Category Archives: Mission and Polity

Revisiting “Rekindling the Mainline: New Life Through New Churches” (and UUA policy)

This four-year-old comment (thanks, Derek) led me to revisit Stephen C. Compton’s 2003 Rekindling the Mainline: New Life Through New Churches (link for reference) to see what’s still applicable and what’s not. My (used) copy arrived today.

In the meantime, be sure to see my widget in the sidebar, which counts up the number of days since the last member congregation was added to the UUA. Alas, none are scheduled to join at the next UUA Board meeting, but Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Dawn Cooley points out a report (the report, in PDF) (thanks to her) to the UUA Board that recommends lowering the required quantum of thirty charter members for admission. Fascinating. I need to give it a close read — lots of references back to the UUA bylaws — and will report on that soon.

Commuting zones: airdrop


“We light this chalice…”

Finishing up a thought from last month. If you had to pick one part of the United States where — all else being equal — it would make sense to start a new church from scratch and with an external push (or airdrop) because there was relatively little support available nearby, where would you go? It would have to be sizeable city with no organized Unitarian Universalist presence.

I ran the numbers and one candidate rises above the rest: Lake Charles, Louisiana.


There are three small lay-led congregations — all organized in the Fellowship Movement era — within 100 miles. All together their membership is 40. The nearest residential parish minister is in Houston, Texas. And yet the Lake Charles metropolitan area boasts about 200,000 residents. Selection_074

It’s a gap in the map. Just a thought.


Why the Fellowship Movement will never come back

Following on yesterday’s post, we can talk about the Fellowship Movement with either praise or scorn, but either way, it will not come back. We have to understand what it was, good and bad, before deciding what we want. (Or what some of us want: I’m not suggesting Unitarian Universalists need to act as a united front with one missions policy.)

So, we can have something today that draws upon the lessons of the Fellowship Movement, but it’ll come with its own rewards and challenges. We do not live in the demographic world of the 1940s to 1960s. Anything we learn from those days needs to be translated for today.

Let’s count out the obvious differences. Can you think of others?

  1. We do not have a culture that defaults to church membership.
  2. Indeed suspicion of religion is at all time high, and despite our rhetoric of how different we are, we are still a religious institution to anyone criticizes religion.
  3. We don’t have a mass exodus to newly developed suburbs.
  4. There are a few areas where there is no liberal religious congregation. (But many are underserved.)
  5. We do not have a shortage of ministers.
  6. Women, who more likely worked at home in the Fellowship Movement era, and so may have been available for the volunteer roles necessary to run fellowships, are now more likely to work out of the home.
  7. Opportunities for social service in secular settings are more robust now they were in the Fellowship Movement era.
  8. The Internet makes it easier to connect with communities of religious liberals without actually having to be physically present.

It’s not polity LARPing or worship re-enacting

Here’s the word: Christians and the nameless group who appeal to accustomed polity standards (like plain congregationalism) not play-acting. We have something to say and something to offer.

I’ve been in this game for a long time now. And so it’s not hard to tell when I’m being sidelined or even gently insulted, although I didn’t understand this at first.

  • Oh, you’re a nineteenth-century Universalist.
  • I didn’t know there are any Christians left.
  • That’s fine for traditionalists like you but what you suggest isn’t practical.

There’s the insinuation that anyone who’s a Christian is being obstinate, or that our presence is indulged as some sort of polite inheritance. The same goes for anyone who insists that the processes within our religious institution should be held to a higher standard of democratic and spiritual accountability, using historic models of how Unitarian and Universalists organize. What better way to sideline people than to tell them they don’t belong, or that they belong to another era.

There’s the cruel insinuation that our religious lives are some kind of live-action role playing (LARP) game and that the way we worship is more about re-enacting then having moments of profound spiritual joy or insight.

They're probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention.  CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros

They’re probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention. CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros

To me, the issues are fundamental. Does Unitarian Universalism include a assortment of customs and churchmanships (we need a new word for that) that can cooperate without trying to undo each other? Meaning that there needs to be room for each to grow. Unitarian Universalism is increasingly a brand name: a kind of politically-involved, community-focused, liberal eclecticism, within in the bounds of respectability.

Or are we just subject to the American fascination for the new? Unitarian Universalists have the uniquely unsavory prospect of outliving what they have come to know is good and true.

I bring this up now because I have been posting so much historical material lately. I don’t necessarily feel old works should be used as-is, but the tendency to write off any resource or development (except trust funds) that’s more than a few years old means that we don’t dwell with our ancestors long enough to learn from them. Would it hurt to try? We don’t get inside their heads to see what they valued and what they rejected; we don’t understad their process. And because we don’t understand well what made them tick, it’s hard to see the arc of Universalist or Unitarian culture, past individual personal preference. How we do what we do is not an accident, but in many cases an inheritance. (I’ll post a couple of examples of “living fossils” within Unitarian Universalism when I come across them again.)

And once we understand how our traditions evolved, it become easier to draw on old cultural resources, adapting them to our own time. This is a serious practical matter. We have a thinner corpus of go-to worship, education and (perhaps) administration resources than we did 25 years ago. Through the Internet, the cost of storage and “duplication” has dropped to nearly nil, so we should be awash in resources, but we aren’t. It makes sense to reuse and recycle; I suspect money’s going to get tighter in the next 25 years. Room for everyone, and resources for all.




“A Hundred Unitarian Sunday Circles” (1895)

Moving back another generation from the Lay Centers I wrote about last week.


What is the next aggressive missionary movement for the Unitarians of this country to give their attention to? I believe it is the establishment of religious Sunday circles, or what I may call simple parlor churches, in a hundred–yes, in five hundred–communities where there are now no liberal religious churches or services.
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A hymnal from Fellowship Movement prehistory

Reading Bright Galaxy is making me re-visit the scattered history of earlier Unitarian efforts to organize lay-led congregations, including the League of Lay Centers. This was active, I believe, c. 1907-08.

[Correction: These were "Centers" and spelling changed;  but I believe there was another attempt with "Lay Centres".]

February 1908 issue of Unitarian Word & Work outlines the program.

I got in the mail yesterday a little find: Service and Hymn Book for the Unitarian League of Lay Centers. It’s undated, and judging by the condition, never used. I hope to share as much of it as I can.

2014-04-02 21.13.18

2014-04-02 21.13.36

The forward follows:


The formation of a League of Lay Centers has grown out of a demand for a liberal interpretation of religion and for a simple form of worship in harmony with it, such as can be conducted without the expense and responsibility of the ordinary church organization. This Service and Hymn Book has been arranged to provide for services of worship under lay leadership. And while it is brief and free from liturgical complications, it is hoped that the responses, prayers, and hymns contain the strength, beauty, and dignity which will commend them to the uses of thoughtful and reverent worshippers. Familiarity is, however, the best avenue of attachment for such a book, and too much cannot be said in favor of making use of all the services and all the hymns.

The compiler take this opportunity to acknowledge his indebtedness to Reverend Thomas Van Ness for the service and psalm selections taken from his “Responsive Readings,” and for many of the prayers selected from the Collections of the Reverends George Dawson and R. Compton Jones.

L. G. W.

Minimum standards for member congregations

So, what do you have to have to apply for congregational membership? There can be other requirements like corporate status, acknowleging jurisdiction, a financial contribution and a provision for dissolution, but those are standard and one-off.

This was in my to-blog list, but the UUWorld article, “Emerging, alternative groups at UUA’s growing edge” (Donald E. Skinner) brought it to the fore. Perhaps it’s time for a larger/smaller standard for congregations again?

Current standards

Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Association. Membership “shall be made in accordance with the procedure decided by a meeting of the Association voting on a recommendation of the Executive.” (PDF)

Canadian Unitarian Council. No stated minimum membership or number of services, for “member societies” to join, though the Council could make rule, per the By-laws.

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

“A congregation must have at least 12 subscribing members over the age of 18 years, and must have existed for regular worship for not less than one year.” (Bylaw 2.1.2) (PDF)

“Meetings for a religious purpose must be held at least once a month.” (Bylaw 2.1.5)

“Small congregations” without a General Assembly vote “…shall be given recognition provided that they shall have been meeting regularly for 6 months. They shall be admitted on the recommendation of the district association if they comply with the above conditions for Congregations except that the number of subscribing adults shall be reduced to 8 and the requirement for meeting shall be amended from ‘at least once a month’ to read ‘at least bi-monthly’” (Bylaw 2.2)

Unitarian Universalist Association.

“A new congregation, to be recognized as a member of the Association, must have thirty (30) of its adult members be members solely of the new congregation.” (Rule 3.3.3)

“For purposes of determining compliance with Section C-3.5 of the Bylaws, a member congregation shall be deemed to have conducted ‘regular religious services’ if it has held at least 10 services during the fiscal year.” (Rule 3.5.1)


Historic standards

Unitarian Fellowships and Churches (1954, 1955)

“A Fellowship may be recognized when it has ten resident adult members and meets the other qualifications for membership in the Association.”

“A church may be recognized when there is a charter membership roll representing sixty-five or more resident, contributing families and when the regional and continental officers concerned are convinced that the community is large enough to assure very substantial future growth…”

“A church may be recognized when it does not seek financial assistance[,] whenever it has 65 resident member families, … when it can support a full-time resident minister at a salary comparable to other new churches and meets other qualifications for membership in the Association.”

“General Policy of the Admission of New Churches and Fellowships” (February 9, 1955)

Universalist Fellowships (1957)

N.B. As distinguished from parishes and churches, but dirffering more in degree than kind; indeed, a fellowship could also be a parish. But I suspect the distinction was to give a parallel structure to the far more numerous Unitarian fellowships in the years leading to the then-all-but-certain consolidation.

“ten or more who come together for public meetings of a religious nature…” (Article XIII, 7, Bylaws)

Fellowship (the status) could be withdrawn from a fellowship (the organization)  “for having less than ten persons of 21 years of age or older, resident and contributing to the support of the fellowship” and “for failing to support no less than eight public worship services annually.” (Article IV, 1, iii, Laws of Fellowship)

Commuting zones: strawberry runners

So, if you think the best option for developing an unreached area is to plant an initially-subordinate extension from a large, existing congregation, you will want some place that’s

  • got its own commerical (for space rental) and community focus
  • yet is close enough for church staff and volunteers to support it, but
  • far enough away that saying “come to us” expects a very high level of commitment

Using (now 14+ year old) commuting zone data, to obvious place to center new activity is south and north of Charlotte, North Carolina. (New data, using the successor to the commuting zone, is due out next month.)

Specifically, York County, South Carolina. With an estimated population af 234,635 in 2012, the county serves as a bedroom community to Charlotte. It has been growing fast: up from 85,216 in 1970. At 27 miles, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte is nearest congregation York County’s largest city, Rock Hill. (All milages from city hall.)

View Larger Map

I was going to refer back to my micropolitan survey that suggested Salisbury and Lexington, North Carolina were ideal places to launch a new church, using a similar analysis, but lo and behold, the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, Charlotte has since opened a branch “gathering” (their term) in Salisbury.

So I feel vindicated. York County, anyone?

“Congregation relationship management” appropriate for a small church

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade reflects on his recent experience at a technological conference and suggests congregations use a CRM: an acronym with so many variant renderings that I created my own. And while I disagree with some of his suggestions, principly aboung changing our structures because it’s complex and expensive, his first thought is sound; that is, we need something other than a binary member-nonmember frame, we need to identify stages of affiliation, and we need systems to support this.

Fortunately, we have structures in our heritage and in parallel organizations to concieve this, and I have written about it here.

On “adherents”

I thought I had written about the Universalist way of distinguishing members from affiliates but I’m not finding it if I have.

As for a CRM, a typical Unitarian Universalist congregation is likely to have dozens or low-hundreds of members or members in process, and hundreds of contacts. Perhaps low-thousands. But not tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of persons that make complex, commercial systems worth their cost and trouble. There are more useful, better-scaled options, and a very small congregation might use (or at least start with) an old-fashioned paper system.

I’ll be examining this need in future weeks. As Jesus said: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Too much tech makes the user its servant.

These commuting zones are empty zones for Unitarian Universalist

Last time –and this was a while back — I talked about commuting zones was using them as a proxy for communities where a new Unitarian Universalist church could rise up. I have to admit I was wondering if I was being naive by drawing this conclusion. After all I don’t have any sociological, mapping or civic engineering experience. But once around the numbers, some of the gaps in the Unitarian Universalist map became perfectly clear and when I tested my findings against the UUA congregation locator map, I felt my process was valid. (If this post gets significant traffic, I’ll write about the process.)

Looking at the gaps, there are two ways you could read them to see where a new congregation could be planted. On the one hand, it makes sense to reach to the nearest unserved zone: a place where a large existing congregation might put a satellite. On the other hand, it might make sense to stage concerted effort to reach a large area with no nearby Unitarian Universalist presence.

Let’s call these the strawberry runner and airdrop methods respectively. This week, I’ll look into each.