I serve as the UUMA representative on the Council of Church Staff Finances; the Council advises the Office of Church Staff Finances which is the part of the UUA staff which manages and oversees the benefit programs that the UUA offers -- the TIAA-CREF retirement savings accounts, the Health Insurance Plan, the other Insurances. They also oversee the development of the compensation guidelines, etc. Richard Nugent heads the office now; many remember Ralph Mero in this role. The Council also includes representatives all the other professional groups -- the Religious Educators, the Musicians, the Administrators and subgroups of ministers, community ministers, interim ministers.
The Council met last week and reviewed the general situation. There are some problems.
Problem 1. Aspirations for a Professional Religious Leadership vs. the poor prospects for the Institutions that can support Professional Religious Leadership.
Unitarian Universalism has an aspiration toward full-time professional religious leadership. The ideal model is a congregation with full-time, fairly compensated professional leadership in all areas -- a full-time minister, DRE, Musician and Administrator. There is a commitment that we strive toward equity between the professions and in some areas, there are legal requirements that the same benefits are offered to all employees who work a certain number of hours.
Only a minority of our churches are able to carry such employment costs financially. Our aspiration when it comes to the terms of employment for our religious professionals is that of a successful mainline Protestant church of the 1950's. And because that is the aspiration of our professional religious leadership that becomes the ideal model of successful liberal ministry.
Yet, we know that the 1950's mainline Protestant church are the large dinosaurs of a religious ecosystem that is changing. The trend seems to be toward fewer and larger churches at one end and many more smaller organizations at the other end. We are locked in to a professional system that is of the old ways. And the fact that our ministerial formation process is so expensive means that our debt-ridden new ministers are not even more motivated toward serving the kinds of churches which are becoming obsolete.
2. A second problem: Congregationalism vs. Employment Cooperation between Congregations.
There are no mechanisms for sharing employees between congregations.
3. A Third Problem: the weak administrative structure of our small congregations vs. the legal requirements of being a competent employer.
The stories are legion, reported by the OCSF and by the professionals themselves: congregations have volunteer treasurers and bookkeepers, some of whom are completely inexperienced and others without current knowledge, They mishandle taxes, W-2's, pension contributions, and insurance premiums. Health Care Reform will dramatically increase the level of reporting required of employers in the future. The picture is that of a cadre of religious professional whose livelihoods are often in the hands of administrative structures that are too weak to be reliable.
What we need: We need "super-congregational" structures that function as employers. (By "super" I mean "above" not "better".) These structures would allow multiple congregations to share ministers, musicians, religious educators and administrators. One idea would be for the flagship congregations in a region to actually employ a larger staff, providing services to smaller, local congregations and billing them appropriately. Perhaps Districts and Regions could become employers.
If the UUA can run a professional health insurance company, there is no reason why it cannot create or contract with a third party to provide payroll services for all congregations, thus standardizing and professionalizing this function.