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.

My thoughts.

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.


  1. I agree with Terasa Cooley that "congregations are the throughput." The new Ends say that the UUA's primary task is to nurture a "healthy network of communities," of which congregations are just one kind, and anyway the focus is the network and not primarily the individual units in it. The question for congregations is: how can we serve the world? (Or, as you say slightly differently, How can we become a node of connection to progressive/radical social movements?) AND: how can we come together for transformational worship, which inspires the energy and generosity necessary to change the world? Our churches need to pass the ball to those in scoring position on social change while making our own points in the area of worship.

  2. Steve Cook2:36 PM

    There will certainly be more to say on this. I observe a couple of things quickly: It's not surprising that much of the energy for now regarding congregations as "throughput" or places of "idolatry" is coming from people who no longer have much, if any, connection to a living congregation. The unchurched status of most UUA staff has been for years notorious. It's easier for one to dismiss what is of no importance to the individual, esp. of what you are really concerned about are "nodes of connection to progressive/radical social movements."

    Further, it is being stated, as if beyond the need for proof or explanation of any sort, that the entire purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has become "scoring points" on social change. Right; let's forget about those local, (idolatrous?) christenings, memorials, weddings, potlucks, hospital visits and so forth, because how can they ever "pass the ball" for the great UU vision du jour?

    A long-standing tension in our churches between coping with the world and changing the world is coming to a head, brought there by declining resources of time, talent and treasure. To call congregations idolatrous on the one hand and then to wave the presidential hand to say we're going do two critical things at once really is, I think, flim-flammery. Let's at least speak plainly.

  3. Steve, let me say I speak as a congregational minister, and for myself and not for the UUA Board. All those ministries in congregational life you mention are vitally important--which is why I think the internet won't replace congregational life. But cobbling together $130K a year minimum to find a place to meet and employ a full-time minister is getting harder to do. This is in part because of societal changes, such as the diminishing middle class. And should we really spend $130K a year only on our own pastoral visits, potlucks, dedications and worship services? I think all those things are vital to church AND we need to be engaged with community partners who are doing things like sticking up for workers and fighting against the demise of the middle class.

  4. It is a both / and, for James Luther Adams, a movement consisted of people animated by the Spirit, becoming their common purpose. But Adams was aware that institutions of a volutary and participatory nature gave form and "power" to movements.

    The problem is when the institution (brick and mortar congregation) sucks power from the movement, requires energy to maintain and does not empower the movement.

    We are an Assocation of communities and we are a movement. It is a particle or wave kind dicotonmy. Both / And.

  5. Steve, while the "unchurched" rumor relative to UU staff may be notorious, but it isn't accurate. I can name the congregation of most of the leading staff and all of the UUA BoT where this conversation took place. The executive staff travels a lot, but I have seen them in their home congregations when they are not on the road. Several staff on the executive council are in city churches in outside of Boston.

    The ministers on the Board have decades of congregational service between them. Your statement doesn't add up.

  6. O Sweet Jesus, we are supposedly subtle and nuanced thinkers here, able to grasp how a Buddhist, a Christian, an atheist and a Jew can all go the same church with integrity. And yet, the idea that we can both have local churches and be deeply committed to social movements for justice, equity and liberation is too hard for us to imagine? When Pope Francis said that the church had to be visibly on the side of the poor, and take a charitable attitude toward those who were not Catholic, no one said that he was advocating that the church give up on baptisms, funerals, hospital visits and potlucks. Yes, the Roman Catholics have more resources than we do, but bigger debts -- if they can do it, it's not logically impossible for us to do two things at once.

  7. My first problem with this exchange is that I don't agree with Peter Morales that "compassion, community, and, acting in the world" is the core of our life together. Spiritual growth and nurture, encouraging depth and meaning in life is the one thing that we, as a religious organization are uniquely equipped to do, and UU's do it in a unique way. The major positive contribution we can make to our world is to do it well! (And because leaving the world a better place is an important part of a mature and deep life, we'll also help people make a direct contribution to changing the world.) Congregations as they are now constituted (buildings, organs,rows of chairs and classes for kids) are not the only way to do what we can uniquely do, but before we change everything, let's get some agreement about our most basic goals.

  8. Frankly, the goal of having our churches play a transformative role in communities is one that doesn't seem new to me, and where I have been in a relatively healthy church, it plays that role. It seems to me that throughout my time in ministry, the UUA spent too much time on the social transformation and too little on its core functions of helping the churches equipping the churches institutionally. If the UUA was really interested in its core functions of ministerial discipline, development of programs, materials, and templates for the institutional tasks of the local churches, it would save them a lot of time to be used on mission rather than reinventing the wheel on maintenances tasks. For example, how to materials on addressing issues of space and building, how to's on various models of governance appropriate to various sizes, how to's on what to do when your minister behaves unethically, how tos on modern technology, etc.

  9. Steve Cook9:33 PM

    In regard to the “unchurched” status of UUA staff (and I wrote “staff” particularly, without reference to the Board of Trustees) I cannot pretend to have conducted any sort of survey, but instead relied on observations shared with me by UUA staff members themselves, some I knew closely. Perhaps this was never completely true or has changed in recent years and if so, that would be welcome.

    In regard to Sarah Stewart’s point: if a group of people choose to “cobble together” $130K a year (or any figure you care to name) to support a minister and a church life, how is it the business of the UUA to question whether they ought to be doing so? On the other hand, if a group of people chose to “cobble together” $130K a year to be spent on meliorative community partnerships, is it again the business of the UUA to approve or disapprove of that choice? Or any division of those resources they care to make?

    As I mention in my original comment, there has always been among us a tension between saving ourselves and saving the world: not a black or white, either/or choice, but a tension, a locus of dynamism and energy that will shift over time. I still believe the local congregation is the best place for those tensions to be decided. This is not “throughput” or “idolatry,” this is the life of the church.

  10. I so agree with you on this. Thank you for your work in shaping the dialogue.

  11. I'm still trying to work past the incredible rhetoric -- frankly, what feels like a propaganda ploy -- of asserting that the trying to do congregations well is idolatry.

    Couldn't we have been accused of something a shade less inflammatory, like being Communists?

    I'll admit that I have no idea if this is a result of the idolatry I've watched develop for Policy Governance(TM), or not. But since it seems like it's arising out of the worship of the Ends statements, which... to my knowledge (which may well be imperfect)... never got passed before the congregations and the General Assembly for ratification. It thus looks to me like the UUA*oC* has begun a process of hijacking itself to be just the UUA -- and those idolators can come along if they'll mend their ways.

    Once again, I find myself wondering if the *faith* would be best served (as well as our shared desire for a transformed world) if we once again had an alternative association/council/confederation of our independent (but idolatrous) congregations. My read on our history is that we were well served by the period in which there were *two* organizations. Perhaps if only because it kept them focused on acting in ways that were in the interests of their member congregations.

    The deep irony here being that I probably agree with those involved about the envisioned transformation of the world, and the end state goals. I just find that the starting point rhetoric makes me incredibly resistant, and suspicious of the *means* with which we will live, en route to that never-to-be-quite-achieved paradise.

    And all this is going to make it a lot harder for me to lean on my congregation, and to explain why they really need to pony up and be Fair Share. Um. Because, you see, we idolators need to fund the pursuit of UUA[truncated] Ends.

    Yeah, that'll sell.

  12. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Would you like to develop this conversation about congregations and cultural change? This year's General Assembly will vote on a proposed CSAI called "Empowerment: Age and Ability Reconsidered."

    If the "Empowerment" proposal is approved, we'll move into 3-4 years of grassroots discussions about congregations, social change, and the future. In this way, we can develop the kind of discussion that several folks have suggested. It will do some good.

    Bit of irony: "Empowerment" is endorsed by the EqUUal Access team and it has developed with a lot of support from senior citizen activists and disability rights activists. Despite the aging of America and continued attacks on Social Security, age-related topics have seldom been addressed by the UUA and congregations with a large senior population are often dismissed as "problem churches." (Really? Spend some time with churches in Florida and Arizona.)

    SUGGESTIONS: Support the "Empowerment" CSAI at this year's
    General Assembly. Encourage a new discussion about congregations and cultural change, with lots of different groups included, including people with disabilities and senior citizen activists.


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