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.


  1. When I saw that "data services" were offered by the UUA, this is what I had in mind. This is doable and not quite so difficult as it could be.

  2. YES. This is SO, SO, SO needed.

  3. Yes! And let's develops a universal UU covenant that anyone who wants to guide they're live by UU values may enter to which we all feel joyfully accountable to. Such a
    covenant would enable a fluidity of movement
    among UU communities, modes and cites of
    UU engagement, deepen our feelings of
    connection among UUs, and get us out of our isolated silos. Let's disconnect the fiduciary membership in religious organizations from inclusion in/relationship to the whole.

  4. Anonymous4:36 AM

    If I knew that my data was going to a central denominational database, I'd never give out my information to any church. How does work out for the many Americans with privacy concerns? As a minister, I love the idea of having access to records like this. From a worshiper's point of view, it doesn't feel nearly as good.

  5. Jamie H-R10:06 AM

    Sarah, I think our 7 principles are turning into a default universal covenant, but maybe you mean getting more specific than that? Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons has suggested something similar:

  6. YUP. This is on target. UUism is currently so small we could run most of it through Google apps for non profits. There are plenty of open source cloud based data base programs already available.

  7. It needs a local component for financials, pledges, etc., that sends the minimal information back to the UUA for subscriptions. Keep sensitive data private and strictly local, while standardizing congregational records on something purpose-built instead of trying to beat Quicken into shape (or worse). The Masons have done this, to cite one example

  8. Anonymous, I, too am very concerned about privacy. However, I can't come up with a scenario where something I find private could be exposed in this way. Could you give an example of what concerns you?

  9. Both Unitarianism and Universalism originally had mechanisms for individuals as well as congregations to express individual adherence to the religion. So while the technology might be new, the polity is not.

    The "Association of Congregations" dates only to about the 1970s, when the last of the individual Unitarians died; the option to enter such a relationship was removed earlier, at a date I am not bothering to look up, but which would be easy to find in Bylaws historical data.

    But even in whatever might have been "the golden era," there were still the various levels of interest and adherence laid out in your previous post. There were people who wrote one time to The Post Office Mission, there were people who just requested a memorial or wedding service (already a well-established Unitarian ministerial task as early as the 1890s up here in Burlington), and there were, and always will be, occasional drop-ins.

    We just can't know everything. We can't know everyone. We can't know everyone who cares about our existence and reaches into our midst in an hour of their greatest need or joy. Every single religion and every single institution goes through this. It is the product of separating church and state, and, as such, a blessing.

    That said, I can tell you, as a former analyst of data used for foreign policy, that computer data is worthless without people to deal with it. There is already not a technological problem with assembling info, for instance of all UU camp supporters, attenders, etc, and cross-referencing it with known congregants, visitors, and clergy. And then what? Who makes the phone call to see what that person needs right now, in their current location? Who gets their "phone number reassigned" ping and then goes into the database to find out how that person is taking calls now?

    Technology changes, but administration, like ministry, remains firmly mired in the one-to-one.

  10. I'm a techie, so I like the idea, but I worry about privacy just like anonymous does.

    That being said a way of tying together databases of many UU congregations/churches would be beneficial. I don't want my pledge data in the cloud anymore than it already is. (My church uses ACS, and we have a web based portal to our member information.) But why should a new church just joined have access to my old information?

    What I'd advocate is a US/global database, where folks can then say they're associated with a congregation, and that congregation can associate their record of that person with the global record....

    This all being said, keeping this workable for the average person is a bit of a trick, and I can see this becoming a spot where there are lots of old orphaned records, etc.

    I'm for better data coordination, but getting it right is tricky.

  11. I like the idea of centralizing some of the administrative-management tasks that take so much time in individual congregations away from ministry and mission. All our congregations are individually struggling with payroll (and often not doing it right), designing websites, databases, etc. If we could combine staff to do it collectively, it would be more efficient, higher quality, and not use up valuable volunteer or staff hours.

  12. I like this. This is good.

    I do wonder about the "what to do with it" question though. We have a mini-version of this w/ the Bridging card programme for youth-to-young adults. Trying to get congregations to care that there are people who need them is hard.

  13. Elz curtiss9:26 PM

    What concerns me is the image of what it means to "manage information about members." A new address is not just numbers, it's a pastoral check-in moment. Deleting someone's work phone number -- again, not mere numbers. There's a reason that conscientious and over-worked people sit in awkward offices poring over these things. We seem to believe that the goal is to get all the "presenting issues" delegated out there somewhere else -- hospitals, philanthropic organizations, affinity groups -- so our congregations can be pure collections of perfect people with gobs of time, money, and ethical enthusiasm for the institution.

  14. Elz, I hear you, but I don't see someone in Boston entering those changes. That's a local church function or a self-service function.

  15. What would be useful in our church is the UU-equivalent of ActBlue, the easy way the Democratic party supports people and candidates in making contributions on-line and with credit cards. Maybe this exists and we just don't know about it, or if it doesn't, surely it could. That's one data service that would make pledge drives or whatever we do instead join this century .


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