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Friday, February 15, 2008

Limits of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism.

I remarked, back in this post, that I "have my own lingering doubts about the adequacy of a strictly congregational understanding of Unitarian Universalism." Dudley asked me to explain, and since Rev Elz has offered an unusually good response, I'm going to move my initial reply and Elz's reply into their own post here.

Some people identify "Unitarian Universalism" with liberal religious congregationalism. By this view, one can't "be" a UU without being a member of a UU congregation, at least not fully. This view seems to have especially strong support right now on the Board of Trustees and in some other leadership circles, where the Association's congregationalism — its "congregational polity" and the Association's accountability to its member congregations — is emphasized to the exclusion of support for extracongregational forms of UU life. (An interesting question is whether the General Assembly could assert that the Association is, in fact, dedicated not just to congregational life and congregational partnerships but also to other forms of Unitarian Universalist affiliation.)

The limitation of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism is that "Unitarian Universalism" exists beyond the limits of congregational affiliation, and beyond the formal boundaries of the UUA. Most of our congregations don't regard children (or teens under 16) as "members" of the congregation, due to the peculiarities of our understanding of congregational polity and our non-ecclesiological understanding of membership, yet our churches do encourage the kids to think of themselves as UUs. And these children grow up to be youth and young adults who quite naturally — and truthfully — do see themselves as Unitarian Universalists even if they have never formally joined a congregation. They may still maintain many other connections to UU life, through social networks, camps, online communities, etc. The religion, in other words, can be practiced and claimed by people who do not participate in our congregational polity.

There are different aspects of religious affiliation. Congregational membership is important — and, in congregational traditions like ours, it is especially important — but it is not quite the same thing as doctrinal agreement, cultural affinity, or sociological identification. I think a lot of people confuse "Unitarian Universalism" (a religion) with "Unitarian Universalist congregationalism" (an organized denominational expression of the religion).

That's my quick response, but Rev Elz offered an even more interesting take:

For an an interesting historical background to the current UUA super-focus on congregations, check out J.D. Bowers' Introduction to his fantastic recent book, Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. This is the clearest, most concise statement I have ever seen of the roots of the conflict between theological Unitarianism, which finds its home wherever it is, and in whatever social structure works — family, individual, small group — versus New England's tightly congregational Puritan polity, regardless of individuals' theologies.

For most of my life, I have been a strong activist in congregational democractic rights, especially the right to elect its own clergy and leaders. But as a liberal, I have become more and more aware of how our current congregationalism (smaller groups with only one minister and a DRE) do not fit most UU's lives. Sadly, I have come to believe that the insistence on congregationalism for our members is hurting us the same way the insistence on celibate clergy has hurt the Roman Catholics. Trying to impose a one-ideal-lifestyle-fits-all form of participation undercuts right relations by making examples of people who over-sacrifice personal health and growth. It fosters secrets among people who don't want to shake the power structure. And it gives undue power to people who can manipulate marginal members, in our case, big donors who let small donors slide by.

Meanwhile, the actual theologies for which our martyrs died have been almost completely lost, treated as anachronistic relics. Yet many of our new members still come in through the same path as our forebears — they were put to reading the Christian scriptures and within them found a clear message of a human Jesus with a saving love from God. And while we still try to cultivate the conscience, our polity insistence on uniformity has atrophied our former skills at supporting diverse political conclusions derived from different readings of the same principles.

It is time to abandon this smug, quick judgemental commitment to forms and get back to remembering the functions of our faith. Great reformers everywhere have made a primary commitment to ministering to people wherever they are in spiritual need. But great religions let themselves be changed each time they find a new way of collecting committed people who are in basic agreement with the views and beliefs of their members and leaders.

Does that mean a return to credalism? No: you can be some kind of Unitarian Universalist while basing your spiritual practices in Buddhism or Christianity or paganism or Judaism or whatever. Our principles are historically derived and clearly stated. They differ dramatically from the fundamental theologies of those faiths: Buddhism, for instance, is not democratic.

Judaism is still our closest kin, especially once one learns to read the prophets and wisdom literature. So it behooves us to remember that our founders learned from those who read and carried the Torah. They offered literature, not congregations. They preached theology, not bylaws. And they have created a variety of meeting forms — family, minyan, congregation — according to the various circumstances in which people of a diaspora make covenants to carry on their heritage.

I'm really not in a position to comment on Buddhism's democratic potential — I'm thinking of those brave monks in Burma, for example — but I think there's a very strong to be made that theological or even cultural Unitarian Universalism have more forms than are currently found in our congregations.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 15 February 2008 at 8:29 AM

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Steve Caldwell:

February 15, 2008 09:53 AM | Permalink for this comment


I blogged about this move towards what I sometimes call "congregational idolatry" back in 2004:

Unitarian Universalism, Congregationalism, and Congregations

The metaphor that I use to describe Unitarian Universalism is we are an amoeba.

Amoebas have a core identity or "nucleus" that allows to continue living and growing. Amoebas also have pseudopods (extensions from the core body) allow it to move, grow, and incorporate new things.

As Unitarian Univesalists, we can't be all "nucleus" because we will become immobile, stagnate, and die.

As Unitarian Universalists, we can't be all "pseudopod" either because we also need our "nucleus" or congregational core for long-term stability and survival.

will shetterly:

February 15, 2008 11:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hmm. It may be time to stop describing UUism as a liberal religion and instead call it a democratic libertarian religion. Well, no, because just as "liberal" implies left-leaning capitalism, "libertarian" in the US has been co-opted by far right capitalists. But it's good to note that this is a faith of democracy and free thought.

As for the potential of Buddhism, it's as great as any religion's, but people should remember that the Dalai Lamas were theocrats in one of the last lands where slavery was openly practiced.


February 15, 2008 11:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris writes: "This view [extreme congregational polity] seems to have especially strong support right now on the Board of Trustees and in some other leadership circles." I believe what's going on in this contemporary re-interpretation of polity is based in large part on Conrad Wright's influential 1997 book "Congregational Polity." But Wright's view is just one interpretation of our polity, one which can be easily challenged.

It seems to me that Wright concentrates on the practice of polity within New England Unitarian churches, and I suspect we could document important differences within Unitarian polity itself in, e.g., the Western Unitarian Conference (Jenkin Lloyd Jones was not Henry Bellows...). Additionally, within Unitarian circles polity changed over time -- e.g., originally, the American Unitarian Association allowed individuals to join, and the last individual membership ended within living memory. So there is a precedent for individuals belonging directly to the national organization. Finally, I believe Wright places far too much value on the Cambridge Platform -- a document which states, "It is the duty of magistrates [i.e., government officials] to be concerned about matters of religion and to strengthen their civil authority to encourage observance of the Ten Commandments." (!!) I think we really want to question anything based on the Cambridge Platform!

Furthermore, Wright demonstrates a mediocre (to put it kindly) understanding of Universalist polity, effectively leaving out one half of our tradition. I'd love to see a reinvestigation of Universalist congregational polity -- not that we'd want to adopt an exact historical Universalist polity (as current UU leadership seems to be trying to do based on Wright's book), but so we can search for useful ideas. According to Russell Miller, in the 19th C., state conventions (i.e., middle judicatories) elected the delegates to the national general convention -- not local congregations. That's an interesting idea today, as middle judicatories might be in a better position to fund travel expenses for their delegates. I'd also love to see us in conversation with the UCC and the ABC, our closest relatives in terms of polity -- what could we learn from them?

In short, I think we've been relying way too heavily on one scholar -- Wright -- who had significant blind spots. This reigning view of polity needs to be seriously questioned and even challenged. Chris, thank you for raising this issue. (And hey -- how about commissioning an article on Universalist polity from someone like Charles Howe for UU World?...)


February 15, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Perhaps the greatest danger is in turning congregationalism into a dogma or a doctrinal test: "if you do not believe in congregational polity, then you are not/cannot be a UU". That would be a terrible mistake.

BTW has anybody questioned if congregationalism is functional and effective in today's globalized world? Or should congregational autonomy (not independence) be balanced with mutual interdependence with other congregations, schools, associations, etc.? The nodes in a network are important, but so links between nodes are. And even a small network (let's say, like a national network) is insufficient to deal with the complexities of the global society, where something happening on the other side of the globe is influential in our local environment. Let us build on our mutual links rather than remain entrenched in our little nodes.

Rev Elz:

February 15, 2008 12:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have on my bookshelf a little volume called "Parish Practice in Universalist Churches: A Manual of Organization" by Robert Cummins, the UCA's last president. Not available through Barnes and or, so it might be hard to come by. I have never spent much time with it, but I keep it as a testatment to the indisputable fact that many Universalists were just as concerned as any Unitarians to right relations in and through active parish life.

The volume appears to have been part of the consolidation era. It would be interesting to know whether it was designed to impress the Unitarians or to guide the notorious fractious Universalists. Probably a little of both...

Peter Bowden:

February 15, 2008 12:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

As I have become a bolder UU evangelist I have increasingly encountered "closet UUs" who secretly identify as Unitarian Universalists. Based on some very interesting conversations I would offer that this congregationalism serves to drive these freerange UU's underground.

Something like 600,000 self identified as UU in the last US census. That's about triple the adult membership of the UUA. I think we should affirm freerange organic Unitarian Universalism.

Imagine if that Belief-O-Matic quiz that tells everyone they are 98% UU had a question that asked if you went to church AND that not answering NOPE yielded a 0% Unitarian Universalist....

Unitarian Universalism is a guiding force in how I live my life. I'm working on bringing it more and more outside of the congregation. Maybe some of the people who are not involved at the congregational level are not involved because they are LIVING IT. Maybe we should figure out how to join them... If we did, if more UU's were living it between Sundays, maybe then the other 400,000 self identified UU's would come to church more often.

Great conversation. Thanks...

h sofia:

February 15, 2008 01:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

Gosh darnit, where is that "nominate this post for a UU blog award" button when you need it! Thanks, Chris, for this post, and also to the other readers for their comments. Especially Jaume, who wrote:

"BTW has anybody questioned if congregationalism is functional and effective in today's globalized world? "

Hallelujah! Sometimes I wish the scientific method were part of our seven principles. We have all of these ideas about how things should work, but when was the last time we verified that they do, in fact, still work?

In any case, I've learned a lot, and will have to save this post, as I'm working in a district that really wants to get back to serving young adults within congregations - of course, this is because the congregations want to feel their money is serving them. Funny how it somehow manages to come back to $$$.

Aaron Sawyer:

February 15, 2008 02:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

As the founder of, I believe the perspective of congregationalism is hugely limiting to UUism. On a purely descriptive basis of people's beliefs, I feel there are millions of UUs that are simply unaware of a religion that matches their beliefs.
This is the premise of that UUism exists MOSTLY outside of the congregational environment.


February 15, 2008 06:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

While I am a fan of congregationalism, I've long felt it a mistake to identify a particular polity with liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular. The simple fact that our Unitarian cousins in Ireland and Great Britain both follow a presbyterian polity and our Hungarian speaking cousins on the continent maintain a modified-episcopacy, to assert the necessary connection between our tradition seems a mistake on the face of it.

As to Buddhism: there are various schools, and while it is true that Zen and others that have a "gnostic" element of necessity also have a hierarchical structure, but some, such as Japanese Shin, maintain pretty flat structures (in America a modified-episcopacy)...


February 15, 2008 08:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I couldn't disagree more with the concepts of extra-congregational UUism that I have seen posted here. It strikes me to be just as strange as somebody saying "I'm a Quaker, but I choose not to be part of a meeting for worship", or "I'm an Episcopalian, but choose not to be a communicant of the Church." What is Unitarian Universalism when it is divorced from congregational life? How do we dare claim the identity, when we dare to reject the body that meets and works together?

When I worked in campus ministry for the old UU District of Michigan I always struggled with the numerous students I met who were raised UU, who not only chose not to participate in a congregation, but were also openly hostile to congregational life and those who chose it. The disdain was immense for commitments required by anything leading to covenanted spiritual community.

This is the old flaw of the Transcendentalists, who thought that all religion is best when it is individual practice and individual experience. Such a practice of liberal religion often leads to the idolatry of having a god in your head who agrees with what you already think.

There are, however, religions without concepts of membership. Religions without concepts of membership (like Shinto) are strongly grounded in a common spiritual practice (rituals and/or prayers). So, for example, Shinto is something you do instead of something you are a member of. As best I can see, we UU's are in no position to agree on a common practice (the thing of things UU's do that makes us UU's). We may talk about people who LIVE UUism apart from congregations. But what does this look like? And is it really something recognizable as special to UU's? Or is it like the hubris of saying, "We UU's are loving and rational", and ignoring the fact that most people of any religion (or no religion) are loving and rational? Or perhaps we have adpoted the conceit that our social activism makes us UU, while ignoring that people of any faith can engage in exactly the same activism.

So with no congregational membership, and no shared practice of prayer or ritual, what would the common thread be in non-congregational UUism? Without a common thread, the whole endeavor will inevitably evaporate, just as the Transcendentalist Movement evaporated in its own hyper-individualism.

People are focused on congregationalism for a very good reason. Without healthy congregations at the core of who we are, Unitarian Universalism as presently practiced would go extinct.

Tim Fitzgerald:

February 15, 2008 08:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Derek, I think your fears may be somewhat unfounded. As stated, the relationship between congregational UU membership and self-identified UUs is about 1:2. I would be willing to bet that many such UUs in the latter category have been, and will again be, members of congregations. Including many of the youth you spoke to who did not identify with a congregational mode of UUism at the time you spoke with them.

Part of it, indeed, may be that congregational UUism needs to change to better meet the needs of those who are not currently participating. For example, it makes little sense for former youth who were highly involved in UU youth spiritual culture -- actively endorsed and encouraged by the UUA, and suited well to modern spiritual (group-intensive) practice -- to transition from that into a congregational lifestyle that bears no resemblance to what they have come to associate with holy.

Later on, congregational UUism may better meet their needs, both as they change and as congregations change. But if UUs for whom congregations currently work disenfranchise UUs for whom congregational life does not, how is congregational life going to grow to meet the needs of the greater body of UUs?

This movement towards defining UUism in terms of only those for whom it currently works is going to simply squeeze that category smaller and smaller. If followed to its logical end, congregational polity is a ticket straight to irrelevance for UUism -- and, eventually, death.


February 15, 2008 09:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for this post Philocrites. While certainly congregational life is an important part of the Unitarian Universalist faith as a whole, and important to many self-identified Unitarian Univesalists, I have always been perplexed by this fixation that all "real" UUism must be grounded in a congregation. What about all those self-identified Unitarian Universalists who can't find a home congregation where they fit? Or, for whatever reason, don't want to or can't be part of a congregation? What about folks that might embody Unitarian Univeralist values and be potential adherents to the faith, but never have a chance to access or learn about it because they quickly learn that it is all about "being a member of a church" and reall UUs must be members of a church. For me, UUism has always been, in large part, about living our faith our in the world - in our lives - just as my Christianity was (is?) about that. I would like to find ways to make a spiritual home for Unitarian Universalist-identified or leaning folks that does not insist that congregational life is "where its at." I think an excellent example is youth - congregations often suck at providing youth with what they need - for whatever reason. How can we minister to and reach out to young people who may not find a home in a congregation now, and maybe never? Are we confined by the walls of a church? I hope not. Anyway, thanks for this post. I hope to post more on it about my blog.... someday! Much peace, Elizabeth

Patrick Murfin:

February 16, 2008 01:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

This was first posted to the UU History Chat List, but seems appropriate here.

The recent decision of the Board to disaffiliate many organizations is the natural outgrowth of years of hard work and dedicated agitation to return the UUA to a purer recognition of congregational polity and the role of governance bodies to the exclusive service of member congregations not to individuals or groups who claim relationship with Unitarian Universalism. This may be a perfect case of be careful what you ask for.

Other moves in this direction include offering special inducements of Congregational presidents to attend District and General Assemblies as delegates (instead of relying exclusively on typically self-selected “GA junkies), de-emphasizing social justice resolutions (by complicating the process, limiting numbers of resolutions that can be offered, and now by demanding a minimum level of Congregational input for what used to be the multi-year study-action process), and some attempts to restore actual business functions to the GA.

But, of course these actions are being taken by Board, with the support of the administration both of which are considered an anathema to Congregational Polity purists. So no one is happy. Not the purists who despise the Board and executive model even when it attempts to carry out reforms of which they generally approve or those who envision a more denominational model in which non congregational connections can be made and sustained within a broader fellowship.

I understand the appeal of both approaches. But strict congregationalism, supplemented only by voluntary clustering of local congregations and conventions strictly limited to congregational officers and ministers (Alice Blair Wesley’s beloved model) breaks down connectivity beyond the very local level and excludes the individual entirely. In this model there are no Unitarian Universalists, only book signed members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Middlebrow, The First Society Nogodtalkhere, the UU Fellowship of Obscurity, etc. As soon as an individual, for what ever reason, ceases to be a formal member of a recognized congregation, we are to turn our backs on them. They can call themselves unitarians or universalists till the cows come home if they want, but they have nothing to do with us.

This is absurd on its face. Call it heresy, but if denominationalism means finding ways to keep individuals connected to our broader movement, if it can find ways of encouraging communications across congregational boundaries, and facilitate folks working together in a context of Unitarian Universalism, then I am all for it.

Elz points out that an immediate effect of the disaffiliation actions is denying groups an opportunity for program platforms at GA and district assemblies. This is precisely the goal of congregational polity purist. They wave their hands and say that these folks are free to associate and do what they like, just not here. And just not under the common binding identity of Unitarian Universalism.

And many of these groups will continue to exist. But they will be changed. Instead of being able to share their gifts with a wider community and with each other, the members of these groups will talk only to each other. A general conversation among them can exist because folks can and do visit each other’s programs.

Now we history geeks will have convocation. It will be lively, educational, and inspiring. I look forward to participating if I can afford travel and hotel. But we will be talking only to ourselves. With the Board simultaneously pondering slashing support of our traditional denominational seminaries—the only place where in depth Unitarian/Universalist/Unitarian Universalist history is apt to be taught in depth-- a major conduit of institutional memory will be cut off and virtually unavailable to the Congregations we profess to support.

Worse, in the case of the faith groups, it leads directly to balkanization, as if we did not have enough difficulty with that already. Christians and Humanists already feel marginalized and excluded (often blaming the same individuals and institutions.) Each feels that way because they cannot abide to sit quietly and listen to the language of the other. Humanists feel “attacked” by “god talk.” Christians feel snubbed when Bible readings, prayers, or simple rituals disappear from worship and communal gatherings.
How much worse will this be when each gets to nurse their grievances only in an echo chamber?

Finally the strict congregational polity model does not allow enough centralized administration to foster a unifying Unitarian Universalist identity, so necessary for folks to know where to look for congregations when they get the unorthodox itch. Nor does it allow for the support services for congregations that, like it or not, Beacon Street and District offices provide.

In re-examining or models of organization, surely we can be creative. We can find ways to simultaneously strengthen congregations, build broader connections, and include those thousands of people wandering the planet today under the delusion that are Unitarian Universalists.

Desmond Ravenstone:

February 16, 2008 03:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

One of the reasons given for reconsidering the ideal of "strict congregationalism" has been the emergence of special interest groups within the UU movement, based on both issues of concern and approaches to spirituality. This was reflected in the recent rules changes over how groups could qualify for Independent Affiliate status with the UUA.

But there is yet another reason to reconsider this approach - the radical changes in communication over the past decade or two, allowing communities to be created and sustained across geogtraphical boundaries. This is especially evident with the Second Life UU congregation, composed of people from all over the globe.

Just as radical changes forced the early Christian church to redefine and reorganize ourselves, and subsequent changes in society led to responses by various religious groups, so our faith movement will need to reconsider our structures, message and defining characteristics.

Dudley Jones:

February 16, 2008 05:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

"With the Board simultaneously pondering slashing support of our traditional denominational seminaries—the only place where in depth Unitarian/Universalist/Unitarian Universalist history is apt to be taught in depth"
Is it true that today the only school that actually has a supported full time scholar of UU studies is Harvard? ML and SKSM are indeed wonderful places we can be proud of, but if you look at their catalogs they are not necessarily focused on UU history or doctrines.

Rev Elz:

February 16, 2008 07:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris pointed out the price our self-knowledge has paid for relying too heavily on a single scholar, mostly C Conrad Wright (who just turned 92 last weekend and is still part of First Parish and Church in Cambridge, MA, so far as I know). [I think you mean Dan. —Chris] No matter who Harvard chooses to replace him as the long-delayed first "Emerson Professor," it will be only one person. This person will not be able to fully feel all the scholarly perspectives currently active in UU Studies, either historical or theological. I do not claim to feel them all, either. Patrick has made a marvelous statement about the need for all of us to know each other as fully as we can.

But this "single leader" model doesn't just hurt us in scholarhip. It is even more devastating in our vision of congregational polity. When it comes to visualizing ministry, most of us have barely moved past the Radical Reformation assertion that all we need is a single priest; progressivism in those days just meant a non-celibate (the beards, BTW, were worn as a symbol of male potency, just as the celibate clergy were clean-shaven). And in those days, it was also progressive to have mom and the daughters join the father and brothers in running the family business. Does your religious education program still bear that hallmark? Does your congregation plan to reach out to young families by calling a minister or DRE with children? Uh-huh!

I agree with the call to have as many UU-identifying people as possible connected with congregations (although I did very much enjoy the ameoba analogy and am currently not worshipping in a congregation). However, advocates of congregational polity need to support the diversity of membership -- youth, elders, singles, hourly workers, etc -- by putting their money where their mouth is. People come to worship to be near the minister. Diverse people will come - and stay, and work, and pledge -- only as you increase your diversity of ministries.

I have been shocked (pleasantly) at how First UU Society of Burlington VT grows in service and diversity, precisely because their minister (Gary Kowalski) is selfless in advocating for adjunct staff to meet specialized needs. Youth, people with disabilities, young adults, small group ministries -- Gary calls for staff for everyone, training for all staff -- and then attends every group often enough to keep anyone from feeling ghettoized. The result is a congregation whose size, according to the UUA Large Church Consultant, has "absolutely no demographic explanation." (600 members in just one UU society, in a state with only one member of Congress.)

Somewhere in my original post I decried the patriarchal model of "One minister and one DRE." Even when both are women, or the minister is a woman and DRE is a male -- or whatever the latest progressive combo is -- the model has not moved out of the Radical Reformation, with its assumption of nuclear family primacy and congregational reflection of the primary nuclear family. I would like to see less polity work on indivual rights -- not an area where UUs need encouragement -- and a lot more on marrying the traditional call for membership to a 21st century vision of ministry which reflects today's ebb-and-flow extended families webs and leaves that 16th-20th centuries mom-and-pop idea behind.

h sofia:

February 16, 2008 11:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rev Elz - wow! That was an awesome comment. How I think about this issue just keeps changing with every new addition to the conversation.

Kim Hampton:

February 17, 2008 06:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

I fall with Derek on this one. It's called "congregational polity" for a reason. (let's not forget that we are the children of the Puritans on the Unitarian side) If we haven't learned anything from Emerson and his bunch it should be that institutions matter.

I think that there has to be some middle ground. Yes, there are people that don't want to have a relationship with a UU church, but that does not mean we should count them in our numbers.(I've always been a little leary of the numbers of people who say that they are UU in surveys. I'd be really surprised to find out that that many knew what UUism is) How else can you measure the growth of a movement unless people are willing to make a COMMITMENT to the institutions of that movement?

And by the way....for those who haven't found (or aren't near) a local church home, there is the Church of the Larger Fellowship. So there really is no excuse if somebody wants to claim to be a UU for not being a member of a church.


February 17, 2008 11:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hurray for complex views on complex situations, and the relationship between congregational and conference UUism is a complex situation.

I'm intentionally writing here "conference UUism", and Philocrites uses the term "conference culture". I don't see any substantial non-congregational UU activity other than con culture, or perhaps con/camp culture. Am I missing something? Would it be useful and accurate to say "con culture" as a reasonable name for a certain set of attitudes and practices? I think so; church UUism and con UUism each have their liturgical staples, their recurrent or traditional songs, their assumptions about leadership.

C*YRUU and ConCon and Opus, so far as I can tell, have inspired some people to call themselves UU in isolation, and some people to practice congregational UUism, and some people to keep attending Summer's End and similar events. I speculate that investing funds in C*YRUU is not going to grow the UUA nearly half as well as investing the same amound of funds in outreach to "walk-in" UUs. I'm not saying that growing the UUA is *my* top priority, but it's a reasonable top priority for the UUA.

Steve Caldwell:

February 18, 2008 01:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

Some of the questions about "congregational" vs "non-congregational" expression of Unitarian Universalism were addressed in the UUA's Commission on Appraisal's report on membership issues.

The COA's report can be found on the following page:

It's called Belonging: The Meaning of Membership

Two chapters that are relevant to this blog thread are:

Chapter 6: Pathways to Growth

Chapter 7: Investing in Youth and Young Adults

Perhaps we should ask what needs do "non-congregational" UU groups meet for individuals who choose to join them? Can UU congregations respond to these needs?

tim fitzgerald:

February 18, 2008 03:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

Let's not pretend that the Church of the Larger Fellowship is a substantial substitute for congregations or "con culture" spirituality. Saying, "Oh, well you can join the Church of the Larger Fellowship" is saying "we'll count you as relevant if you pretend that you're part of a congregation". Again, evidently the practices of UUs who worship collectively but not in a congregation do not matter for their own sake.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure the CLF is great for certain UUs, but to compare it to youth and young adult spirituality is to suggest that the valid concerns of youth and young adults who were raised UU only to find they have little place in it, should be brushed under the rug. The CLF should not be viewed as the depository and last refuge of all UUs who are not served by traditional congregations. (And to the person who suggested that more resources should be allocated towards converting "walk-ins" than honoring the promises we make to our youth, that to me is, frankly, a wrong-hearted and wrong-minded attitude. We wouldn't need walk-ins if we didn't betray dedicated UUs on the daily.)

My problem with the term "con culture" is that it suggests that the community that results is mainly around conferences, whereas congregational is a term that clearly connotes a community, not an event. The community built at large-group events like conferences transcends those events. Calling it "con culture" is like calling congregational culture "Sunday morning culture."

tim fitzgerald:

February 18, 2008 03:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm sorry, but the irony of the "focus on walk-ins" attitude is just absolutely over the top to me. Imagine!

"Hello, new parents who are joining the church because they want to provide a spiritual path for their children, welcome! Welcome to the UU meetinghouse. Yes, we will gladly teach your children about their inherent worth and dignity, and how Unitarian Universalists believe themselves capable of upholding it. Yes, we will gladly teach them of the value of the democratic process, and how it is the only true path to justice. Yes, we will happily give them a rich spiritual background. Yes, when they become youth, we will encourage them to minister to each other. And when they become young adults, and ask us that we honor our commitments to justice, to democracy, and to good faith, by supporting their concepts of faith, love, and God, and learning from them as they have from us, we will turn our backs on them to welcome the next pair of young parents looking to join a church so that they can provide a spiritual path to their children."

Rev Elz:

February 18, 2008 08:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

I couldn't agree more with the hypocrisy of our "walk-in" culture. It's the last remaining vestige of the days when UUs used to "discover themselves" in college or confirmation or marriage or whatever and bring in a strong childhood indoctrination on institutional culture that made them good members just because "that's what one does." The purpose of having diverse ministers is to diversify, increase and SUSTAIN our pastoral care. One of the main reason we lose members is that they "go into crisis." Yet any scripture you read suggests that personal crisis is exactly when the primary religious reformers we admire(Buddha on suffering, Jesus on healing, Moses on leading) recruited their best adherents -- not by walking by but by reaching out.


February 18, 2008 10:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

Riley37 writes: "I don't see any substantial non-congregational UU activity other than con culture, or perhaps con/camp culture." He also offers a much better term, "conference UUism."

Actually, I wasn't thinking only of self-identified Unitarian Universalists who practice the community dimension of their religion by going to conferences. When 600,000 Americans say they're Unitarian Universalists, but only 225,000 are affiliated with congregations, I'm quite sure the rest aren't con-goers.

I was also thinking of people who are doctrinally, theologically, or culturally UU but who attend other churches or none. (I think of cultural UUs as the broader category for people who grew up in UU homes and communities, but who do not maintain a congregational connection.) I'm working on another post about the doctrinal or theological UUs/religious liberal who aren't part of our churches.

Steve Caldwell:

February 18, 2008 10:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

On 15 February 2008, Derek wrote:
"And is it really something recognizable as special to UU's? Or is it like the hubris of saying, "We UU's are loving and rational", and ignoring the fact that most people of any religion (or no religion) are loving and rational?"

Well -- speaking as a resident of the "Bible Belt" and noting the fact that support for evolution has dropped from 45% to 40% over the past 20 years, I would suggest that "loving and rational" may not be unique to Unitarian Universalism. However, "loving and rational" isn't the majority view either in the US. Here's a link to the news story covering this attitude survey:

I was originally trained as a microbiologist -- although I haven't worked in this area since 1980s, I do keep up with new developments in my former field.

The theory of evolutionary biology is as well-established as the theory of relativity and other theories that we accept as "true" in the provisional sense.

Jeff W.:

February 18, 2008 10:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

Strict congregational notions of UU identity are absurd. I was raised UU and have been a member of a number of UU churches, including the Church of the Larger Fellowship. There have also been times in my life, often after a move, when I wasn't officially on the books at any particular UU church. It is silly to suggest that I was a UU for 18 years, then I wasn't one for a few months, then I became a UU again for several years, then I wasn't a UU for a couple of years, then I was a UU again for a while, etc, etc, etc.

As a professor whose research specialties include American liberal religion here is how I determine if one of my subjects is a Unitarian-Universalist: a) the person is/was a member of a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian-Universalist church or organization; or b) the person proclaimed him/herself to be a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian-Universalist and had a reasonably clear understanding of what such an identification meant, or c) the person was raised in a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian-Universalist church and, while not specifically affiliated during adulthood, did not join another denomination or repudiate U/U/UUism, or d) the person attends/attended a Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian-Universalist church with some regularity and has/had religious sympathies in clear alignment with U/U/UUism, but happened not to have signed the book (these instances are judged on a case-by-case basis, depending on the actual circumstances and factors involved).

Note that I use the past tense in the above definition to denote deceased individuals.

Typically I differentiate in my work between people who are Unitarian-Universalist and those who have Unitarian-Universalist sympathies. The latter are part of the story of UUism and have at times made important contributions to the tradition, but I am explicit in locating them as near outsiders, rather than full insiders or full outsiders.

Congregational polity is how Unitarian and Universalist churches were both governed. Neither group believed that it was determinant of who was or was not a Unitarian or Universalist. Both groups recognized individuals as being perfectly capable of being Unitarian or Universalist without being formally affiliated. This was especially true for the Universalists, who often had denominatinal members (or at least, shall we say, fellow travelers) in frontier regions that lacked any formal Universalist churches.

We need to recognize that while the practice of covenantal community occured in both our parent denominations, it has grown in importance in our rhetoric and imagination in recent decades, precisely during the period when the doctrinal core of the two denominations was largely jettisoned in favor of truly open and non-determined personal spiritual searching. That is to say, as liberal Christianity waned in Unitarian and Universalist circles and even loose ideology was lost as a foundational community touchstone, congregational polity was elevated to a higher position in UU imagination and self-understanding than before as a way of forming a new basis on which to justify UU community organization (in the face of post-Christianity, on the one hand, which removed the binding effects of common theology, and radical individualism on the other hand, which encouraged the disintegration of churches and other corporate bodies).

This period also roughly corresponded with an explosion of new and relatively sympathetic research by Religious Studies and Literature scholars into the Puritans as the alleged basis on American culture, and naturally this led to a greater appreciation and re-appropriation of some Puritan elements by Unitarians who were part of or exposed to this new scholarship (after all, Unitarians were very disproportionately represented amongst academia). Congregational polity was one of these newly re-evaluated and re-energized by-products of the search for origins amongst the Puritans.

Eric Swanson:

February 19, 2008 02:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Back to Kim Hampton's comment yesterday: "... there is the Church of the Larger Fellowship. So there really is no excuse if somebody wants to claim to be a UU for not being a member of a church."

I invite everyone here to think through what this implies: a) that calling oneself a UU is a privilege worth lying to get; and b) that a person who wants to take UU beliefs into her heart without committing or paying needs an excuse.

To me this seems a bleak and loveless shadow of a faith tradition. Do we really need to hoard our identity? Do we really need to judge those who haven't yet found a fulfilling spiritual home?

For what it's worth, I don't. I'm pretty sure most Baptists and Episcopalians don't either. And for darned sure the Evangelical megachurches don't. They of all people know that religion is more valuable the more you give it away.

Sure, there's a value to measuring the number of committed UUs who are ready to pledge and speak out regularly and so on. But ultimately I believe our faith tradition is measured in the lives it changes -- and I don't think such theologo-protectionist views help it reach many.

Jeff W.:

February 19, 2008 08:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Eric, there's no need to worry. We don't hoard our identity, we readily give it away--that is, if you're famous, and especially if you're dead. Probably half the people on those infamous lists of famous UUs would've been disqualified in life by strict congregationalists, since they weren't on the books. But we're much more generous once you've kicked the bucket and are remembered for doing something noteworthy (and most often unrelated to religion).

I was thinking some more about this sticky issue of identifying UUs. A lot of times we really aren't consistent. For instance, officially there's no real Unitarian or Universalist denominations left in America--everything is Unitarian-Universalist now. But we recognize as part of our in-group or close kin people who aren't Unitarian-Universalist, mainly outside the USA. For instance, there's a lot of attention given to the Unitarians of Transylvania. We count the Dojin Christian Church of Japan (Universalists), as well as the Universalists in the Phillippines. Up north the official denomination is the Canadian Unitarian Council. But many people probably don't count the American Unitarian Conference, an upstart proto-denomination that began a few years ago and is intended as a rival to the UUA. However, as a researcher I do count the AUC folks as Unitarians and part of the history of liberal religion, though not of exactly the same stream.

The UUA has a very nice webpage that details most of the worldwide Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist groups. It is at All of these groups receive UUA recognition, but not all of them are organized along congregationalist lines. Furthermore, some of them count as Unitarians or Universalists people who are not churchmembers, in keeping with local understandings of religious affiliation.

Ultimately, the strict congregationalists are a minority within UUism, especially if we note that statistically it appears that members of UUA churches are themselves a minority. Even within the UUA, strict congregationalists are a minority, it seems clear to me. But it's not too surprising to find them well represented near the top of the UUA, since it is a viewpoint that in some ways serves the interests of the organization. It's also not surprising to find this attitude among some ministers and seminarians, since it serves their purposes. Definitions are always affected by positionality.

Ultimately, we should recognize that institutions are ephemeral, and have always been contested in our history. There were Unitarians and Universalists long before there were any institutional expressions of these theologies, and at every point of our history there have been upstanding Unitarians and Universalists who refused to join these late-arriving institutions on grounds of conscience. Furthermore, these institutions have changed considerably in organization and character through the years; some have even passed away entirely, a fate that all institutions eventually meet. There is a risk to measuring faith or identity by commitment to institutions, since institutions may change radically during one's lifetime or pass away altogether. In no previous period of our history was commitment to institutions counted as the litmus test for authentic Unitarian or Universalist spirituality, perhaps because our forebearers understood this fact about mere human organizations.


February 19, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Don't miss David Pyle's essay at Celestial Lands, where he writes: "The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is not the Movement of Unitarian Universalism, rather a service organization for a part of that Movement[:] congregations."

Pastordan at Street Prophets also responds to my post, making a distinction between a vessel and its contents. (As is his wont, he takes the point and runs off to discuss the relationship between the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.)

Rev Elz:

February 19, 2008 12:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for these excellent links, Chris. And thanks to David and Dan for such excellent expansions on the fundamental theological issue of separating flesh and spirit.

Again, history has much to teach about how to move forward constructively. The Roman Catholic Church dealt with this issue extensively in the 13th-16th centuries, more or less. This was, as you will recall, a time of the mandatory universal membership that our Puritan forebears were trying to claim for themselves in Massachusetts Bay. But hte parish priests failed to provide all the things wanted by subgroups in the parish> Answering their own calls to ministry, the people took creative initiatives. Both men and women formed monastic orders which combined, in a wholistic way, lives of spiritual dscipline, public service and theological loyalty. As these obtained successful followings, local bishops found it desireable to honor and affiliate with the leaders. You will find in the lives of their saints the moment when their projects were too large for their bishops to ignore, and various tales of how integrations were achieved. The result was, for all intents and purposes, a diversification of congregational structures all under the cloaks of various bishops. It was approval of the first bishop that allowed safe and comfortable spread of the organizational models which had been most welcomed by the people in their needs. Thus were born hospitals, orphanages, schools -- all the extra-familiar helping organizations we cherish today. Their founders were heavily monastic (male and female) orders, and the bishops's blessings allowed the faithful to make donations and use services without fear of excommunication, literally, exclusion from the mass and last rites.

More problematic were thr friars, for they sought no polity, just preached as they went. Here was charisma at its purest. Parish priests were often illierate or semi-literate (see the Trentian demands that they be able to read and discuss the scriptures!), and friars appear to have been those with unusual verbal skill. This was a more direct threat to the priest, as it competed with his more humble skills at interpreting scripture and his more rigorous mandate for comforming it to church doctrine. This controvrsy appeared among us North Americans in the Antenomian Controversy associated with Ann Hutchinson, and has not gone away yet.

To sum up, pure antenomianism -- what we would call radical spiritualindividualism -- is one topic. Diversifying polity structures is a different one. There is no historic reason the UUA as an association of congregations descended from Roman Catholic polity structures, should only accept the parish model, rejecting that of monasteries, theological societies, etc, provided they covenant.

So what is the real reason? Note the role of local bishops in affirming local popular support for religious innovators. In 1876, our National Conference of Churches accepted a centralized, top-down model of ministerial fellowship. By setting up one committee, they in effect announced they would take only one model of ministry. When the regional affiliates were set up several years ago, they were seeded with leaders from the original central MFC, and the first step in obtaining candidate status is not successfully creating a congregation -- of whatever polity -- but getting approval by this group, assembled in a confidential retreat.

Can you say "bishop?" But these are bishops with a power negotiated if not ceded by their Roman Catholic forebears many centuries ago. The RC bishops retain the right to rule parish priests, but in return they commit to living in creative tension with the monastic orders and academic theologians. (The current pope is disliked by many Catholics precisely because he has worked so hard to suppress this historic compromise, first under the cloak of his predecessor's charisma.)

The second reason we have not yet accepted this expansionist approach to polity models is less well known. Over the years, we allowed the gradual replacement of theological pronouncement with edifice renewal. Does your congregation affirm RE? The UUA wants you to say it with friendly, adequate class space -- maybe even a playground people can see from the street. Never mind that Jesus worked in a field, and Buddha under a tree (in Nepal, not warm Southern India) -- we have landmark congregations, whose additions announce our progressivity. There's physical accessibility. There are gender neutral restrooms and family ones. And that doesn't even get into how we decorate!

I rejoice in all these incusivities, but only for people who want to place their main spiritual locus in parish congregations whose worship is a direct descendent of the Roman Catholic mass. For the rest of us, the district boards need genuine power to mentor alternative local groups, integrate them when they succeed, mourn them and resettle their members when they fail -- and support them to the rest of the association when their ministries catch fire.


February 19, 2008 03:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have long felt that membership in a congregation is not necessary to consider oneself UU. As Jeff W. has pointed out what of those who for a variety of reasons are between churches?

What would the reaction be if this philosophy were extended to all things UU?

A UU Minister who is not currently a member of a congregation or currently serving a congregation would not only no longer be a UU but would no longer be a Minister.

And what of those Ministers who feel it is a conflict of interest to be a member of the congregation they are serving and do not officially join another congregation? Does that put their congregation in the position of having called a Minister who is not UU?

Rev Elz:

February 19, 2008 05:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ed mentioned the status of ministers who are not members of the congregations we serve. In fact, for many UU ministers,the UUMA chapter has the feel and function of a congregational commitment. We have a covenant among ourselves, a monthly meeting most of the time -- which includes worship -- good offices leaders to assist us in tough situations, and business information from the UUA and all other areas. We light candles for each other, happy and sad, and ask about people who are missed.

Is this good or bad? I don't know. But it certainly changes in a multi-professional, multi-minister staff. Up here in Burlington, the gathering I miss most is the one that happens Wednesday morning amongst the whole professional staff. Worship leadership is rotated and sincere; the spiritual life of the congregation is front and center at that table, without discounting the healthiness among the staff. Carl Scovel used to have staff prayers at King's Chapel, and the UUA does it now.

What if our congregational boards and committee leaders were the ones sharing covenanted spiritual quality time with the clergy and staff professionals -- instead of assembling only for tactical business purposes? We have lose far more than God when we quit praying together -- mostly, we lose each other.

The real question in covenanted gathering is, which"each other" are you reaching to know? Forget about God for a minute and remember that our communion tradition, which is the Radical Reformation, communion does not assume Jesus is present -- that's eucharistic communion such as Roman Catholics have, and some protestants in their part of the theological world. Our forebears decided that we were communing with each other as rememberers of, and in remembrance of, Jesus of Nazareth.

So what are we really worshipping at our spiritual tables, when we separate by professional and non-professional status? What food are we gaining to put on the tables we serve? This is fundamental question in all this thread: how do we close the circle between the feeding of the shepherds and the feeding of the sheep?


February 20, 2008 07:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chutney keeps things in perspective. Check out his post, in which he observes: "The movement known as Unitarian Universalism is kept alive by actual people who are actual members of actual congregations. Other facets of the movement contribute to its vitality in their own ways, but their importance pales in comparison to actual members of actual congregations."


February 24, 2008 01:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Shelby doesn't think that congregational membership is the essential thing to Unitarian Universalist identity, but participating in a UU community is. She adds: "The emphasis of UU efforts should be on creating more opportunities for UU’s to be members of communities, rather than slicing and dicing what kind of communities and what kind of UU’s count."


February 24, 2008 05:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

What a great conversation! Thank you to each of you.

I follow up with a second post, "Baptism is more than signing a membership book," in which I expand on my observation that Unitarian Universalists have a "non-ecclesiological understanding of membership."


February 26, 2008 11:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

See also "Communities Beyond the Congregational Door" at UU Intersections.

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