Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Unitarian Universalism Tries to Find a Broader Way

UUA President Peter Morales

When President Peter Morales released a statement calling for a reassessment of the governance, structure, and philosophy of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) earlier this week, it set off shock waves in the peculiar, often insular, world of my faith home. Congregations and Beyond was publicly posted on the UUA website after being presented at the Board of Trustees meeting just concluded in New Orleans.

Everyone made nice—U.U.s tend to be publicly polite in governance but take the knives out behind closed doors and in blog wars—the message could not have been well received by the board. Although presented in all positive terms without finger pointing, it could not be seen as other than a rebuke to board governance policy as it has been developing over the last half dozen years.

Morales was responding to now well known demographic shifts that have affected the growth, or lack thereof, of Unitarian Universalism. Americans while continuing to proclaim themselves by heavy margins both religious and spiritual, are becoming increasingly disconnected with organized religion and membership in and attendance of local congregational worship. This long trend is across the board and across self proclaimed religious identity which is always much greater than actual church membership in any denomination/faith tradition/sect. The result is aging, often shrinking congregations struggling to survive.

The Rev. Christine Robinson, one of the most respected voices among ministers and bloggers summarized the problem in a blog post responding to Morales:

There's no doubt about the declining fortunes of ‘congregation.”   To recap, here's a paragraph from my part of last year's Minns Lectures. (Find it here)

“Just to give you a sense of how the market share of all religion has changed over 50 years, let me go over some statistics.
Researchers have been asking 20 year olds about their religion for several generations, so we know that 3% of young people of the WWII generation said they had no religion, and about 6% of the next generation…my parent’s generation…persons now in their 70s and 80’s.  About 12%  of the Boomers in the 1960’s and 70’s claimed “no religion”  20% of gen X’ers who were 20 years old in the 80’s and 90’s and a whopping 26% of the Millennial Generation now claim “no religion”.  From 3% to 26%...and rising.”  
Actually, Unitarian Universalism had been modestly successful in bucking that trend.  Until three years ago the UUA posted very modest real growth in membership—defined as the reported members of congregations—for several years during which most mainstream Protestant denominations with who we are most frequently compared were suffering almost catastrophic membership hemorrhage.  Over the last three years tiny decreases in reported membership have been posted, much of which has been attributed to the loss of local members who could not sustain pledges during the economic crisis.  But worrisome, Religious Education figures which both reflect the presence of younger families and provide a supposed pipe line to life-long affiliation were down more significantly.

Morales, an upstart challenger, won election as UUA President three years ago as this modest decline was just beginning on a platform of vigorously promoting growth by encouraging congregations to practice radical hospitality and to reach out beyond or ethnic and demographic comfort zones to minorities and less wealthy classes.  The appeal of his message overcame the almost unanimous support of the UUA establishment for a wonderful and well respected female minister who promoted a message of greater “spiritual depth” and a promise to work hand-in-glove with the Board in implementing strict policy governance.

The powerful and eloquently persuasive Moderator Gini Coulter had publicly backed Morales’s opponent, as had a majority of the Board.  Despite pledges of cooperation all has not gone smoothly between the elected President and the Board since then.  

The economic crisis hit the funding of the UUA hard, slashing earnings from investments, in diminished Fair Share contribution from congregations, and in fundraising.  Morales had to spend a good deal of time slashing staff at Boston headquarters and in the field making it difficult to implement some his more sweeping plans and reforms.

Perhaps taking advantage of that crisis, the Board also attempted to reduce the role of the President in governance and as a public representative of the Association by trying to make it a much more narrowly defined administrative position charged solely with carrying out Board directives.  This was part of the single-minded devotion to Policy Governance, a system developed for non-profit organizations, not religious bodies.  There is no separate executive elected by the membership in policy governance, only a professional Executive Director charged with fulfilling administrative functions and fund raising.

Morales successfully resisted most of this because he is, after all, elected and has his own constituency.  He also pointed out that the UUA already has an Executive Vice President already charged with conducting most day-to-day operations.

In the name of Policy Governance, the Board has dramatically reshaped governance in recent years and has ambitious plans for even more sweeping change.  It systematically either eliminated or cut off funding and support of any other independent “power base” within the UUA arguing that only the Board could be responsible for policy and that only it represents the “will of the Congregations” and not “other constituencies or stake holders.”  To that end it blew up—and never replaced despite promises—a continental youth organization, striped dozens of once recognized official affiliate groups of any official relationship with the UUA—although facing a storm of bitter criticism did deign to grant former affiliates some “privileges”—, moved to make General Assemblies bi-annual and reduce their authority, stripped the independently elected GA Planning Committee of most of its functions in planning content of GA programming, de-funded the independently elected Commission on Appraisals which was charged with doing in-depth analysis of UUA governance issues and submitting independent reports, moved to reduce the independence of Districts as a level of governance and make them mostly simply a delivery system for UUA services tightly controlled by the board, and created a nominating process meant to deter, although not outright ban, independent candidates like Morales brought forth by nomination by petition.

All of this centralizing authority in the Board was accomplished supposedly in the name of making UUA governance “more democratic, transparent, and focused on congregations.”  In fact politically it was the alliance of the Policy Governance fetishists and the long vocal and fiercely dedicated advocates of what I have long called Congregational Polity Purists that made it possible.

Polity purists  hate, really hate, creeping denominationalism.  They stand forever on the Cambridge Platform of 1648 by the New England churches that came to be recognized as the Standing Order.  These Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors of Unitarianism decreed that “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.” In other words the congregation itself is the highest level of ecclesiastical authority—no Bishops, Presbyters, Synods, or Councils.  Congregations may have—and should be encouraged to have—lateral relationships with other completely autonomous Congregations.  If some sort of organization MUST be formed to perform functions that the independent congregations cannot accomplish alone, its authority must be strictly limited and it must be totally subservient to the wishes and will of the congregations.  Most importantly of all, individuals covenant only with their local congregations and are only members as long as they remain in that covenantal relationship.  Individuals can have no relationship with an association meant to serve congregations.

Although even Unitarians strayed from this model to one degree or another for most of their history as an identifiable faith, a dedicated cadre of intellectuals campaigned tirelessly to re-enshrine absolute Congregational Polity as the central religious tenant of modern Unitarian Universalism.  When the board Policy Governance folks began to take the meat ax to the same trans-congregational structures and organizations that they despised, the Congregational Polity Purists believed they had won a lasting victory and were on the cusp of restoring a 400 year old golden age.

This is where President Morales’s proposal is sure to stir up intense passions—it will be seen as a headlong assault on Simon pure Congregational Polity.

Morales is no ogre aiming to sweep away everything that came before.  He is, after all, a very successful parish minister.  He makes it clear that he cherishes congregational life and that it will always be central to Unitarian Universalism.  But if our tradition is to survive in the long run, he argues that it must adapt and reach out to, among others, the 650,000 people who identify as UUs—far more than the 160,000 adult members of U.S. Congregations.  And in order to serve those people we must be willing to acknowledge them as members of our religious movement.  He writes:
We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement. The difference is potentially huge.
Congregations as local parishes arose in a different era. They arose in a time of limited mobility and communication. Most members lived within a couple of miles of their church. When Unitarianism and Universalism were in their infancy, no one would think of belonging to a congregation ten miles away. Churches were the centers of community life in a largely agricultural society. (When Channing, Parker and Emerson were in the pulpit, Boston had a population of about 30,000, slightly more than Beacon Hill today.) To be limited to a traditional parish form of organization in the 21st century is like limiting ourselves to technology that does not require electricity.
Rev. Robinson recognized the problem, “…you are only a UU if you belong to a congregation which belongs to the UUA.  You can't be an individual member of Unitarian Universalism.”  This is an absurdity and a crippling inhibition to both growth and the spread of the good news of liberal religion against which I have been railing for years.  We have to find a way to both serve the wonderful congregations that provide a loving, nurturing home for so many of us, and those who for whatever reason cannot or will not immediately join one of those congregations.  If done right, many of those individuals will eventually be drawn to the irreplaceable nurturing of the communal experience.

Historically, even Unitarians were not so wed to pure Congregational polity as is currently in vogue.  When it became apparent that the liberal preachers and Congregations of New England had irreversibly split from their orthodox kin, the Congregationalists it soon became apparent that there was some need for extra congregational support.  To that end certain ministers and leading laymen formed the American Unitarian Association as a voluntary individual membership organization.  First intended to raise money for tracts and other literature, its functions grew.  When the Clerk of the Association began keeping a regular Yearbook which listed ministers of congregations known to be in sympathy with Unitarianism, it slowly became, by accident, the arbiter of who was or was not a Unitarian minister.  The organization also became a fundraiser for subsidizing a handful of church plantings and missionary efforts in the West, far from the New England tribal base and eventually in aiding the creation of a seminary—now known as Meade-Lombard to supplement Harvard in the production of new ministers. 

After the Civil War a number of congregations felt themselves at a disadvantage in comparison to other faiths with more or less robust denominational ties.  In 1865 they formed the General Conference of Unitarian Churches, the first linking of congregations rather than individuals.  Over the next decades the General Conference and its semi-autonomous cousin the Western Conference based in Chicago began to assume many of the characteristics of other national church bodies.  But it existed side by side with the individual membership AUA and both continued to fill specialized roles.

After World War I the two bodies were merged.  The merged body had the structure of a congressional association in common with the General Conference but opted to take the name of the longer established AUA.  It also gained the AUA’s significant financial assets.  The new AUA grandfathered the individual memberships of the older organization even though it did not continue to extend individual memberships.  The handfuls of survivors in turn were grandfathered into the new Unitarian Universalist Association after the consolidation with the Universalists in 1961.  So within living memory of senior UUs there were still at least some individual members.

The Congregational Polity folks also completely over-ride the separate traditions of the Universalists, who were always more interested in the spread of the good news of universal salvation than they were in rigid membership requirements.  

Of course Unitarians over riding Universalists is hardly new.  Despite various promises made at the time of consolidation, the new UUA mirrored the form and practices of the old AUA.  It quickly dismantled the vigorous structure of State and Local Universalist Conferences which had significant individual authority especially in approving ordinations and granting preaching licenses.  The some of the Conferences also had significant assets which the cash strapped UUA was more than happy to strip away for its own benefit.

The resurgence of Universalism as a theological trend within the UUA in recent years—in tandem with a general rise in spirituality and a weariness with the harder edges of Humanism, which had come to dominate the Unitarians—has also encouraged thinkers and leaders like Morales to challenge the strictures handed down from the Cambridge Platform.

The reactions to Morales’s proposals have been predictable.  A leading conservative UU blogger, Bill Barr writing as Pfaffer Streccius took Morales’s proposal as a full on assault on congressional life.  I believe a dispassionate reading will show that it is not.  But that view will undoubtedly gain traction and be amplified by others.

Others have assumed or fretted that Morales was just trying to ride the wave of technology—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogging—to build wide but shallow substitute communities. The Rev. Victoria Weinstein is both adept at the use of the so-called social media under her on-line persona Peacebang and in her euphonious blog and its companion Beauty Tips for Ministers, and a passionate advocate for congregational life.  One of the most widely read and respected bloggers, she recently posted a long meditation on the subject, The Cruise Ship: Grieving Changes in the Church.  She acknowledged the need for change and the power of virtual community, yet she fears that inevitably it will lead to the decline of congregations. 

I don’t believe that it needs to be so. We are a creative people. Surely we can find ways to adapt and accommodate. I, too, treasure vibrant congregations like the one that has provided me with a challenging religious home for more than twenty years. But we will have to leave behind the absurd notion that the only Unitarian Universalists are current, book-signed members of congregations.

Good luck, President Morales. I’ve got your back on this one.


  1. Well done, Patrick! (Now try it as a poem;)

    1. You mean to tell me it wasn't? Well, I be danged.

  2. I'm a Political Conservative, but not certain I've ever been "leading" in much of anything save maybe typos and misspellings.

    Nice recap. My response here http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com/2012/01/murfs-take-on-morales.html

  3. Does this mean you'll run for Moderator? Where's the petition? :-)

    Thank you for this, a thousand time thank you.

    1. Thanks Donald. But I am too poor and have to work for a living so cannot even consider running for a nearly full time "Volunteer" position. The new nomination process seems to have come up with two accomplished and talented candidates for Moderator. The question is whether one or both of them is so enthralled by the current myopic dedication to blind policy governance on one hand and congregational polity purity on the other to even consider the reforms President Morales has proposed. If they are, then we indeed need to find an independent voice to run by petition.

    2. Interestingly enough, John Carvers writings actually address associations of organisations and how Policy Governance can (and can't) be used by them. He writes that the member groups of that association must yield some of their authority to the association board, and those same member groups must become MORE learned, restrained, and responsible in the exercise of the power they do have.

      In all the Boards work toward policy governance, the rhetoric has been about returning power to congregations, and I've yet to see them authentically encourage us to understand our place in policy governance.

  4. Hello,

    I'd like to invite you to participate in the conversation about Congregations and Beyond during the consultation that will take place starting tomorrow night. You can join in here https://www.facebook.com/groups/334403263248852/ or on twitter with the hashtag #congbeyond.


  5. Hands up anyone who didn't see this coming. January of 2011 I could find no takers in a bet on it among a bunch of UU seminarians.

  6. I'm just now reading this piece for the first time in Jan 2015. I love it. It is so well done. I want to get into future discussions about UUism and other topics. I'm not now a member, having resigned from my former UU congregation when my term(read, sentence) as president of a UU governing board was over. My family goes way back (to the time of the Standing Order, actually) and I have missed UUism, but had so many problems with it. I just didn't know the right people or bloggers to find moral support.