Congregations and Cultural Transformation I
Chris Walton reports the following from the UUA Board meeting in San Diego.
Morales responded, “The vision that is emerging, that I’m trying to reflect, has not changed radically at all. It’s a vision around compassion, community, and acting in the world. What is shifting in that vision is a sense that, given our current context, [we must move] beyond how we’ve thought about congregations to engage people who are deeply suspicious about church and about congregations as an institution.”
“Though I agree with your stance that a changing culture requires new ways of bringing efforts to bear,” replied the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, trustee, “I worry that undue emphasis on change in culture may be a dodge for the fact that many of our churches are inadequate churches. I’d hate to see us avoid the work of strengthening the church.”
Morales responded, “We have to do two critical things simultaneously: make our congregations better, and also look for other ways of doing it.”
The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s officer for Program and Strategy, described the shift in the administration’s thinking about the core purpose of the association. “Congregations are the throughput, not the end. They’re the means for the transformation we’re seeking. If all you do is focus on the congregations, it becomes idolatry. That’s a big philosophical change.”
Thinking of the UUA less as an "association of congregations" and more as a religious movement focused on cultural transformation may require a denomination-wide conversation about our polity, several trustees observed. Earlier in the weekend, Cooley put it bluntly: “It’s time for another polity convention.”For thinkers and theologians who pride themselves on their subtlety and grasp of nuance, a lot of UU's who have read this exchange on Facebook have immediately posed what was said by Morales and Cooley as a stark, black and white choice between focusing on congregations or building a movement for cultural transformation. When Morales said "we have to do two critical things simulatanously", that was apparently Presidential flim-flammery.
Well, let's get this question out in the open.
Except for a few congregations which have access to either great wealth from the past, or from their present congregants, the whole project of building local congregations out of a couple hundred individuals or families contributing enough of their discretionary cash to support a building and a staff of religious professionals is rapidly proving to be economically unsustainable. And that situation will get worse. We see the unsustainability of it as our congregations age, a process which feeds on itself. A congregation dominated by 60 year olds will not attract enough new younger members to sustain itself. A lot of our UU congregations will not survive.
In order to survive, Unitarian Universalism has to be attached to, even embedded in, a broader movement for cultural transformation toward the values that we hold, and share with many others. Such a movement is emerging in the country now, among the young, among low-wage workers, among the people concerned about climate change, among young people of color, all along the vectors of intersectionality.
The local UU congregation will not create, nor lead these movements for cultural transformation. A local congregation which is organized around worship and programming for its own membership is a point of collection, not outreach and not cultural innovation. So they must become points of connection to them, gateway locations.
Think about what the one second reputation of the UU church has been:
Once it was, "that's the church for doubters"
Then it was, "that's the church where you can believe whatever you want."
Then it was, "that's the church where everyone is on a different spiritual path."
What if it became "That's the church where you can connect with the process of cultural transformation....?"
Transformative cultural energy will not arise easily out of our present congregations, most of which are consumed in the work of institutional maintenance. Many of our congregations' leaders are no longer anywhere near the sources of cultural transformation.
This is where UUA Staff, the leadership of larger successful congregations, young adults, and extra-congregational UU activists can be taking the lead, helping people connect to the energy out there. At this stage of our development, most local congregations are not where the innovative energy is; they do not have the hot hand. We need to pass the ball to who are open and have a better chance of scoring. But it means that congregational leaders and parish ministers need to partner with them, instead of seeing them as rivals.