UUA membership updates

The April UUA Board meeting packet was published today and the changes in congregational status report was longer than usual. Apart from name changes and two congregations becoming “covenanted communities” (it’s never been clear what that means) there’s this news:


Tapestry UU (Cong ID #7817), Houston, TX, … Separated from 1stUU Church of Houston multisite and became an independent congregation.


Original Blessings, Brooklyn, NY dissolved 3/17/2019.
All Souls UU Community, WA dissolved 9/10/2018.

It’s more accurate to say that the Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has re-asserted its independence by recently  coming out of a federation, even if we usually think of federations as being across denominations; after all, according to its own site, it was

originally founded in 1995 as Northwest Community Unitarian Universalist Church (NWCUUC). In December 2011, the Church merged with First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston (First UU), and its name was changed to the Copperfield Campus, and later the Tapestry Campus, of First UU.

As for those congregations that disbanded — I don’t have the heart to say dissolved, as if they were dropped in a vat of acid — let’s pause to note what’s gone.

I wrote about Original Blessing (not Blessings) just before it joined the UUA five years ago, and without belaboring the point, it’s disturbing to see one of the very few new congregations to organize in recent years disband. Their charming website is gone but — if you go to Archive.org — is not forgotten.

Founded in 1999, the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Community was until recently one of two Unitarian Universalist churches in Olympia, Washington (or in the nearby suburb of Lacey), and by far the smaller of the two. In 2009, for instance, it reported 24 members. Here’s an archive of their site from 2013; by 2014, the site’s domain had become a site for unrelated advertising.

Best wishes to all involved in what the future holds.

Large list of non-contributing churches

I wasn’t going to write about the certification of UUA congregations because I didn’t think it would do any good. But one thing stuck out when I looked at the certification list — which closed on February 1 — so a few words.

I was struck by how many congregations gave no money to the UUA.

There are always some: very small or fragile ones, for instance, and I’ve noticed that Christian and Pagan congregations are over-represented. I read that as alienation, discontent with services provided or not provided and perhaps more. Non-contributing is one of the things that keeps you from having voting representation at General Assembly (big deal) so, the UUA isn’t truly being punitive for publishing this list. But I’m sure peer pressure plays into the calculus (good luck with that) — and besides, showing displeasure goes both ways.

What makes this year different is the number of non-fragile, non-tiny, middle-of-the-road congregations on the list. More than I’ve ever seen before. Not that the UUA has been the easiest to defend lately, at least on financial grounds. I can imagine the calculus of giving nothing to the UUA as opposed to planning for strategic spending or making up for losses. The UUA is a hard sell, especially as it becomes harder and harder to identify what one gets for the money. Who might be emboldened by that list, rather than embarrassed?

Many people I know have fallen for Marie Kondo’s method of de-cluttering, and her signal question, “Does it spark joy?” The list suggests that, for some at least, the UUA doesn’t.

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.

Thoughts about the UUA #8, Money

I’ll wrap up this series tighter than I like so I can move on.

I don’t like how the Unitarian Universalist Association spends money, and the common “that’s scarcity thinking” line reads as self-serving. I’ve been reading and thinking about the Effective Altruism movement, which advocates making change though the most effective and tested means. It’s not sentimental, nor should it be, if wasted time, money, patience and effort risks the lives of the world’s most poor. Even wasted on the merely good, when we can support the exceptionally good.

It’s as much an accident of the tax code as anything that lumps churches in with these charities, but since so much of American charitable giving goes into our churches and denominations, their work must be scrutinized. Not so far as saying no money for churches before the end of extreme global poverty, but that equation remains in the background. At least, is the money well spent? Does it set out to fulfill the church’s mission? How do you know? These are questions for each church, too, but the answers would be too variable to make judgments here. (I also avoid meddling in the internal matters of churches.)

The problem with the Unitarian Universalist Association is that so much of its work today is focused on itself. As if the UUA is its own problem — and cure. The old liberal slogans are gone, the ones that pressed us to “the vital issues of the day”; the ones about religious liberty, international peace, even spiritual growth. So much of the external good work would happen without us, if ever so slightly smaller. If you read the board of trustee’s minutes and packets, you end up feeling like the UUA is itself a special and profound seat of sin. Why, then, give it money?

But my beef is the services that are gone. It will be fascinating to see if the five regions can do what the many districts once did, or were supposed to have done. Church planting was relegated to the districts and the pipeline of new churches has dried up. There has been no new church join the UUA in two years despite it being one of the primary purposes (as in Principles and Purposes) of the UUA. (See below.) No extension ministry program. No new hymnal in horizon. No national youth and young adult program.

Lacking competition and having the donors, the UUA has lost its way as a service provider. Unless it finds its way back, it can do without our money. Money and effort that can be applied to find an alternative.

From the UUA Bylaws, Section C-2-2 “The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.”

Thoughts about the UUA #7, tl;dr

If you’re not familiar, the notation tl;dr means “too long; didn’t read”. That doesn’t apply specifically to the UUA — liberals can’t seem to make a brief statement anywhere — but does include it. A long written thought could be deep and generous, but they’re usually crowded and undisciplined. The caveat kills, the editor giveth life.

I wouldn’t expect you to slog through a long work of mine, either. That’s why if items in this series seem short — well, that’s on purpose.


Thoughts about the UUA #6, Honesty

I’m laying in bed scuffed and sore after taking a bad spill on concrete earlier today. It’s nothing I would want to repeat, and I didn’t lose consciousness, break bones or chip teeth. It could have been a lot worse. Repeating the tale to some friends, also Unitarian Universalist Christians, I expressed my gratitude in terms of providence. Clearly (to me) God was watching out.

I’m not as bashful about this kind of expressed piety as I once was. And it reminded me of one unexpected upside to Unitarian Universalism: nobody’s going to reward you for your conventional expressions of theology. You might even get an earful.

For the record, I think of myself as orthodox as anyone in the mainline. I can (and do) recite the Nicene Creed without mental reservation, understanding that it’s not an evasion to have a complex approach to some issues. Indeed, I may be notably conservative for some liberal Christians. So be it. (Universalism is not a heresy but that — and why some Universalists would want to make hay claiming it is — is a discussion for another time.)

The fact is I got here theologically entirely in my time as a Unitarian Universalist. This process took years, and a lot of soul searching. Previously, I was a low christology Unitarian Christian and before that (as a teenager) would have caucused with the Humanists. I’m not a hold-over or an entryist, but very much a part of the Unitarian Universalist narrative.

My theological orthodoxy doesn’t provide me any benefit among Unitarian Universalists, which also means I’m not penalized for believing the wrong thing. There’s no reward for lying about believing something I don’t believe in. It’s a lot easier to be honest as a Unitarian Universalist, and that’s something I highly treasure, even if it means I’m in a small minority.

Which is why I find the idea of a political orthodoxy so repellent. Not meaning political parties per se, but having to adhere to a particular theory and vision of human relations, including the present form of anti-oppression work. The imputed value and rightness of the work does not justify the intrusion, the mental evasion needed to survive, and above all the dishonesty such an orthodoxy necessarily demands.

Thoughts about the UUA #5, Not today

I could write about the problems of the UUA. But the weather is nice today, and the winter was long.

There’s no point going out of my way to think about if it missing out on the fleetingly pleasant parts of life.

Though I would hope it would be its own source of joy.

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.)

Thoughts about the UUA, #3: The underlying problem

The underlying problem with the UUA was probably found in its cradle. It is certainly present in its mature middle-age. Who are we, at last? What makes us distinct, so as to identify boundaries, however generous? That’s never been clear. While that should be a hallmark of tolerance and acceptance, it’s been my experience that it breeds suspicion and resentment. Why are those Christians still here?  It also creates confusion as to our mission. That’s a description, not a judgment.

It doesn’t matter if the Unitarian Univeralism is (or tried to be) “America’s third religion” or “America’s real religion” or “the religion of the future” (early slogans) or “the religion that puts it’s faith in you” (more recent) or any number of identifiers used by leading preachers or a Boston publicity office in the last six decades. Each of these ways of identifying our religious fellowship have been majority identifiers, without mandate or power to rule out those who happen to be in the minority at the moment. Which has helped me; I’ve never been in the Unitarian Universalist theological majority. Even now, Ken Patton’s multireligious experiments just make me roll my eyes. But that doesn’t mean I’m less a part of the community, at least not formally.

By definition, most of my readers will be satisfied with how Unitarian Universalism is today. Or if you don’t like who’s ascendant, just wait a while: you may live long enough to see the majority opinion wither away. The Christians gave up hope for a majority decades, and the once-jubilant Humanists are feeling the pinch now.

So in practice, it means that we have maintained a breadth of expression that is hard to distinguish from society at large, or in recent years the Left side of it? And that means being doomed to follow culture rather than leading it. Perversely, were there two, three or four smaller related liberal denominations, each could be a bit more distinct and have its own genius or charism. At least it could have its own voice.

But that’s not what we have, and that’s the problem we have to manage.


Thoughts about the UUA, #2: Hymn

I’ve had a hymn stuck in my head for days: “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” It’s got a catchy tune (if sung to Solid Rock, which I do) and refrain, which is handy since I’m recalling it from memory.

Sometimes a good hymn helps.

The text is a reference to the parable of the man who built his house on a rock, in Matthew 7. Hosea Ballou commented on verses 24 and 25 in his Notes on the Parables: “By house I understand the hope or confidence in which the mind rests. By rock, I understand Christ; which application is too evident to need proof. And what can compare with that wisdom which teaches us to put our trust in Christ, and build all our hopes of salvation on that rock of ages, that chief corner stone which foolish builders refuse?”

A foundation of rock sounds pretty good to me, and hardly too much to ask for.