"NTAUUS -- What Is It and Why Does It Matter?"
An Address by Mike Ellsberry - Association President 1993-2008
Delivered to the Arlington congregation, September 28, 2008
For most of the years between 1993 and 2008, I was the President of NTAUUS. In fact, my term as President ended last week. I’m going to brag about NTAUUS but it’s to praise those who came before us and challenge us to equal their commitment.
Let me see if I can prove the hypothesis that we have perhaps the most unique cluster organization in the entire UU association. I am delighted to tell you about NTAUUS, what difference it makes and some issues we need to think about.
NTAUUS - Where did we come from? How did it get started? And, what was the bold move that made all the difference?
Some of the information I relay to you will be in general terms, for this is not about the details but about the big commitments that were made. The details don’t matter nearly as much as the result.
At some point in the 1960’s members of First Church came upon an opportunity to gain control of or create a housing project designed to assist low-income families. This was at a time when HUD was making this type of investments. This was a big move to contract with HUD to operate an apartment complex, but they couldn’t walk away from the opportunity. How those members of First Church came upon this project is not so important. What is important is that they did. They stepped off to benefit those in need then and to put into place social action on a significant basis. Further, they had the foresight to realize that their decisions would impact our generation of Unitarian Universalists and will do so going forward to the next. For all of the worthy motivations that they may have had, the results and benefits to us must have exceeded their expectations.
For three decades, UU’s in North Texas owned and operated a 151-unit apartment house in Irving through the Raible Place Charitable Trust. NTAUUS was formed to be the beneficiary of that Trust.
These apartments served an important role, providing bargain pricing on quality accommodations for families in need. Throughout the time that we owned Raible Place, the Trust won numerous awards from HUD for enlightened and quality management, and consistently plowed virtually all surplus funds back into continual upgrades of the property.
This decision to step off into the real estate investment and management business was a bold, bold move, don’t you see? Wise souls said that UU’s should take the risk to own and operate these apartments serving a worthwhile social action cause and creating an investment that would benefit future generations many years forward. What gave the First Church people the courage make that move? Would we take such action, now? That’s a big question to me.
Again, NTAUUS was formed to be the beneficiary of the RPCT. Its purpose - elegantly and simply stated - was and still is to support Unitarian Universalism in North Texas.
Years passed. Late 1991 or early 1992, I wandered into the Denton UU Fellowship and came about quite close to walking out again. But with her 80 years and 102 pounds, Helen Terry forced me to stay.
As I became active there, my minister at the time, Don Fielding, suggested that a way for me to serve my new faith was to participate in NTAUUS. I attended my first NTAUUS meeting in about late 1992, I think. At the time, we met in the community room of the Raible Place apartments.
Achieving a quorum was about a 50/50 shot any given month. From about early 1993 until Sept 2008, I served as President of NTAUUS all but about two of those years. Whatever follows here today about the work of NTAUUS doesn’t stem from me nor do I endorse such low turnover in our leadership. Others have also contributed: Anne Smith, Secretary, and Howard McMahan, Treasurer, both served in their respective roles before I became President and will continue to serve after October 1st.
What types of activities did NTAUUS sponsor or participate in?
- Grocery certificates -- We sold gift certificates for groceries. At one time the individual congregations made 10% by selling the coupons and NTAUUS made 5%.
- Principles and Purposes cards—NTAUUS printed these and sold them at low cost to the congregations. Do you carry some with you to give one to a prospective member or an intolerant bible church critic? Lee Veal carried extras on trips with him. Whenever he was in a hotel room he put one of our cards in the Gideon bible.
- We printed window stickers.
- We sponsored the pulpit exchange program.
- We sometimes went to baseball games together.
- We jointly promoted seminars at low or no cost.
- NTAUUS and the District split the cost for a minister to serve our cluster.
- NTAUUS has always quarterbacked an advertising campaign in the Dallas and Ft. Worth papers, and occasionally in the outlying areas.
From the first meeting I went to until the next to last one I attended, we shared with each other what was going on at our various societies. At times I embellished activities at whichever of the three Fellowships I was a member of at the time.
Somewhere in the mid-nineties, the Waco church decided that it just wasn’t worth the dues to be part of our group. HA! If they had only known what was coming. Around the year 2000, two important changes were in the works.
In 2002 (to my memory), the RPCT was reaching a crossroads with the apartment project. Much of its social justice/anti-poverty role had disappeared. While still a bargain, rents had crept up toward market value. But it was a 30 year-old structure. Substantial reinvestment was to be required to replace and upgrade the air-conditioning system. The RPCT Board decided that it did not want to invest that much in the property; it was sold for about $3.5M, and the endowment became cash and invested securities.
The UUA came to town to conduct a long-range growth study. This involved several elements such as services for growing smaller societies, outreach programs for the big churches, and decisions on planting a large church startup. Howard McMahan chaired that project. My area was recommendations for the small churches.
Of all the elements of the study, UUA was looking for buy-in on support for a new large church startup. This was designed to be considerably different from a typical UU church startup. The minister was selected in advance. Promotional methods were chosen that imitated the approach of mainline Christian denominations. They were not to have their first service until they had spent a year or so gathering members. And the church had one other asset—the land for their future construction was financed by the NTAUUS Endowment at subsidized interest rates.
As we are talking bold moves today, Hardy Sanders, a long time First Church stalwart and social activist, donated a big chunk of money to that startup.
At the same time, our Endowment drafted criteria for grants and loans and life changed in our wonderful cluster. We started offering grants and loans in an organized way in 2003. Oddly, once the Endowment was in place we have never had an issue with a quorum at NTAUUS meetings. Where once we had a high percentage of older members, our representatives are now more energetic.
Earlier, I listed some activities that we undertook in the years BE (before endowment). We can be proud of NTAUUS-sponsored activities AE (after endowment) too.
We brought in Jonalu Johnstone for a free seminar on creating more welcoming congregations.
We co-sponsored and funded a “best practices” seminar at the Plano Church.
We funded, in part, an appearance by Dr. William Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International and a former President of the UUA. This is so typical of our promotional skills and common sense. He spoke on Sunday night during the Super Bowl.
NTAUUS organized a social action network to coordinate cooperative efforts for all our churches and helping to make our voice stronger. We sponsored a small advertising campaign leading up to General Assembly in Ft. Worth.
In 2008 we offered $300.00 scholarships to encourage societies to send candidates to the Dwight Brown leadership school.
Let me dwell in some greater detail about this next project we undertook. At the time Raible Place was sold, some of the Trustees suggested that some funds be informally set aside for possible future housing projects.
Thankfully, Ray Enstam, NTAUUS member and past chair of the RPCT, agreed to chair a study for us on possible appropriate uses of some of these reserved housing funds. That committee looked at Habitat for Humanity, new subsidized housing investments, Independent and Assisted living and Cohousing. The Co-housing possibility bubbled to the top. Simply stated cohousing communities offer individual houses but encourage joint meals, commercial laundry facilities, cooperative committee management of various aspects of the facility, and intentional efforts at living in an interactive community. Most often these projects are models of energy efficiency and green living. They are much in line with our principles and purposes. NTAUUS funded training for two people to coordinate the possibility of a cohousing community in our cluster. The project decided to focus on senior cohousing, where the inhabitants could age in grace with the support of the others in the community. Over a period of about two years, this project has progressed to tentative designs and submission of zoning applications and the like. It is planned as a 30-unit complex in Duncanville, Texas. NTAUUS funded the use of a nationally known consultant to stimulate the promotion and planning processes. To date, real people (some of them UU’s) have invested $100,000 of their own real money to reserve their spots and move the project forward.
At our August NTAUUS meeting, we approved a proposal to finance the land part of this project (until their construction loan goes into effect). Enough on co-housing.
I’m sure you all are aware of the grant program which has positively affected so many of our societies. The Endowment has distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to our churches and affiliated organizations. This has been made possible by the expert help in the formation of the Endowment and the exceptional investment council we have had since inception. Let me mention Jim Suiter, our chair since inception, and Endowment Committee members Howard McMahan, Chet Smith, Steve Lewis, Ray Enstam and Fred Lusk. Our investment counsel is Dan Sullivan of RBS Rauscher, Pierce, Refnes.
Before I close out comments on the Endowment, let me say that the Endowment Trustees expressed disappointment in early 2007 over the quality of grant applications and proposed to NTAUUS that a greater percentage of our earnings be reserved for NTAUUS organized activities.
An unintended consequence of that action was to add to the structure or depth of purpose for our organization. Over the next couple of years we may see that as a turning point for our organization.
NTAUUS studied this issue for several months and settled on two worthy projects that were deemed important for funding. One was the Hardy Sanders lecture series where a prominent speaker would address social justice issues or other appropriate topics to spread the word about what UU’ism stands for. 2009 will be the second year for that event which will be held in Ft. Worth.
NTAUUS has also dedicated funds for training our RE professionals. We have received widespread gratitude for this support.
So, let me bring us up to date on this final year for me. NTAUUS can be a different organization from how it was all those years waiting for the Endowment to materialize. We have resources. So, we undertook with Jonalu Johnstone’s help once more to revisit our Mission and Vision. We are in the final stages of adopting those. By-laws have been edited although the committee didn’t change the geographical designation for the cluster. (Waco could apply for reinstatement.)
Daniel Polk has been elected as President for the new term starting in October. He has done a marvelous job as VP, covering many tasks I should have been involved with but can no longer afford the time. Given that I have a real job these days where people expect me to show up, my efforts for NTAUUS have been rationed. Daniel is seizing the opportunity to move the organization into the 21st century with great energy.
So, NTAUUS matters, doesn’t it? It’s a treasure and source of support and gives this cluster advantages unique to any other cluster in the nation.
Shall we just enjoy it? Should we just go thank those people at First Church who stepped off into that bold move to build the Raible Place apartments? That doesn’t seem enough and frankly I suspect that any of those leaders still alive from those momentous decisions wouldn’t really care if we thanked them. They were about longer vision and carrying the movement forward.
We have unfinished work at NTAUUS. Our small churches have need for better training in pastoral care, for we are called to do that ourselves. I believe we could do a better job in partnership with the ministers who serve our various churches. It’s a performance-oriented and compensated world. Call me a heretic, but I don’t see why we don’t set benchmarks for growth in membership, pledges, effectiveness of committees, and whatever when we interview ministers. When we call ministers, we must commit with them to achieve the goals we set, bonus them if the goals are met, and reset goals for the following year. If I were president for another ten years I would be able to get that approach adopted … maybe … but not likely.
Each of our congregations thinks it’s unique. Rules, standards, guidelines don’t apply because we’re not like any other congregation. That whole concept that each of our societies is so unique has no intellectual merit. I have been in all of our congregations and we are overwhelming in our sameness. This concept of uniqueness rationalizes mediocrity.
This association has a bloody history in support of the civil rights movement in this country. Yet I perceive that we absolutely don’t care that our demographic mix is so different from our community. You know, the country club membership is too.
Our growth as a cluster is woeful compared to the general population. We have churches sited in some of the highest tier of growth counties in the nation and yet one church I’m thinking of has never mustered membership much over a hundred.
At the time of our growth project to which I alluded some time earlier, it was calculated that UU’s in North Texas represented less than one in one thousand of the general population. And the number keeps getting worse. Silly me, I think that we should be represented to the tune of 1 in 1000.
Let us each look at our community. What if we could achieve a goal of one in 1000 members? For some churches it could mean a minister where we currently don’t have one. Maybe fulltime. Do you realize how much stronger our voice could be at school board meetings? At council meetings?
As I go from church to church, I note such a cavalier attitude about our stagnant growth. We are condemned then to become a diminishing factor in the life of our communities.
We also deal with cafeteria UU’s. I am troubled when I encounter those who designate themselves a pagan or Buddhist or agnostic or Unitarian Christian or whatever before calling themselves a Unitarian Universalist. What happens is that they don’t show up to church unless they like the topic. Good things happen at church. Good things happen at our churches when we have church. We minister to each other. We more tightly weave the fabric of our community. So be at church no matter the topic.
Remember that the above represents my opinions only.
Those who came before us made a big commitment and now we all benefit. NTAUUS matters. And one way it matters is that it calls us to a bigger effort.
I can’t tell you what our bold move needs to be, but I think we should expect it of ourselves. We must make the best of NTAUUS and our endowment, but we must also look ahead to the next generation of Unitarian Universalists and the next. At minimum, we owe it to those who came before and those who will come after. Our movement cannot fail. Our message of tolerance and compassion and the sanctity of the individual search for truth must prevail in this era of dogmatic fundamentalism.
Whatever our bold move is, you’ll know it when it’s upon you. Don’t step back, step up. The rest of us will be there to help. We are called to it.
Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you today.