United or Untied?

When I served my previous church, I was a big extrovert in the congregation.  I knew more people's names than they expected.  I worked the sanctuary before the service like a South Boston politician at a pancake breakfast at St. Bridget's.  I was using my self to encourage a sense of community, pastor as host to the party that is the congregation.

First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor
When I moved here, I started attending a UU congregation right away.  And I found myself coming to church at the last minute and scooting out to the car after giving my heartfelt respect to the day's preacher.  I had suddenly turned into an introvert.  The question was not whether the congregation was friendly and welcoming, but whether I was ready and willing to be welcomed.

Why was I holding back?   Indeed, why does anyone hold back from entering into or committing to a community?

And people do hold back.  Organizational memberships in all sorts of organizations are down.  People are passionate about political causes but don't join organizations.  Church membership is declining.  We talk about the "Spiritual But Not Religious" and the religiously unaffiliated as a growing group.  Yet a majority of those who identify themselves as one of the "nones" still believe in God.  Maybe they just don't want to join anything.

Zygmunt Bauman
I turned to a book by Zygmunt Bauman, "Liquid Love" for help. Among the many things he studied was the fluidity of relationships in the contemporary era.  People do not want to join structured communities, but be part of "networks" where they can control when they connect and when they disconnect.  People seem to prefer asynchronous communication: emails, texts and facebook postings rather than phone calls.  People change jobs, relocate, fall in love, fall out of love and move on, their friends and social circle turn over in time.

He noticed that in the advice columns there were more letters asking when and how to get out of a relationship than how to get into one.  I verified this fact in the advice columns in the Boston Globe.

This was the clue that led him to conclude that it was fear of ending relationships and being unable to get out of communities that motivated our caution about entering into them.

I connect this with the concept of self-differentiation: ability to stay in relationship when differences arise.  Edwin H. Friedman calls it self-differentiation, but Francis David said long ago when he said that "we need not think alike to love alike."

William Ellery Channing calls it having a "Free Mind" and self-possession.  His inspired articulation of the free mind is a part of a sermon called "Spiritual Freedom" (1830) in which he equates freedom with self-possession.  Today we say that freedom is self-determination.  And that freedom is essential to having the confidence to make deep connections.

To put it simply, although we are embedded in many relationships and communities already, we can make a conscious commitment to them only when we are confident in our ability to manage our selves in those relationships.  Without self-possession, our choices seem to be only enmeshment or independence.  Enmeshment is being over-committed and feeling obligated by the relationship, unable to say no to other's demands, being dominated by the community, losing one self in a group.  Independence is just that, staying independent of the relationship, and missing all of its benefits of shared purposeful work, friendship, support and love.

My message is that you probably already have the skills and resources to manage your self in relationships and community.  When I think about it, of course, my caution about entering into a new congregation is an ingrained habit that I carry around with me.

You have within yourself the tools and skills to manage your relationships in the church and elsewhere.  

The power of saying no.  

The resilience to weather other people’s disapproval.  

You have the resilience to handle negative feedback.  You can handle the fact that if you enter into a relationship with people of another race, or religion, that you might well make some mistakes and embarass yourselves, but you can handle it.  

You don’t have to go on every guilt trip that people suggest.  

You do not have to have and you will never get a guarantee that every thing you do will turn out well, but your ability to improvise, to respond in the moment, to listen and learn are all that you need to have to go on the journey.  

As A. A. Milne writes:

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

But you have to name and face your fears.  The problem with privilege (playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty level -- is that you don’t have to conquer your fears to have some, many of your dreams come true. -- and so none of your biggest dreams will ever come true, including your dreams of community and relationships and love. 

Liberal Religion is the way of spiritual freedom. The truth that we believe we know is that self-possession and spiritual freedom are linked and are the pre-condition of any sort of progress and spiritual growth.  

Channing says that the free mind is one that "protects itself against the usurpations of society and which does not cower to human opinion: which refuses to be a slave of the many or of the few."

Seen from that perspective, freedom is still a live issue, the unfulfilled aspiration of most people in the world.  For most people, the song "I Wish I know how it would feel to be free" describes a deep longing.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of the limited view of life that comes from my limited experience in the world. 

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of the psychological habits, and compulsions and obsessions that I carry through life.  

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of my silly fears and subtle inhibitions.

And so many others: they wish they knew how it would feel to be free of harsh economic necessity: they wish they knew how it would feel to be free of the boxes, the profiles, that others put them in because of their race, or appearance, or gender expression, or their physical abilities.  

For many, many, many people, they wish they knew how it would feel to be free from the threat of violence.

They wish, and I wish, that we knew how it would feel to be free: to be confident and self-empowered to enter into rich social relationships with others, into deep community. 

Freedom, a world of freedom, free people joined into free associations, communities that empower freedom:  these are still the shining goals of our movement.  Not just for the middle classes, for people like us, but for everyone, the whole human family.


  1. My problem is that I think quite differently than (I won't say most) many UUs. And after more than 30 years as a member of the denomination, I still don't feel I'm a perfect fit with UUism. I think the reasons are this: I am a much more literary and aesthetically oriented person than many are many UUs, who tend to favor common sense, scientific methods, and to accept the findings of science unquestioningly. In other words, UUs live in a world of facts, while I live in a world of meaning. I am also very playful in my thinking, always troping, punning. Oscar Wilde comes to mind as a person who uses language like I do.

  2. This is my favorite so far.

  3. Hi Tom! I posted this reflection over in the UU Growth Lab on Facebook, but wanted to share it here as well. I think you have touched the deep meaning of what church (and that other great institution of commitment, marriage) is really all about -- helping people transform themselves so that "you have within yourself the tools and skills to manage your relationships" moves beyond a theoretical catchphrase to a living reality. As Henri Nouwen said, you cannot be fully invested in a relationship until you have a self to offer to it. Developing that solid inner compass is the key not only to bringing people to the altar of commitment but also in equipping them (and their congregation) for whatever hope and healing they might be called to bring to the aching world.

    As part of that effort, our congregations need to better support the commitment and investment that we ask of people. How many times have you seen someone -- perhaps a younger member -- take on their first real volunteer leadership position, only to leave sometime later after they were blindsided, sidestepped, ignored, or left without support in other ways? Too many times, expediency -- sometimes expressed as "this needs to get done now, so I'll do it myself" -- takes precedence over patient leadership development.

    And we need to do a better job of managing transitions, so people don't feel trapped in the volunteer jobs they've taken on. I'm thinking now of the more established member who leaves because that's the only way they can get out of the volunteer job they've been doing for years, a job that now gives them more stress than satisfaction.


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