Are We There Yet? More

My blog post "are we there yet?" asked the readers to consider the following qustion:

For debate: Resolved that the material and professional interests of the UU clergy hamper the development of new ecclesiological models more suitable for UU evangelism.

Part of the argument that I am making is summarized in this paragraph:

One theme in modern UU history is the narrowing of our evangelical concern to the growth of congregations. We want congregations to be bigger and stronger, and for individual congregants to be more generous with their resources. And practically, the unit of measure that we use to chart congregational growth is ministerial employment. "They went from quarter-time to half-time ministry." "They just added a full-time associate minister." And, "They reached fair compensation level in their package."

More than just the practical difficulty of creating stable prosperous churches in today's economic climate, the problem is that most people don't want them. Or, to be more precise, not enough younger people want them to give the whole project a long life expectancy.
Read through the responses here and on Facebook. Some responses have pushed back against my pessimism about parish/congregational religious organizations. Some cited anecdotal evidence that the future of congregations was bright, because, after all, they have seen healthy, vibrant congregations led by young ministers. As I write this, it's freaking cold out, and yet the planet is warming. Anecdotal evidence is an oxymoron. Anecdotes are interesting, but they are not really evidence.

I think that the reason people push back about this is the very anxiety about our ministerial economics I am trying to name. It is simply too scary to think our profession was getting caught on the wrong side of social, cultural and technological change. Like independent book store owners. Like Video tape rental stores. Like cab drivers. Like small scale printers. All served fundamental human needs: knowledge, entertainment, transportation, and communications, but they had a bad business model. My analysis is that religion is a media project with great content but a terrible business model. I appreciate other's optimism, but I think that the optimism can be desperate and cover a fear.

My goal is not to talk down the future of congregational based liberal religion. My goal is to name the fear that ties us to the present forms.

I am tremendously bullish on the prospects of liberal religion. We are living in a time of strong social
movements toward all of our most fundamental values and understandings of life. I think that liberal religion offers people a way to live happily, healthily and with integrity in this world. I just don't think that the organizational form that we depend on will speak to the needs of the people we are trying to serve. Of course, some congregations will survive and thrive. However, if we narrow our evangelical project to the growth of congregations, we will be very limited.

We need an evangelical strategy that directly asks people as individuals to start living out in practice the values of liberal religion: values which they already share. Joining a local congregation may be one of those ways for people to make that commitment. But we should recognize that in today's cultural environment, many people will not be drawn to that commitment. So how do we forge and maintain relationship with religious liberals in other ways? Clergy self-interest inhibits our thinking there.

Change comes when people ask questions for which they do not have an answer. And change comes when people really grasp that the old ways will not work any longer, and they have to set off into the unknown, even though it is frightening.


  1. Kim Hampton3:01 PM

    In you mind then, what is the difference between liberal religion and Rotary Club International? or the Optimist Club? or the Junior League?

    You ask, "So how do we forge and maintain relationship with religious liberals in other ways?" Maybe we're seeing this differently, but we're already doing this through all sorts of technology. This will, however, never replace what gathered communities do. There is a reason that people have been gathering in congregation-like forms for time immemorial and across religions.

    Yes, the environment changes and continues to change for ministers and ministry. That won't change the need for congregations. (which is why I brought up Acts)

    I don't see this as anxiety as much as skepticism that humans will create anything so different than what religious communities have been creating forever. But maybe because I don't think minister debt (or seminarian debt) is as much of a hamper as the fact that most religious liberals aren't in fact as religiously liberal as they believe they are. Like I've said before, I think most are really slightly more reformed Calvinists. That's a totally different issue, so I'll stop here.

  2. Anonymous8:59 PM

    The economic demands of the existing physical infrastructure of our congregations, I would argue, are as much if not more of a hindrance than that of ministers. While people may perhaps still be looking for spiritual and personal guidance from an wise leader/teacher/counselor/minister, they certainly are not looking to support the capital needs of old buildings that, in many cases, were built for a congregation much bigger than will be there in the future to keep the roof patched.

  3. I'm relieved and happy to have found someone so like-minded. Liberal religious feelings are wonderful, UU congregations often not so much. I guess technically, I am not a "real" UU any more, as I do not belong to a UU congregation. I resigned when my term as president of a UU Governing Board was blessedly over (conflict, squabble, you know what I mean). Here's my question: What are some ways that I can find a niche- as someone who are pretty passionately UU, but reluctant to step back into a congregation? Where do people like me go - to serve liberal religion,and to find like-minded people? Thanks for listening, Edith Fletcher


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