Question for 2014

Is Unitarian Universalism exhausted?

I don't mean without energy, because that is clearly not so.  There's lots of hustle and bustle, meetings, trainings and conferences. Most local congregations are busy places, maybe even too busy. And, I am sure that there some exhausted people out there: staff people, over-committed volunteers, religious professionals.

No, I mean exhausted, as a seam of coal might be exhausted in a mining operation. No more coal there to profitably dig. Or exhausted, like a topic of conversation; nothing more to be said on that particular subject.

Are we drifting? UU leaders have identified some of the great issues before us: we are organized into autonomous local congregations, which do not serve many of the people who might be  sympathetic to our opinions and work. Many of our local congregations have no real possibilities of growth; they are aging, not attracting new and younger members, and they are financially stretched. From the stories I hear, many of our congregations are profoundly conservative about themselves. It is unspoken, but they would really like to be left alone to do what they are doing now, free from the demands of "The UUA" and the ambitious plans for transformation from their minister. If only they could easily pay for what they are doing now....

We don't have a growth strategy and we are not planting new congregations, although new congregations are being formed, on their own. No one expects, however, that a new congregation is going to have any more success than the present ones. If successful, it will top out around 100-200 members, with a building, a minister and chronic sense of financial anxiety.  

Our priorities, concretely, are, in order, (1) buildings, (2) staffs, (3) internally focused programming and lastly, (4) community oriented programming.  The trend is to fund our community involvement with voluntary Sunday collections, under the "share the plate" method. My sense is that "share the plate" works because we are too exhausted with our the decision making process to try to fund community projects through the budget.

I wrack my brain trying to think of some structural reform that would create new energy for the project of liberal religion. I can never think of one.

So, what I hope for is for a reviving energy to come from participation in the class politics of the country. Take up the issues of low-wage workers, the unemployed, the vanishing middle class, the declining social service and public sectors, the immigrants, the underinvestment in infrastructure and public education.

We need to name our personal and institutional financial anxieties as part of a larger economic situation which is not inevitable, but conscious policy. We need to throw ourselves into something larger than ourselves, taking our place in the larger social movements of our time. Yes, we have to find a way to do this that is authentic, honest, respectful of others. We need to be working for ourselves as well as others.

There is more to the engaged spiritual life than building small communities that maintain good boundaries and healthy conflict styles, that encourage self-care, and take care of real estate and buildings.


  1. As a seminarian, I have gotten the message that I am supposed to articulate and defend that UU is a religion. And if not a religion, then a faith movement. And I can do that, in as much as the context requires of me. But over and over, I return to the idea that we are an Experiment. And we can be proud of this. And mine it for all its worth: the agility that comes from not yet being calcified by dogmatic belief, the adaptability that seems to allude those places overly committed to institutional maintenance. I believe it an experiment that is not yet exhausted (or else why would I be doing this ministerial formation thing?) But we might get stuck in this corner of the maze and not find our way out before we run out of fuel, confused and exhausted.

  2. SpecK: I never want to discourage those in formation; you all are our hope, after all. I'd be interested in hearing what you see as the source of renewed energy -- what ignites passion?

  3. SpecK: I never want to discourage those in formation; you all are our hope, after all. I'd be interested in hearing what you see as the source of renewed energy -- what ignites passion?

  4. I think the push, external and internal, to enhance and embody the missional impulse. I think the democratic and locally-grown impulse that we can trace back to the Cambridge Platform is deeply renewing, if we can move outside of our boxes/buildings (which is a bit ironic, since I want to serve a box/congregation). I think the Commons movement has much to commend itself: it is about real life (it is heaven, not the seminar on heaven), it is international yet inherently local, and as far as I can tell, it is in deep need for voices to articulate its spiritual aspect. I don't know how this fits into this, but personally, I am drawn to how we witness and integrate death and I think this is such a fundamental human need that it must be a source of inexhaustible energy, particularly since we face potential collective (species/multi-species) death in climate change.

  5. I suggest we change the metrics for our priorities. "Our priorities, concretely, are, in order, (1) buildings, (2) staffs, (3) internally focused programming and lastly, (4) community oriented programming." may be holding us back.

    Would changing them to "(1)Telling our story or Worship. (2) Spiritual growth or Lifetime RE. (3) Fellowship Opportunities and (4) Opportunities to serve the larger world." be the reform that moves us forward?

  6. As much as we boast about being open to non christian traditions we never seem to look at the way a religious institution is conceived and lived out in other traditions and parts of the world. As the 19th century free association loses mass appeal and now the benefit of social pressures to belong to such a group we would do well to jump on some of the other possibilities. What about a place of deep spiritual practice that people would become intensely involved with for periods of their life then support and make occasional visits through the years. Why not a congregation that meets in a big retreat setting every year and organizes and shares resources for action and growth in between. Having spent several years now with out being active in a congregation yet very invested in my UU identity to define and direct and propel my creative contributions to those around me and the small bit of this world over which I have some power to act. Yet not being a member of a congregation I am not rightly defined a UU since to be so is to be a member of a member congregation. I think all our quips about Christmas and Easter members and those who give money but don't show up was and is short sited and superficial after all many of some of the names we are quickest to list in our hagiography where people who had a real ambivalence about our actual historic church communities and institutions- Lydia Marie Child, Beatrix Potter, Ralph Waldo Emerson etc. I don't think we are exhausted or at least don't think we need to be.

  7. Our form is no longer serving us.

    Somebody once talked about new wine in old wine skins, I think the point was that it was not good for the wine.


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