Monday, March 31, 2014

The One Thing Every Congregation Could Do to Grow

Stop making your preacher nervous.
Not Me! It would have been JLA in my hands!

Your worship service is the most important effort you make right now to persuade people to a life of the liberal spirit.  The sermon is probably where the content of the service is, at the present. Your preacher articulates liberal religion every week.

(Sidebar: I know that this whole scenario is problematic in a lot of ways. If you want to do church a different way, I am not stopping you. But if you are like most of the readers of this blog -- doing congregational worship as UU's have in contemporary times, this is for you.)

Folks want a clear, understandable and memorable message when they come to church, especially if they are not regular church-goers. They want it to have some bite, and some challenge, and to be clear. They want it to be emotional congruent, that the message and the affect of the minister seem to match.

Is your congregation's practice to encourage brave and forthright preaching? Or is your congregation's practice to make the preacher nervous?

When you rush to let the preacher know every place you disagree with the sermon, or with the examples, you're creating anxiety.

When you send the preacher an email, correcting grammar, or the odd fact, or the misplaced attribution, your making the preacher nervous.

When you let the preacher know that the experience that the sermon reflected on was not your experience, and so you feel offended or left out, you're making it hard for the minister to be clear. (There are a small group of people who really didn't like their mothers; they can reduce the Mother's Day sermon for a nervous preacher to mush-mouthed mumbling.)

The nervous preacher projects an eagerness to please that comes across as insincerity and a lack of integrity.

Unitarian Universalism needs wise, brave, forthright, prophetic, perceptive, and provocative preaching on a wide variety of subjects. Above all, preaching needs to interesting and memorable.

Does your congregation encourage great and brave preaching, or does it make the minister nervous?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Another Baby/Another Bathwater

A long time friend of a Unitarian Church, who hasn't joined in the three years, explains why over at Patheos blog. A key paragraph, which contains a quote:

What holds me back, I think, is this: I don’t believe in it.  Perhaps it is a remnant of my being raised in the Mormon church, but it does not seem like enough to want to be a part of the local religious community; I feel like I need to believe in the mission of the UU.  And I just don’t.  I can’t help but look at the UU as a failure — not my local congregation, but the UU as a whole.  It’s a great place to go on Sunday.  It’s a refuge from religious intolerance and a necessary waystation for many on their way out of their religion of origin.  It does good work in promoting social justice.  But as John Trevor wrote in 1910:
“My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”
"For the want of something, I know not what" is the "great white whale" of contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

Note the contradiction that Trevor bases this on: unbounded respect for individual Unitarians vs. Unitarianism's inability to becoming a great reforming power. And Trevor's prescription somehow matches up to Halstead's dilemma: he likes his local church but doesn't 'believe' in Unitarian Univerasalism as a whole.

Halstead says that the wanted "something" is missing because Unitarian Universalism has stripped away the irrational from religion, hence his title: the baby is the bathwater. The magic, mythic elements of other religions which provide the emotional ooomph that binds the believer to the faith is not there.

One of the commentators says that the search for the great white whale takes her up to a solid brick wall.

And if we going looking for a story from anyplace other than our own history, of course, we will be thwarted. We have to understand our own story, in all its historical and personal significance, testify to that story and let go of the outcome.  We may become a great reforming power, or we may not. It might be a liberation story for the whole world; more likely, it is our testimony to what has been revealed to us by time and history and that creating, sustaining and transforming power at work in the world.

We have to re-claim the story of the Enlightenment. After all, both Unitarianism and Universalism were forms of Protestantism trying to accommodate the truths of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a great moment of human liberation. (This is where I bow to the Calvinists who will point out the many sins of the European establishment that was the site of the Enlightenment. I will also point out that causation and correlation are not the same thing, and that just because two things happened in the same time doesn't mean that one caused the other.)

But the Enlightenment and the emergence of secularity were not radical breaks from the hegemony of Christianity in Europe. Secularity is the fulfillment of radical strands of Jewish and Christian theology.

You don't believe me?  Go search the UU archives for the biblical verses that UU ministers cite. They come down a distinct body of texts that come the length of the book and have an internal theological coherence.  They go from Jacob's assertion that "surely God is in this place" when he standing by a stream in nature, to the prophets disdain for sacrifice, to Jesus' claim that the sabbath was made for us, and not us for the sabbath. Jesus says that someday we will worship "in spirit and truth".

There is a strand of the Christian tradition that says that religion is not about beliefs, temples, sacrifices, and rules. It is about building a world with a moral foundation, ethics, morals, and a sense of awe and reverence in daily life. I call it the Kenotic tradition in Christianity and we are its heirs and practitioners. Theodore Parker said it quite well:

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”  
One of the liberating aspects of kenotic Christianity is that creates a basis for Christians to meet the non-believer in a positive relationship, and we have been trying to do that work for over a century, even to the extent of creating interfaith and non-faith worshipping communities.

And when they work, they work to nurture people in faith, hope and passion and spirit.

That is the story that we have to tell. We are asking people to understand themselves as part of a great millennium long struggle for the liberation of the human soul. We have some truths to share.

The turn that we have to make, RIGHT NOW, is to turn away from talking about the kind of religion we want to be, the kind of religion we are failing to be, what's wrong with us, and our dreams for a better future. We have to stop worrying about why people write articles about why they haven't joined a UU church. I am reminded of Emerson's comment in the Divinity School Address: "The village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the minister."  People everywhere perceive our desperation to please, justly, as a lack of integrity.

We have to tell people what we know; our testimony of reality: that the path to health and healing and planetary salvation is each of us living with reverence and awe, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, openness, solidarity and self-possession, in communities of justice and faith.

We will not convince the world until we convince ourselves.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Re-Organization, Evangelism and #UUPublicTheology

I have argued that Unitarian Universalism needs a major, once in lifetime, reorganization, a dramatic restructuring of this creaky system that was put in place at the time of merger in 1961.  After 55 years of unresolved internal conflicts between 'congregationalists' and 'institutionalists' (name them however you want), we need to create a structure that will allow us to respond creatively to the rapidly shifting demographic and cultural realities of nation we live in.

 We need to reorganize to create the capacity for evangelism and public theology in UnitarianUniversalism. We exist mostly as congregations, which are culture-bound, inward looking and largely absent from all the spaces where cultural ferment, exploration and networking are going on.

The present division of labor in Unitarian Universalism is that the local congregation does everything of substance and content. The denomination is authorized to speak only on those political and social issues that have been approved by the General Assembly. They may also develop services to serve existing congregations. Not surprisingly, the denominational structure is criticized persistently for being too political and too inward-looking.

The difference between public theology and public witness is that witness speaks, in theory, on behalf of the people to the powers that be. We want Congress to pass Immigration Reform. We want states to end the denial of marriage rights to LGBTQ people. Witness demands, lobbies and protests.  Public theology is a conversation with the people about essential reality and the moral/ethical choices that each of us have to make. Public Theology asks whose lives are we indifferent to. Public theology asks how we should live when the civilization we are part of is unsustainable and heading toward the death and suffering of billions of the world's people. Public theology challenges the tendency to go it alone and avoid community in daily life. Liberal public theology challenges the dominant discourse of demonization, and is a voice for humanizing our culture. (Discussion question: how is "standing on the side of love" a demand on government and how is it an ethical demand on ourselves, and on others?)

Again, we are not doing public theology well now, and we are not doing it relationally. We are not finding the people who share our views and developing relationships with them. This is the work of evangelism. We need to reorganize to create the capacity to have that conversation out in the public networks where the people are.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

#UU Public Theology - Powers not made by human hands

The piece I put up yesterday invoked "a power at act work in the Universe, a sustaining, creating and transforming power not made by human hands."

Predictably, I was asked, in so many more words, if I was referring to the deity formerly known as God.

To which, I would answer, "yes and no, depending on whether you are a believer."

I was asked if I was channeling James Luther Adams, and of course, I am. The phrase is Adams'. And as such, I am within the tradition of Paul Tillich, and his approach to religious vocabulary.

I think that it is indisputable that there are powers at work in the world that are not made by human hands: some creative, some destructive, some of which are personified in language. Ask anybody from New Orleans about Katrina's powers.

I spend a big chunk of my life as a Marxist, and really, philosophically, I am still a dialectical materialist with a religious vocabulary and, I hope, better ethics. And so, I have long identified powers at work in the world that are beyond human creation or control: the market, technological change, history, the ocean currents and the heat trapping qualities of carbon dioxide. Although these are attributes of human social life, they seem external and objective to even those with power and privilege. The President, the Chairman of the Board, the Pope, all feel that their options are limited by the historical situation that they are in.

But there is a dialectic at work in history and in the world and in us. We can sum it up with a few words: oppression breeds resistance. Resistance inspires solidarity. Solidarity creates unity, and unity engenders hope and hope transcends cruelty and death, making them not individual defeats, but redeemable sacrifices. Maybe not now. Maybe not for me.

I don't make these things: resistance, solidarity, hope, redemption, by writing about them, by saying the words. They already exist, and are being enacted, and performed, and embodied by people all over the world. Many of them believe in that aforementioned deity; many do not.

But I firmly believe in them, genuine powers that create, sustain, transform and redeem. And I believe that they at work in the Universe. Despite all the destructive powers not made by conscious human hands that are driving us toward a grim future, I believe also that they are other powers greater than any of us, and that they will uphold us, and redeem us, when we risk our lives for love.

Monday, March 24, 2014


There is a power at work in the Universe,
a creating, sustaining and transforming power, 
not made by human hands.

You can trust that power.
It will uphold you 
whenever you take risks 
for love
for justice
for peace
for life.

It will carry you when you fall,
and revive you when you fail,
forgive you when you err
and give you another chance.

You can trust that power with your life, 
so live with hope and courage.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Evangelism and Congregations

If you're going to read me, you need to know what I mean by evangelism: the purposeful introduction of the ideas, values and virtues of liberal religion to people who are unaware of them. Spreading the word. It is also convincing people who are observers of liberal religion to become actively involved with it, to mentally affiliate with it, specifically to make a covenant with others to orient their lives to it. After that, moving people from more passive supporters to active advocates, isn't really evangelism anymore, but spiritual development.

Look at this chart:

Contemporary UUism's growth strategies have been mostly about convincing visitors to join the congregation. President Peter Morales once described it as growth by "repelling fewer visitors".  In the terms of the chart: congregational visitors are a subsection of observers.

We will grow, as congregations grow.

How's that working out? Not too well.

O look, another naked emperor!

I wonder if there is an inherent contradiction between congregational functioning and evangelism.  The very reasons why people want to be in a congregation are why they do not want the congregation to grow very rapidly. All of the intimate community that is the promise of the congregation is made impossible if the congregation grows too rapidly. The same argument comes up when a congregation moves toward two services, or if people start talking about splitting off a new start offshoot, unless there is a significant distance involved. Some say that it is just human nature, or the limits of our mental capacity, to resisting trying to be close to more than 150 people. Concretely, in a system when resources are not unlimited, people in a congregation are always going to prioritize taking care of the present congregation more than reaching for more people.

Question: How many churches would cut back their music program in order to pay for an advertising/marketing campaign? 
Answer: None. 
Question: how many congregations would prefer that their minister cut back on pastoral care to members in order to make personal visits to the first time visitors at the previous Sunday? 
Answer: See above.  
How about a new approach?

Instead of hoping that our present congregations stop "repelling visitors", we should let them focus on building community and spiritual development. We turn the work of evangelism (introducing liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism) over to another group of people. They would work in a wide variety of spaces to develop relationships with interested people and to find others with whom they can enter into a covenant: be it in online spaces, in non-congregational groupings, in new congregations, or into existing congregations.

A centralized CRM system cannot do the same work as the local congregation. And vice-versa.

When I talk about reorganization, centralizing "contact relationship management" into a denominational body, I am advocating creating a denominational evangelism capability.  Because that work is not being done on the congregational level.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Reorganize the UUA by:

1. Creating a fully functioning Contact Relationship Management system at the denominational level, with a professional marketing staff, which would be empowered to use a full-range of marketing strategies to initiate people into relationships with Unitarian Universalism, and to fundraise through that system. The CRM system would start with congregational membership lists. That system should be function at the prevailing standards of security of commercial on-line business and non-profits.

2. Creating a service bureau at the denominational level which provides back office functions for local congregations (bookkeeping, payroll, website design and production, even pledge accounting) on a profitable fee-for-service basis. It should seek clients in other denominations as well.

The point is not to do what we are now doing more efficiently, although that may result. Freeing local congregational resources now devoted to routine institutional maintenance should help congregations focus on their real work.

But the main goal is to create capacity for promoting Unitarian Universalism in general in the spaces and forums which are now "the public square." (Have you ever thought of what an antiquated metaphor of civic life, the phrase "the public square" implies?)

Another goal is create ways for people to relate to Unitarian Universalism in richer variety of modalities than the simple "member vs. non-member" choice.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


I think it is time that we reorganized Unitarian Universalism. Not one of those "every two years" reorganizations, but one of those "once-a-century" reorganizations. A reorganization on the level of the ending of the pew rental system in the Unitarian Churches in the latter half of the 19th century. It was then that churches instituted our present system of voting members and the member canvas.

Or even earlier, a reorganization on the level of the creation of the General Assembly after the Civil War.

I would call the new system "Congregationalism in the Cloud".

UU churches and congregations should put their back office functions into the cloud on systems managed and maintained by a centralized IT staff. Churches and congregations would put their member databases into the system. To some extent, they do this already as UU World subscriptions. Those combined lists would be the start of a Contact Relationship Management system.

I am imagining a single contact database with information about everybody who has a relationship with Unitarian Universalism, noting which ones belong to which congregation, including the records of their contributions there. But also: UU-identified young adults no longer on their home congregation's membership books, UU's who moved to another town and didn't find a new UU home, people who signed up for more information on our web page, or who decided to like the Standing on the Side of Love Facebook page, or who visited a congregation and filled out a visitor card, or who attend a UU camp, or who shop at the UUA bookstore.

It would be a complicated and sophisticated system, with lots of inputs and outputs. It would be expensive. It would require professional development and professional marketers to grow the database. They would have to be skilled at introducing ourselves in many forms of media, and able to move people along the "ladder of engagement."

It would irrevocably change the relationship between the local congregation and 24 Farnsworth Street.

I also predict that the UUA could raise a lot of money for programming from that list. And I predict that it would help immeasurably in planting churches and creating other kinds of communities.

I said in the prior post that the organization of data lays out the boundaries of an organization. The organization of our data about Unitarian Universalists is that it is kept in local silos, in different software systems that can't talk to each other, with minimal information. Those systems are maintained by a range of people from skilled staffers at some churches to whoever is elected clerk or secretary in others.  That's where we are now. The organization of our data assumes a country where people don't move often, where families join a church and stay for generations, where people conduct their religious life in person by showing up at the church building on Sunday morning and where data is shared across the country by sending carbon copies through the mail. OK, maybe I exaggerate, but you get the picture.

So, somebody draw up a design and sketch out the project plan, and get back to me as soon as possible.

Let's play with this idea.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Systems, structure and software

To review:

1. UUism is underfunded because it relies on the local pledge campaign, both for congregational operations and for APF funds for the UUA denominational operations. And the local pledge campaign is a fundraising amateur hour.

2. The fundraising and growth problems in the local congregation are linked, and visible if we look at them using the ladder of engagement tool.

Most congregation are not introducing themselves to people in their community who are unaware of them, but should know them. They are also not bringing enough people who are observing their congregation from afar into active support. Without a constant flow of new people up to the supporters rungs, the natural process of attrition slows the income stream. 

3. The way to introduce the congregation to previously unaware people, and activate the observers is to offer them ways to act on the values they share with us, and establish a relationship with them, out where they are. Most congregations do not establish a relationship with someone until they visit a worship service, in where we are.

Why? Why aren't we out there, creating the opportunities for people to stand on the side of love, to join UU spiritual practice groups, to rally for the minimum wage, to hike in the woods together? Why aren't we creating and nurturing relationships beyond our immediate congregational circle. 

I will leave it to others to speculate on the shadow side of our collective psyche: our snobbery, our insecurity, our Calvinism in denial. 

I might suggest that we don't have the tools, the systems and structures, to do that work. And since we don't have the tools, we imagine the task to be impossible and the solutions unimaginable. 

As I said, I have returned from the Non-Profit Technology Conference. There are software systems out there called CRM systems: C_________ Relationship Manager systems.  ("C" can stand for Customer, Contact, Constituent, Contributor, Convert, Citizen or whatever. We can call it a Community Relationship Manager. Here are some examples: CiviCRM, Salesforce.

We need a "Community Relationship Manager" system to do the work that we need to do. It's just a database of contacts but it is integrated with marketing, event, communication and fundraising software. So we can identify community people who are aligned with our public ministry and nurture our relationship with them over time.  It integrates our contacts with people on social media and in "real life."

As social media becomes the infrastructure of community interactions (as the telephone system was at one point, or the mail before then), CRM software becomes a necessity. 

The organization of data sets the boundaries of an organization. That xeroxed Church Directory of Members and Friends, their mailing addresses and phone numbers, defines the boundaries of the local congregation, in effect. It is a slight update over the membership book that has defined congregations since the early 20th century, replacing the pew map which used to define the congregation.

Now, for the controversial part: 

The kind of software that congregations need to have to do their jobs in this new era is beyond the capability of most local congregations. The expense, the staff skills, and the structure needed are too much. Perhaps our largest congregations could pull it off, but most cannot. It may be that the great cross-denominational church drop-off, especially among the young, is as much technological as it is consumerism, secularity, or individualism. 

We have to change our structures. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

First Rungs on the Ladder of Engagement.

Most UU Congregations, and the UUA, are feeble when it comes to engaging the people who are "unaware" of or "observing" UUism.

One reason is that the "unawares" and "observers" are younger, and therefore, best reachable through social media, and UU's are less experienced with that form of communication.

But the biggest reason is that we have not thought through how we would want to engage them, and why? How is making the effort to engage them ministry?

Ethical engagement comes from establishing a relationship with people in which you work with them to achieve their goals or meet their needs. This is true whether you are working in person on the local level, or through social media on a national, or even a global scale. You may be providing a direct service, but more often ministry means creating opportunities for people to participate in doing something they see as worthwhile. An appropriate goal is make a connection, and to get enough information for you to continue the relationship.

Most of us are on the receiving side of this engagement everyday. I am offered opportunities to express myself through signing petitions, contributing money, or sharing information with the people I know. I am offered opportunities that I don't take up because I don't share the goal, or the issue is not important to me. But I know that when I do participate, I am entering into a relationship with an organization somewhere. They get some contact information from me. We are engaged with each other.

Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist organizations are not unified about what our public theology and public ministry is. I like to use the concepts "humanizing the culture" or "promoting the virtues of liberality". "Standing on the Side of Love" (SSL)  is the most widely used expression of our public ministry.

So using SSL as an example: our task would be to offer to the Unawares and Observers opportunities to act, or express themselves, in ways that are consistent with our work to create a social force that 'stands on the side of love' and to create a relationship with them in the process.

What could be a concrete example on the level of a local congregation?

Where I attend, the congregation supports a house for homeless families, with meals, volunteers and supplies. Periodically, we split the plate with them. We could extend that work by asking our members to set up peer-to-peer fundraising pages for the program. A peer-to-peer fundraiser is a page in which I, for example, would ask people I know to contribute money for a cause. Through social media, email, postcards, personal requests, I would invite people to come to my page and make a donation.
(To be ethical, I have to be completely transparent about why I am doing it, where the money donated goes, where the info goes and what it will be used for in the purpose. A statement to the effect, that 100% of the money goes to the program, that the program and the congregation will get their contact information, and it will be used to let them know about future opportunities to address the needs of homeless families, and that I am doing this as a part of a coordinated effort through my faith community.)
What have I done: I have given my friends an opportunity to help the homeless, something that might have wanted to do. And I have done it in a way that creates two relationships: one between my friend and the agency and one between my friend and my congregation.

Just work with the math: if a hundred members of the congregation each asked a hundred people, that's peer-to-peer 10,000 appeals. More money would be raised than what is raised by splitting the plate one Sunday. And several hundred new relationships would have been formed, on the basis that helping homeless families is a good thing to do.

For those of you who are hung up on the supposed difference between encouraging spiritual development and public ministry, just change the content to something more in line with your understanding of what we should be encouraging. Create a meet-up to discuss a book, or see a movie. Establish a prayer chain where people can invite their friends into the chain. Invite people to come to a one-time small group session.

If each UU congregation put forward in their community 5 or 6 opportunities (to attend a public meeting, to sign a petition, to send an email to a public official, to share some information, to volunteer) every year to do something about something worthwhile, and created relationships between themselves and people previously unaware or just observing the congregation, it would make a huge difference. And if the UUA did the same thing across the USA, and shared the results with local congregations, it would multiply that difference.

Work like that is establishing the lowest rungs on the ladder of engagement. Those relationships could be nurtured and grown, or they can be abused; there are skills and ethics involved in every form of ministry. But be clear, this is the same whether it is in-person neighborhood level work (let's make a community garden on that vacant lot) or newspaper ads, or social media. Find a way for people to act on what they need, want, or believe that is consistent with our needs, wants, or beliefs. Create relationships and nurture those relationships over time.

So what's the difference between this and Move On, or any of the other hundreds of charity and non-profits doing the same thing?  Let's take Move On as an example.  After all, Move On and the UUA do share some goals, as defined by our General Assembly Resolution process. Marriage Equality and Immigration Reform are examples.

Move On has a huge email list. But their problem is that they have no place to take people after they sign the petition, or make a contribution. All you can do is wait for the next email appeal.

On the other hand, we have over 1000 active, functioning local communities, many with attractive facilities, most with active children's programming. UU's deploy thousands of religious professionals, ministers, educators, musicians, who want to know new people as persons. We have many people at the top rungs of engagement in the form of the ten thousands of UU's who are very committed advocates for our way of spiritual life. We have communities for people who are looking for community. Move On's problem is that they have no upper rungs; while we have no lower rungs.

I think our problem is easier to fix.

But I don't think we can do it without new systems and structures, which will be very difficult to implement.

But I am not here to tell you what is possible; I am here to tell you what is necessary.

A new frame on church membership

Stepping back from our customary ways of looking at membership, what if we used a frame that other non-profits use: "the ladder of engagement?"

Slide from a presentation by Farra Trompeter, Big Duck Consulting, presented at #14NTC.

Some definitions and an application to the congregational environment: 
  • Unawares are people who don't know about the congregation, but who should.
  • Observers are people who know about the congregation, observe it with friendly interest, but are generally uninvolved. They might come on Christmas Eve. 
  • Supporters are people who know about the congregation and support it. They are the rank and file members. 
  • Advocates are people who champion the congregation: they actively work for the congregation and its programs.

How this maps to our membership schemes.

Customary UU schemes of sorting people would map supporters and advocates into members/friends, a category which covers a wide range of engagement. There are a lot of misperceptions that come from lumping these two groups together. For example, advocates often think that if everyone pledged like advocates, our money problem would be over. Much of the current discussion about increasing membership commitment comes from lumping these two groups together. 

A tiny slice of observers would be classified as 'visitors' if they had made a visit to the church. 
But, most observers and unawares are off our radar. Our congregations don't consciously communicate or engage with them.

Congregational money problems cannot be solved by asking Unawares and Observers for money. This is obvious. Why should they give to the congregation?  So, right now, many congregations are trying to resolve their money problems by moving Supporters to Advocate levels of giving, through the annual pledge campaign. It is not keeping up. 

Unless there is a steady flow of people from Unawares to Observers to Supporters and Advocates, the natural process of attrition will dry up the income stream.  But since we have very few efforts to inform the Unawares and engage the Observers, that's what is and what will continue to happen.

So the the congregational money problem is the really the same as the growth problem. So the answer to the congregational money side comes down to one essential task: building a process of engagement with Unawares and Observers, to create a stream of future givers. 

The "ladder of engagement" suggests that there is one process of engaging with people, all people, all throughout their engagement with the congregation.  

Questions for future posts:

1. How could UU's apply a "ladder of engagement" concept to growth?
2. What systems and structures would be required?
3. What's the public theology and ministry (mission) behind it? 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Non Profit Technology and the sad state of churches and denominations

OK, I am just back from the National Technology Conference (#14NTC) put on by NonProfit Technology whatever whatever (NTEN) and I am, of course, psyched. You all know that I am easily aroused by energy and promise and the new, so 2000+ techno-saavy do-gooders is going to jazz me up.
But really folks in local UU churches and in the UU denomination! We have to change how we do things.
Let's just talk about money and fundraising.
We have capital campaigns on the local and on the denominational level. And we have the annual pledge drive in the congregation which feeds the Annual Program Fund which funds our programs at the denominational level.

So, a big chunk of our operational money, both at the congregational and at the denominational level, is raised through the time-honored, tried and true method of the church pledge campaign. Is it working?
No, we are broke in the local church. And No, we are broke denominationally. And we are not a poor people.

Now, don't come crying to me that you have had a great pledge campaign this year and the year before. I know you want to brag about how you and your local congregation are the shining star in an otherwise dark sky. Overall, it isn't working.

And when you think about it, the local church pledge drive is the fundraising amateur hour.

There are some larger churches that have begun to think about having a development director, which is fine and dandy, but are focused on capital campaigns. Like the local UU congregation was the local art museum.
But we are not a local cultural institution ! We are a religious movement, a spiritual movement of people, all sorts of people, who want to create lives of purpose and meaning for ourselves and our families and friends, and to contribute to creating a more humane culture. If asked, we will contribute real dollars, appropriate to our circumstances, to make that possible.
Fund-raisers for non-profit organizations know that you have to ask in a lot of different ways, over and over again, with compelling stories and narratives. They are professionals who know how to cultivate a group of people who give money to fulfill their beliefs and values. They are professionals who work at cultivating relationships with people, engaging them over and over again, listening to them, connecting to their deepest aspiration. And they raise money from people quite voluntarily. And believe me, most of these non-profits don't have a solid cadre of people who gather weekly for inspiration, and are bonded by covenants of love and care, to start with.

Do you believe that after a hundred years the annual pledge drive will start working radically better in the next decade?  Some new technique will come along that will change how it works? Some new theme? Some new joke in the pledge sermon will unleash a tide of money to fund the work that we see that we need to do?

It's time to re-think it all. Just like it is time to re-think the whole concept of membership in UU congregations.

I am humming with ideas. More to come.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What does a Prophetic Church Do?

I believe in central heating and in winter coats. I would be crazy to never go outside between Thanksgiving and May Day. It would be also crazy to turn off the furnace because I own a warm jacket.

A liberal religious congregation has to be both a religious community and a prophetic voice.

We need to think a little more seriously about what the prophetic church does. The dismissive vision of the prophetic church, one that you can hear or read many places in UULand, is that it is social club for leftists, a collection of political activists, the chalice wing of the Democratic Party.

What does the prophetic church do, according to this stereotype? It signs petitions and passes resolutions. It listens to stirring sermons about how other people are evil and up to no good. The most important part of the worship service is the announcements, where all the picket lines, teach-ins and demonstrations for the upcoming week are urged upon the congregants. The prophetic church is filled with strident, cramped, moralistic people who hold everyone else to impossibly high standards. It's Mao's Red Guards gathered in the spirit of prayer, (or meditation), or (silent contemplation). It hates everyone who is not on the side of love, and it wonders about you. Not only is the prophetic church mean, it is also ludicrous because it is ineffectual and disconnected from real people.

The prophetic church is portrayed as a dystopian perversion of religion. This portrayal harvests all the self-criticisms of the progressive movement and gives them a polish of rightwing disdain and contempt.

We actually have experience that is relevant. When Unitarian Universalist congregations committed themselves to a prophetic stance in regards to LGBTQ people, there was a fear that our churches would become "gay churches" and everything that the church would revolve around this: that the kids in the nursery would wear rainbow diapers and the gay minister would lecture the sick and dying about homophobia on their deathbeds. Every Sunday would be Gay Pride Day. I exaggerate of course, but many LGBTQ ministers did get the message that they needed to be "a minister who was incidentally gay, and not a gay activist who happened to be a minister."  That dystopian fear of a gay-obsessed church turned out to be a groundless fantasy born from anxiety.

The dystopian vision of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Political Correctness is equally a groundless fantasy born from anxiety.

So, what should a prophetic church actually do?

The prophetic church is engaged in the cultural conversation of the community to persuade people of the values and virtues of liberalism.

If that doesn't make sense to you, consider how conservative religion and conservatism in general have influenced the general culture. They have argued, in a thousand different ways, for 50 years, that the good of society depends on clear standards of right and wrong, and that some people are so committed to the wrong that they are evil, and that most people are tempted toward evil, and so they must be deterred with punishment or neglect. So for the Right, the safety net is a hammock; abortion is a way women evade the consequences of sexual promiscuity; prison is the answer to all crime, even drug use; some people are illegal; gay people are perverts intent on recruiting more people into their networks of lust. The Right have persuaded the culture as a whole of the existence of the demonic; they demonize as a general trope. No wonder that they can persuaded that President Obama is the anti-Christ.

I am not talking just about the Religious Right. Even people like David Brooks and George Will worry about the "moral hazards" of humane policies; they assume that most people have a proclivity toward sloth and greed.

The prophetic church should be engaging our culture and the community in a conversation that humanizes, instead of demonizes. We are resisting the dominant discourse of demonization. For every time that the cultural right paints someone as demonic, or inclined to evil, we need to answer by arguing for the humanity of the people in question. Why? Because we are Universalists, and view other people as like ourselves, and that most of them are doing the very best they can in the circumstances that they find themselves.

And how can conduct that conversation with the general culture? In a thousand different ways: from letters to the editor, facebook postings, personal conversations, sermons, tee-shirts, pamphlets, videos, advertising.

There is a whole level of messaging that the liberal church does not do. Mostly, we speak to ourselves -- already committed UU's. And occasionally we engage in some institutional advertising targeted toward what we think are 'like-minded' people in the general public. But when a church puts a Marriage Equality banner on the outside of their church, or raises the rainbow flag over the iconic New England town green, we are engaging in a general cultural conversation. We don't do that level of messaging very often.

We used to do this all the time; look at the Wayside Pulpit sayings that many churches put up for years. We used to put up, in the public eye, general statements of principle that countered the suffocating conformity and presumptions of that earlier era. Some were witty, or wise, but they were not trivial, and they conveyed what liberal religion meant.

To be clear, when I say we should be countering the discourse of demonization, I do not mean that we should be seeking common ground with the cultural right. I mean that we should be placing ourselves in solidarity with their victims, arguing that so-called "illegal" immigrants were working people trying to support their families, that drug addiction is a health issue, that most poor people are people like ourselves caught in very difficult situations and just need some help, that an unwanted pregnancy is not a mark of shame.

The overall cultural environment has been so anti-liberal that we have withdrawn from the general conversation, with the exception of smaller group of UU's who have been especially committed. Their commitment has been making other UU's uncomfortable during this period. We should all try to understand what goes on there.  

Overt organizing, the picket lines, and demonstrations, and teach-ins, is a concentrated and very focused dialogue with the external community. It is some of the work of the prophetic church, but not all. They are appropriate activities for people in certain life-stages and situations. But much of the work of a religious community will always be for people in other situations. The sick must visited; the children must be taught; the rituals must be performed and the holy must be celebrated every Sunday morning.

Friday, March 07, 2014

#PublicTheology Again

Yesterday, I posted a little rant about the self-blame that progressive liberals take when talking about the persistence of things they protested 'back in the day.' I think they blame themselves for the lack of progress and ignore the hegemonic power of the elite, working through a rightwing movement.

Predictably,  in the Facebook feed, I have been accused of conflating UUism with 'leftism' which is 'inappropriate.'  So, let me explain again, and in more detail, how I view the relationship between UUism and progressive liberal politics.

It's empirically true that many more UU's are political progressives than political conservatives.

I rely on this fact in my analysis of modern UU history. Subjectively, most UU's have ridden the same emotional roller coaster as political liberals since merger. Our sense of where we fit in the social order, whether we are surrounded by a friendly or hostile culture, are intertwined with the fortunes of the political liberals.  I think that the key question in modern UU history is how UU's have responded to the rightwing cultural hegemony that has gripped the nation since 1968.

But the empirical truth that many more UU's are political progressives than political conservatives arises from the fact that our theological development leads inexorably to political liberalism. Our way of doing theology, of understanding history, of understanding how we know what we think we know, all have social, economic and political consequences. (Isn't that what James Luther Adams wants us to grapple with?) What those consequences are in the current historical moment is a long argument that we are in the midst of having. That's why I regularly ask Grace Lee Boggs' question: What time is it on the clock of the world?

The reason why I do this blog is grapple with that question. I use the hashtag #publictheology because that is how I shorthand the question. If you want in on that argument, comments are welcome, although moderated with a gentle hand.

The old orthodoxy in UUism was that religious liberalism and political liberalism were disconnected, in separate spheres. That idea has its own history, but it functions mostly as a peacekeeping principle. But like most peacekeeping principles, it also serves to blur lines and stifle development. I think that it is time to question that principle.

So, I have said throughout the last year, that politically conservative UU's need to examine the contradiction between their political views and developments in liberal religious theologizing. Liberal theology has been questioning the ontological supremacy of the individual. It has been questioning the epistemology of privilege. It has been deconstructing the idols of the present social order. Liberal theology is no longer confined to skeptical interpretations of the traditional theological subjects, but has become intertwined with social theorizing. It is about ethics and morality, on a social as well as an individual level.

There is very little congruence between political libertarianism and contemporary liberal religious theology. Libertarianism fetishizes the individual and is supremely indifferent to the social consequences of the fullest exercise of individual choices. Look at the issue of guns. And the identification of the government as the most important agent of oppression completely ignores the testimony and experience of people of color in US history. How can authentic liberal theology be the product of such limited experience?

I don't get to decide who is a UU and who is not. I am just saying that there is a huge contradiction between political conservatism, including libertarianism, and where liberal religious theology has gone, and is going. If political conservatives are uncomfortable in the present-day UUA, that is their problem to work out, not mine.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

One Sided Self Blame

Just got off the weekly VUU -- the CLF video show I do with some colleagues where we casually discuss news in UULand and talk with interesting guests.

I didn't want to interrupt the flow of conversation there, but there were at least two occasions there where speakers blamed backward motions in history on the inattentiveness and the shallowness of progressive people.  In one case, the rise of new Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration slipped by folks because we thought we had won everything already.  Or the many new restrictions on reproductive rights happened because we had thought Rowe v Wade fixed everything.

Start listening carefully and you will see this type of thinking everywhere.

Come on kids, let's get into Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine and go back to 1968.

In much of the progressive world, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were the Rightwing. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were Centrists and Bobby Seale and Tom Hayden were the Left. Richard Nixon was off the charts on the right and considered a joke and a has-been.

Since then, and continuing up to now, there has been a well-funded, very aggressive, very sophisticated conservative counter-revolution to everything progressive. Nixon won that 1968 election on its strength. And they have gone from strength to strength almost ever since. Only since 2008, has it been blunted. It was funded at the highest class level. It's economic policy was income inequality; its answer to African America's struggle was the drug war and mass incarceration; its answer to energy and the environment was an alliance with Saudi Arabia for cheap oil; its answer to the women's movement was conservative Christianity.  The insurgent movements had scared them and they fought back successfully. And of course, they were successful; they were the ruling elite, and progressives were disorganized, poorly funded, divided and ultra-democratic insurgents.

When we will stop blaming the last 45 years of Reaction on ourselves?  We had wounded a bear and were trapped in the iron cage of history with it. Yes, we could have been smarter and more organized and less eager to trash our own leaders and more willing to build up genuine grass-roots leaders. But it was still a big, wounded, and angry bear.

If we aren't clear on that, we will not fight any better in the future.


I don't write about personal spirituality here very much, except in very general terms. Everyone has different work to do. What is necessary for one might be harmful to another.

So when I talk about "kenosis", I am not really thinking about it in personal terms.

One friend argues that its personal application still has merit; to her, it means surrender and emptying of the will. Submission to what is larger than ourselves is good stuff for some people to learn.

Another pointed out the downside of surrender and emptying of the will; it is an ethic that leads one to accept powerlessness. It has been used to reinforce situations of oppressions. In general, doesn't it seem that urging someone to emulate, in their personal life, Christ's response to his impending execution is problematic?

Most people do not claim to have the power of God in any way other than metaphorically. But Christian religious institutions have made that claim for millennia. The church has claimed that it was the only way to achieve eternal life. It claimed that one had to accept its teachings, its rituals, to have a chance at salvation. Its prayers were necessary to move the souls of the departed through the hierarchy of the dead. It said that it held the "keys to the kingdom."

I view classic 19th Century Unitarianism and Universalism as very clear renunciations of that claim to power. Yes, Protestantism in general moved away from the overt claims of the Roman church, the U's and the U's went further and with more clarity. That is why I think that they were kenotic. More here.

One of the apologies that gets made for why UU's are such lousy pledgers to local congregations compared to more conservative Protestant churches is that UU's don't back up the call to tithe with the threat of hellfire and damnation. That's kenosis right there; we don't claim that "equality with God."

Anyway, my interest in kenosis is that is a long-standing trend in Christianity and helps me to understand UUism as a continuity in that tradition, rather than a complete rejection. It also clarifies the role of religion in a secularizing world. The river of religion is emptying itself into the sea of secularity. Religion has moved the particular teachings and special sacrificial rituals in sacred spaces among a certain tribe to ethical living in the world at large. You can mourn that as the loss of religion, or you can sing with Peter Mayer, "Everything is Holy Now."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Kenotic Religion in a Branded World.

Jake Morrill, who thinks I am a blogging jukebox, writes:
Here's a blog post request: how does your read of UU-ism as a kenotic tradition inform your expectations for any shared symbols--logos or otherwise--going forward? I agree with the need for a brand; I agree with your diagnosis of kenosis; but they seem at odds. Related: George Tyger says the double-circle chalice will continue to go on gravestones of military UU's, as the new logo goes on UUA letterhead, etc. what does this suggest about the function of each in our faith?
In an earlier post, I suggested that Unitarianism and Universalism, especially here in North America, was an unarticulated experiment in kenotic Christianity, a Christianity that claimed no special access to God's divine power.

I am generally in tune with the whole notion of kenosis, the theological term for the self-emptying of Christ, who emptied himself of all divinity in order to suffer and die on the cross. Kenosis answers the question, "If Jesus was God, why didn't he save himself from death through his divine powers?"

I connect kenosis with the general decline of religion as such, even though there is a rise in spiritual interests and an evolution to a more comprehensive ethics.  The river of Religion is emptying itself into the Secular sea. Any claim that a particular religious teaching is the exclusive key to having a right relationship to the Universe is no longer valid. Any claim that an ethical life depends on adhering to a particular religion's teachings has also been rejected.

The Kenotic impulse revives ancient teachings, especially Micah 6:8, "What is it that the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." Walking humbly with our God takes on new meaning in a secularizing, multi-faith world. Humility is carrying the signs and symbols of one's God, one's connection to the Divine, with respect for those who do not share those beliefs.

Because I see Unitarian Universalism as born out of a trend toward Kenosis in Christianity, I am critical of our sectarianism: our constant self-promotion, the assertion that we ourselves are the answer to humanity's woes. We should not be in the business of shouting to the world that we exist, and that there is a nearby UU congregation. We should be sending messages that extend justice and mercy to all who need it.

Howard Thurman says this well in Jesus and the Disinherited:
"The masses of men [sic] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."
In our self-promotion, we forget sometimes that our message is a large part of our ministry. We affirm the worth and dignity of every person. We remind ourselves of that regularly. Once in a while, we urge others to make the same affirmation. But how often do we tell that person whose back is against the wall that no matter how worthless the indignities that they are enduring may make them feel, they deserve respect and that we affirm them.

Learning how to communicate love, mercy and justice to those who are afraid that they are worthless, or who suspect that the social order counts them as worthless, is perhaps the most important religious quest of our times.

So Jake is perceptive in pointing out that my attraction to kenosis and my generally favorable response to the new UUA logo are somewhat contradictory.

We need to have logos and a visual style. That's just the reality of the world we live in. We communicate with words and not-words. And so the UUA national staff has to create this stuff. I think the new logo is acceptable, even attractive. And I am so over the kinds of responses that some UU's made to the work: snickering, superior and condescending. There's a strange kind of reverse sectarianism out there, that UUism is some sort of particularly cursed religious organization that can never do anything right.

But our new logo and visual style doesn't answer the question that Howard Thurman raises. We are struggling to find the words for that message, much less the non-words.

Re: George Tyger's concern.

We have a symbol, officially an "emblem of belief" that can be included in a government-provided headstone for veterans. There are some 50-60 such emblems of belief, a testament to our multi-faith nation. That's not a logo. No one suggested petitioning the government to change it to the current logo.

The flaming chalice started out as a logo -- a way for the UUSC to identify itself without words in the context of World War 2. No one decided it would become a symbol of our faith, except everyone did. Petitioning the government to recognize it as one of "emblems of faith" for the graves of veterans may have cemented it as the symbol of our faith for quite a while. It also means that most other marks will only be logos, lesser and temporary, for quite a while too.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Correction: Oops

I have been reminded that Diane Olson was the Moderator between Denny Davidoff and Gini Courter.  Patsy Madden was the unsuccessful candidate in that election.  My apologies to all concerned.

Here is the post in error. I have also corrected it.

Jake's Tribute to Governance

  • Jake Morrill posted a longer comment on Facebook in response to Tandi Rogers call for suggestions for new ways for churches to measure their success. 

  • Rev. Jake Morrill Oak Ridge UU Church, Tennessee
    and former UUA Board Member
    Jake Morrill To my brothers, sisters, and siblings who don't like metrics, let me say something. In the past, congregations had "their" District Executives and staff, overseen by "their" District Boards--authority and accountability were based in trust and personal relationship. It was a small, pinched, and disjointed way to do things. But congregations let go of that, with the benefit to staff of more creative freedom--more authority. What our system has not yet developed is how, in turn, the UUA staff will be accountable to member congregations, from whom their authority flows. When Districts no longer do governance, this means accountability happens through the President's reports to the UUA Board (which represents the GA through the year), saying "In light of the Ends, X is our standard for 'good enough,' and Y is how we're doing in relationship to X." When the President doesn't do that, the exciting new creative authority of the staff isn't legitimized by accountability. In systems of authority without accountability, the people have no legitimate recourse, so they tend toward reactivity, as a function of powerlessness, freaking out over things like a new logo. This January, in his 5th year, despite a consultant, the President again submitted a report that did not define X ("good-enough") or Y ("how we're doing, in light of 'good enough'"). One might say it can't be done, that you can't measure the impact of human activity on complex systems, because the impact is rarely one-to-one or direct, but that person would have to reject climate change models and all social science. So, it's possible. And important. When authority is paired with accountability, there's democracy. When experiments are tied to desired outcomes, it's possible to learn and to increase likelihood of success. So, that's why my heart leaps when I hear awesome UUA staff members like Tandi [Rogers, UUA Growth Specialist] talk about metrics: because it means democracy and increasing impact for the faith that I love. And possibly, hear me Lord, a little less fighting about things like new logos.
  • Believe me when I say that Jake Morrill is one of my favorite people, but his comment here raises a lot of questions for me.

I sometimes think that there are two parties among UUA Activists, which is the UUA Hive Mind. The HiveMind is not all UU's, but those who actively connected to its working beyond the local congregation. If you are a UU reading this blog, and don't find it incomprehensible, you're in it. 

Anyway, two parties: the "congregationalists" and the "institutional evangelists." 

In the post-merger world, when theological differences became more muted, the congregationalists defined UUism with congregational polity. The Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution accentuated this tendency. The "congregationalist" tendency in UUism was part of an accommodationist response to the hostile culture. At the heart, the congregationalist wanted local churches to set their own course in their local community. It especially wanted our most successful churches to be able to maintain respectability. The congregationalists were often embarrassed by the national UUA structure getting too far out on social and political issues. 

There's some great doctoral theses to be written about the UU political realignments that went on during the period of John Buehrens' and William Sinkford's presidencies. Buehrens' election was a sign of great hope among the congregationalist wing. They thought that here was a President who has served a couple of our largest and most successful churches. Here was a President who lead the UUA in a way that built on our strengths. 

It didn't happen that way, of course. A lot of other things happened, and they are yet to be sorted out and understood. Some of the events that need to be understood in themselves and in relationship to each other, and the overall culture: Buehren's election, Carolyn Owen-Towle's constituency, the turn to anti-racism, Buehrens's break with Prairie Group, the Sinkford election, the election of Free church theoretician Burton Carley to the Board, the transition between Denny Davidoff, Diane Olson and Gini Courter, the controversy over the Katrina fund. 

But somewhere in this process, the congregationalist wing had shifted its hopes from the UUA President to the UUA Board, which was now understood to represent the congregations. (Do they really? Another question. Ask Alice Blair Wesley.) 

Congregational Polity evolved into Policy Governance. The UUA Board took on the task of making the UUA Staff accountable to the Board, which represented the congregations. This is the context of Jake's post above.  

The other side of the contradiction is an Institutional Evangelist tendency. They are more concerned about projecting UUism into the culture overall, giving a public voice to our values and existence. In terms of the overall cultural situation, it is a more resistance/defiance response toward the aggressive conservative hegemony of the Nixon/Reagan/Bush reaction. 

It was the work of the UUA administration: to bear prophetic witness. They assume that it will help local congregations by making us more visible and clearly defined in the public eye. They also want to strengthen congregational functioning, with better governance, better programming, better leadership development. In the Morales administration, they have also been trying to understand the post-congregational environment we are now in. 

The current manifestation of these opposing viewpoints is the impasse between the Board and the Administration. Good people everywhere hope that new Moderator Jim Key can "both/and" a way past it. 

[Now, everybody, don't write to me to tell me that I have overdrawn this opposition, and that there is a middle way and that the situation is really "both/and" and not "either/or" as I have drawn it. I know that. I have been on all sides of this contradiction, and I have sympathy for both.] 

Where these two tendencies come together is that they are both responses to the 40 years in the wilderness of contemporary UU history -- that 40 year period in which the culture out there seemed hostile and unreceptive to liberal religion. Now that era is coming to an end and we can see them for what they were and move on.

Monday, March 03, 2014

I am not your "Both/And" Friend.

I know that the correct answer to all dichotomies, contradictions, oppositions, polarities, and competing ideas is "both/and". It is truer, and more spiritually evolved. It avoids nasty binaries. "Either/Or" (which is the opposite of "Both/And") is the cause of everything that is wrong, plus being Western, linear, Newtonian, Enlightenment and Modernist. It's a yuck.

But I am not your "Both/And" friend.

What I do is tease out oppositions and isolate them, so I can look at them and their relationship to each other. To pose choices, and paradoxes and conundrums. Because I think doing so will make us smarter and better at what we are trying to do.

For example, I recently noted that our thought that "the community precedes the individual" does not exactly line up with a commitment to being "anti-oppressive."

After all, sometimes communities oppress individuals. In fact, most Unitarian Universalists are Unitarian Universalists because they felt the need at some point in their life to buck all sorts of pressure from their community to strike out, on their own, into a new religious community. If we said that people ought to give a higher respect to the communities that formed and nurtured them, some 80% of UU's should go back to the church of their grandparents. Except that it wouldn't be there, because a lot of those grandparents would be back in the old country, respecting their communities.

Some times you can "Both/And" and envision an anti-oppressive communitarianism. But sometimes you have to "Either/Or" it, and stand up for the non-conforming, non-compliant, and the defiant individual.

If I make you impatient with my persistent poking at what we all think, pointing out contradictions and misalignments, that's my intention. Save yourself the trouble of writing a comment to tell me that I am posing overly broad choices and that there are middle ways and that the situation is probably much more "Both/And" than I am thinking. I get it.

Sometimes, you can only get to "both/and" by doing some "either/or" first.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

"Individual vs. Community" and Anti-Oppression

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has broken with the mythology of the Enlightenment: that, in some prehistoric dream time, free individuals voluntarily made a social contract to create society to serve each other's mutual needs with justice.

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has turned to the more realistic understanding that human beings have always been, and will always be, in a social context. No human being ever decided to enter it social life; every human being has been born into a social context, part of a social group. 

Therefore, we now say that humans are creatures of community before they are anything else. To the extent that our theology, anthropology, and ecclesiology have all placed the individual first, they have been mistaken. 

Hence, some UU's argue that the first should be last and the last should be first, at least when it comes to the order of the seven principles. "Interdependence" precedes each person's inherent worth and dignity, or individualism. 

"Individual over community" or "community over individual": the whole dichotomy is made moot by the intention to be anti-oppressive. (We stated that intention when we said our goal was to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural religious movement). The commitment to be anti-oppressive introduces the categories of social power and justice into our theological and anthropological discussions. 

Not only have human beings always been in communities, but those communities have always been, in some way or another, agents of oppression. Society, social institutions, and even communities are  formed by the process of the powerful imposing themselves and their needs on those who are weaker. Community formation is the exercise of social power, which is, in almost all cases, unequally distributed.

(Unitarian Universalists should know this by their own experience. If you look at the formation of any of our communities, whether an old church, or a new fellowship, you see that some of the founders have the power to shape the new institution more to their liking, and some founders go along, or submit.)

Both the powerful and the powerless are composed of individuals existing in communities. Communities exert power over individuals; some individuals oppress their own communities; more powerful communities oppress less powerful communities.

So, our discussion of whether the community or the individual is primary misses the point. The most important question is power: Does Unitarian Universalism submit to and enable the powers and principalities of this world? 

Having seen through the illusion of the Enlightenment's mythology (free individuals co-creating society), we have two choices: one is invent another mythology -- that of the beneficent pre-existing community (a golden age of beloved community) -- and the other is to look at the world as it really is, and to choose to create a community of resistance.

(Text edited and revised by me on March 3, 2014)