UU Leadership Institute

The Central East Region recommends the UU Leadership Institute for robust training for congregational leaders


Blue oval with "EAGLES" and a white eagle with wings spread

Residential leadership schools were been extremely popular in the past few decades. They offered transformational one-time experiences to individual congregational leaders, but individual leaders often find difficulty in being change agents when they return to their congregations. In a 2005 report, Rob Thompson (Ohio Meadville District Consultant) found that there was not a clear, positive impact of leadership school training on congregational vitality. Thompson also found that traditional leadership schools are only available to a small segment of congregational leaders due to time and financial resources.[1] EAGLES, the Eastern Great Lakes Leadership School, was the leadership school for what is now the Central East Regional Group.

UU Leadership Team Institute Logo with rolling hills: "New Horizons in Leadership"

In 2007, Tom Chulak (St. Lawrence District Executive) helped launch a leadership school that addressed some of the issues outlined in the above report. UULTI, the Unitarian Universalist Leadership Team Institute, was based on a model that focused on congregations sending teams that would operate as a mini learning community within the school. Instead of a common curriculum, the school offered “tracks” that would be taken by different team members. The school also offered common “lens” sessions (taken by everyone) which served as opportunities to apply different framings (systems thinking, multicultural sensibility, etc.) to other learning. The congregational teams would meet throughout the week to share and process what they were learning, and then would develop a take-home plan. The format also provided and opportunity for leaders to return in later years and take a different track.

This basic pedagogical model was brilliant, but it required a heavy staff-to-participant ratio and was never financially sustainable. Other limitations of the regional residential school model included:

  • High cost to participants and congregations
  • Less discretionary time off available for working adults in declining economy
  • Low participation of youth, young adults, working class people, and people of color
  • Over-representation of affluent, over-50 leaders
  • Difficulty of introverts to acclimate to the intensity of the schedule
  • Participants build deep relationships with folks from all over the region that were hard to sustain. With the proliferation of technological tools that enable online learning, we have the opportunity to re-imagine leadership schools. We know that our leaders’ time is very precious and that the time they spend in person needs to be used to its fullest. By using “flipped classroom” methods (where the lecture happens online and the discussion, group work and other learning activities happen real-time and in person) we can maximize our leaders’ faith and leadership formation while keeping costs low.

The staff of the Central East Region tweaked the UULTI Model by reducing the number of days (from a full week to a long weekend), offering localized sessions (in New Jersey, upstate New York and central Ohio) and by using mostly UUA for the teaching staff to help reduce the costs. But even with these changes, the model was not financially sustainable as a regular regional program.

Move to On-Line

In the Fall of 2013, the Central East Regional Staff decided to try a new model. They already had a successful series of webinars and a Moodle-based on-demand learning platform. The staff empowered Leadership Development Consultant, the Rev. Renee Ruchotzke to develop and pilot a hybrid/online "flipped classroom" model using the best parts of UULTI.

In the Spring of 2014, two congregations in Westchester county, New York [2] participated in a pilot session of "Smart Church" (now called "Healthy Leadership 101") where they accessed materials online and then participated in self-led in-person "community of practice" sessions with materials supplied by the Dean. Feedback from the participants led to adjustments in the program.

In the Fall of 2014, five additional trainings were offered and more "community of practice" sessions were offered in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Philadelphia and in upstate New York.

Over time, more trainings were offered and more adjustments were made in response to participant feedback. In the Spring of 2015, we re-branded the program to its current form, the UU Leadership Institute, in partnership with the other regions. We moved to a mostly on-demand format.

With the impact on in-person programming in March 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, the rest of the UUA started looking into offering online trainings. In 2021 the Ministries and Faith Development staff group joined in a redesign and rebranding of the site to make it more user-friendly, and to include sections for faith development (learners) and professional development along with leadership development. In early 2022 the rebranded UU Institute was launched.

[1] Thompson, Rod. “Assessing Our Unitarian Universalist Leadership Schools 2004-2005: A Sabbatical Project (2014)
[2] Thanks to the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester, Mount Kisco, NY & First Unitarian Society of Westchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for their participation in the pilot program!

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

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