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.