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?

I wish Unitarian Universalism was a game!

One set of people suggests liberal religion, and Unitarian Universalism particularly, is easy, insincere and a mental or spiritual plaything because of its inherent looseness and high regard for personal autonomy.

Another set of people — that’s us — seems to take that that as a challenge, rather than opportunity to correct our behavior or refute the premise. (Or not care about the challenge.) The conventional answer is that Unitarian Universalism is the most difficult religion (because of all the decisions and so forth) and thus very sincere and serious and so forth. There’s a mountain of sermons like that. Cue the rueful laughter in the background.

This approach should die a quick death. It makes our religion look like a crashing bore, and without the payoff of grand institutions, a mass movement or a corps of spiritually exhalted leaders. It’s all the burden of our Puritan heritage with none of the value.

One of the things that makes religion appealing is its capacity for joy — sometimes spiritual, sometimes material, often unseen or unappreciated by outsiders.  The grinding, scolding earnestness that you so commonly find when two or three Unitarian Universalists are gathered makes me want to hide. Usually hide with friends at General Assembly.

Last night, reading the program guide for this month’s General Assembly was the proximate cause of this blog post. Reading it to stay informed, as I’ll not be there. (For the reduced number of workshop slots, don’t some people show up over and over?) Family comes first; see you in Columbus in 2016. I’m sure there will be good parts, but the earnestness leaps off the page. Even the fun doesn’t sound so fun.

I spent the rest of my evening improving my Esperanto skills. Now, Esperantists are a people who have the earnest-fun balance down pat. A group created well-game-ified lessons on the Duolingo site. I spent the evening taking little game-like tests, tracking my progress, and earning immaterial rewards. The subtext was “this is fun, this is possible, you can do it.” And so I kept doing it.

There’s a lesson in that.

Follow my progress in my Esperanto studies on Duolingo, if you like. And join in.

We're not here for you to validate us…

So, my dear Unitarian Universalist Christians, see if this sounds familiar. You let your Christian faith be known at church or fellowship or what-have-you and someone asks “how does that work?” or “have you considered the United Church of Christ?” — or something actively negative, suggesting that you shouldn’t be there at all, as if Unitarian Universalism was a refuge for a mix of non-Christians. I thought about all of these after reading “More than just a starter church” at The Widow’s Mite-y Blog. Like her, I became a Christian when a Unitarian Universalist.

Anecdotally. there’s less of the overt hostility out there than there once was. Whether that’s true or not, and if so, whether that’s due to fewer hostile non-Christians, fewer Christians to be hostile to, or a real change of attitude is for others to discern. Plus, I’m a member of one of a handful of Christian churches in the Unitarian Universalist Association, so it’s not really a problem anymore.

But what remains isn’t acceptable. And it starts with the questions that together can but put under the heading, “Demonstrate that you really exist.” Unitarian Universalist Christians are a small part of a small denomination, and particularly outside New England you may not meet one in person. And there is decades of preaching and identity formation — again, especially outside of New England — that liberal religion was becoming something greater than Christianity, first incorporating it, and later transcending it. The actual reference to Christianity in the UUA Principles and Purposes was a political process — and a bit before my time — and not a given. Some people really, honestly believe that Christianity is beyond the pale.

Mix this with a “question everything (that’s convenient)” ethos and it’s no wonder that that people, both the kind and unkind, can ask some terribly corrosive questions.

When I was younger, I felt a responsibility to spread the word and be a patient, agreeable, non-threatening, cheerful ambassador.  When this did nothing than embolden the passive-aggressive, I stopped being apologetic, and started to enjoy my faith, stopping only to challenge side-lining, red-lining comments however made. (Unitarian Universalist rhetoric still distinguishes between good and bad Christians in a way that other religions aren’t.)

About ten or fifteen years ago, the zeitgeist turned from defense and apology to joy, communication and personal representation. My friends and I chuckled about rueful complaints — overheard at General Assembly and online — about “the Christians taking over” and “the Christians being everywhere.”

This change of self-conception means that  I won’t be told I’m welcome, but only if I act in a way others aren’t expected to keep. Or if I tone it down. Or if it means answering petty, barb-filled, conspiracy-seeking questions.

I won’t leave. I just won’t comply. And, my dear Unitarian Universalist Christian friends, you need not comply — or leave — either.

 

 

The charisma of the Universalists

Over the last few days, I’ve chatted with some minister friends about the appeal of the Coptic church, particularly with respect to its antiquity, perseverance under genuine persecution (particularly lately) and the beauty of its liturgy.

And I almost decided not to mention these attributes in blog post, and I wondered why I felt that way. Which means that I should write about my hesitance.

I’ve been around Unitarian Universalists long enough to know that we add practices and make decisions without appealing to reasons or traditions. We devalue our internal logic and traditions, and then wonder why we agree on so few things and tend to follow each passing fad. Tired of hearing that Black Lives Matter or about Nepalese relief or even about regionalism of seminarian in-care programs? Wait a while. Is that right? No. Is there a better way we can reply? Perhaps.

Over all, our tendency is to look wide and abroad for answers, resources and solutions. The Copts could easily — well, perhaps not so easily, but you get the paint — join a river of borrowed influences. What we could learn from them is that a church’s history, theology and customs create systems of thought, preferred methods and particular choices. This is what we do, and how we do it. At its best, it provides a matrix to know what’s essential, and what’s not. A recently announced Coptic initiative to plant churches relies on this ability to make choices. It’s anticipating the transition from immigrant Copts to their American-born children, and possible converts. The faith, liturgy and music would stay the same, but the name (Coptic means Egyptian) and language of worship (to English) will change. The essential gifts of their church will remain the same, or at least that’s the concept.

As Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, we need a better grasp of the gifts God gives us a church, so that we can apply these to our decision-making and contribute them to others who may benefit from our experience.

I can think of a few.

  1. While most Unitarian Universalist churches are non-Christian, they do somehow create and nurture a small (but not negligible) number of Christians.
  2. We have long histories of women’s ordination, and LGBT* ordination. We have worked out some (not all) of the cultural and professional details that churches that have made this decision more recently have not.
  3. We take cues from nature, time and seasons more seriously in our worship than many. This is not my original opinion, but that of an Episcopalian musician I met who had strong opinions on the subject.
  4. Yes, well, congregational polity, which is not the sell it once was. But it’s easy to underestimate it when there’s no bishop trying to shutter your church. And with it come some skills and resources for self-reliance.

And there are surely other gifts we should own up to.

The anxious presence

A few days ago I experimented with my Facebook and Twitter feeds. This was about when the crisis in Baltimore was getting hot, and I could already see the signs. Unitarian Universalists — I’m thinking of ministers particularly, because that’s who I know mostly, but I see lay persons do this, too — would bring a particular intensity to, well, I can’t rightly call it a discussion.

It’s more like a frantic, often doctrinaire, echo chamber.

So I started muting people, leaving ministers who are close personal friends, old college mates, former co-workers and the like. Rather than falling into an insulated world of cat videos, the quality of discourse about Baltimore’s situation improved. Deep analysis and more varied voices, particularly from people who live or have lived there. (I do live an hour away by train, so this is also a regional story.)

What vanished was the anxiousness, the agita and the dubious logic of borrowed framing.

There’s a bad lesson in that. And I’m not sure I’m going to unmute the anxious presence. More importantly, who would seek it out?

The only thing people are going to talk about today

The only thing people are going to talk about today in Unitarian Universalist-land is the announcement yesterday from Starr King School for the Ministry that their Ad-Hoc Committee had reported out about the crises associated with their presidential search process last year.

There’s just so much in the letter and the three documents you can download at the end that I scarcely know where to start. The professions of sadness are certainly thorough.

Well, start by reading. The comments are open.

“Closing a Sad Chapter” (SKSM)

Preserving Unitarian Universalism

So, I’m waiting for Lucky Dog to come on this morning, with CBS This Morning (which comes on just before) on in the background so I don’t miss it. There was a segment about digitizing The Spirit of St. Louis and other Smithsonian-held artifacts through 3-D scanning. Even President Obama got the treatment, like President Lincoln (who had to suffer plaster) before him.

I thought it might be bitterly funny to put Unitarian Universalism under the lights and cameras to preserve it digitally against loss, so that, one day the files might be pumped into a 3-D printer and the whole thing could be recreated. Well, perhaps only as a plastic model. A scan will preserve the shape and appearance, but not its workings and certainly not its life.

We attempt to preserve though recording that which is valuable and may or shall be lost. A shadow is better than nothing. I started putting Universalist Christian documents online, now almost two decades ago, because I feared the tradition would be lost before even the basics could be laid down. The documents are easier to get now, but the traditions still seems highly endangered and unvalued.

And in my almost thirty year association with Unitarian Universalism, I’ve noticed that what happens to one subset will apply to others in turn. Ask any classic Humanist if that tradition is well-respected and thriving. Throwing up your hands and saying “change happens” only says to me that you’ve not felt the bite yet. And there’s no guarantee that the whole fellowship of Unitarian Universalists worth wither away in a generation or two. We can take pictures, or find another way to preserve Unitarian Universalism.

Is Unitarian Universalism too large?

I’ve been thinking about the general fellowship of Unitarian Universalists — I often do, and I mean more than the membership of churches though the UUA — both because of the current crises at Starr King School for the Ministry, and the pan-mainline concern about ministerial salaries, maintaining buildings and (generally) the survival of theological seminaries.

But another, familiar question came up over coffee at church yesterday.  That, in essence, it is very hard to describe what a Unitarian Universalist is, what keeps us together, or even what brought us to this place. That is, without rolling the bus over someone.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we’re too small, but too large.

I’m half-joking, half-serious. We are institutionally too complex, with structures that are just large enough that they have to invest a high level of resources to keep going, but without the benefit of an economy of scale. I bet that’s true of a number of congregations, too. And yet we have systems that try to span the variety of religiosities we’ve inherited. Can’t speak for others, but these systems do not serve Christians well. What would we do if each of the new regions had to go it alone? Or if the theistic and Christian churches stood off? We would certainly have change and a lot of work, but sometimes a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

Of course, “staying large” (if what we have is largeness) is not in our hands. Social, economic and demographic challenges will probably cause us to shrink, refactor and contract. Indeed, we’ve been going through this for several years already, and when we get further along we’ll know when the decline started. But shrinking what we have won’t be enough of a solution. We’ll need solutions (possibly institutions) that address needs quickly — not “at the speed of church” — and creatively, with few resources.

If not, we’ll end up very small, still muddled and surely embittered.

 

(Talk about) the Fellowship movement never dies

So, there was a discussion on Facebook about — in so many words — the Fellowship movement, midcentury Humanism and church development. But with all things Facebook, it’s as hard as Hades to find it once the thread grows cold. And since my long comment was essentially a blog post, I thought I share it here, and am sorry if there are jarring omissions now that it’s out of its original context.

So…

I think the “trouble with authority” and “crusty Humanist” tropes are canards, and follow rather are the source of the mixed blessing and hard feelings about the Fellowship Movement. When in doubt, follow the money.

Even at the height of the Fellowship Movement, and for decades before, some Unitarian churches were developed in a conventional, cost-intensive “airdrop” model. About three at a time, and the success rate was far from 100%. Some of the middle America Progressive-era churches come from this. But these were very expensive, and ministers were few. (The Unitarians transferred Universalist ministers in, an untold history.)

The “lay center” concept goes back a hundred years. In the post-war era, they were ideal: lay-led and cheap. Many had religious education of the Baby Boom at their core. And one demographic reason it just can’t be restarted.

But remember the old UUA subtitle? “Of churches and fellowships”? Because they were long regarded as different things. A fellowship could become a church, and there were (in the 1950s, anyway) fixed standards for church status: a settled minister and at least 65 families, for instance. I believe the “fellowships not real” feelings come from the genesis of the distinction, and (I suspect) are fueled by ministers short of work, and lay-leaders tired of the long-established dynamic.

As for a para-professional class, well, the Universalists had one — fellowshipped lay ministers, a twentieth-century development to cope with the minister shortage. But the door was closed on this option at the formation of the UUA. In time, they all died out and — what? ten years ago? — the fellowship category was at last eliminated.