What $1.3 million could buy

Update. A press piece yesterday by Jane Greer at UUWorld.org notes the likely maximum is $615,000 — perhaps the first source heard a report rather than reading one — making $1.23 million.

So the UUA Board of Trustees, in a special meeting last night, passed a resolution commending this year’s General Assembly to move the 2012 General Assembly away from Phoenix, Arizona. Cancellation costs are put at $650,000 (official details would be nice; a running complaint of mine) and that’s higher than I thought. The resolution reputedly says — it’s still not online at UUA.org — an equal amount for ARAOM (antiracist antioppression multicultural) work there. So the board resolution has a call for fund-raising, too.

I’m stunned. A call for raising $1.3 million, in this economic climate, rings like “drill, baby, drill.” Didn’t we just have a discussion about cutting staff positions and consolidating departments a month ago? The Commission on Appraisal can’t merit $35,000 but this decision — made too quickly to be called considered (or transparent) — hopes to shift almost forty times as much.

So what does $1.3 million mean?

  • It would fund about 22 positions — with taxes and estimated benefits — at a $45,000 base salary for a year
  • Or rent about 26,000 square feet of fine office space (in the D.C. market, which I know a bit) for a year
  • Pay for the entire cost of education of 8 or 10 ministerial students at a top-flight school — without scholarships
  • Consume the “fair share” of more than 22,000 Unitarian Universalists
  • (I’d compare this sum to the current UUA budget, but after looking for it for 15 minutes at UUA.org, I gave up.)

    In short, I hope there’s a meaningful action to kill the Arizona law in time to avert General Assembly action. Otherwise, I don’t know how the shortfall could be made up.

    This hill needn’t be the one we die on.

    How you've learned to cope with less

    This isn’t a “favorite lentil soup” post as such.

    Will Shetterly yesterday linked to two article about class, one of which was “Rich People Things, with Chris Lehmann: A Steady Diet of Nothing

    From that article comes this vital point:

    While there’s little data this early in our present calamity to track the formation of durable attitudes toward saving, spending and government intervention in the economy, the general rule of thumb is that “even one really tough year experienced in early adulthood is enough to fundamentally change people’s core values and behaviors,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. And as Foroohar goes on to explain, “there’s an entire body of research to show that recession babies not only invest more conservatively, they tend to make less money, choose safer jobs, and believe in wealth redistribution and more government intervention.”

    That’s certainly my experience. The 90s, when others were making tons of money (it seemed), were very hard for me financially. Graduating in 1991 in a bad economy, I made the mistake of going to grad school to bide my time, knowing that seminary would follow. I lived humbly and borrowed much less than others, but my first settlement barely paid at all and extra work wasn’t enough to land me in deep personal debt. It took half of the 00s with careful stewardship to drop the debt and start saving. Today, I’m comfortably middle aged and middle class; Hubby — I met him at the perfect time; too early and I would been in survival mode — and I have made a happy home with a happy mortgage.

    But the old habits are there. I still don’t spend much, and there are times that I feel stingy, even if that’s not the case. I want to make use of items that others might throw away. While I don’t hoard food any more, I do like to keep supplies on hand. I save quite a bit, and even my indulgences — web domains, fountain pens and loose tea — are rather domestic, and not high-end. (And I don’t still understand the appeal of brand snobbery.)

    So I suspect that however much money I may have (or not have) my habits will fundamentally be the same from here on. Practical, true, but with its own washed-out character. A character that I’ve adopted, and somewhat counterbalance (I hope) with a slightly more expressive and wry character than I once had. I feel more a part of my generation now than ever before.

    That’s how I’ve learned to cope with less. And there’s a lot more less going on these day.

    How do you manage?

    PolityWonk on ministerial formation

    I agree with Elizabeth (of “Elizabeth’s Little Blog”) that you should read PolityWonk’s “How UU Ministry Got to Be So Expensive” — and especially the little-told parts of the story from point #7 onwards.

    In a related note, my own choice of seminary was conditioned on the full tuition I got from Brite Divinity School (M.Div. ’97) — but only after I had ruled out Meadville Lombard and Starr King as viable options. That said, I’m working on a longer piece on the Meadville Lombard issue for publication at my long-format blog, RevScottWells.com. But I’ll risk taking time and getting it right than hacking out a few, punchy, attention-grabbing words.

    Silverman on church finances

    Yes, it’s a bit rude and tons of people have seen this. But it’s Sarah Silverman and I totally heart her.

    And I love where she goes with respect to church wealth. And not just — by implication — the biggest owners.

    Making the church building pay its way, part 0

    There’s a charming old picture of the hoary Universalist church in Oxford, Massachusetts with retail space on its ground floor and the meeting-space above. Wise, that. Empty churches — by which I mean the buildings — are bad stewards no matter where or when they are, and these days a bad steward might kill the institution.

    Rental income is a one option, but few can have a shop on the first floor. (Community Church, Boston is a conspicuous exception.) Weddings can be a blessing or a curse, depending on staff pressures. I have a hard time imagining meetings providing much money for most churches, and having a renting congregation is fraught with its own conditions. (More about that later.)

    Sometimes people talk about a nursery or a school. But all the ancedotal evidence I have for this option makes it seem a poor choice. The school wears the building hard, demand too much of the staff, pay little, but increase the insurance liability and so forth. And besides, it seems to play into the oft-rehearsed delusion — as does weddings-as-savior — that church is really for people who grow up, get married, have kids and come back. What is this, the 1950s? (Single and child-free people get the message.)

    So what other option is there? I have one in mind, now that I’ve set up the situation as I see it.

    When discounting memberships, internationally

    Another church administration tidbit, in a roundabout way, though really more directed to membership organizations with any sort of international outreach —

    Membership organizations usually offer discounts for cause to members of certain classes of person — the young, the unemployed, students, the elderly, low earners, the retired, military service personnel, and so on — or for modifications to membership — like multiple memberships in one household, multi-year advance payment or receiving mailings electronically. We share each others’ burdens as we lift each other up. Let each give as he or she can.

    So, what about persons overseas? On the one hand, overseas memberships usually cost more to administer. On the other, overseas members may benefit less from joining. And compared to average in North America and Western Europe, most people in the rest of the world have a lot less money. What’s fair then?

    The TeX Users Group — TeX is a typesetting system with a particular following, mathematics and hard science academics in particular — follows the lead of the American Mathematical Society. The later has a list of countries “with modest economies” (as the TUG puts it) whose residents pay $16 a year for membership, compared with $123 to U.S. residents earning less than $80,000 a year (or $164 for those earning more) or $41 for students and unemployed members. I don’t know what benefits membership brings, but — as a non-mathematician — that seems like a fair distribution of fees to me.

    Future of theological education?

    Several years ago, visiting a colleague-friend, I visited the Universalist-founded Tufts University, musing that this was as close as I was ever to get to a formal Universalist education. Crane, the Universalist seminary at Tufts, and St. Lawrence, the Universalist seminary in upstate New York were both closed in the late 1960s because the powers-that-were rightly judged that four seminaries (excluding the then de facto Harvard) were too many for as small a denomination as the Unitarian Universalists. But both of the Universalist ones? Mercy! Well, that’s the past.

    I got a couple of souvenirs on that trip: a t-shirt I won’t now wear out of the apartment and a mug,Faded image on Tufts mug depicting the building that once housed the seminary. As you can see, it has faded so badly you can’t tell what it was. The gold rim is long gone. There’s an object lesson in there somewhere.

    A couple of years ago, there was much consternation about the future of the remaining seminaries: Meadville/Lombard and Starr King. The controversy died down but I don’t sense there was any lasting resolution.

    But the problem is bigger than the survival of two small and struggling institutions. The idea of ordained ministry’s role and authority has changed and the economics of the ministry are not sustainable. The “thou shalt sacrifice” culture I observed not so many years ago won’t hold. Comfort and expectations of what distributed learning, participation and networking can provide is changing what self-respecting students will allow.

    My fear isn’t that we’ll do “it” wrong, but that we won’t inquire deeply into what must be done. It isn’t a widely-discussed issue and it ought to be; theological education isn’t something that can be decided by a council somewhere. It can’t only be the unsuitable candidates that drift away.

    Indeed, with the new Unitarian Universalist Association mantra — “all about the congregations” — you have to wonder what role it is morally entitled to concerning ministerial formation. The interests of ministers will necessarily be subordinated to congregational interests. Even the dysfunctional congregations. Ministers standing will erode. No minister can afford to be dependent in that scenario. The former (for Unitarians) guild model, where the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association would take the lead in standards, mentoring and credentialing, seems more equitable. (I would join that kind of UUMA.) The UUA would retain settlement, or it might be shared in a joint agency.

    But even it the system stays the way it is, and the pendulum swings back to a more inclusive concept of the UUA, a rich, public discussion about appropriate ministerial formation must follow or we risk a slow debilitating decline as a movement.

    My apartment's real cost

    Hubby and I live in a mid-grade rental apartment in a newly-nice neighborhood very close to downtown D.C. We both walk to work. (Washington, D.C. has one of the highest rates of pedestrian commuters in the country.) We don’t own a car. Most people who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles think we pay a lot for our little space.

    But we don’t.

    I’ve said it before: it’s worth a premium to live where a car’s more a hindrance than a help. And Treehugger again today “How Affordable is that Subdivision, Really?” makes the point that the cost of housing shouldn’t be divorced from transportation.

    The chilling factoid was a bit from a 2003 Brookings study that says that the median household spends 19.1% of its income on transportation and, guessing by the gaspump agita of late, I would easily believe it’s higher today.

    Using the Housing+Transportation Affordability Index, you can see what parts of many US metropolitan areas are afforable, as defined by housing and transportation costs being less than 45% of average household income. An advanced option gives a more granular visualization of the data.

    Because Hubby and I both work, opted against splashy digs, walk most places and use bus for weekend outings, I estimate I only put out 17% of my income on housing and transportation.

    More Americans deserve this option. Remember this the next time you talk up how nice it would be to have more space (if you do this) for storage, or talk down (if you do this) commuter buses or an extension of a transit system.

    P.s. I think a good distributed task for Unitarian Universalists is to collect information about which congregations are transit-accessible and how.

    Practice now to cope later

    Whether you look to the emerging global environmental crisis, the emerging global financial crisis or the spiritual and cultural crisis that may come from the two, I think life is going to be harder for most people as time goes on. Of course, for millions, the hardship may be fatal or at the very least cast them (or us) into unrecoverable decline. Just take the alarming increase in the price of rice as data point, but there are many others. How are we to survive, much less flourish?

    I have been very grateful lately for my upbringing which put a practical (perhaps moral) value on thrift, inventiveness and freedom from debt. I grew up thinking it normal to strip off all the buttons on a shirt that’s being reduced to a rag; I still do. Grateful, too, for my faith which buoys me against loud (but not compelling) distractions and appeals to selfishness.

    Another concept. I think it’s important to maintain institutions — local farms, American or regional manufacture, rail travel — even if its value isn’t immediately profitable, because without which we won’t have the capacity or experience to make an orderly transition to a more survivable state. There’s been a lot of talk (say, around ethanol as an auto fuel) about “having it all” in a new and green way, but I’m not buying it. I believe the solution come far more from character than technology, and it’s important to maintain and restore capacity there, too.

    Blogger and Anglican priest Andii Bowsher (Nouslife) draws the line between (two of) the points about something that’s been bothering me, which he drew from an op-ed in the New York Times.

    Do we have the capacity to cope? Perhaps not, or not yet.

    But better to stretch and understand what the Times writers call willpower than wait until we need more than we can possible muster.

    Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind” by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. (April 2, 2008)

    I'm having the best week ever!

    I got paid today. I looked at my bills and expenses. I thought about my options. I made a decision.

    I just made a payment to retire my student debt. Done. Gone. A part of which dates to 1989. Over.

    Oh, and I also bought something nifty today. (With cash, of course.) More about that tomorrow.