He asked, “Can you explain the logic behind having Dwight Brown Leadership Experience in May in Arkansas?”
“Why, yes I can.” I replied.
The Southern Region staff routinely hears from congregational leaders and staff members who are concerned about the cost, timing, location, and occasional cancellation of our events. I’d like to de-mystify our team’s event planning a bit.
Here are some of our event site considerations:
- cost: we need to keep expenses down
- accessibility: so folks with disabilities can participate
- appropriate meeting rooms: we need lecture, worship, and breakout space
- diverse dietary needs: serves vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free meals
- values: we like to rent space from organizations which have values which are similar to ours
- scheduling: we have to schedule around standing bookings at desired sites. Also, we have learned that we can’t expect high attendance at an event too close to the time of General Assembly, particularly if GA is in the south.
So DBLE is in Arkansas in May for a lot of reasons. One reason is because we found a fabulous 4H center outside of Little Rock that has all of the above. Another is that we are trying our best to make sure that we move these events around periodically so that more congregations are able to take advantage of our training. We are also aware that sometimes we should stay in one place for a few years so that our training can have a greater impact. SUULE was at a 4H Center in Virginia this past August, and it will be there again in 2019. In the past, SUULE has been at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in NC, in Orlando, and at the Penn Center in SC.
The main complaint we get about both Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE) and Southern Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (SUULE) is the cost, about $800 per participant. This $800 covers the participant’s room for five days, plus breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and supplies. It does not cover the travel for the staff, and the staff does not receive a stipend. Our salaries are paid out of the generosity of our congregations which pay their fair share through the GIFT Program in a spirit of covenant with our Association.
Finances are usually a factor when we have to cancel an event. Since we know that staff travel for a regional weekend event averages out to $1000 per staff person, as part of the budgeting process, we have to figure out how many participants makes this expense reasonable and a good value. Imagine that five of our staff members are planning to work at an event. If, at six weeks out, we have 30 registrants, we know we can safely book our tickets. If, at three weeks out, we have ten people registered, we have to cancel the event, because we have to buy our plane tickets at least three weeks out in order to get any kind of a deal. We can’t wait to see if more folks will sign up.
After we cancel events, particularly annual events, our staff members hear that people were planning to register but they just hadn’t gotten around to doing so yet. We know everyone is busy and that there has been a culture that allowed late registration for events. We know that event cancellation causes disappointment.
Cancellation due to low registration looks a little different from the staff perspective. As your staff and faithful partners in the work of bringing more hope, love, justice, courage and joy into the world, we must be good stewards of the money that you send to our Association. In order to hold events, registration must happen in a timely fashion so that we know that we won’t lose money. Timely registration also signals to us that we’re offering programming that your congregation values.
We offer several successful programs online, like our monthly presidents’ calls and Braveheart small group ministry. While we love to be together in person, we know that the travel requirement is a barrier for some folks who would like to participate in our programming. Also, folks report feeling more connected and supported throughout the year with the more frequent meetings that modern technology makes possible. Your Southern Region staff is thinking of other ways to connect and support Unitarian Universalists in the south online. Please stay tuned to see what those opportunities will be.
We are servant leaders. We serve the core values of Unitarian Universalism. We do this in many ways. We coach congregational staff and leaders to be the very best leaders they can be. We help them to discern what the issues are and what their work is. We do not do that work for them because this is a mature relationship; we are companions for people as they do their own work. We offer tools and support. We are partners. We do our best to build trust everywhere we go and on every team with which we serve. We support relationships between individuals, congregations, and our Association. What kind of trusted partners would we be if we misused the money that you gave to your Association in service to the deepest values of Unitarian Universalism?
The Southern Region is evolving and will need to go through many developmental stages just like your congregations. We are becoming more clear about our work, mission, and accountability. We know this all just seems like more change. We know it can feel bad when we move or cancel events. We are grateful for your patience and understanding. Please let us know if there is an online training your congregation might find useful.