Category Archives: Mission and Polity

In our worship, a week becomes a month becomes a year

When we look at the norms of Christian worship, there is a standard of time, however frequently it’s broken. (Non-Christian Unitarian Universalists note this, too, considering where we get our worship habits.)

To put it so briefly as to risk being misleading, daily prayer should go up morning and night each day, and we should attend to the Table each Sunday, and that’s excluding duplicated services on Sunday morning. Two times seven is fourteen, plus one equals fifteen. So ideally a congregation should have at least fifteen worship services a week, if not more. But who does that? Some Episcopal cathedrals, if you’re lucky. And the occasional parish in Advent or Lent. But a leaner schedule is more customary, considering staffing costs or parishioner demand. Even a few decades ago, mainline Protestants would commonly have two services outside Sunday morning (Sunday evening and a midweek evening service, often on Wednesday) and communion once a month. This create a roughly the same ideal-weekly proportion of worship services over the course of a month. In short, a more appropriate rhythm developed, and one that seemed appropriately scaled. Some small town churches — we certainly see this among Universalists — take that to an even smaller scale. A service a month or so and communion once a year (if ever) based on the ability to secure a minister’s services. (How many of us have preached on a circuit?) Indeed, include too-cold or too-hot weather, and I suspect you find the UUA’s ten-services-a-year minimum. And now the ideal-weekly schedule gets pulled out over a year. But perhaps that’s appropriate, given the size and resources of the congregation, and the size of the community. The rhythms adjust to fit the capacity of the congregation, which might have a much (or more) to do with leadership as money.

And so, if this is true of worship, it is surely also true of mission and education, to name two other key functions of a church. And sometimes, particularly in small churches, one function will exist to the practical exclusion of the others. We all know of churches that struggle to stage a Sunday service. And how some Fellowship-era congregations existed primarily at first as Sunday schools. Some can even exist only as mission, or at least at their mission arm. Here I’m thinking of little Universalist churches that closed, leaving a women’s  organization — sometimes for decades — is a group dedicated to fellowship and possibly for service not a valid expression of the church?

And so to my point. A church may not have the expected size or scope of activity and yet may be a genuine expression of church. It may start small, grow in size and complexity, and then later contract and simplify. The right goal needn’t be continued and progressive development, but graceful adaptation to new conditions and the good sense to make the most of it.







One new congregation at General Assembly? Is it a problem?

One feature of the opening ceremony at General Assembly is the welcoming new congregations. Normally — and perhaps I’m dating myself — there are several welcomed into membership. Except this year there was only one congregation, the lowest I’ve ever seen. Congratulations to Original Blessing, Brooklyn. But when I asked the question does it matter? The answer is undoubtedly yes.

Not all young congregations survive. Not all young congregations encourage the ministerial college by providing employment. Not all young congregations contribute talent for common work, or funds. Not all young congregations reflect well on the common fellowship, or add to mutual encouragement.

But all congregations do depend on the strength that new growth provides. Some congregations have gotten larger over the last few years, and some have gotten smaller. But nothing lives forever. To keep from shrinking, we need new congregations, and one isn’t enough. We need leaders with experience to foster new congregations, and one isn’t enough to found them.

So, again, I’m happy for Original Blessing. I only wish it had some cradle mates.

The Universalists weren’t all sweetness and mother-love

In the last generation, I’ve seen a revolting amount of ecclesiastic “mansplaining”: condescending depictions of Universalism, out of a Unitarian lens, to re-cast my tradition as something sweet, loving, emotive, poor, rural and homey. The whole thing reeks of Victorian sexual politics. Something like this: Universalism was a country girl who, smitten by a Boston Brahmin, is “ruined” by him and destined to be his bride and subordinate. Today, a doting Mrs. Unitarian (neé Universalist) gets brought out for special occasions to be told how sweet she is, but nobody asks her anything. (If there is truth in any of it, it is outsized admiration of the Unitarians.)

The whole idea is offensive, and you would have a reason to be angry with my metaphor if I didn’t hear Universalism described in gendered, female terms in the 1990s and early 2000s. Times are changing, I hope, with a renewed interest in Universalism on its own terms. So, it is to correct the previous misconception, and to offer a cautionary tale for today’s Universalists that I share this passage from Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s 1874 Our New Departure, a manifesto to help bring Universalism to its new phase in mission. (I’ll be quoting heavily from Brooks as I read his book.)

In addition to giving us a contemporary frame, this passage from his chapter “A Survey of the Field” helps explain how fragile Universalism was when, a few decades later, the foundations collapsed. This passage begins at page 43, but engaged readers will want to read on, or even read the whole chapter. It’s not a happy review — the sweet revisionism would be more pleasant — but it explains more than a fable and (perversely) makes me feel closer to Universalists now almost 150 years past.

And looking within the lines of our organization, while we can truthfully say that no church shows a higher average of people upright in business, kind to the poor, every way reputable, it cannot be said that devout affections and a religious conscience are by any means general among us. We are not a praying people — that is, in the sense in which this phrase is commonly employed. Praying Universalists, in this sense, there are, many of them; how many there are who pray in the voiceless secrecy of their communion with God, it is for no human pen to assume to say. But the custom of family, social, or stated private prayer does not, to any considerable extent, prevail among us, because there is no prevailing sense of duty in these directions; and how rare it is to find those in our congregations who can be called to lead in public prayer, we all know. We have opinion rather than faith; more nominal assent than spiritual impulse or purpose. Our parishes far outnumber our churches; and where churches exist, they, as the rule, are very small, with a male membership lamentably disproportionate to that of the congregations. And then look abroad: what mean the so-called Universalist societies — alas, so many of them! — dead or dormant? What mean the Universalist meeting-houses sold, or rented, or standing unused, given up to decay, monuments to our dishonor? And last, but not least, what mean the fields where for years Universalism — or what has borne that name — has been preached to no visible effect in the spiritual vitality of the people, [44] and only to result in a sickly and struggling life for the congregations, or in final wreck and dispersion? For two successive years, not long since, I spent several vacation Sundays with one of our oldest parishes in New England, trying to make the dead bones live. The community is a thriving one, and the Universalists, so-called, have all the advantage of numbers, wealth, and position. But having sold their house of worship, the most of them first allowed themselves to be bodily transferred to an attempt to build up a Unitarian society; and this experiment having failed, they have since sunk into comparative apathy, and though having occasional preaching, seemed, the last I heard of them, to be dying of spiritual inanition. Nor, unfortunately, is this a solitary case — so far as the substantive facts of apathy and inanition are concerned. The question presses, then, What mean these things? And still further, how are we to account for the religious deadness and the indisposition to do anything for the organization of parishes, or the support of public worship, in so many sections where a nominal Universalism widely prevails? There are counties in my native state (New Hampshire), where what is called Universalism may almost be said to be the prevalent form of religious thought, and where there is no lack of pecuniary ability, which are complete wastes as regards any active Christian effort, save as an occasional Sunday’s preaching may intermit the dearth. Other states show similar districts.

Download this Orthodox mission handbook

Go ahead and download “Mission Planter’s Resource Kit” (PDF) from the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelism page.

You may ask why. Despite the obvious historical, liturgical, theological and polity differences, the OCA and the UUA are functionally the same size, both have congregations that end to serve as regional hubs, each has a decided regional bias (though very different regions) and both take a lot of understanding in order to be acultured to how each does religion. We are close to a common understanding of what a new parish should do and how big it should be. (I won’t use the term “full service” which is better suited for an old-fashioned gas station.) We could learn something.

This guide deals with the phenomena of organizing a new church. It thinks in terms of phases, and recognizes that certain phases have different needs than others. Do download and review.

“Fifteen Reasons for Preaching Universalism”

So, one of the matters I wanted to address before the Starr King news was missology, particularly since I ran across by old photocopy of S.J. McMorris’s 1858 “Fifteen Reasons for Preaching Universalism.” So I decided to reprint it as a cleaned up PDF. In researching it, I discovered I had typed it out years ago!

The over-short answer: Universalism makes Christian faith make sense, and so it should be preached.

So now you can take your pick of format: HTML above, or PDF here. (17.5 Mb)

Unitarian Universalists have a small-church religion

I was excited to see an article about a “dinner church” in Brooklyn passed around last week. St. Lydia’s is a new model (good) and makes careful use of a “micro-space” (another blog post, that) in a high-rent area (also good) but then founding pastor Emily M. D. Scott said something that made me stop short.

Not just small church, but micro-church, in reference to her church, a “gathering of 30 or so folks.” To be fair, the undefined term micro-church attracted me to the article since in the current resource-poor Unitarian Universalist mission climate, I’m looking for models that can be bootstraped. (One of the reasons I’ve looked over the fence at unprogramed Quakers and various Eastern Orthodox groups.)

Gott im Himmel. If an attendance of thirty makes a micro-church, what does that make Unitarian Universalists? A fellowship with a large proportion of small congregations, that’s what.

Using most recent data, 199 United States congregations have an average attendance of 30 or fewer. That’s 246 at 35 or fewer, and 294 at 40 or fewer. And that doesn’t even count the 27 congregations that report no attendance, but have fewer than 50 members. So I think it’s fair to say that at least a quarter of all United States Unitarian Universalist congregations are “micro” by the scale above. And while we talk about large congregations — and these are much larger than “micro” — there is only one (First Unitarian, Portland, Oregon) that reports a Sunday attendance of more than 1,000. Our large isn’t others’ large.

And since new congregations these days (no grand pulpiteers handy) start small, I think we need to own that experience and use it to encourage new congregations, no matter their setting or how big they eventually end up. A part of the mission long-game is to build church-planting talent.

And While you’re at it, consider donating to the UUA’s newest member congregation, Original Blessing, about the same size and also in Brooklyn. Their $30k crowdfunding appeal just ended with more than $15k in donations with the last $15k donated on the last day, but there’s always their website…

Churches: merged, disaffiliated and dead

As I wrote yesterday, one of the UUA backends has — if you know how to look — references to churches that are “not constituent[s]” though I suppose they must have all been thus at one time.

Since the larger list includes Canadian congregations (not listed here) that departed around Canadian Unitarian Council autonomy in 2003, this list has to be at least that old.

Which is also to reinforce that not all of these are dead. I see at least one Universalist church (Rockwell, Windsor) that has come and gone over the years. So also I can image a couple of community or federated churches doing fine outside the UUA.

But the rural and small-town Universalist churches and the marginally placed Unitarian fellowships are surely gone. Two were intentionally African-American-focused starts. (T.H.E., Atlanta and Sojourner Truth, Washington, D.C., which was long gome before I moved to D.C. in 2000.) The hardest to see is Epiphany, Fenton: the hoped-for firstfruits of a new age of Christian church planting. Others surely feel the same way about Panthea Pagan, Hoffman Estates. I’ll miss Muttontown’s sheep banner at General Assembly.

But many more are simply mergers. I recall the two in Flushing, Queens continue as one. Two in Minnesota. Saugus recently merged with First Parish, Malden. Oregon City’s merger even has a note online. Perhaps, too, the references to Dayton, San Diego and San Antonio?

Comments (and clarifications) welcome.

'Not a Constituent Congregation' City State
Guadalajara Unit. Univ. Fellowship Guadalajara Jalisco
Seward UUs Seward Alaska
Coronado UU Church Coronado California
UU Fellowship of the Mendocino Coast Mendocino California
U. U. Fellowship Southern Marin Mill Valley California
Aliso Creek Church Mission Viejo California
U U Fellowship of the Ojai Valley Ojai California
Channing Society of Orange County Orange County California
The Chalice Unit. Univ. Church Poway California
U. U. Inland North County Fellowship San Diego California
Unit. Univ. Fellowship of Friends San Diego California
All Souls Unitarian Church San Juan Capo California
UU Fellowship of Leisure World Seal Beach California
UU Fellowship of Aspen Aspen Colorado
Darien-New Canaan Unit. Society New Canaan Connecticut
UU Fellowship of the Farmington Valley Simsbury Connecticut
Sojourner Truth Congregation of UUs Washington D.C.
U. U. Fellowship of South Dade Homestead Florida
Eastside UU Church Miami Florida
Thurman Hamer Ellington UU Fellowship & Ministry Atlanta Georgia
Rockwell Universalist Church Winder Georgia
Glenview Unitarian Fellowship Glenview Illinois
Panthea Pagan Fellowship, UUA Hoffman Estates Illinois
Universalist Church Waltonville Illinois
Sauk Trail Unit. Univ. Fellowship Crown Point Indiana
UUs of Northern Kentucky Lawrenceburg Indiana
UU Fellowship Johnson County Prairie Village Kansas
UU Church of Hopkinsville Hopkinsville Kentucky
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Ruston Louisiana
First Universalist Society Brownfield Maine
Seneca Valley U. U. Fellowship Gaithersburg Maryland
First Federated Church Beverly Massachusetts
First Parish Unitarian Church East Bridgewater Massachusetts
UUs of Lowell Lowell Massachusetts
First Parish UU Church in Saugus Saugus Massachusetts
U U Fellowship Northern Berkshire N Adams Massachusetts
Church of the United Community Roxbury Massachusetts
First Unitarian Church Stoneham Massachusetts
First Unitarian Church Ware Massachusetts
U. U. Fellowship of Saginaw Bridgeport Michigan
First Universalist Church Concord Michigan
Epiphany Community Church UU Fenton Michigan
First Unitarian Church Virginia Minnesota
Burruss Memorial Universalist Church Ellisville Mississippi
Universalist Church of Westbrook Concord New Hampshire
Community Church Dublin New Hampshire
Dorothea Dix U. U. Community Groveville New Jersey
U U Gloucester County Congregation Turnersville New Jersey
Unit. Univ. Fellowship of Burlington County Willingboro New Jersey
First Universalist Church Dexter New York
Hollis UU Congregation Flushing New York
Unitarian Universalist Church of Flushing Flushing New York
Universalist Church of the Messiah Fort Plain New York
First Universalist Church Henderson New York
Unitarian Universalist Church Lockport New York
Muttontown UU Fellowship Muttontown New York
First Univ. Church Schuyler Lake Schuyler Lake New York
U. U. Fellowship of Fayetteville Fayetteville North Carolina
First Unitarian Church Dayton Ohio
Miami Valley Unitarian Fellowship Dayton Ohio
U. U. Society Western Reserve Kirtland Ohio
Community UU Congregation Tulsa Oklahoma
Unit. Univ. Community of Cottage Grove Cottage Grove Oregon
Valley Community U. U. Fellowship Newberg Oregon
Atkinson Memorial Church (merged) Oregon City Oregon
Boones Ferry U. U. Congregation Oregon City Oregon
Unitarian Fellowship of Bucks County Fountainville Pennsylvania
Venango Unit. Univ. Fellowship Franklin Pennsylvania
First Universalist Church Woonsocket Rhode Island
Brookings Unit. Univ. Fellowship Brookings South Dakota
First U U Fellowship Hunt County Greenville Texas
Community UU Church San Antonio Texas
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship San Antonio Texas
The Old Brick Church East Montpelier Vermont
Jenkins Unit. Univ. Fellowship Chesterfield Virginia
Lewis Clark Unitarian Fellowship Clarkston Washington
UU Congregation of Grays Harbor Hoquiam Washington
Fork Ridge Universalist Church Moundsville West Virginia
UU Fellowship Buenos Aires
Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship Tokyo 106-0032

Lost churches sought

So, I wanted a list of Unitarian Universalist member congregations and the years they were organized.

Not just an idle curiosity, but to see what proportion is less than 30 years old, to see what era (other than the Fellowship Movement obviously) produced surviving churches, and which areas have a better recent experience of welcoming new congregations. (Culture and expectations matter.) I’m about three-quarters done with the list.

As a side-effect of my search, I discovered the UUA keeps information about former congregations online. The disbanded, disaffiliated, merged and mysterious. I don’t know how far it goes back, or if its complete within that unknown date range. But the reportage of ex-member-congregations has, in twenty years, gone from routine to almost nil.

And without this missing news, how can we mourn our dead? How can we be thankful for their ministry? This tribute matters. It shows that we respect the life cycle of congregations and, like trees in a forest, have to plant the new to replace deadwood. It shows we replace the connections. It shows we respect the work now finished, or at least finished with us or in their former incarnations.

We cannot let these lost congregations go silently, any more than we would let our own loved ones go unlamented and unpraised.

From the vault: new congregations in 1992-1993

So, I spent much of the Memorial Day weekend cleaning up papers. Among them, I found this print out of a report I wrote of newly-admitted Unitarian Universalist Association congregations from 1992 and 1993.

2014-05-26 16.32.39

Sheeh. I know I’d been following church growth statistics for a long time, but not that long.

Here is that table, updated with the current congregation name and places. Blank gaps mean a church has not survived, but since I didn’t record the original church ID, I can’t be sure the churches haven’t moved more than a few miles. Much less merged with another congregation.

A couple of notes. Thurman, Hamer, Ellington was intentionally majority African American, and I don’t think it lasted the 1990s. Note that the Augusta, Maine and Chapel Hill, N.C. churches weren’t founded in 1992 or 1993. Churches served by a New Congregation Minister are marked Y under the column NCM, a program that no longer exists.

where zip name church ID organized members then now NCM
Coeur D'Alene, Idaho 83814 North Idaho UUs 3127 1992 34 35 N
Augusta, Maine 4332 UU Community Church 3810 1826 160 198 N
Jefferson City, Missouri 65102 UU Fellowship of Jefferson City 5632 1992 21 50 N
Lockport, New York UU Church 33 N
Tahlequah, Oklahoma 74464 UU Congregation of Tahlequah 7037 1992 48 52 N
Coos Bay, Oregon 97459 South Coast U U Fellowship 7115 1992 30 32 N
Newberg, Oregon Valley Community UU Fellowship 23 N
Tudaltin, Oregon Boones Ferry UU Congregation 64 Y
Northumberland, Pennsylvania 17857 UU Congregation of Susquehanna Valley 7320 1992 68 101 N
Cordova, Tennessee 38018 Neshoba UU Church 7616 1992 100 142 Y
Ogden, Utah 84401 UU Church of Ogden 7917 1992 76 93 N
Leesburg, Virginia 20175 UU Church of Louden 8113 1992 25 73 N
Hoquiam, Washington UU Congregation of Grays Harbor 25 N
Woodinville, Washington 98072 Woodinville UU Church 8312 1992 164 189 Y
Green Bay, Wisconsin 54313 Green Bay Area UU Fellowship 8337 1992 21 89 N
Amado, Arizona 85645 UU Congregation of Green Valley 2029 1993 51 104 N
Coronado, California UU Church 52 N
San Juan Capistrano, California All Souls' Unitarian 37 N
Littleton, Colorado 80128 Columbine UU Church 2634 1993 57 91 Y
Miami, Florida Eastside UU Church 33 Y
Orlando, Florida 32817 University UU Society of Seminole County 2920 1993 54 92 N
Decatur, Georgia Thurman, Hamer, Ellington Church, UU 20 Y
Covington, Kentucky UUs of Northern Kentucky 32 N
Chesterton, Maryland 21620 UUs of the Chester River 4039 1993 21 62 N
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042 Channing Memorial Church, UU 4040 1993 36 61 N
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514 The Community Church of Chapel Hill UU 6626 1953, 1993 (associated) 144 356 N
Canton, Ohio 44711 UU Congregation of Greater Canton 6813 1993 20 39 N
Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania 18360 UU Fellowship of the Poconos 7220 1993 36 50 N
Peace Dale, Rhode Island 2879 UU Congregation of South County 7510 1993 29 147 N
Cedar Park, Texas 78613 Live Oak UU Church 7714 1993 52 147 Y