Ministry and money: my new read

So, I saw a reference tos James Hudnut-Beumler’s In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (2007, University of North Carolina Press)  and was interested, so ordered a copy. It arrived yesterday, and began reading. The reasons that interested me might apply to you, too.

  1. The money we raise and spend on churches is really important, but we don’t give it due consideration. (But it’s much better than it was a generation ago.)
  2. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century transition to the voluntary support of the church affected Unitarians and Universalists, but in very different ways.
  3. Traces of what we expect from a church persist from those days.
  4. And because our funding models do change, it’s a reminder not to apply sacred weight to something like the offering.

I look forward to the read.

How to test for what’s Unitarian Universalism today

When one — say, me — complains about the failings of Unitarian Universalism, it’s easy to get hung up on national-level ministries. And that’s a problem.

For one, it’s a single point of attention, which can skew perceptions. Also, the national ministries attract participation, and that work also concentrates good and bad behavior; that might misrepresent effort. Plus, it’s in the nature of national organizanions to represent their interests as the interests of its participants, even if the participants in the provinces are in fact ignoring the national office. Lastly, if one did want to change the focus, it seems unfair to highlight the work of a particular congregation, because that means also pointing out its faults; that can be hurtful, which is itself unfair and counterproductive.

But Unitarian Universalism is (or ought to be) more than the work, though and opinion of the UUA, UUMA, the two recognized seminaries and a handful of other organizations that may or may not be functional.

I think an interesting test would be to see what people are hearing in Sunday services.

So I propose to find twenty-five congregations: five from each of the new regions, and distributed in size, chosen as randomly as possible. I will look at their October services and see what themes emerge, if any. I’ll also see how wany services are led by professional staff and what is led by visiting ministers or lay people. This might give us a clue about how congregations staff. October is good because it’s not the summer (when programs often become more informal), not “starting up the new church year” and not near Christmas or the other December holidays.

It’s the kind of survey that might take some time, and certainly one that will reveal failures in sampling part the way through. But this is informal, and still might be useful.

Is there anything you would like me to keep an eye on?

A tale of two travel agents

Perhaps it’s because Daylight Saving Time has ended, and the local businesses have their lights on as I come home, but for some reason, I noticed the travel agency in the ground floor retail space in my apartment building this evening.

And why wouldn’t I notice it other days? Because the business is confined to a small office at the back the retail space it formerly occupied alone. Most of that space is a dry cleaner, a shirt laundry, and an alterer. It’s what has the lit signs. When Hubby and I moved to our building, it was a quiet, somewhat old-fashioned neighborhood amenity — quiet, and a little sad. Even in an internet age, there’s a place for travel agents, especially in a city like Washington with such a large and varied international community. But surely, one or two desk’s worth of specialized travel agent is enough.

There’s another former travel agency near church — no, former isn’t fair. Again, there’s a desk in the back of the retail space, and it specializes in Japanese travel. The owners, reading the writing on the wall, contracted the one business and filled in the rest of the space with a Japanese grocery. So most Sundays after services, I’ll get bean sprouts, tofu, packaged curry, mochi and the like. I had never gone by when it was just a travel agency.

The stories are quite alike, so why “a tale of two travel agents”? Shouldn’t these be different, contrasting stories? Sure, but I can’t find another travel agent around here to compare or contrast…

I’m thinking of churches, of course. And I’m not sure churches are the travel agencies yielding space to stay in (smaller) business, or are the new enterprises making the most of the new situation. Perhaps both. But it’s easy to look at a church contracting in its space, or “rooming” with another entity and see it as regression. But it might just be the future, and future worth having.

Universalist polity document from 1951

Since I earlier opined that some of our conflicted Unitarian Universalist polity is the product of Universalist and Unitarian inheritances, I thought it best to “show my work” — or rather, some original documents.

1951 Universalist Laws of Fellowship, Government and Discipline

Some carryovers are obvious, and some fixes necessary. I recall a senior minister telling me of how a General Convention in the 1950s ground to a halt, as it was the final court of review. Can you imagine a General Assembly stopping in its tracks over a MFC matter? Well, I can, but I wouldn’t want to… But I also think there are protections lost from over-correction. What other continuations do you see? Things you’d like to see come back?

I’m also reorganizing and cleaning up the my documents site — UniversalistChurch.net — a bit, and will add more documents as time allows.

One day later: I’ve edited and put up the set from 1946. http://universalistchristian.net/…/1946-universalist…/

Noteworthy changes 1946 to 1951: higher standards for parishes and the education of ministers; easier to deactivate or sidestep under/dysfunctional state conventions. Note sure it’s germaine, but the 1946 set was job printed and bound, and the 1951 set was mimeographed and stapled. But the laws would go through three more revisions, until 1958, which should be seen less as Universalist than as pre-UUA.

Universalist polity persists today

A couple of weeks ago, I was batting back and forth with an informed Unitarian Universalist friend about our polity, when at one point he zeroed in at the settled clergy vote at General Assembly, at which point I had to stand up for the Universalist contribution to our polity.

This is my side of the discussion, which I admit was a bit of a monologue at that point. I don’t have his permission to share his side, but if commenters want to continue the conversation, I would consider it an honor.

I was wondering what the future holds…

With the one-way push to regions, will there be an opening for devolution of connection authority? — congregational membership, mission planning, ministerial fellowship [at the regional level] — now that there aren’t 19-22 districts.

[After all,] There’s a lot more embedded Universalism in our system than we sometimes credit.

[And then the push about General Assembly votes.]

It’s about fellowship, not credentials per se. Makes more sense in the Universalist sense if the other piece was still in place.

That is, the fellowship of the parishes.

That’s because, from a Universalist frame, the UUA acts (imperfectly) as a national church, something the Unitarians would never have.

[My friend opined that this result is sub-optimal.]

[Today’s system is]neither-nor.

The names tell you all. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.

And why scant resources went to build a Universalist National Memorial Church, but the Unitarians never did.

To finish my thought, the churches were (supposed) to have a parallel relationship to their conventions that the ministers did, supervised by the same committee.

And both ministers and lay persons served on them. Not that I’m all rah-rah retro Universalist.

The half-time service requirement for fellowship renewals — a thorn in my side — is a re-write of a pre-consolidation Universalist rule.

Reading "Church Refugees"

When minister and friend Derek Parker mentioned that he was in a study group, and that they were reading a book about people who were once devoted church members but have left the church without giving up what they believed … well, that piqued my interest. And it’s a sociological study, not just an opinion piece.

I even ordered a copy. And you can also download a sample chapter at the link.

Church Refugees, by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. (Group, 2015)

But I read slowly, so you’ll have a change to catch up.

Economics of City Ministry

A quick #sustainministry follow-on. Is it little wonder that there’s so much wishful and whistful thinking about having monasteries “somewhere”? It’s easy to picture some small, leafy town. Easier certainly that imagining the same in a leafy stretch of Greenwich Village.

Considering the high cost of living and property — purchased or rental — and the cultural and community alternatives found in the large coastal cities, and the high rates of practical secularism, what kind of future is there for churches?

I once read (not long ago) that once a church or synagogue is demolished in New York it is almost impossible to replace it elsewhere. That is, the peak number of houses of worship has past. I would believe the same is true for the District of Columbia. Perhaps that’s fine. But does it imply that we have as many churches as we will ever have in these same coastal cities. And that’s remembering that much of the denominational growth was in the post-WWII housing boom outside those cities. Even with alternative modes of ministry, it’s not hard to imagine that cities will be a special challenge.

Just getting that off my chest.

First thoughts about Economics of Ministry Summit

I normally write blog posts in the evening for morning publication, but I wanted to sleep another night before writing about the Economics of Ministry Summit, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and hosted this week in St. Louis. So far as I know, its only live presence was by Twitter, with the hashtag #sustainministry, so you should revisit those tweets for context.

This isn’t about that meeting’s outcomes, but how I want to approach the enterprise. I’m not going to start by being appreciative, by saying how wonderful the opportunity is and how talented and dedicated the participants. This has been a norm of communication among Unitarian Universalists, often repeated, for several years now and a response to our long-cultivated habit of minute criticism. An over-correction, I think, because it telegraphs an unwholesome cheeriness, softball responses and lowered expectations. That’s hardly respectful, or useful. It’s as if adults can’t be trusted with the truth. So I won’t question the sincerity, intelligence or diligence of the parties of this or any similar conference, but you can have all of these and still end poorly.

At root, the would-be leadership of the UUA has a trust problem with the would-be follower-ship. With each passing year, the UUA does less to justify its existence. What are the high marks for the last few years? Board governance? A property shift? These are internal matters, not missional ones. Are we building or redeveloping churches? No. But worse, we still have a model of ministerial formation that treats people like expensive, yet disposable, liabilities. And a raft of churches — and few will speak of this — that chew up and ruin the ministers they get with impunity. As for our external, missional successes, these come in the form of partnerships, formal and informal. Easy enough to ask, “why not affiliate with whomever’s leading?” If there are successes, they’re in local settings and perhaps informal networks. Again, a challenge to a national body. Unitarian Universalist structures have historically been hard to use, with little money offered. Sluggish, a bit haughty. You learn not to ask for much, and expect less.

At the risk of being cheerful, let me hold out some hope. When you look at the summit in tandem with the emerging communities pilot, I do see a willingness to entertain options and lower the opportunity costs of working within the UUA, and that’s good.

No: it’s better than good. It’s essential, because this work will take place somewhere, and without some structural change it will take place elsewhere.

Type out, edit Universalist polity documents?

I only had time to scan a ton of Universalist polity documents when I was at the Harvard-Andover archive last year, and I’ve still not transcribed them. And it would be nice to have in an easy to read and search format some of the rules and procedures of how Universalists operated — hints of which, and sometimes more — are still in use today. Here’s a taste.

I’m no Tom Sawyer, but Universalist polity documents aren’t whitewash, either. Can anyone commit to typing or editing for an hour? Seminarians, especially, who might find a tidbit for unexplored research.

A service without…

At the risk of austerity-mongering,  it’s worth asking what a small, or new, or fragile church can do without in its worship to make worship sustainable, and to free up money and energy for other parts of church life.

Some things come to mind; here I’m thinking of middle-of-the-road mainline Protestantism. You could have worship

  • without a meeting-place you own
  • even without a fixed meeting-place
  • without a full-time or resident minister
  • without a sermon, or at least a long, originally-composed sermon every week
  • without an organ, and probably without a piano
  • without a choir
  • without hymns

The list goes on, but you may already have experienced one or more of these “deprivations” in your own church. You might not even consider it a deprivation.

I’ll be looking at some of these options on and off for the next few weeks under the banner of “doing what you can, but doing it well.”

Burnout is a real risk under diminishing resources and opportunities. Burning out the leadership, leaving them hopeless, is not an option. Or else you’ll be

  • without a church