Congregations and Cultural Transformation Two

The religious or spiritual life is partly about personal growth and transformation. Something is supposed to happen to you, or for you, as a result of your commitment. You are saved from the consequences of your sin by accepting Christ as a savior. You gain clarity about the true reality of the universe through meditation. If you commit to Unitarian Universalism, the promise is, I think, that you will become more open, more reverent, more self-possessed. We don't talk much about the experience of Unitarian Universalism in that cause and effect way, but we do testify that becoming one changes your life for the better.

Changing yourself is part of changing the world. Some schools of meditation believe that if a certain percentage of people in a city meditate regularly, social peace and harmony will result. A Jewish legend is that if every Jew upheld every law of the Torah for even one day, the Messiah would come. Not far from this, is the prophecy of some Christians that once sufficient number of people have been converted, Christ will come again and heaven on earth will result. Others simply believe that if more people did what Jesus would do, the world would be more fair and equitable. We UU's believe quite firmly, if inarticulately, that if more people were open-minded and justice-minded, there could be a cultural transformation toward the good. We 'stand on the side of love' because we believe that 'justice is love enacted in public.'

Personal transformation and social transformation come together in this middle level of the church, or the congregation. The congregation is the supportive and encouraging community for personal transformation. It's where we learn the wisdom of our traditions. It is the place where we practice love and concern for each other, both for the benefit of the helped and the growth of the helper. It is also where we organize our power to make the change that we trying to be become manifest in the world.

So, there are three levels of the religious life: the personal, the social and the organizational. Not everyone cares about all three equally at all stages of life. That's OK.

Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is overly invested in the organizational level. We tend to make the sum total of Unitarian Universalism joining and being active in the local congregation. Certainly, the care and feeding of our local congregations is where the vast majority of energy and resources go. We ruefully admit that people come to our churches looking for spiritual growth and we put them on a committee. Our national structure is that we are "an Association of Congregations" and we are vigilant that the HQ serves the local and the not the other way around.

Terasa Cooley is right in saying the we are tending toward an idolatry toward the congregation, viewing them as an end and not a means. Them's fighting words in a religious context, but isn't always true that organizational forms are secondary to missions and purpose?


  1. Has anyone structured a narrative that identifies the financial model that supports this vision?

  2. Well said. Nothing I wouldn't have said in earlier years. But once I stopped trying to change myself and just let myself be the person I kept trying to change away from, a whole lotta good emerged. In what form? Love at the micro-level. Partner. Porch-cat. Food co-op. Neighbor. Am I transformed? Yes. But mostly the transformation consists of no longer fighting the war against my self. It wasn't changing myself, it was accepting myself.

  3. The word congregation means different things to different people. They can be covenant communities, where the multigenrational religious community finds its expression and people find those people who know each others name. It also can mean the service units that the UUA staff has focused on, while camps, conferences, young adult networks, affinity groups have sprung creating virtual and viseral communities for UUs. I can't speak for Terasa Cooley but I heard her concern with a "false god" of focus on a form of our community that is not necesarily the totality of relationships, brick and mortar congregations are one form our coming together as Unitarian Universalists.

    Financial model? I would observe that in the past we have used a fee for service model of financing the UUA, APF is a narrative of pay up, we give you services. What if the ask was mission based? It works for our healthy congregations, and most of the other "denominations" (sorry for that word.) We would raise money for mission rather than for curricula, professional placement services, and occasional justice statements. Who knows, experience says that approach works.

  4. Steve Cook12:16 PM

    I’m a little disappointed in the way that this important conversation has so far been framed. Firstly, a UUA staffer uses a contemptuous and dismissive label for congregations and their concerns, yet this seems to bother no one at the staff or board level. In a UU culture exquisitely sensitive to the dynamics of labeling, I think this is revealing. Secondly, bald assertions about the purposes of the UUA, and what aspects of these are being adequately advanced or not by congregations, are being put forth with no context or support, not even the vaunted Seven Principles. (And if we are on the watch for idols, we might start there.)

    But for the sake of argument, let’s take the terms as we have them right now and use Tom’s tripartite scheme as a framework. He writes, “Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is overly invested in the organizational level.” Overly invested, compared to what? Who or what body, in a self-governing organization, determines what is the proper level of investment for the entire UUA? It’s clear what you think, Tom, along with some others, yet upon what does this rest? Some sort of jargon-ridden “Global Ends” document the board created for itself? One or another of the “Sacred Seven?” I’d like us to be clear upon what terms this debate is to be carried out.

    As long as we’re throwing around unsupported opinions about what are the “ends” and what is the “throughput” and what is “idolatry,” I don’t see any reason why an unsupported opinion that the board’s recent power struggles with the President and its multi-thousand dollar retreat to sort out that food fight was not “idolatrous” by way of overly investing resources in a national board and structure that means little to people in the congregations. The sale of the properties on Beacon Hill and the move to Farnsworth; this benefits who, exactly—and why is this not “idolatrous?”

    I’m hoping we can do more to ground this, otherwise we are just going to recapitulate the age-old tensions between the saving the world and saving ourselves factions within congregations, both of which think the other has it wrong (and aren’t really “good” UUs because of that.)

  5. Steve seems to think Terasa Cooley used a label that was contemptous against congregations and their concerns. I am bewildered.

    To say that a way of thinking is idolatry is not to express contempt for what the idolater has constructed as a false god, it is to critique a way of thinking. To serve our congregations as Terasa and everyone else in that room have done for years and to make the present form of brick and mortar congregation the ultimate object of UUA purpose and meaning is a radically different thing. Terasa Cooley is not contemptous of congregations and their needs, she simpy provided a juicy quote for the UU World when the Board was discussing the future of our movement and how its organizational forms serve (or retard) our missional purpose.

    BTW the ends were developed by the Board and the executive staff to better define our goals for our work together.

  6. Steves depiction of the "food fight" between the Board and the President is based on rumor and mischaracterization. Much effort on by the Board and the President was expended on developing a mutually agreeable method of measuring the efficacy of programs, and the result of those conversations have resulted in a much agreement. While some may not care about how we spend resources, the bylaws of the UUA require accountability to the congregations that elected the President and the Board.

  7. Steve Cook9:40 PM

    Let’s start with the basics. The following was copied from the World’s website:

    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.”

    Do you know if this is inaccurate or a mis-quote, because I have been preceding on the assumption that it was accurate? If it’s inaccurate, I’m happy to know what was said, but otherwise, I stand by what I wrote.

    I have served congregations, as many of us have, which predate by hundreds of years the AUA, the UCA and the UUA. Those national bodies, it would seem self-evident, were created by the congregations as means to serve various ends determined by the congregations. What we are now hearing seems completely to reverse this.

    To begin with, congregations are now “throughput,” whatever that is. (It would be nice; by the way, to see a definition of this thing that we are now all supposed to be, because I’d thought we were, oh, living churches, not “throughput.”) Congregations, who created the association to serve their means, are now to be regarded as the means for the association to accomplish “ the transformation we’re seeking.” Another unexamined assumption, I think. Who is the “we?” What is the “transformation?” I ask this sincerely; the UUA in one manifestation or another has been retailing a variety of “transformations” over the years and I am not clear on this latest one.

    I am startled and offended to see the work to which many, many ministers and lay people have given their lives, nurturing their congregations through generations for not only parochial concerns but to support, as well, the national associations and their staffs, now waved off as idolatry; in your opinion, Clyde, something “the idolater has constructed as a false god . . .” The disrespect is, to me, obvious and I am bewildered that it should have to be explained.

  8. Steve you seem to arguing that the visible church, the congregation as they exist in society are the Church and that idea that there is some kind of "movement" that the congregations enable is novel to this conversation.

    But a bunch of people met in Cambridge. Mass Bay Colony in 1648 and they seemed to see the congregations as a means.

    "There is a visible and invisible church. The invisible
    church comprehends all real saints, or all of mankind, who
    will be finally sanctified and saved.

    But by a visible church
    we are to understand a society of visible saints. By visible
    saints are meant such as profess to be real saints and appear
    to be so in the eye of Christian charity. Such persons as
    these are the materials, of which a church of Christ is

    I doubt if many of our congregations are conscious of their members as visible saints nor do they see them in the light Christian love, but the invisible church encompassed them nevertheless. The actual, congregations which as you say predate the AUA, the UCA and the UUA are visible churches as part of a larger vision, or we can think of them simply as membership organizations serving members needs. If you choose to personalize the notion of idolatry personally, that is your option. I understand it as a critique of understanding of the visible congregation as prior to the wider purpose of the church.

  9. Steve Cook10:02 AM

    I don’t think my central point has yet been met. Who or what body is generating this larger vision, thereby determining what constitutes the ends and what constitutes the means? I don’t think the Cambridge Platform (with which I am pretty familiar, thanks) is very helpful here. That form of the larger vision of Christian love has long since been rejected by the great majority of our congregations and congregants, (though I am happy to say it seems to be making a small comeback, albeit in a very non-Calvinist form.)

    Absent that, here is one indication of where we currently stand, quoting from the recent report: “If all you do is focus on the congregations, it becomes idolatry.”--Terasa Cooley. “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.” –Rob Eller-Isaacs.

    Do the President and the Board of Trustees believe that they are now empowered to form such a vision? If so, what is it? Is it based on a single, white paper issued by the President two years or so ago? Leaving high-sounding, visionary rhetoric aside, with the power of the purse, what decisions regarding program and budget will reflect any such vision?

    The Board and the President over the last several years seemed to have had their attention pretty well taken up by their own, internal power struggles. With a reconstituted Board, this seems to be over; I certainly hope so. If there is to be a debate about vision, means and ends, I would like to see it take place widely and transparently, and I could wish that we start at least a couple of steps before already declaring congregations to be nothing but “throughput.”

  10. I like your categories, Tom, but I would stack them differently. The desire/calling to make the world a better place is one manifestation of a healthy spiritual path. Care for the institution that nurtures you (as in serving on committees, working on the grounds, or paying the bills) is another part. A competent religious organization should be offering opportunities for people to work together to make the world a better place and for working together to give back to the institution just as it should be offering meditation classes, worship opportunities, and building caring community.

    A group of people that is unable or unwilling to articulate the spiritual mission of its religious institutions is, in my experience (and not just with UU's) likely to idolize change the world efforts as the be all and end all of religious institutions. That throws religious institutions dangerously out of kilter and is unattractive to slice of the population (still very much in the majority, if not as large as in previous generations) who want to create community and make the word a better place and grow in spirit within the arms of a religious institution.


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