Better hope for the Unitarian Universalists

The biggest cultural divide among Unitarian Universalists (it seems to me) is over the question of whether of our religious movement and institutions are inherantly healthy or not. I suppose the yes crowd is larger because the UUA culture is so hard to change, and leaving (or being quiet) is an easier option for the “no” crowd. That, and some quarters are more defensive about criticism than others. (Meadville Lombard and Starr King — the theological schools — have some of the touchier stakeholders, for instance.)

I used to want to change and improve Unitarian Universalist institutions, but you can only run up against bristle-laden defenders and entrenched interests so long. In time, when you find productive and confident institutions or movements, you want to participate with them.What’s left?  An internal focus that begins to look a bit like self-obsession, or worse, self-pity.

Three signs?

  • Anti-racism (as an end, within congregations) is a more important than forming new congregations.
  • Defining basic Unitarian Universalism is a normative rhetorical flouish in our preaching.
  • The dogged adoption of shop-worn models. (Take, for instance, the Carver Model.)

So instead of trying to fix anything, the most I can manage is to identify and praise those who seem to have something better to give. I was thinking about the healthiest, most productive and most interesting systems among Unitarian Universalists.

Working from intuition, I think these would be the Partner Church Council and Project Harvet Hope, and in the informal sector, John Cooley’s immensly valuable UUpdates.net.

Can anyone else add some high-functioning signs of life?

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 44, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

11 thoughts on “Better hope for the Unitarian Universalists

  1. High functioning…

    (1) much of the grass roots, congregation-level work for marriage equality

    (2) the UUA’s effort to self-insure (health insurance) its pool of employees and employees of UUA congregations

    (3) most of the district level, Chalice Lighter, grant programs (desperately needed, as this is the last reliable source of church extension funding)

    Part of how I identify high-functioning versus low-functioning, is if the activity is based upon something we are for, or something we are against. So, for example, we have congregations advocating for marriage equality (instead of advocating against heterosexism). What makes this high-functioning, is that we have a constructive goal in mind, with an end that can be easily visioned. Being anti-heterosexism is less concrete, not as goal oriented, and it is difficult to grasp what it might look like when anti-heterosexism is achieved.

  2. Haven’t had much recent, first-hand experience of my own, but I would add to the list (by virtue of reputation) All Souls Tulsa, All Souls NYC, and All Souls Washington DC. And I suspect there are dozens, if not hundreds of other UU congregations who are also doing positive, pro-active things to improve the “quality” and meaningfulness of their ministry with regard to Worship, Outreach, Fellowship, Religious Education, Social Justice Advocacy, Pastoral Care and all of the other potential expressions of that “radical hospitality” which resides in the heart of the Gospel. Love of God and Love of Neighbor, plus the realization that “All Ministry is Local” and the devotion to putting THAT principle into practice. That’s got to be at the heart of our movement as well.

    OK, I’m getting a little preachy here — sorry about that. I concur whole-heartedly with your concern about the “three signs” of institutional self-obsession, but they are just “markers” of a much deeper problem which I’m finding much more difficult to define: something about an uncertainty regarding our relationship to the larger culture, and whether we still want to define ourselves as “non-sectarian” and “America’s Real Religion” or feel more comfortable embracing an identity as radical, counter-cultural critics. And in many ways this is no different from the challenge faced by America’s “old-line” Protestant establishment (which is ironic in its own right). That’s all I have time for today. Thanks for starting this thread.

  3. There’s always been a free thinker set in Christianity from the get-go. That’s us. Whether it’s called UUism or some other name. There’s plenty of histories out there and one can follow the trends of thoughts. We are the very American expression of that dissident, heretical tradition.

    Whether UU Churches will remain an expression, or disappear into history I don’t know. Push me, and I’d be pessimistic.

    We’re at our best when we open ourselves to those who can’t find homes in the Mainline, and the Evangelicals. We ought to offer a home to those cast out of the other traditions. We need to recognize there are AA’s, Hispanics, and GLBTs who come to use not for slogans but because they no longer find homes in their traditions.

    Anti racism, marriage equality… those are slogans. Those are politics. Without serious explanation about what we mean by them (and I rarely see that) they offer us no growth in spirit and insight. We simply don’t go beyond the slogans very often.

    And if people think they will attract growth among AA’s or others, or that Marriage Equality will attract GLBT members, and that we can expand a Church like that, they’re wrong. Too many are looking for a liturgical experience we don’t offer, and many UU’s uncomfortable or plain disdainful of theirs.

    I can advise the proud-to-be-openly-Gay-and-Christian-Evangelical Minister (and want to tell you all about it) seeking help from my Church’s Social Justice committee that he best leave God and Christ outside the door when he makes his pitch to our group. It will rankle them to no end.

    We are the Church dissident. We don’t convert or evangelize so much, as be open to those who don’t fit; including the minorities who don’t fit the minority traditions.

  4. I need to clarify, that what I mean by marriage equality at the grass-roots level is not a slogan. It is the concrete phenomenon of UU congregations celebrating the commitments of GLBT couples; treating them as equals with regards to church ministries and employment; and demonstrating at a local level that when 2 women get married the world does not come to an end (in fact the commitments of families are further strengthened and nurtured). This the concrete outcome in our communities, the commitments of heterosexuals and homosexuals can be treated with equality; and that the results are beneficial.

    I do think that Bill is right that marriage equality can be used as a slogan, with nothing concrete attached to it (beyond perhaps a desire to make windy and righteous speaches). That would be another manifestation of low function. Nor is it a matter of church growth. A gay Roman Catholic might feel supported in his relationship by people from the UU church. But when it comes down to his spirituality, he may quite likely find an Episcopal church more relevant to this theological experience. That is, unless he is near Kings’ Chapel. But that place can likewise rankle the mainstream UU tourist, as much as Bill’s gay evangelical could rankle with talk of Christ.

  5. Could I have a little clarification here? Are you saying that LGBT rights, or the right to marry are positive signs, but Anti-racism is not?

  6. I would say that anti-racism work needs to be re-stated in concrete terms about what we are working for; instead of what we are working against. I consider the anti-racism work to be largely low functioning because it is overly vague, and communicates nothing about the concrete outcome we are working for. It only communicates something that we are against – and frankly almost everybody says they are against racism. I would also say that in terms of ministry around issues of race, I need to see more clear manifestations of what our local congregations are doing. So when it comes to issues of race in North America, what are we working FOR? What are we inspired to achieve? How would we know when we got there? That has seldom been clear to me from most contemporary UU anti-racism programming. But I would say that our historic work to extend voting rights to people of all races is an example of ministry that was high functioning, and constructive because we were articulate in our vision about what we were FOR (and not merely what we were against).

    Working for LGBT rights is not automatically a high functioning positive point in our communities. When it is framed in terms of being anti-heterosexist, anti-oppressive, etc. it becomes just as vague and disembodied as anti-racism. But I have found that in the work of local congregations specifically FOR marriage equality an articulate, constructive ministry, with clear goals which we could recognize when they are achieved.

    Chuck, were you understanding me as saying that issues of sexual orientation are important, and that issues of race are not? This is not my thesis. What I am trying to say revolves around our articulation in any ministry, about what we are for, and not merely what we are against. I think that a healthy religious community and its ministries must be more than mere via negativa.

  7. There is so much to dig into in the above. Thanks Scott for kicking this off.

    For example, …the realization that “All Ministry is Local” and the devotion to putting THAT principle into practice.

    I belong to two Churches. The UU Society of Geneva Illinois, and this virtual UU blogosphere.

    They’re very different. I act differently. The virtual one is easier to interact with. It can be a lazier persons Church yet you have to think harder and express it in writing. I can doze a bit at Church. But the real Church is the physical Church and it’s the important one to sustain…. it takes time and work, and they’re are plenty of alternatives competing for my time and energy.

    Re GLBT vs anti-Racism….. live in a community with large communities of both (and they overlap) and you realize they can be at odds. Witness the walkout from J. Wrights Trinity Congregational when Wright scoffed a bit at UCC’s statements a few years ago on GLBT rights. It split his Church.

    The anti racism, marriage equality stuff I find on the virtual UU Church is superficial. Get into the physical Church and you find yourself at the pastoral level. Dealing with people individually and not as symbols (or worse objects of slogans…)

  8. “anti-racism” is one of those things that UUs take on faith that it works, even though there is no actual evidence that it does work.
    Derrick’s comments that positive goals are more effective than negative goals is pretty much shown in the literature (last time I looked). Negative goals are much more likely to result in burn-out and drop-outs.

    In the theme of the original post though – what’s that UU group that sponsors youth and others to come down and clean up New Orleans? That seemed like a good project.

  9. “Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul” founded by the Winchester Unitarian Society was the organization that I was thinking of.

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