The wrong question for our times.

I say it over and over again.  Unitarian Universalism has been shaped by its wilderness experience; the forty years when we were the most liberal denomination in an aggressively conservative culture.  Liberals like ourselves were mocked, demeaned, threatened and marginalized.  The word "liberal" itself became an insult.  (At one point in our history, someone proposed that the new denomination call itself the "Liberal Church of America."  Somewhere around 1985, everyone was grateful that didn't happen.)

We are just now coming out of this period.  There is an awakening of the liberal spirit going on in the culture; the rapid turn on marriage equality is a sign of the times.

We have emerged from the wilderness with one question still stuck on our mind:  what is wrong with us? What is wrong with us that we have not grown?

Get a group of UU's started on the question of "what is wrong with us?". There will be no shortages of suggestions.  I have found it hard to get UU's to seriously discuss any question other than what is wrong with us.

We are ashamed of ourselves.  That is hard to hear, I know.  But think about it: what else can you say about someone who is obsessed with the question: what's wrong with me?  Why can I not live up to my potential?

Our shame is so great that we split it into two different emotions.  One is grandiosity.  Officially, we believe that Unitarian Universalism is the bestest, coolest, most wonderful religion possible in the whole wide world.  We are completely different from everybody else, what Peacebang calls our "terminal uniqueness".  The Uncommon Denomination, etc.  And our good news for the world is that everyone can join us.  As wonderful as we are, we would welcome you, too. So one side of our coping strategy for our shame is adopt our potential as our reality.

The other piece of our coping strategy is project the shame onto some other group of UU's, whom we blame for what's wrong with us.

Maybe it's the old humanists who prevent us from expressing our spirituality.  Maybe it's the traditionalists who make us look like mainline Protestants.  Maybe it's political activists who make us look like the Chaplain corps of the Democratic Party.  Some people make us look "fringy" and others make us look too "crunchy".  It could be the music directors with their organ solos, or maybe it's all that "happy, clappy music."  Some people are too individualistic and some are too consumeristic.

We would like to welcome all, but we would also like to get rid of some that we already have, or at least, minimize their influence.

The one thing that almost UU's agree upon is that there is a shadowy cabal of elite UU insiders, mostly in Boston, who run everything for their own benefit.  It's so inconvenient that whenever you meet one of this insiders that they turn out to be a good person trying to do their best in a difficult situation.

I do not dismiss the issues of governance that been the topic of UU conversation ever since the contentious relationship between the Board and the Administration was made so obvious by the $500 hammer of the $100K consultancy approved at the last Board meeting.   Denominations need to be governed well, with a Board and a staff working together, in proper role clarity, to achieve the envisioned work of the body.

But good governance will not save a religious movement that is obsessed with a bad question.  And "What is Wrong with Us?' is the most awful question imaginable.  A shame-obsessed denomination will inevitably turn its governance efforts into devising systems to keep the wrong people from doing stuff they shouldn't do.

My suspicion is that the work of devising good governance for the UUA is complicated by contrary views of who are the reformers and who are the insiders.

The question that ought to be foremost in our thinking is this: what can we do to nurture and develop open-hearted, reverent, fair-minded, self-possessed, generous and grateful people.  How do we persuade people to place these values at the center of their lives?  How do we encourage children and youth to live out these virtues?  How do perform communal rituals that call people back to these virtues when they fail them?  How do we make it possible for people to recommit themselves to a life of liberalism on a daily or weekly or monthly basis?

We are evangelists of the liberal spirit.  Our mission is to change people by inspiring them to place the values of liberalism at the center of their lives.  We are doing it now.  Doing it better will result in growth soon enough.  What matters more is our growth as a denomination past the shadowy shame habits we picked up in the wilderness.


  1. Jennifer Crawford12:51 PM

    Tom, while this post speaks to me strongly, I have one caveat. In your final paragraph, you say, “Our mission is to change people by inspiring them to place the values of liberalism at the center of their lives.” This emphasis on changing people seems to imply that the problem with UU’s is that they are failing to put the values of liberalism at the center of their lives. It seems to me that generally speaking, people who show up in UU churches tend to be people who already have a great desire to place the values of liberalism at the center of their lives. Often what they need is not to be chastised for being insufficiently liberal, but rather to be renewed in their hope that a more just and liberal society is possible, and that they can individually and collectively play a role in bringing that about. By all means let’s inspire people, but let’s conceive of that not as transforming or changing them, so much as nurturing the best that is already within them. This fits well, I think, with your general point that coming out of the conservative wilderness shouldn’t be about focusing on what’s wrong with us.

  2. Clyde Grubbs3:14 PM

    Governance will not save us....


    the point of governance is to define achievable goals for an institution, and enable those charged with achieving he goals and verify the achievement,

    and when necessary forgive ourselves and begin again in love.

    Saving ourselves from from ourselves if it requires group effort and rather somekind of "grace alone" may be enhanced by governnance that is democratic, accountable, and visionary and could be harmed by governance that is bureaucratic and evasive and vague.

    Governance is like tying up our shoe laces, it won't help us run the race, but not tying ones shoes might trip one up along the way.


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