A new church applying to the UUA, but…

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted the packet for its forthcoming (April 15-16) meeting — and the April meeting is always the best. Why? It’s when you’re most likely to see applications for membership, and the most applications — and this is no exception. [Fixed typos.]

So I will presumptively congratulate the forty-two members of the (PDF link) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas, and wish them well and many years of prosperity and ministry.

But the summary memo (PDF) that announced the Bentonville congregation application also noted that two other churches — All Souls Church (Belgrade and Oakland, Maine) and the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — had disbanded, and that the Redding, California congregation has applied to re-classed as a “covenenting community” which by definition  (PDF) is not a member congregation. So not all good news.

Unitarian Universalist church planting, a document review

Several years ago, I wrote about a then-new resource called EmergingUU.org, and was hopeful it might spark new churches. That page has since vanished as a free-standing resource, but re-appeared as a page within the UUA Mid America Region site. But new church planting is as low as I’ve ever seen it.

There used to be quite a bit of church starting literature, both historically and within “career lifetime memory” but about the time I was coming on the scene in the 1980s, it was already drying up. Perhaps in repudiation of the Fellowship Movement model? The new model was to create a highly developed, programmatic church with high-commitment donors. This has worked in a couple of places, though I wonder if there has been any net gain in those areas. In any case, this is not the kind of church start that you leave new start publications out for. There’s not a new model that’s yet emerged, and it would be helpful for the appropriate authorities within the UUA to produce some, particularly as the “primary purpose” (as in “Principles and Purposes”) of the UUA is “to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.” (By-Laws C-2.2.)

Scanning the web this morning, I found:

The thing that first hits you is that the most important goal of a congregation is to affiliate with the UUA, without much of a case of why a congregation would want to do so. Oddly enough, there’s almost nothing said about what a congregation is, and while the site mentions some things (faith development, social justice, environmental concerns, for instance) it doesn’t go further to say why these are important. Administration trumps ecclesiology. It’s hard, without a huge amount of commitment and training, to come up with pathway for starting a new church without help, and it seems to me that the UUA ought to be generous this way. What better way could it earn its reason for being? Who better to lead this important work? Keep this in mind as the new congregations are welcomed at General Assembly. If any are welcomed at General Assembly.

The UUMA Guidelines and the limits to criticism

It’s funny — I am, quite deliberately, not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, but its Guidelines continually affect me, and all Unitarian Universalists. In particular, there is a troubling culture that has grown up around one of the expectations of conduct:

I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.

These Expectations of Conduct apply to all forms of public or private media including electronic and internet communications.

Which is fine, as written, and a bit embarrassing that it needs to be spelled out.

But the rule, as applied, has grown legs and can run. Too often, it claims the power of “covenant,” which so far as I can tell means “because I said so” and which really comes from our Unitarian and New England-ish approach to interpersonal power.

That power gave us strength — in the past. The kind of principled, theological debate that once marked our traditions is long gone. So, there’s a decided chill to not only not “speak scornfully or in derogation” but to not speak negatively about another minister, his or her thoughts or behavior or conduct in the ministry. Or really say anything that could be read negatively. I’ve spoken to several ministers over the years who have decided to self-censor and not criticize or challenge bad ideas for fear of being hauled up on charges of unprofessional conduct. There’s no reason someone’s reputation should be menaced by a fragile personality, yet our system allows it.

And we are the more bland, insular and stupid for it.

We are at the beginning of an over-long campaign for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position that (for the life of me) I can’t imagine anyone wanting. Two ministers were nominated, one has since dropped out. Another candidate, almost certainly a minister, will be presented by the same nominating committee to be run though an ersatz grassroots nomination by petition. I suspect others will see the opportunity and run. The process is in tatters, but where is the analysis? Ministers are candidates, nominators, campaign supporters, whips, funders and voters. What, in our subdued culture, is right to say?  I suspect we can demand little from ministers, and get less. How is that leadership? What can we demand of the candidates in public, however nominated?

I add in public because when there’s a pressure not to speak candidly, back-channels and coded language takes its place, in this election and in all our business.

So, first, let’s look at this rule and not over-function. To “speak scornfully or in derogation” assumes the application of emotion over reason, and presumably to speak against the person — ad hominem — and not the ideas, prospect, record or plans. It means to use the rhetorical skills associated with the ministry carefully, and the care means asking those tough questions — in public — among the ministerial college.  Apply the rule as written.

Our heritage, dignity and reputation demand nothing less.

Deeply bad news for the UUA

I don’t have time to write about it now, but Sue Phillips announced this morning that she is withdrawing from the race for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is bad news for her and for the UUA, and it sets up a crisis for the new and untested process for selecting a new president.

It also creates an unequal power relationship for any candidate that may now come forward, and privileges established power centers that might want to put forward a candidate.

I’ll be writing more on this subject later, and as the news develops.

UU congregations: three more days to certify

Wednesday, February 3. The deadline was pushed back, so today is the last day to certify, if you’re in one of the 148 remaining congregations!

I’m fond of certification time for the UUA. It’s when I get new data to analyze. But for congregations, it’s an important annual task. Without it, no voting representation at General Assembly. And I’ve noticed that churches that don’t tend to register are often not long for this world. Don’t tempt fate; certify.

All congregations must have filed for certification by 5 p.m. PST on February 1, 2016, in order to be certified for GA. Only certified congregations may send voting delegates to the 2016 General Assembly.

There are 383 uncertified congregations right now. I know many will certify over the weekend. Don’t let yours be left out.

The how-to for sampling Unitarian Universalist culture today

I’m taking some time off work next week, and one of the things I’ll do is review the 100 data points I’m collecting. That is, 100 Sunday services for the four weeks of October 2015 from 25 congregations, five each from the five new UUA regions, distributed by size. This is my method.

I downloaded this year’s certification numbers. Now, this rules out the 41 congregations that did not certify, but since these tend to be overseas congregations (and not in any region anyway) and I’ve noticed before that non-registration is sometimes an early tell for congregations disbanding… well I think the certification list is a suitable list to take a sample from. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, also in no region, is an outlier and reasonably excluded.

So, I filtered by region, sorted by size, numbered the congregations and calculated how many congregation would be in the smallest 40%, the next larger 40% and the largest 20%. Then I generated a list of random numbers (YouTube video) from those three ranges. Looked up the congregations by the assigned number. Checked its website or Facebook page to see if I could find the Sunday services in October. No? Then I moved to the next on the list. Once I got two from the first group, two from the second group and one from the third group, I would move to the next region.

I collected as much information as was practical, including whether the congregation had its own minister and if the minister led the service, or a guest or affiliated minister, or a lay speaker or speaker. Plus the title or theme of the service, of course, and if there was a theme for the month.

So that’s the collection method. I’m almost done. Next, putting some numbers on the framework.

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?

Congregation count at the current UUA Board meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association is in the middle of its October meeting.

No great thought on my part, but I did note that there is a net loss of two congregations, per the Changes in Congregational Status (PDF) report.

The First Universalist Society of Salem (MA) has merged with First Parish in Beverly (MA).
All Souls Church UU (Durham, NC) has dissolved.

Does anyone know how true the musings I’ve heard that All Souls, while not paricularly Christian itself, came out of the aftermath of discussions in the early 1990s to start a Christian church there?

Sobering news in any case, and my best wishes to the parishoners in their new settings. (The All Souls website resolves to the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship site.)

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.