“Bishop of the Universalists”


Presented for your amusement. You hear of bishops from time to time among the Universalists — Paul Dean’s Charleston, S.C. ministry comes to mind — but always accompanied by hot words.

From the California Digital Newspaper CollectionSan Francisco Call, (Volume 85, Number 166), May 15, 1899


LOS ANGELES, May 14.— The most important action during the recent Universalist State Convention in Pasadena was the election of a state superintendent of churches, or what in other denominations would be called a bishop. The convention having created the office, Rev. L. M. Andrews of Santa Paula was by vote elevated to the position. According to the records. Rev. Mr. Andrews is the first Universalist bishop of California.


Bold experiment in ministry

I’m a member of the Universalist National Memorial Church, and today Sunday the church’s leadership made an exciting announcement at the climax of a congregational meeting: we are moving into the next phase of the church, but it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen. In consultation with district and association staff, and after six months’ work from the search commitee, the church is beginning a part-time, shared (but non-spousal) contract ministry by two theologically-trained laypersons. Some of you may know Crystal St. Marie Lewis, M.T.S, from her blogging. David Gatton, M.Div., is a long-time member of the church, but has had a secular career.

So this something new. Neither we nor they know what to call the experiment, or even what titles to use for them. That’s less important than them developing a working partnership, and the congregation providing support. (If all goes well, we hope to increase the percentage to full time within three years.)

Read the outline of the proposal here.

The team ministry begins June 15, and I pray them and the church every success. I’ll return to this subject from time to time.

Can ministers in and out of parishes work with one another?

The title of this blog post is a question — can ministers in and out of parishes work with one another? — and an appeal for discussion.

It’s not a hypothetical or philosophical question. Given the different work schedules of ministers who work in parishes and those who work institution or in secular settings, can we get together for meetings, or even conference calls or online? Do our interests line up? Or resources, say expense accounts, or what a non-parish salary (some much higher and much lower than in a parish) can bear?

Sometimes I feel we have four ministerial colleges, in descending esteem: those settled or hired in parishes, those settled or hired in non-parish ministries, those occupied in secular work (or secular unemployment), and retired ministers. And the last two make up about two-thirds of all living Unitarian Universalist ministers.

Why do ministers hate writing newsletter columns?

I was chatting with some parish ministers; one complained about having to go back to finish a newsletter column, to the moans and commiserations of the others. (The weekly newsletter-meditation implied by the order of service-themed blog post yesterday only raises the demand.)

I lightly chuckled, since I don’t have that responsibility anymore. And funny, as I was already blogging in my last pastorate, it was always easier and more pleasant to blog than write newsletter columns, so it isn’t the act of writing, per se. (The only thing worse was coming up with suitably vague but interesting blurbs for sermons I hadn’t written yet.)

So preachers,

  • why is this task so awful?
  • what can be done to make it less awful?
  • would anyone notice if we stopped?

And by “we” I mean “you.” I’d love to hear from you. I’ll allow anonymous comments for this post, for obvious reasons.


Archives search: what is the verb of Universalist fellowship?

When you read the 1899 and 1935 Universalist basis of fellowship, you realize the talk of anti-creedal absolutism isn’t right, or isn’t quite right. But what did Universalist ministers (and presumably state conventions and churches, the three subjects of fellowship oversight) actually own up to?

Let’s review, emphasis mine.

From 1899:

The conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith and acknowledgment of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Universalist General Convention.

This, following

These historic declarations of faith with liberty of interpretation are dear and acceptable to many Universalists. They are commended not as tests but as testimonies in the free quest for truth that accords with the genius of the Universalist Church.

In 1935, you get the same, around which was wrapped

The bond of fellowship in this Convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died.

To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love,…

Each avowal contained those before; the 1935 document has the 1899 document within in, which has the 1803 Winchester Profession in it.  (And since the original Principles of the then-new Unitarian Universalist Association pulled language from the 1935 document, I read a hidden, dormant but not broken continuation today.)

But what did Universalist minister actually affirm? The application forms for ministerial license and ordination help us understand the dynamic.

An application for license from 1920, using a standard blank and written in the form of a letter, states:

I desire to devote my life to the work of the Christian Ministry, in the Fellowship of the Universalist Church. I respectfully apply for a Letter of License to preach under its auspices. The motives are expressed on the other side of this paper. I cordially accept the essential principles of the Universalist Faith as follows:

and then the Five Principles follow, after which it reads:

And I freely acknowledge the authority of the General Convention, and assent to its laws, promising to co-operate faithfully in all measures but maybe by the General Convention and by the state convention in which I am connected, for the furtherance of the work and welfare of our church.

An application for license as a lay preacher from 1959 has a similar format, with the pledge reading:

I cordially accept the essential principles of the Universalist Faith as expressed in the Bond of Fellowship and freely acknowledge the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Universalist Church of America, and assent to its laws, promising to cooperate faithfully in all measures that may be why it and by the Convention or Conference with which I am connected, for the furtherance of the work and welfare of the Universalist Church.

The key verb is accept; nothing craven or crawling, but still a statement of faith, and even more pressingly, a statement of order. I don’t suggest we return to it, but let’s recogize our forebears asked more and less than we are asked today. And there was room for flexibility. A Unitarian minister (and Tufts graduate) in 1942 asking for dual fellowship pledged the following:

Being in accord with the general principles of the Universalist Church, and desiring to manifest my sympathy with the cause of Liberal Religion as a whole, I hereby make application for dual fellowship, and submit the following information…

He was admitted.


As churches and institutions name candidates and hires…

This is that wonderful-terrible time of the year when many Unitarian Universalist congregations and community ministry settings announce (sole) candidates for called pastorates or hirings for assistant and non-pastoral positions.

So here’s a bit of the 1894 Universalist litany that speaks to this season. And spare a prayer for the search committees, applicants and pre-candidates (many of whom must necessarily be disappointed at some point) and the candidates.  I’m keeping a secret prayer for many of you.

Minister. We beseech thee, O Lord, that it may please thee to rule and guide and comfort thy holy Church universal; to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred and are deceived; to send laborers into thy vineyard, and to give saving power to the preaching of thy word;

People. We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Minister. That it may please thee to illumine all Ministers of the gospel and teachers of truth; and to give to them, and to the people committed to their charge, the needful spirit of thy grace, and to pour out upon them the continual dew of thy blessing;

People. We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Figuring on unpaid ministers

I was drawn to the online Economist article about the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England by a tweet by British Unitarian and Free Christian Chief Officer Derek McAuley. It had a wry caption about Unitarian (do see) but I don’t care much about that, or an established church or the episcopal form of church government.

I do care about ministers being able to live with the necessities of life, and in not creating systems that keep poor people from exercising a ministry.

See the chart that shows the growing bulk of Church of England clergy working in unpaid settings. Which means those ministers are scraping by; have independent wealth, family support or a pension (a class issue, surely); or work part-time in another job. At which point I leave the Anglicans, lest I get too wrapped up in their ways. Indeed, Universalists were all but planted in this country by a purse-poor evangelist and a wealthy spouse (who later suffered deep poverty) … and many a cash-strapped minister who gave up so much for the spiritual welfare of others.

But when the costs are too high for too long and the burdens go unshared, eventually the system shrinks and collapses. Let that be a warning.

An intransitive end to the ministers chat

I was dropped today from the UUMA-Chat mailing list, being removed because I’m not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I rarely read it — the email went directly to a folder — and never commented. Mailing lists are a bit, um, old-fashioned and the content of the list specialized in asking for suggestion and resources. Liturgy, church admin and the like. Important, but not riveting. Hardly worth joining an organization for (seeing as I didn’t use the UUMA’s other services either) and certainly not worth hundreds of dollars in dues.

The UUMA shows every sign of contracting and this exclusion, while it can be formally justified, fails the sniff test. This dismission was announced; I’m not alone. How does it help to make a cost-free service (to the UUMA; the UUA runs it) have fewer members, when there is the added value of keeping loosely connected people attracted? Put another way, the most likely new members of the UUMA are the very people (like me) who have been dismissed from the list. You’d think UUMA could hold out membership as an upsell — the “freemium” model of membership being so well established now that it hardly needs explanation — but no. As a friend puts it, it’s their loss, not mine. True.

This action, far from wanting me to join, makes me glad I haven’t. Calls to “keep covenant” (but serve the needs of only some ministers) or to “ensure quality” (but not guarantee it, or effectively punish misconducting ministers) ring false. Clannishness, defensiveness, mismanagement, or spite (or some or all of these) seem more likely reasons to add this tactic — why now, after all these years? — to a list of overpromising and underperforming.

Some may ask, if I don’t participate, how can I expect thing to change? Well, to be plain, I don’t expect improvement. And singletons and small groups of people often do better to try something different.