UU Stuckness

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time discussing with other UU's, the stuckness of Unitarian Universalism. There is no denying it; our growth numbers, our new plant numbers, our aging population, our demographic isolation all say we're stuck.

Some think that the core issue is that we are stuck theologically.  We won't be able to grow and develop until we get over the aversion to God language in general and the Christian tradition in particular. Specifically, our theological consensus prevents us from talking about a whole range of subjects that people look to the religious life for: awe, wonder, hope for deliverance, expressions of dependence, the need for repentance and conversion, our own tendencies to sin and evil. We are stuck in a mid-twentieth century debate about the existence of God and the value of theological language itself. Most people find that discussion arcane and irrelevant.

Some think that we are stuck sociologically. The population that Unitarian Universalism now serves is so privileged that we are increasingly out of step with most people. The world is working out pretty well for most of our present UU's; this creates a tremendous resistance to change that is not easily overcome.

Some think extend the theory of being stuck because of who we are even further. Not only are UU's economically privileged white people, but we have our own special snobbery. We are the smartest people of our class. We are a self-selected subgroup of the well-educated middle and upper classes who want to be different than most people. The last thing that we want is to be thought to be like others. To many UU's, not watching television, not being on social media, not listening to popular music, and not seeing mainstream movies are signs of our specialness.

Some think that we are stuck because our professional religious leadership, the ministers, destroyed their credibility and authority through a scandalous pattern of sexual misconduct, which has never been resolved. The result is that Unitarian Universalism is bogged down in a quagmire of anti-authoritarianism and nips its own leaders in the bud.

The great irony is that the very people who are most concerned about our stuckness place all their hopes in the local congregation. If only the UUA better served the local congregation, then we would not be so stuck. But the local congregation is most stuck part of the whole system. If you want to see change, don't look to the local congregation because it is the most resistant to change.

Not to say that there are not local congregations that are making changes. Lots of churches are becoming more liturgically open and spiritually rich in their worship.  Lots of churches are singing better than Unitarian Universalists ever did in the past. Some churches are building more vibrant ministries for young adults. There are signs that some churches are expanding their reach into the communities around them.

But in almost all cases, you can't say that these changes originated in the process of the local congregation. Most changes come into a UU congregation from the outside, from the overall UU environment. They are usually introduced into the local congregation by the minister, or by the new interim minister, who function as the change agent, convincing congregational leadership to adopt them.

Change originates in the hive-mind of Unitarian Universalism "above and beyond" the local congregation.  That hive-mind is composed of an amorphous body of UUA staff people, the elected UUA leaders, the groups of ministers and laypeople joined together by common interests, the groups which used to be called independent affiliates, the leadership bodies of the districts and regions, GA junkies and even the UU Social media community, even humble bloggers It's in this hive mind that new ideas and practices are developed and through this network they are shared, until a minister, or some other religious professional, introduces them in the local congregation.  

Name the change that happened in the whole history of the denomination since 1961, and I would bet that the process of this hive-mind of the collective leadership group was instrumental in its spread.

I have some more thoughts on how we talk about issues inside the hive-mind, but that will be for later.


  1. If you have correctly diagnosed the problem, then the "hive-mind" must be even more "stuck" than our local congregations, because for the last 50+ years it has been following its own nose down one self-absorbing rabbit hole after another, rather than leading the congregations in a discernible, realistic, relevant, effective direction.

  2. Wisely said, Tom. We are part of an organic system which does have its own mind. And our people and congregations and associations are parts of multiple overlapping/intersecting systems.
    The US political struggles with anti-democratic forces and gridlock affect UU systems. Consumerism affects UU systems deeply. The clergy scandals in other faiths (not just those that happened in UU settings) have deeply affected people's attitude toward our ministry.
    One trend that's been on my mind a lot lately is the end of American Christendom (the cultural/political hegemony of the "mainline" Protestant and Catholic traditions) and how our UU systems need to adapt to that. We've depended on the majority our UUs being schooled in "how to do church" by those traditions, and we've been theologically counter-dependent on them in terms of defining ourselves. That's a system at work. There's A LOT to talk about here - thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. Thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Tom! I think it's not just our UU hive mind... We're part of a larger cultural hive mind and our own system is affected by multiple inter-related systems. I've been thinking lately about how the system of mainline Christianity (which is in decline) affects us and how we need to adapt to a post-Christendom world. Reading your post I think about some other systems that really affect how our system behaves: the turning of citizens into consumers, the mess that American democracy is in, clergy corruption in other faiths in addition to our own (resulting in a devaluation of the role), the "feminization" of clergy (also resulting in a devaluation of the role), and the economy driving families into "time poverty" that results in volunteers (and professionals) having less time to do the kind of visionary leadership our faith needs. And there are so many more systems at work beyond that. The hive mind is fascinating and so hard to influence. But it can be influenced. I'll keep trying.

  4. I agree with Sarah that crediting meaningful change to a UUA "hive mind" is wishful thinking and in my own personal experience, inaccurate. My experience of UUA culture is that we are so insular and anxious about looking or acting like Christians (not to mention being influenced in any way by pop culture) that we have spent the past fifty years developing an echo chamber, not "hive mind."

  5. Peacebang, I think that the concern about not being Christian is mostly at the level of local congregations, not the circles in which activists UU's talk to each other. You can argue, I think, that our collective UU hive mind is too anxious to be very innovative, but I don't think you can argue that the local congregations are the centers of innovative thinking. My point is that the local congregations are the most conservative elements of the whole UU mix.

  6. What is the difference, in practice rather than in the abstract, between the "hive mind" and the echo chamber? They look awfully similar to me. And that similarity may be where the problem ultimately lies -- if it is a problem.

  7. I think the problem is theological, but I think you're misnaming the theological problem. The problem is not that many UUs of a certain type have an allergy to theological talk (i.e. use of the word G-d), it is that most UUs wouldn't know Universalism if it bit them in the proverbial; in other words most UUs aren't Universalists, they are Calvinists-in-denial.

    And being Calvinists-in-denial brings about the sociological and other versions of stuckness that UUism embraces. It then becomes a very vicious cycle; the other forms of stuckness feed into the Calvinism-in-denial theological stuckness which feeds into everything else.

    more later, I think.

  8. I don't think we're stuck at all. In the congregation where I have been going to church for the past 40 years (Charleston, SC), our congregation has gone from a struggling group of about 50 people, about half of whom rattled around the huge church on any given Sunday morning, to a congregation of over 400 that fills the church. We are a refuge for those who want to be able to think AND worship (yes, awe, please), and who want to experience supportive community - often far from their original home, family, and support network. The story of "successful" religion needs to be one of caring and hope, and I think we can carry that message - if we don't get bogged down in who's smarter or "righter" than whom.
    I've also written a book about worshiping the ALL in awe that has come out of my Unitarian experiences and meditations as a scientist interested in the functional reality of religion. Here's the link if you're interested. http://www.amazon.com/The-God-that-Says-Meditations/dp/1450549047/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1286802360&sr=1-2

  9. Where concretely are we stuck?

    South? Lots of unstuckness.

    West? Hardly

    There are several congregations in the Northeast and Midwest which are moving so it isn't a regional thing.

    And those churches where the 'activist' lay and clergy are coming out of are the most likely to be unstuck.

  10. Tom, This is Pete from the Ann Arbor church. Great post. It reflects a lot things I believe are issues with the faith.

    I think “stuck” is an apt phrase to describe where we are. My sense is that there are many long-time members in my and other congregations who believe that our central purpose is to be a place for people to escapes the beliefs and trappings of traditional religion. I understand that that function important and necessary for folks who grew up in religious communities that relied on guilt and fear to impose orthodoxy.

    That said, I don't that just being "not Catholic/Methodist/Baptist etc" is enough. My understanding is that regular religious attendance overall has declined, and that many denominations (especially the liberal, mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic left) are more open theological diversity & doubt, and to a focus on social justice over the hereafter, than they were decades ago. In other words, while we may offer more freedom of conscience and social justice focus than some other churches we aren't unique.

    To the extent that there is a “market” for the growth of our religion, I think it will come more from people who are “unchurched” or who are loosely tied to their parents’ or grandparents’ churches or synagogues than from folks who looking for an alternative to a close-minded, conservative belief system. These people aren’t “come outers” since they were never in anything to come out from. For them debates about how much “God talk” is allowed in church, the lyrics of hymns or whether we are a church or congregation would be, as you said, irrelevant.

    Another issue I see is that some of the attitudes towards conventional religion that we express (not by ministers so much but sometimes by lay leaders) are out of step with contemporary attitudes toward diversity/openness, and limit our ability to reach out to the next generation of potential UUs in their 20s and 30s. My sense is this age cohort is less likely to see criticizing Christianity (or other religion's creeds) as a radical rejection of conservative authority than as insensitivity to someone else’s identity. An example that comes to mind is the hymn “As Tranquil Streams” which I overall like musically but which features the line “freed from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thoughts and lifeless creed”. I imagine a visitor wondering – is it my creed that they think is lifeless? Do they think all other churches promote “narrow thoughts”?

    I don’t have a formula for the future, but do think that a greater openness to religious language and acknowledgement that, while we include a variety of beliefs, we are historically and (in my opinion) still culturally tied to the Christian tradition would make us more attractive to the kinds of folks we need to appeal to.

    Sorry to ramble on so long. Again, I found the post very thought-provoking.

  11. Anonymous1:49 PM

    Put me in the "not stuck" crowd. Yes, by your limited definition, we may be, but I have seen vast changes in UUism and in our congregations in the last 20 years. I have been astonished at the growth in the depth and maturity of our people and institutions.

    I think we are in a latent period, which seems very reasonable for our stage of development as a faith tradition/denomination/insert-your-word-here.

    During this latent period, the water on the surface may look as though it is not moving, but there is great movement underneath. I feel this movement, this deepening, and find it quite exciting.

    I don't think we are stuck, I just don't think we can yet quite envision what we are becomming since we are struggling to become it. How many caterpillars know they have become a butterfly until their wings have pumped up and dried out and they fly?

    I think that is enough metaphors. In sum: Not stuck. Becomming. And conversations like this one are helping us get there (wherever there is!)

  12. Anonymous1:59 PM

    I think my first comment got lost in the ethers. The advantage, I suppose, is that I can now be more concise.

    I don't think we are stuck, though if we are measuring my the standards you put forth I can see how one might think that.

    I think we are at a stage in our development as a faith tradition/religion/denomination/insert-your-word-here where the growth that is happening is happening underneath.

    I have seen an enormous growth in depth of Unitarian Universalism in the last 20 years - in individuals and in our congregations. We seem, as a faith tradition, to be moving into the next stage of faith development - and that is very exciting!!!

    I believe that this is a latent stage, where much is happening underneath. The caterpillar doesn't know it will become a butterfly until its wings dry out and pump up and it takes flight. I think we are either in the cocoon or struggling to emerge, and we don't know yet what we are becomming/have become.

    Which is why conversations like this are so important! They help us emerge from the cocoon.

  13. Tom, you've pushed a small button of mine with your use of "anti-authoritarian". It's a usage which reminds me of those who refer to people interested in spirituality as "spiritualists".

    I agree there's an issue with people's mistrust of authority, even the authority which comes from their own congregation's democratic process, but that's about legitimate authority.

    Authoritarianism is something else entirely from authority. Authoritarianism is a polite word for tyranny, and I'm pleased to be against it whenever it appears.

    I bet my experience with our local Occupy camp is not unusual. They were very anti-authoritarian. They didn't care for "even-handed" restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, or for powerful people sending armed men to tell them to sit down, shut up, and go home. But when they'd come to a decision through democratic process, they were incredibly faithful to it.

  14. It’s already been said here that UU-ism is not stuck at all in the South and the West. (My own congregation in the Twin Cities has grown from 60 in 1980 to over 700 now.) Why, then, did the UUA, given the necessity to leave 25 Beacon, choose to stay in Greater Boston? The reason given was that moving farther would deprive many staff of their jobs. That, I thought, was the lamest excuse since “the woman beguiled me and I ate”—a fig leaf for deep-seated provincialism. Then someone tipped me off that the real reason was the prohibitive cost of employee buyouts. That is more understandable. But there are still good reasons for putting headquarters near the heart of the action. The move could be gradual, keeping time with employee attrition. And some of these Bostonians just might find the gumption to move west as many of their forebears did!
    I know a distinguished minister emeritus from large congregation who has long advocated moving the UUA to Chicago. (He left a Northeastern congregation with a classy old building to take one in the Midwest and has been happy with the decision for fifty years.) He has long advocated moving UUA HQ to Chicago. Why not Denver?

  15. I am quite willing to let my full name appear if I can learn how to make that happen. The name is Victor Urbanowicz. I happen to have two grandchildren in common with Mary Sheehan, your wife's sister. Hope you're enjoying Ann Arbor.

  16. Returning to a good conversation, and relishing the points made. It is, in part, the job of religions to be stuck -- which is a consequence of being "tied," which is what "religio" means. But "stuck" suggests the wrong kind of ties. Sarah made the point that speaks to me: the world we live in has changed and we aren't sure what to do with it. Several folks also pointed out that UUism in the South (including the Bible Belt Midwest) is far from "stuck." Yet as a product of that part of the denomination, it has some aspects that bother me. People turn to us repeatedly, as the Universalists called on them to do, as a place to heal from abusive religious practices and messages. But the continuing influx of raw pain holds us back.

    I've become convinced that we need to adopt the Latter Day Saints process for member formation. It lasts a year, meets once a week, and involves personal (for us, personal; for them, family) mentoring. This gives a long-timer like me a place to go with personal faith growth, as well as the personal connection most people seek from organized religion. It gives newcomers a link with the faith as a matured system of life, rather than an ecstatic discovery.


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