Category Archives: Church mission and identity

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.


The unintended subtext of “All are welcome”

There’s a much passed-around recent article about the lazy and misleading habit of churches that advertise themselves under the banner “All Are Welcome.” It’s worth a read. (“3 Ways ‘All Are Welcome’ Is Hurting the Church” by Lutheran pastor Angela Denker.

In my neighborhood, there’s a church that has an actual banner; the slogan is an added stripe to a rainbow flag: a now-passé way to wordlessly telegraph that gay-etc. people are the “all” who are welcome. And it’s this phenomenon is what I wanted to write about.

There was a time when deliberately allowing a lesbian-etc. to sit with you in church was daring. It may be so daring in some parts of the country, but I’m bold to say that even in those far-flung outposts, a rainbow flag isn’t going to pass muster.

For one thing, there’s the incongruity of saying “all are welcome” and intimating that bisexuals-etc. are the “all” through the inclusion of a rainbow-striped emblem. I’ve long wondered — my being gay and all — is it necessary to have to include everyone just to include me?  It’s as if everyone else would have been welcome first, and that’s not much of an invitation. Plus, I resent the coded language. It’s the language of the closet. It invites with a wink and a nod. But the code’s been broken, and it won’t fool anyone who has a hump about gays.

Second, it invites without making a commitment. Gay-etc. people are welcome to sit in the pews and give money, presumably. But what about getting married? Speaking of one’s friends and relationships plainly? Serving in positions of leadership, if otherwise qualified, including ordained leadership?

Some welcoming churches cannot, because of their rules, be as accommodating as they like. Which is a halfway promise. Telling strangers that we would be better hosts if only the national jurisdiction were only more accommodating forces one or both parties to think they’re fools.

So, a word to the Unitarian Universalists. These impediments shouldn’t apply to us. We are governed locally, have a track record of considered inclusion of gay-etc. people, and have a non-token number of transexual-etc. ministers. But we seem to undervalue this mature cultural development. (The focus on marriage parity, but little on our internal accomplishments, and the diminished state of Interweave come to mind.) Perhaps because we have a cultural value of the radical (or so we think) and the new (like everyone else) the accomplishments pale.

We, that is particular churches, should use more than three words — an easy lift for UUs — and state plainly that have made a deliberate decision and have an established history and support structure to include lesbian-etc. persons in all roles and in all ways — and to number the big ones — while pledging support to continue and improve this witness, even if it is or becomes unpopular.

Might be wordy and less snappy than “all are welcome” but that’s better than a feel-good slogan that says so little that it hides what should be a point of pride.




How much church can you get for minimum wage?

I ask the question “How much church can you get for minimum wage?” not to suggest that low-waged workers should be segregated into their own parishes, but consider the proportional sacrifices and ability to give.

I routinely advocate for the formation of new churches: to keep up with population growth, to replace those declining and defunct, and engage with under-represented groups of people. But this doesn’t mean we have the same level of resources we did in the 1980s or 1940s (or 1880s or 1640s.)

One down side of a secularizing culture is that it’s harder to make a case for funding a religious endeavor, unless, perhaps there’s some attendant ethnic or cultural reason. And with a trend of declining wealth, stagnant wages and increasing student debt, the people who are left to contribute are likely to have less to spare.

We’re coming out of church culture of big asks, big sacrifices and big capital projects. But that just doesn’t seem realistic — certainly not in the same way — in the future.

Now, we look at millions of America who are just keeping body and soul together. The churches have to prove their value; double so with new ones.

So, how much church can you get for minimum wage? And more importantly, how will they work? And what will they do?

The church, in its history, has been impoverished, tested, challenged and troubled. I can survive, even prosper. But how?

Six projects Christians could share to help a new congregation

Unitarian Universalist Christians have no mission society or support base to help new Christian churches organize. And while that would probably be helpful, you have to work with what you have. Better to build from attainable work than to plan and plan fruitlessly.

So I commend to my readers six projects or habits that Unitarian Universalist Christians could undertake to make the work of starting new churches that much easier:

  1. Talk up funding, whether it be by Faithify, some other crowdfunding platform. private pledge or Chalice Lighters. Stand ready to give.
  2. If you preach, be willing to license sermon texts to be read in the new congregation.
  3. Be available to attend worship of a new congregation, if one gathers within a reasonable travel distance.
  4. Commit to praying for the new congregation regularly.
  5. Research online for meeting locations for the new congregation. Prepare a spreadsheet with the map coordinates.
  6. Survey what talents you already have that might be useful to a congregation — copy editing, digital image processing, sewing, contract review  come to mind quickly — and offer your services. Be prepared to decline graciously.

I dashed these out in less than fifteen minutes. I bet you can think of more.

Reading “Bright Galaxy”

It’s been ages since I’ve seen Laile Bartlett’s Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships (1959) and I’ve never had one at hand long enough to read it closely. So I found a copy for sale online and it arrived a few days ago. It is still the definitive work on the Fellowship Movement, or at least the early phase.

I wondered what she thought the strengths and weaknesses of the fellowships were, and at least as importantly, what period Unitarian leaders thought they were doing. Why? Because even though it was an experience of rapid growth and geographic expansion, it’s hard to find someone in UUA officialdom that’ll call it a success or be willing to stake out a culturally-appropriate iteration of what “fellowships” can be. (Terminology seems to be part of the problem, thus the scare quotes.) But what we’re doing now isn’t working.

I’ll pull excerpts as appropriate.

And I’d never seen one with its dust jacket. See! Neuland!bright-galaxy



The neighborhood of Boston, mapped and planned…

From the October 20, 1921 issue of the Unitarian Register.

Unitarian churche within 25 miles of Boston, 1921.


The map is familiar; the idea of a program launching after a 90 minute meeting is pheonomenal. But why should it be so? What might a group of people, meeting over a long lunch say, accomplish or at least propose?

The Boston Circle

The twenty five mile circle drawn around the Boston State House contains two elements of profound significance: first, it has the largest permanent population of any similar district in the States; second, it has more Unitarian churches than any similar area in world. What is the obligation of churches to this population?

To answer that question the ministers of the twenty five mile circle were called together May 25. After an hour of discussion it was voted that the chairman, Rev. Eugene R Shippen appoint a committee of seven to promote an intensive membership campaign…

Can small-church Unitarian Universalist ministers oblige?

A few days I commented on Twitter about some UUA statistics and that led British Unitarian minister Stephen Lingwood to look for himself. I’m copying our Twitter discussion with his permission.



So, might there be a small (or smaller) church Unitarian Universalist minister — or several — in a dynamic congregational ministry who might be available to help? It sounds like a case for self-nomination, and perhaps self-started bridge-building.

What resources should we start with?

While I’m prone to talk about worship resources, the details of church polity or the importance of church history, I don’t think that any of these things are the most important resources to start or sustain new churches.

Rather I would think that an assortment of the following documents — expressing a variety of well-crafted and tested views — would go a long way in helping. Something overburdened evangelists needn’t create from scratch, but liberally-licensed so that he or she might adapt them for local use. (I’m a believer that you should learn the rules before you break them.) Each of these would be a theoretical document with a brief synopsis useful for explaining our intentions to the general public.

  • A good answer to the question, “What is a church?”
  • A good answer to the question, “Why the church and not some other entity?”
  • A good answer to the question, “Why do we worship?”
  • What we can do, what we cannot do and how this changes with different levels of people, money and interest.

Thoughts? Additions?

This is about theory; I have some ideas about the nut and bolts which I’ll keep for another post.


Valuing volunteers

On Sunday I re-joined Universalist National Memorial Church, where I was the pastor and a member in the early 2000s, on Sunday. I’m now ready to contribute where I’m needed — if I’m able. Perhaps that’s why I noticed this new financial valuation of volunteer service by Independent Sector. In D.C., the average dutiful soul is worth $34.04 an hour. Nationwide, the figure is $22.14. By this, the lesson geos, we are better able to appeciate the value of volunteers and thu impact they make.

From a churchly point-of-view, this also means that the generation-on-generation loss of homemakers’ time — long undervalued, until it was no longer there — as a steady workforce is particularly stinging. Paid work and other activities have proved deeply rivalous. Treating volunteers as a financial resource (even if you dispute Independent Sector’s numbers) can help frame how a congregation can deploy its resources or decide to put aside struggling church activities, like newsletters, “forum” series, thrift shops, bean suppers, certain kinds of fundraisers or what have you.