Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age

Let's just stipulate that the future of Unitarian Universalism will be in non-congregational settings. The future of liberal religion is post-congregational, or "Beyond Congregations."

But congregations are the source of ministerial authority.

In days of yore, congregations themselves ordained ministers; now ministerial authority is bestowed by the fellowshipping process. In practical terms, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee says who is a recognized and legitimate UU minister. But by what authority? By the authority granted to it as a body of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In theory, congregations have created a common system for doing what they each used to do on their own.

Our congregationally based system of conferring authority will be called upon to credential lots of ministers for post-congregational settings. It does that now, (community ministers), but awkwardly, and in small numbers. A system that is designed to produce and evaluate chicken eggs will be asked to evaluate duck eggs and ducks. A system designed to form parish ministers will have to form missionaries, evangelists, apostles and community organizers.

Training people to be a UU parish minister is an expensive and lengthy process. Is it the best way to train people to create liberal religious ministries that are not based on the parish model?

If we are to answer the call for liberal religious leadership in the society at large, we will need to deploy dedicated religious leaders in numbers we cannot imagine. How are those leaders to be formed, evaluated and credentialed? The skills and presence needed may not look like those of parish ministry.

Who decides who is a UU minister? The very category of "UU minister" becomes an anachronism if we take post-denominationalism, post-congregationalism, and laicism seriously. Look at the Sunday Assemblies: they're growing with non-professional "ministry."

The value of the present system is a process of accountability and standards of ministerial professionalism, ethical behavior, personal stability. That matters. God knows, it is an imperfect system, but I hear no one saying that we ought to get rid of it, and just let anyone claim to be a UU minister.

We are at a turning point. Someone has to discern what the essential qualities of UU minister are in non-congregational settings, and devise a process to form and evaluate future religious leaders on those qualities. The present body of UU ministers are the obvious choices to do that work. But it will require self-transcendence.


  1. Also, as congregation move from a called minister model to a contract minster(s) model. That changes the authority from the ordained clergy onto the Board appointed staff.

  2. Anonymous9:55 AM

    Yes, yes, yes. I can't tell you the number of hurdles I have to jump in order to pursue ordination as minister who does NOT WANT A PARISH. I say that in caps because while the lip service says "of course you can do X kind of ministry and be ordained" the system demands I prove my worth in parish ministry. It's insanely frustrating.

    A frustrated candidate for ministry

  3. Anonymous.
    My analysis is that it is not small-mindedness on the part of the people in the system, but that the system, itself, is a system of congregational power. The basic units of the system are congregations.

    What would a formation and credentialing process for post-congregational ministry look like to you? What would it be encouraging? What would it be guarding against?

    Where would it derive its power?

  4. Judy Welles10:12 AM

    This is a very important consideration, and as you point out, it's not just about credentialing -- it's also about formation and preparation. I think we have a good precursor example in Starr King's MASC program (Master of Arts in Social Change). Currently it is for people who want to work as social change agents from a religious basis, but do not plan to be ordained. However, I think it could be adjusted to serve those who seek ordination but don't plan on serving a parish.

  5. The United Church of Christ is congregationalist. Their ministers are "authorized" or "has standing" by their small Associations. Each association is made up of churches in an vicinity, for example Greater Boston, or Central Massachusetts. We do not need to cease to be "congregational" but we need to look at the associational nature of Congregationalism.

    It is a scandal to maintain a form that prevents us from responding to the future. Congregational polity is theologically powerful, our "take" on that polity is disabling and needs critique.

  6. Catherine Cox, one of the leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministers and a Spiritual Director offers this spiritual direction:

    "Get Clear on Being Missionaries!

    Communities ministers are missionaries. I'm sorry if the term offends you; it's time to get over that. Thank you. This is the first "surprising spiritual practice" I want to call us to.

    We need to think - and speak - in terms of mission because we DO have a mission to serve. Consciously thinking about and naming our work in that light is one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can embrace."

    If non parochial ministers are missionaries and we should be authorize their ministry "in association." Other congregationally based polities have not limited their notion of ministry to providing spiritual services to a membership organization with a steeple. Perhaps because their understanding of Church sees the congregation as part of the Church Universal, sharing a mission with the whole.

  7. As the President of the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries I could not agree more. We are in a time of radical transition for religious leadership but our denomination is stuck in a model that does not fit the times.

    The resistance to change has been great. Still, there are some glimmers. UUSCM has submitted proposals to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and we have hopes that at least some of them will be accepted.

    But an "old guard" of parish ministers that seems Community Ministry as fundamentally illegitimate is able to generate a lot of inertia.

    One suggestion--in UUSCM we distinguish between laity (non-ordained) and clergy (ordained), but consider it possible for both to be ministers.

    Ministry is behavior. It is something one does. Being a member of the clergy or the laity is an identity. It is something one is.

    Ministry is a murky term, cutting the distinction between clergy/laity is crystal clear.

  8. Top of my head thoughts:
    1. I've been thinking lately about Ron Heifetz's concept of an "adaptive challenge." This is one, in spades.
    2. Carl Scovel once preached about the need for "religious vocationals" rather than religious professionals. I wonder how this fits.
    3. I also wonder what the Episcopal Church's EFM program might have to teach us.

  9. Sue, what's the EFM program? Acronym for...?

  10. Tom, thought my recent post spoke to your comments on authority. thanks for your good ministry. Stephen

    Thomas Moore’s new book A Religion of One’s Own, is a must read for our Congregations and Beyond discussion. Moore has affirmed our approach to religion and at the same time indirectly challenged our cherished congregations first polity.

    Without mentioning us by name, Moore affirms our tradition by holding up Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and others as examples of those who can help individuals create a religion of their own. Our congregations are continually in search of new ways of helping people discover their own religious paths. And, some “beyond” experiments, like The Spiritual Growth Center of the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson MA that attracts 1,500 participants to its programs annually even though it has only a 60 member congregation, hold great promise ( ). We can learn a lot from Moore about how to articulate our faith in these newer settings. Moore summarizes his inspiring book with a list of ten suggestions on how to find your own religion. All of them affirm our tradition. In fact, he quotes Emerson to drive the points home, “Every church has a membership of one.”

    Oh, but there is more than affirmation in Moore’s book. Without dismissing or discrediting religious congregations, institutions, theologies, doctrines, and creed he places them at the periphery of the primary task that begins with the individual. Institutions may contain art, music, traditions, and language that are helpful, but he says, these are not the religion “of One’s Own.” Sound familiar?

    My take-away from this is that the very title under which we are having this discussion places us at a disadvantage by putting “Congregations” before the “Beyond” and limiting the understanding of “beyond” to its social, and not spiritual, context.

    Almost thirty years ago now a group of us felt our call to ministry was not recognized by our faith because we worked in ministries that were not congregationally based. That is to say, our call came from “beyond” the congregations. Because of our congregational polity it took considerable effort to legitimize what we now call Community Ministry. There is much value in our congregational polity, but at its worst it projects idolatry and distracts people seeking a religion of their own. Is that not part of what Emerson felt when he left our congregations behind? Is that not what is still felt by some Community Ministers? It is no accident that Thomas Moore claims our Emersonian tradition and will be thanked by a larger audience than we may ever reach as long as we continue to put congregations first.
    We have lived with this tension between an individual’s call from beyond and congregational polity for a long time, but I am not sure we can survive unless we begin putting the call from beyond before the congregation. Polity and governance are important, but they should not block our mission to help people find a religion of their own. By maintaining the centrality of congregations, we are saying the same thing to kindred souls who are seeking a religion of their own as we said to Community Ministers. As long as we affirm the centrality of the congregation we will not attract those kindred spirits.

    Today the larger society has run away with “our” Emersonian ideals and we are running hard to catch up. It is time we say: ours is a religion that binds all life together by breaking down all walls that divide. We can’t say this and at the same time worship “congregational walls “ that divide. I am not anti-institutional, and certainly do not want our congregations to go away any more than Thomas Moore wants the Catholic Church to go away. But, for the twelve years I served our Association nationally through its peace and justice ministries, and the -sixteen years I served our parishes, I never felt my call came from any institution. Always it came from “beyond” those walls, from a “religion of my own.”

  11. An interesting post for me and a growing number who minister to UU congregations but who are not in fellowship with the UUA. I was ordained in a non-traditional seminary after quite a few years as a lay minister. I have a B.A. (Magna Cum Laude) in Religion and did grad work towards a masters in American Religious History though stopped just short of completion. I've been a UU for 14 years.
    For two years now, I have been ministering to a small congregation that was once much larger. Now having about 40 member with an average age of 50 or so, they are at a crossroads and we have been woking to move towards a less congregational kind of community and to attract younger members. Difficult work to be sure yet starting to move forward.
    I consider and refer to myself as a UU minister. I'm UU and I serve a UU congregation. Yet my denomination doesn't recognize me as such which makes for a very frustrating and often quite painful sense of separation and non-acceptance by my fellow UU ministers and UUA leadership.
    I am aware of the limitations of the ordination that I received although I had my own reasons for pursuing it through the seminary I attended. But since being called by my congregation (The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palisades), I've decided to return to seminary and will be pursuing a distance M.Div through Starr King beginning in the fall of 2014. Until then, however, I am still not "part of" UU clergy circles and can't participate in events for UU ministers or, perhaps most disappointing, the Service of the Living Tradition at GA. I know that other ministers serving UU congregations without benefit of UUA recognition experience and feel the same.
    I'm hopeful that that will begin to change as the way we practice and bring UUism to the world changes.

  12. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Hasn't it ALWAYS been inadequate for our credentialing system to focus on qualities particular to congregationally-based ministry? If one is a qualified minister, shouldn't one be able to do so regardless of the context? Certainly, particular skills come into play in different contexts, but the question of "do you exhibit spiritual depth and the ability to engage others in deepening their spirituality?" has always been a deeper, more substantive one than "do you currently meet the baseline criteria to work in X context?" And, to the extent that the former has been neglected in favor of the latter, our movement has been suffering for it for a long time now.

  13. Kate Rohde9:50 PM

    This may only be tangential, but it is, I think, relevant. I have been meditating on the MFC's focus on "competencies" -- basically academic knowledge or parish-related skill sets. Even for parish ministry it seems to me there is something more important, something I might describe as "character" and "spiritual maturity". Those seem to me to be baseline qualities for a person I would vote to ordain and yet too often ignored in evaluating who should be a minister. It could be a baseline for other types of ministry, too.


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