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.

Reading “Church Refugees”

When minister and friend Derek Parker mentioned that he was in a study group, and that they were reading a book about people who were once devoted church members but have left the church without giving up what they believed … well, that piqued my interest. And it’s a sociological study, not just an opinion piece.

I even ordered a copy. And you can also download a sample chapter at the link.

Church Refugees, by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. (Group, 2015)

But I read slowly, so you’ll have a change to catch up.

Economics of City Ministry

A quick #sustainministry follow-on. Is it little wonder that there’s so much wishful and whistful thinking about having monasteries “somewhere”? It’s easy to picture some small, leafy town. Easier certainly that imagining the same in a leafy stretch of Greenwich Village.

Considering the high cost of living and property — purchased or rental — and the cultural and community alternatives found in the large coastal cities, and the high rates of practical secularism, what kind of future is there for churches?

I once read (not long ago) that once a church or synagogue is demolished in New York it is almost impossible to replace it elsewhere. That is, the peak number of houses of worship has past. I would believe the same is true for the District of Columbia. Perhaps that’s fine. But does it imply that we have as many churches as we will ever have in these same coastal cities. And that’s remembering that much of the denominational growth was in the post-WWII housing boom outside those cities. Even with alternative modes of ministry, it’s not hard to imagine that cities will be a special challenge.

Just getting that off my chest.

First thoughts about Economics of Ministry Summit

I normally write blog posts in the evening for morning publication, but I wanted to sleep another night before writing about the Economics of Ministry Summit, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and hosted this week in St. Louis. So far as I know, its only live presence was by Twitter, with the hashtag #sustainministry, so you should revisit those tweets for context.

This isn’t about that meeting’s outcomes, but how I want to approach the enterprise. I’m not going to start by being appreciative, by saying how wonderful the opportunity is and how talented and dedicated the participants. This has been a norm of communication among Unitarian Universalists, often repeated, for several years now and a response to our long-cultivated habit of minute criticism. An over-correction, I think, because it telegraphs an unwholesome cheeriness, softball responses and lowered expectations. That’s hardly respectful, or useful. It’s as if adults can’t be trusted with the truth. So I won’t question the sincerity, intelligence or diligence of the parties of this or any similar conference, but you can have all of these and still end poorly.

At root, the would-be leadership of the UUA has a trust problem with the would-be follower-ship. With each passing year, the UUA does less to justify its existence. What are the high marks for the last few years? Board governance? A property shift? These are internal matters, not missional ones. Are we building or redeveloping churches? No. But worse, we still have a model of ministerial formation that treats people like expensive, yet disposable, liabilities. And a raft of churches — and few will speak of this — that chew up and ruin the ministers they get with impunity. As for our external, missional successes, these come in the form of partnerships, formal and informal. Easy enough to ask, “why not affiliate with whomever’s leading?” If there are successes, they’re in local settings and perhaps informal networks. Again, a challenge to a national body. Unitarian Universalist structures have historically been hard to use, with little money offered. Sluggish, a bit haughty. You learn not to ask for much, and expect less.

At the risk of being cheerful, let me hold out some hope. When you look at the summit in tandem with the emerging communities pilot, I do see a willingness to entertain options and lower the opportunity costs of working within the UUA, and that’s good.

No: it’s better than good. It’s essential, because this work will take place somewhere, and without some structural change it will take place elsewhere.

Type out, edit Universalist polity documents?

I only had time to scan a ton of Universalist polity documents when I was at the Harvard-Andover archive last year, and I’ve still not transcribed them. And it would be nice to have in an easy to read and search format some of the rules and procedures of how Universalists operated — hints of which, and sometimes more — are still in use today. Here’s a taste.

I’m no Tom Sawyer, but Universalist polity documents aren’t whitewash, either. Can anyone commit to typing or editing for an hour? Seminarians, especially, who might find a tidbit for unexplored research.

A service without…

At the risk of austerity-mongering,  it’s worth asking what a small, or new, or fragile church can do without in its worship to make worship sustainable, and to free up money and energy for other parts of church life.

Some things come to mind; here I’m thinking of middle-of-the-road mainline Protestantism. You could have worship

  • without a meeting-place you own
  • even without a fixed meeting-place
  • without a full-time or resident minister
  • without a sermon, or at least a long, originally-composed sermon every week
  • without an organ, and probably without a piano
  • without a choir
  • without hymns

The list goes on, but you may already have experienced one or more of these “deprivations” in your own church. You might not even consider it a deprivation.

I’ll be looking at some of these options on and off for the next few weeks under the banner of “doing what you can, but doing it well.”

Burnout is a real risk under diminishing resources and opportunities. Burning out the leadership, leaving them hopeless, is not an option. Or else you’ll be

  • without a church

 

So, why Sunday morning again?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to understand the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Church of the East: Christian churches that have an early history of divergence from the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. The Coptic Christians I’ve recently written about are in this group. So were the Eritrean Orthodox who worshipped downstairs at Universalist National Memorial Church so many years ago. Also the British Orthodox I’ve cited on this blog. Originally, I was interested in them because some nineteenth-century Universalists saw a kind of pro-universalist apostolic purity in them; a history ripe for the reclaiming. But lately I’ve been more interested in their approach to mission.

For one thing, they’re not bashful about missions, and why should they be? Most come from parts of the world where Christianity isn’t a majority faith. To survive you have to have a strong sense of identity that corresponds well with missions. But you’ll forgive me if I suggest that their approach to the faith isn’t Mod or particularly attuned to contemporary culture. But, as they say in the software world, “that’s a feature, not a bug.” They work, or seem to work on a different timeline than your garden-variety mainline Protestant (Overstatements follow, but follow me.)

So I was a bit shocked to see that so many of the mission churches meet only once or twice a month. And many, perhaps most, of those — with English-language websites anyway — meet on Saturday morning.

The reason is pretty obvious. It allows the priests to serve more congregations. Some of the Copts travel several hours from their home parishes to serve missions, something that wouldn’t be practical if the mission had a Sunday evening liturgy following a liturgy at home.

This, too, is something those nineteenth-century Universalists would have understood, and also I’ve done my rounds of supply and circuit preaching. But their usual appointments (and mine) were on Sundays, which is also the tight time for church buildings. Few edifices are as well suited for worship as a church building, so why not gather for worship on Saturday mornings.

Four directions in the downsizing of the church

PeaceBang, the nom de blog of friend and minister Victoria Weinstein, opines at length about the foundational changes shaking our United States church experience.

Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations.  The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.

She was speaking from her own observation, but a report that came out this week from Pew Research Center — quantifying the numerical shrinkage of American Christians and a comparably increase of the unaffiliated — alerted people that might otherwise not care so much.

She suggests that I might know how the remaining worshippers of the future will act, and so I’m adjusting some of my previously planned writing to address the question that’s the title of her blog post: “What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors”?

The adjustment will come in phases, so let me address what won’t work; that is, doing church more cheaply. This won’t save us. So keep the champagne flowing? No. A cheaper, simpler approach won’t save us, but neither will we have an option. In time, even a deep endowment can dry up.

So the four directions in downsizing the church are taking creative alternatives to

  • staffing the church work with trained and ordained ministers, in new configurations
  • staffing the church work with new groupings of people with differing professional interests and accomplishments
  • making use of space other than conventional church buildings
  • making different use of the church buildings that exist

So what’s the solution? It’s making the experience of the church more desirable than the cost. The financial cost, true, but also of time, patience, labor, expertise and reputation. This last may be the hardest. Like climate change that melts the permafrost, releasing methane accelerating the warming — mull on that simile for a moment — if someone feels like a sucker for participating in a church, no cost savings, no special programming, no reasoned (or emotional) appeal will make it seem like a good idea.

And overcoming that dilemma is more than the subject of a blog post.

A church without all the trimmings

The Unitarian Universalist way of running congregations has a built-in contradiction.

On the one hand, we’re supposed to give money to support them; they are self-governing and self-supporting. And on the other hand, church members supposed to be a covenant people with a common ultimate interest, or mission. The two ideas do not necessarily go together, particularly if there are people of different incomes and conflicting interests about what is the proper level of giving and spending in a church.

The old parish-church distinction could remedy the contradiction with a parish serving the former role and the church serving the latter. Some would be members of one and not the other, but the conflicts between the two entities aren’t hard to imagine. The remedy might be worse that the disease.

I think that part of the subtext about how awful the Fellowship Movement depends on your view of church finances. Do you want a “full service church” and a budget to match? Can you personally afford it? And if you can’t? Well, I’d fight for my little group in a rented room with everyone pitching in, too. But I’ve never heard the conflicts put in such basic terms. It makes the membership allowances for those unable to give as richly as others seem down-right Edwardian.

The bigger problem is our heritage of territorial parishes, and the idea that in most places there’s only “room” for one Unitarian Universalist congregation. That’s a pretty limiting view. Can you imagine Methodists stopping at one? Little wonder were about 8 in 10,000 in the United States. And falling.

In just about every other private endeavor you can think of, there’s market segmentation. It seems to me that if there’s a desire to grow and reach out there needs to be a willingness to allow churches to prosper at different levels of spending.