Dawn of the Movementarians!

I’m laid up with a bad back so I’m not keen to be my usual chatty and irenic self.

But there’s been enough said behind the walled garden of Facebook and on other blogs about statements made at the last UUA Board of Trustees meeting to not make a response.

It’s about finding (and doing) a common mission through a movement lens. I will not speak to whether a mission this way is a good idea; if there are better options (such as communities of mutual care); or such a change benefits certain persons and congregations at the expense of others. (After all, people often choose disruptions that benefit them.)

All I care about right now is whether or not the UUA is itself the right vehicle to execute such a change.

First, I believe the UUA lacks the capacity to organize such a change. This is the same association that is incapable of organizing more than a smattering of new congregations, has produced diminishingly few resources for congregations, and went out of its way to undercut an organic network of support organizations. And then there’s the district staff, or what’s left of them in the new regions. I’ll believe the tales of new, grand design once you can show me you are able to fix the foundation. Peter Morales’s president’s report (PDF) doesn’t convince me otherwise.

Second, local organizations and coalitions are more likely vehicles to congregations, for those that want to make life-changing participation the priority. And there’s plenty of evidence — I read a lot of websites — that congregations do initiate the work, and also work with partner organizations. Local partners. The big churches do a lot and the small ones do a little. Again the geographic contraction of UUA staff makes it a poor choice for intensive organizing, and certainly not with homegrown competition.

Third, a gung-ho spirit won’t overcome these lacks without a bald sectarian appeal, and then it still won’t mean it’ll be successful. The UUA lacks the base of AARP, the zeal or consistent messaging of PETA, or the visual and aesthetic appeal of the Sierra Club. In a world where you can’t swing a hula hoop without hitting a Theory of Change, a UUA-led movement for change seems like ill-fated wishful thinking. And besides, for God’s sake, why relinquish the ground of religious liberal community and threaten to weaken its organic nature when success seems so unlikely? That’s our irreplaceable value, and what we have to offer coalitions.

But I don’t need to say much about this. In my experience, Unitarian Universalists are too polite to say no, and too willful to accept ideas that undercut the communities that brought them together in the first place. Congregations as the local franchisee of a UUA movement? Really?

Bluster about “idolatry” (fighting words themselves) reminds me of the fashionable denunciation of the Fellowship Movement (there’s that word again) that was both a pain in the ass and the most successful evangelism model in living memory. Institution building is hard, often unglamourous work. It’s what we need the UUA for, if anything, but if the leadership decides to follow its own bliss and upend the power relationship of the UUA, the member congregations have a moral right to ignore, substitute and defund it.

Later: Small edits to correct the typos caused by dictation.

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

13 thoughts on “Dawn of the Movementarians!

  1. Surely there’s a difference between providing services to member congregations and providing a platform for Global Change on the World Stage. I suppose one is glamorous and the other is grunt administrative work. Perhaps the UUA needs to be split apart, and The Movement needs to take shape away from whatever congregational services the UUA provides.

  2. Richard, that would be a reasonable option, or at least not inhibit the grunt work. (Work I do in the secular world, btw, and I think it a noble calling.)

    The Movementarians (for the lack of a better term) would have a harder time getting funding this way though, and might follow the Volunteers of America away from the appearance of religion altogether to broaden their base. You also see this in some Buddhist entities that lean hard on their health, peace-making and stress-relief work. Ideal for some; not for others.

    Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteers_of_America

  3. Thanks, Scott for adding more light than heat to this discussion. (I may, perhaps, be a heat bringer.) One of my concerns here is the high concentration, at the staff level, of people who really have no use for the stubborn messiness of congregations and their paltry concerns when compared to the great, high calling of leading “The Movement” on the larger stage. (Indeed, I can think of more than one who essentially fled parish ministry because, while they want to serve Humanity, they really can’t cope very well with individual persons.) All of these little churches just suck up institutional resources and time, while proving less than response to the latest cause du jour. If the vision, stated or unstated, is to transform the UUA into a larger UUSC while leaving the congregations to stand or fall on their own, let’s just say so. And let’s be honest toward those aspiring to the ministry that they will see decreasing chances of paying back their seminary loans and living even a modest, middle class lifestyle in parish ministry, unless they are willing and skilled for a tent-making ministry, or have spouses/partners who will provide the majority of the income and carry the health insurance. I’m looking for more honesty in this whole discussion, especially from 25 and the board, and a lot less gauzy language around transformation.

  4. Coming from the UU Church in Auburn, ME and having years of active membership at church and with the UUSC I’ve always wondered what exactly the UUA does besides collet dues. They do have a decent website with plenty of resources including sermons, historical data, and educational information. Let them start a movement. They’ll only be following the lead of all the congregants that have supported them for years.
    Thanks Steve, miss you in Auburn and hope you and your family are well.

  5. A few scattered thoughts as I digest this.

    Genuine movements are difficult to engineer. Most movements with any “umph” to them are the result of organic convergences of grass-roots human needs and endeavors. The Board’s efforts don’t seem to grasp this human reality, and thinks it can engineer a movement from the top down, and call this leadership.

    I see allot of talk about transformation. Perhaps even too much talk, as if this is an unhealthy psychological fixation. Are we so unhappy with ourselves that we must always yearn to be transformed into somebody else? Or do we use language of transformation, trying to promise some utopian future, that we probably can not deliver?

    Also, I am deeply troubled by the move from what was termed “program based association” to “ethos based association”. An ethos is a sentiment that informs the beliefs of a group. An ethos based association, effectively becomes an association grounded in a cryptic-dogma about what one is supposed to believe (eg. about anti-oppression?). UUA leadership reliance on below the surface dogmas, make me glad as a minister to be serving “off the reservation”. Either make a clear and transparent doctrine, or be fully non-doctrinaire. But do not demand that I adopt a set of beliefs under the label of “ethos”, while at the same time claiming to be a community of tremendous freedom and diversity of beliefs. The premise does not match the promise.

  6. I think Derek is on to something when he says the board isn’t grasping an important “human reality,” but it’s more basic than that. Committees and boards and task forces don’t lead movements, leaders do. You know, we could, in the realm of transformation, reasonably point to the 60′s Civil Rights movement in the Black Church and see a movement that transcended congregation and denomination. But who would the leadership of that be for such a movement now (leaving aside what it would be– General Goodness and Justice, I’m guessing). The members of the Board of UUA? Err, umm, I don’t know which word I’d use to describe that, but here are some to choose from: self-aggrandizing, delusional, narcissistic. Really I think I’m on “delusional.”

  7. As a certified Introvert, I’ve needed time to ponder what was for me a stunning report from the UUA Board. Stunning in the sense that I felt stunned.

    As a UU for 40+ years, I’ve seen the UUA spiral farther and farther from congregations, picking up the idea du jour and dropping it as soon as something better comes along. I’ve seen person after person — good people, well-meaning people, often very competent people in their areas — have enormous opinions regarding things they know little or nothing about. And I’ve seen those influential opinions re-shape the so-called infrastructure of our faith with little regard for the consequences.

    What is different here is that the Board appears to have spiraled so far out that they have broken the thread of connection with – dare I say – broken faith with — the congregations that I believe are its future and its base.

    I am a Unitarian Universalist, a person of faith, a minister who has given the better part of her life to service of her church. When I want a movement, I’ll find another place to seek.

  8. By way of addressing the concerns that a couple of quotes on this subject do not tell the whole story, I have posted this on my Facebook feed and elsewhere:

    There has been some recent “backing and forthing” in the UU blogosphere concerning ends, means, transformation, throughput and idolatry based on quotes from a UU staff member and a Trustee as reported in the World. No one has called these quotes inaccurate but some have said that they do not give a complete picture of the situation. The UU Board has a Facebook page and a blog of its own; their meetings are always open to observers. Their next meeting is in Boston from April 10-13. Few will have that much free time nor do I; however, if you are close enough perhaps you will join me in attending some of this meeting.

  9. I have asked a member of the church I serve who is a UUA Trustee to participate in an open conversation following one of our church services — I want not to run off in one or six directions, at least until I hear a larger picture.

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