A Short History
A district is composed of the member congregations within a defined geographic area. These include geographically compact districts with 30, 40, or 50 or more congregations each (e.g., Massachusetts Bay, with 55 congregations in part of one state; and Metropolitan New York, with 52 congregations in neighboring parts of four states), on one side of the continuum. On the other side, some districts cover very wide geographic areas and have either many or few congregations (e.g., Mountain Desert District with 45 congregations spread out from the Canadian border to the north to the Mexican border in the south.) Of course, the size of individual congregations also varies considerably within a given district.
Although districts are recognized in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Bylaws, no specific purpose is stated for them beyond their longstanding political role, under which they elect 20 of the 25 members of the UUA Board of Trustees. In more recent years, however, the development of new nomenclature has subtly helped the districts to become important vehicles for the delivery of services for member congregations.
Until a few years ago, most districts had a professional staff of only one person, a member of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) clergy or a layperson, whose official title was District Executive. There is growing recognition in the UU movement that the title "executive" is inappropriate for a community of autonomous UU churches enjoying congregational polity.
Currently the UUA has 19 districts in North America. The districts were created to provide field services to local UUA congregations. The districts may also carry out functions independent of, but related to, the Association’s principles and purposes.
Districts vary in terms of whether or not they have a physical office and in the number of paid staff. They all have officers and a board of trustees, and function under an enabling charter or bylaws. District officers and trustees are chosen from the member congregations within the district and hold varying terms of office. District staff may be full or part time, paid or volunteer.
Prior to the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists 1961, both groups had seen the advantages of congregations working together in various regional groupings. The Universalists leaned toward statewide organizations such as the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention and the New York State Convention of Universalists both of which remain viable even today. The Unitarians Conferences flowed freely across state lines. Setting up the current district groupings was one of many challenges during the merger. Gordon McKeeman, a Unitarian Universalist minister with strong Universalist roots, offered the following description of the two merging movements: "Someone once said in commenting on the difference between Unitarian and Universalist polities that the Universalists were organized like Presbyterians and acted like Congregationalists; Unitarians were organized like Congregationalists and acted like Presbyterians."
Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the ideals of autonomy and community. Unitarians, in particular, chose to err on the side of autonomy, refusing even to become a community of congregations for most of their first century. Universalists were more willing to create communities of congregations, yet even they understood each congregation to be the chief center of religious life. There is a wonderful history of UU interdependence titled: Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity. This was the 1997 report of the Commission on Appraisal.