Category Archives: Church mission and identity

Thoughts about the UUA decline numbers

So the UUA’s a bit smaller this year than last. The question I have — perhaps unanswerable — is how many of those are (put plainly) old, middle aged and young. Are these numbers a sign of social and economic stress, or are we approaching a demographic cliff?

The answer would suggest next steps. But the good news is also the bad news. Despite the talk of cradle Unitarian Universalists, we’re dependent on converts. (The cradle UUs could use some PR help, being second only to the Quakers in making participation from infancy a smug, if unearned, status.) This is good because there’s the opportunity to grow, should we tap adequately into the culture. But the bad news is that we would probably make the most sense to those coming from a churched setting, and those numbers are falling.

Lesson from embassy visit day

Today is the annual open day for non-EU embassies. (EU is next Saturday.) Long lines for a pamphlet and, sometimes, a taste of the local cuisine. I go to look at the buidlings and out of an internationalist sympathy.

Having done this a few times I’ve learned that the smaller the country the better chance of a good return. Some derived lessons, for churches.

  • Tell people why they’re being greeting, sharing a distinctive.
  • Keep the food samples simple and easy.
  • Be clear about trouble overcome and accomplishments made.
  • Be selective in suggestive next steps and make sure there’s a clear path out!

Churches take note; sometimes open options reads like inattentiveness.

Soul searching, again

More short-form blogging. Wondering out loud what to make of the UUA staff and growth advocates meeting this week.

Deeply suspicious that there’ll be any positive development. Not that there aren’t good ideas and resourceful people involved but that the process is worn and the goals are institutional and (at least modestly)  defensive.

I sighed, literally, and wonder what the future holds. At least I’m less worried about intra-UU rivalry: there’s so much less to fight over now…

On “Congregations and Beyond”

I hear the buzz, buzz, buzz online from Unitarian Universalists trying to make some sense of Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales’s recent write paper, “Congregations and Beyond.” (PDF version).

Let’s call it head scratching because this is hardly the launch into a brave, new world one would expect from its internal tone, much less the betrayal of congregational polity I’ve heard expressed.  Now that bloggers have had time to digest it, the posts are coming out and since my sinuses have been inflamed for three days, I’ll cut to the point. (I’ve removed some of my older, more banal comments. If you like, you may read my synposis of the white paper after the fold.)

First, let’s consider the Unitarian Universalist Association as a container for religious identity. Apart from a particular congregation,  this is the overarching, embodied connection to a shared religious past, and its the usual locus one moves from place to place. The UUA attracts attention through its programs, events and statements. Ministers, though fellowship and settlement, have an obvious connection, but so too other professionals, generational cohorts and campers. Over the years I’ve heard quite a number of things that Unitarian Universalism is, and however different these may be there’s always the UUA to continue as a common referent. Note I don’t make glowing or uniformly positive value judgements here, but grousing about the UUA is a lively (if frustrating) point of reference. Important, too, is that in the United States there’s not a vital alternative within the Unitarian or Universalists traditions.

This means there’s a value to the UUA greater than the programs it offers — the value of approval and a rallying point — but this value is an unhealthy dependence. And approval-giving and point-identifying is less expensive and less strenuous that having the resources churches need. Surely, if we take congregational polity seriously, we could identify that which is “truly” Unitarian Universalist in a way that doesn’t need the UUA. But then again, congregational polity has itself become code language for me liking my peculiar interpretations of Unitarian Universalism more than yours. Oh, that and not wanting to cede the right to shape a particular church in a way that attends to the needs of the people who actually attend and support it. And note that its easier now than ever to find solutions to problems: the Internet has created a wide market for resources and information. The UUA’s coordinating power will never be what it once was; indeed,why should it be when you can Google for it?

Morales’s white paper has to be read in this context. The religious movement and the “platform” language is a call to roots and foundational responsibilities. Some of the extracongregational entitles are nothing more than what others would call mission agency or support organizations. But his concept also an attempt — a doomed one, I think — to harness free agents who can offer alternatives services (even partial ones) under the UUA umbrella. Doomed, I think, because the UUA has little financial or institutional support to offer to make a trade-off of autonomy worthwhile.

And can I be plain, but the plan is hardly worth the name. Having worked closely with many self-starting social media experts, technologists and organizers, the white paper reads like a TED Talk rehash. The mangled terms of art  and the anecdotal ”evidence” suggest unfamiliarity rather than leadership.

As I wrote yesterday, “there’s much there” (history, baggage) “and too little there” (vision, resources, planning) for me to be hopeful — or upset. I’ll carry on and do my piece, but won’t wait for 25 to lead the way.

 

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Worship: once a year (or as needed)

Please excuse a moment of somewhat-silly ecclesiastic conjecture. Regular readers know I am considering working with a congregation that will meet for worship once a month. I know what you’re thinking: Once a month! Why so much? Geez. Slow down! Don’t you have anything else to do?

Well, I do know of some churches that meet once or twice a year. Why?

  • It’s a associated with a legal membership meeting or other requirement of an otherwise dormant church. (I know of a Universalist church in Canada that meets four times a year for this reason.)
  • It’s a religious observance associated with a family reunion. (I know of and have preached to a dormant Universalist church like this; the church has a cemetery, which I suspect is the compelling reason for this annual service.)
  • It’s an extended ministry — perhaps to a small expat or linguistic community — and is dependent on overstretched clergy support.

This last case seems to be the case of some non-English-speaking Lutherans in the United Kingdom. (Don’t ask what got me reading about these.)  Consider the Icelandic Lutherans in Hull, who only worship in Advent and early June. Or the Latvian Lutherans in Swansea, seen twice a year. Or the Icelanders in Edinburgh who only meet (once) in Advent.  Likewise the Norwegian Lutherans in Cardiff and Bristol, who also get a tree-trimming party as a part of the package.

There are two other once-a-year worship services I can think of: the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship communion service at General Assembly and the Sunday morning ecumenical Christian service at the U.S. Esperanto Landa Kongreso.

These two in particular make me think of how a once-yearly service might be helpful, say for Unitarian Universalist Christians and Esperanto-speaking Christians (and others of course): to start a religious presence, rather than wind one down. One, of course, can lead to more and little is better than none. But there’s something to be said for a yearly service here, and one a couple of towns over, and so forth until a network is created.  And unlike a more frequent service, a yearly (or twice- or thrice-) service can also be the basis of a regional invitation. A weekend or even longer: a conference rather than a single Sunday morning.

Now, if once a year, when? The Advent dates above suggest a pre-Christmas — so as not to conflict with more regular congregation — observance, but All Souls or Rally Sunday (first Sunday in September) have their appeals. So also the last Sunday in May, to take advantange of the Memorial Day weekend, especially if the intent is to restart a church with a graveyard. Week of Christian Unity (in January) or World Communion Sunday (in October) might be better for the Esperantists, especially since December is already in play for the language’s founder’s December 15 birthday.

Welcome baby â„– 7,000,000,000

So, the seventh billion human being alive was born today — more or less — the U.S. Census estimates the world will reach seven billion next March. Not much of a difference to me.

There were just over half that many when I was born, and in four decades time there could easily be more than nine billion.

Even if one is skeptical about human-generated climate change, peak oil or environmental degradation, just the amazing heft of that many people demanding the current level of resources seems an improbable effort with that many more people. And shouldn’t the poorest and most vulnerable reasonably demand easier and more reliable access to food and water? energy and communication? housing and just government? education and health care? And just plain old peace?

Orienting resources and talent to this problem seem like key questions — and questions that persons of faith should take seriously. An aesthetic or esoteric faith fails morally when it treats the welfare of billions as an added optional extra.

Community makes the church, or church the community?

When last I wrote about community, I ran down the idea of churches being community for their own sake. Churches for the sake of community only makes sense where people live in settings so dense or so atomized that community has to be constructed. Other, functional habitations have communities apart from churches, and these organize around public spaces, work places, shops, schools or other institutions. (Online communities are worth their own discussion.) Churches and other religious congregations can be a part of that mix, but when it bears more of the burden either the community becomes tinged with a self-selecting theological color (think of city-sized megachurches) or the congregation sanctifies the social preferences (dare I say prejudices) of its membership. Unitarian Universalists, having congregations too small to make their own weather, sometimes or often fall into this second category. The evidence is the rhetoric of refuge. That “this congregation is a liberal outpost in a conservative town” — little regarding other congregations a bit less liberal or regions far more conservative — is a common trope. And since these preferences come with class and generational markers, they aren’t as welcoming as they like to believe. Not necessarily unfriendly, but as a forty-something, geek-esque, child-free gay urbanite, they’re often boring, irrelevant or twee. Too often I feel like the unwilling recipient of a child’s mud pie and being asked to taste it. (No.) And in this regard Unitarian Universalists are very much like other congregations that try and welcome Hubby and me. I’ve given up hope of just stumbling on a church that will function for us both, and that we can function within.

Because of our polity, Unitarian Universalists tend to think that religious community is squarely the product of covenanted congregations, with a strong attachment placed to the overt and explicit covenant between members (and between them and God.) This is also reinforced by custom and — in no small way — the law and regulations behind determining what makes a church a church. (IRS regs and tax court rulings make illuminating if perplexing reading.) But if pressed we find evidence of valued religious life in religious gatherings, camps and meetings. We worship (or have worshiped) in college chapels and in military installations. There are invocations at Rotary and in demonstrations. Some ministers have their study groups, and others have volunteer service camps. Either serving or being served, we know of hospital and hospice chaplains. And some use social media to deepen their religious lives. There are alternatives to the congregation, conventionally conceived, new and old.

What many of these have in common are that they are existing communities where religious activity is introduced for the spiritual needs of its participants. Whether an old form or new, perhaps it bears repeating that a church — even with a subtle and implied covenant — can exist in the communities we already have, rather than setting up a church to have the community we lack.

Is community the reason for community for Unitarian Universalists?

This and the next couple of non-lectionary blog posts are going to be about community, and particulary the role of community as the end (rather than as a feature) of Unitarian Universalist communities, er, congregations.

Having community is a frequently-mentioned reason for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and the Unitarian Universalist Association — formally a credentialing, coordination and program-providing entity — often serves as a kind of meta-community. But  is being a community the best use of the community itself? I think not. For one, it makes it, by definition, self-serving. (For example, the phenomenon of the Phoenix General Assembly is putatively an attempt to escape self-centeredness, but the discussions have been deeply inwardly facing.) For another, it means congregations have even more competition, not only from clubs, but social networks and very well honed marketing campaigns that depend on creating a sense of belonging through consuming. If it’s all about the community, then churches have to compete with Facebook, play groups and Apple. Good luck with that.

Liberal congregations, with the high value placed on non-coersion, tend to go that much farther and get very fuzzy about the goal of the organization. Add in the unresolved tension in Unitarian Universalism between the social left and the libertarian left (much less the right) who have very different goals, even within congregations, so much more muting the ability to create a community with achievable goals: those values put into practice.

Instead, far too often, we have larger congregations where membership exists in the context of identifying with the minister (a variation of the marketing phenomeon, really) or smaller congregations based on personal friendships. That’s not a formula for inclusion or meaningful being, much less growth. Indeed, formerly lauded goals, like human brotherhood (world community) have been conspicuously missing in the last ten years.

And other groups, social networks and companies are there to fill the gap. Worrying.