Saturday, June 29, 2013

Our Dream in Reality

Every UU church or congregation shall possess an attractive building which is completely accessible, well-maintained and well-cleaned and on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability.

Every UU church or congregation shall have at least two, maybe three, full-time religious professionals -- a minister, a lifespan faith formation director, and a music director -- each of whom is well-paid at a middle class level in the community they serve.

Every UU church or congregation shall have additional members of the staff, each of whom is equally well-paid; it is a matter of justice.

Every UU church or congregation shall go above and beyond the law in providing benefits to all employees, particularly health insurance and retirement benefits.

Every UU church and congregation should give about 4% of its total budget to the UUA, and additional funds to the District and/or Region.

Every UU church or congregation will also make additional contributions to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Every UU Church or congregation will provide funding for its full delegation to the annual General Assembly, plus additional scholarships for youth and young adults to attend.

Every UU Church or Congregation will give away half of its weekly collection to local charities.

Our dream is that every church and congregation will be a well-established, mainline denominational church, circa 1954, except more equitable, more just and more socially conscious.

Is this possible?  I would guess that there are maybe a 100 or 200 of our congregations who get close to  this level of institutional solidity.  Many of them have endowments, accumulated capital to help them.  Most of our churches and congregations fall short.

Many of our churches are relatively young as institutions, less than 50 years old.  If you are a young church, it will take years and years of growth to check off every item on the institutional dream list.  You will need many years of significant increases in pledges, all of which will go into the building, into staff salaries and benefits, into external contributions, before you have generated the surplus income to pay for meaningful external communication, or outreach, the creation of new ministries, or spin-off church planting.   Stretch budgets every year, which mostly fund the institution, the building and the staff.  Stretch budgets for invisible results.

I can't see how a church or congregation could do this, unless it is located in an area which has rapid growth of well-paid, upper-middle class professionals.  And then, the congregation is mostly cannibalizing other UU congregations in areas that are declining.  (New England UUism is declining while UUism in the South is growing.  No kidding! There are also a lot of Red Sox hats showing up at Atlanta Braves games.)

We have set up expectations for ourselves that are out of date and impossible.  That a small number of our churches can meet them (often with the help of inherited wealth) obscures the unreality of our expectations.  And then we blame ourselves for our falling short.

I am all for casting a self-critical eye at ourselves and trying to develop our virtues, like generosity. But a little realism is in order as well.

4 comments:

revsean said...

I think your analysis is spot on. And I fear that this is what we truly want--to be respectable, reliable, to quietly continue to believe in the "American Dream" that feeds our own. I wonder sometimes about the possibility of a radical change of vision. Do you have thoughts about how we inspire/discover a new dream? Maybe I'll start the year with a sermon called "The American Dream is Dead." And then...

CSGiles said...

I think you are correct. The aspirational vision of most congregations and most clergy is a prosperous suburban Protestant church of the 1950s. The problem is that this aspirational vision is a poor fit for the reality of our movement.

It is made worse by the crushing educational debt most of our clergy graduate owing--their only hope of easy repayment being a position with such a 1950s style congregation. I suspect this leads to an over-focus on the aspirational vision as it is comforting.

Clearly we need a new paradigm, and perhaps a new system for religious formation, that would be a better fit for the basically subversive message of Unitarian Universalism.

Tony Johnson said...

Right on, Tom. I am excited by some new starts by younger clergy in the NY and DC areas, in urban settings where the 1950s model does not and cannot hold. I, for one, have for much of my career worked second jobs in order to sustain myself while engaged in vibrant, urban parish settings --- as did many of my non-UU colleagues in these settings

I will not dismiss out of hand full time parish ministries in urban centers, but the future is in a new model, subversive (thanks Scot) in the best sense of that much maligned word.

CSGiles said...

Hi Tony-

Probably you and I are the only ones following this thread at this point, but let me roil the waters a bit more.

Tom's article nicely points out what I see as an unsolvable problem in contemporary UUism.

We want: (1) our congregations to resemble the prosperous suburban Protestant congregations of the 1950s, and (2) we want to advocate values that are subversive to the values of the dominator culture ("standing on the side of love," etc.).

The problem is that the prosperous suburban Protestant congregations of the 1950s were enslaved to the dominator culture of white Anglo-Saxon oppression.

If your values and message are in opposition to the financially privileged class in society, but your business model counts of the financial support of that same class, you've got something of a problem.

I think the UUA needs to realize it can't have it both ways. If we've going to be a denomination in opposition to the values of the privileged class in society. we would be well advised to restructure ourselves not to need the support of that same class.

While there will always be a few prosperous and enlightened people who will help us out, there will never be enough of them to have the congregational structure Tom holds up to be widespread.

You can't have your cake and eat it too...