New congregations to join the UUA?

I had been waiting for the UUA Board agenda and packet for their meetings that surround General Assembly; they published them last night.

Why? To see what great things the UUA is planning? No. Something simpler. Will there be a new member congregation celebrated at General Assembly? Not that many years ago, welcoming new congregations was quite the event. Pictures of smiling faces, maps pointing out the new starts and delegations on stage. Then fewer. Then one. Last year, none.

The last congregation to join the UUA was two years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas. Meanwhile a few others, all very small, have since disbanded or disaffiliated. I have my opinions why this is the case, and no, the covenanted communities aren’t a replacement, but I’m not keen on shouting into the wind.

Instead, I’ll say thank you to the people of the recently-disbanded Peter Cooper Fellowship, Memphis, Tennessee (as noted in the packet) and wish them well for whatever the future brings.

The Saturday mission

To get a better idea of how Unitarian Universalists might organize new churches, I look at what others do. I found similar behavior between two Christian churches that are about as far apart on the ecclesiological spectrum as could be. Clearly there was something to learn.

  • Worship on Saturday morning. (These are not sabbatarian churches.) Check.
  • And not every Saturday. Perhaps once a month. Check.
  • The mission church is distant from the next nearest church at the same communion. Check.
  • The mission church rents “secular” space. Check.

The groups are Copts and Primitive Baptists respectively. The churches are in the Southern states and Manhattan respectively. I don’t think it’s too far to say that each is culturally out of the mainstream in their own settings. And that both are short of clergy. (The Primitive Baptists in Manhattan are a branch of a church in Maryland, three hours’ drive away, and that’s probably the closest one.)

I won’t labor this. What they have have in common is the economical use of resources. Don’t build too fast, if at all. Monthly Saturday services are a service and a sacrifice for the sponsoring church, but I’d bet it’s manageable. And not so “heavy” that if it need to change or be suspended that it imperils another mission opportunity.

Here are some links.

Worth remembering.

 

Thoughts about the UUA, #4: The lost church and its covenant

Today, the idea of covenant is current and constant among Unitarian Universalists leaders, but they’re always codes of conduct, lacking the divine referent Puritan covenants had — and so not really a part of the tradition that’s being appealed to.  They’re also lacking in grace. Covenants, perhaps, but in the sense of making sure Jews don’t move into your postwar housing development.  (Update. A reader emailed me and thought others may not be familiar with the secular use of the term, in this case a restrictive covenant.) Their appeal surely lies in providing substance after the old Unitarian and Universalist categories were burned to the ground, and for ending argument and reinforcing its appeal to the like-minded. The second I see one of these later-day covenants, I look for the door. (I know there are good people trying to return to a rich theology of the covenant and I wish them well.)

The solemn covenant binds the gathered church apart from the world, though within it. Its role is mainly spiritual, and in our tradition the church in this sense is conventionally tied to the parish or society. (We use the term congregation too, if somewhat improperly, as an alternative to the word church, which itself has at least three meanings: the institution, the spiritual bond and the building. Anyone who claims to be a member of a meeting house had better be a piece of clapboard.) In fact, the parish or society is dominant in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and has been for generations.  (Do will still teach about the Dedham Decision?) It’s that public service — both in the sense of Sunday worship and the social manifestation of morality — that distinguishes us. The parish or society is practical and social, too. It won’t survey the inner workings of your soul — which we interpret as freedom — but it does care the bills are paid. Which is why we have quaint customs like trying to make the collection sacred. And why we invest so much in changing things, especially in society. And why it’s hard to look at our history and find a rich traditon of common spiritual practices. Those would belong to the gathered church, which even a century ago may or may not have existed in a particular locale. (This vexed Universalist leaders at the turn of the last century.)  Indeed, those member congregations (to use a neutral term) of the UUA that are or were until recently Christian had the marks of that inner church: an annual or oftener communion service, and that most typical of church officers, deacons.

It’s been my experience that it’s OK for a Unitarian Universalist to have a deep spiritual practice, so long as you were cool about it and didn’t come off as a big weirdo. That’s parish thinking, and that’s fine by me, as long as I can find a place to “go deep” and be that big weirdo.  That’s the church, in the more narrow sense.

With rentable space and social service nonprofits taking up much of what the parish had to pick up generations ago, I’m prone to go in the other direction: have the church without the parish. Which, in parallel form and different language, is what I suspect a number of neo-Pagan groups are doing. (Let me put a pin in that for reflection, and I’d welcome feedback from members of such groups.)

My very old, long gone Cambridge Platform page, again

I was chatting with some friends about the Cambridge Platform, what it means to us and how we promote it (as one does) and remembered that one of my early web sites was dedicated to it. I have the old files — there’s something alarming about seeing files “last updated 20 years ago” — and may clean them up for a new life on this domain.

Until then, you can see the site as it earlier existed (and not even the earliest!) thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

The New England Way

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.