some possibly not.  The world of Unitarian Universalism is evolving.  Outside pressures on religious life are causing people to rethink their understanding of a faith community.  There are large segments of America who state that they are “spiritual but not religious (SBNR)” and have no need for religious community.  Among those under thirty-five, the SBNR crowd now tops 30% and growing.  Gallup reported in 2012 that over 17% of America claim no religious identity. 

            If congregations are to continue playing a meaningful role in the lives of men, women, and children, then we who are leaders will need to be nimble and innovative in addressing the challenges of secularization and isolation that permeate life today.  In some ways it was much simpler in 1962 when districts were formed.  But we can’t turn the clock back nor would most of want to do so. 

            I believe in a resiliency within our leadership that will find a path forward.  I am hopeful that we will find better ways of connecting, enriching one another, and creating a safe place for those beyond our congregations to find us and join their energy with us to create a vibrant liberal faith for the Twenty-First Century.  I pray that it may be so.

Yours in the Faith,


Rev. Dr. Richard Speck


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