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eagles logoResidential leadership schools have been extremely popular in the past few decades. They can offer 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.

uultilogoIn 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.

H-UULTI GRAPHIC with new uua logo and colors

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 an 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.

Going National

As a part of the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff cooperating across regions, a Design Team redesigned the core trainings and created new videos with a variety of presenters, starting with Strategic Leadership in the Fall of 2017, then adding Centered Leadership Parts 1 and 2 in the Spring of 2018. There are plans to refesh these courses as time and resources allow.

The in-person Leadership Experiences offered by the Southern and Pacific Western Regions now use parts of the on-line trainings for pre-work, continuing the flipped classroom model.

We also expanded the online resources on UUA.org, and created a web portal called “LeaderLab,” which includes the UU Leadership Institute.

Responding to the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

In March of 2020, it became apparent that in-person gatherings would be problematic for the forseeable future, and that on-line learning would need to replace in-person trainings. We also anticipated a need for more pastoral care as our congregations experienced illness, isolation and death. A cross-staff team at the UUA developed a robust Lay Spiritual Care program to meet this need. We continue to add trainings to help congregational leaders and their communities.

[1] Thompson, Rod. “Assessing Our Unitarian Universalist Leadership Schools 2004-2005: A Sabbatical Project2014
[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!