Are We There Yet?

I posted the following debate topic on a thread on Facebook, where it will get lost among other worthy discussions and eventually be lost forever in uncatalogued sediment of Facebook discussion.

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.

I felt a small tremor in posting it, because the subject is scary to me. 

I am a minister, duly educated, credentialed and ordained. Ministry is no longer my source of income, and thanks to a very talented and well compensated spouse, the wolf is not at my door, or even in my neighborhood. So I have the privilege of not being anxious about such things as ministerial compensation, ministerial job security, ministerial retirement, and ministerial educational indebtedness. I try to be aware of how that shapes my perspective.

On the other hand, my childhood was shaped by my father's inability to earn enough money as Unitarian minister to support his family. He left the ministry and went to work in a steel mill. It was a downwardly mobile move, out of character for both his and my mother's ministerial families. It still reverberates through my life and life choices. 

Nice office, nice chairs, nice books, nice life !
So, I identify with the professional ministry, maybe even in an unhealthy way. I want every minister to be well-paid, to have great benefits, to be free of debt, to have a lovely office at the church and a cozy office at home, to look forward to a gracious retirement, and to be able to buy books the way some people buy lettuce. I also want them to have enough authority in the congregations they serve to be able to lead us into the faith of the future. I want our community ministers to be respected among us and supported by the faithful. 

That said, I wonder if there is some fatal mismatch between what Unitarian Universalism (and all progressive liberal religion) needs and what ministers need at this point in time.

Ministers, as we are presently constituted, need a large institutions with healthy budgets able to support a professional ministry. There are some congregations who can do that, but not nearly enough to support all the ministers who aspire to a fulltime life in the parish.  And even that is not enough, because it does not deal with the problem of the cost of ministerial education and debt. 

That's what ministers need. But those institutions are hard to create. The ones we have are stretched and trying to hang on. 

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. 

In terms of organization, liberal religion has to be able to swim in the currents of modern culture. Institutional loyalty is low. Information flows freely. No one has authority that lasts. Influence, like fame, comes in 15 minute units. People have very wide circles of acquaintances and small numbers of friends. In the age of google, no one has privileged information.

Liberal Religion needs to be able to create networks and nodes of purposeful groups of many sizes and shapes. The edges of liberal religion should be accessible and culturally familiar. 
If we study this chart long enough,
will it all make sense ?
If we step back, we don't know what "church" is now; we don't know what religious community looks like that isn't inward, and self-protective, and an escape; we don't know what "ministry" does beyond tend to those communities. But the material interests of the clergy drives us inexorably toward the maintenance of insular and inward looking religious communities when we know in our bones that we need to be expansive, outward looking, and boundary-crossing.

I'm not blaming the clergy. It is a mutually reinforcing relationship between congregational leaders and ministers. After all, our most dedicated and generous lay leaders are deeply committed to what we are now doing.

They say that change can start to happen when you identify the question for which you do not have an answer. Are we there yet?


  1. In some ways, it would seem like the model of congregation is also out-of-date, much less the model for ministry. Ministerial interests are such because they require an obsolete institution to function.

    If that were the case, then we'd need some serious creativity for how we do ministry and religious organization in the future.

  2. Christine, you captured my point succinctly. Our model of doing church (the congregation as now we think of it) is obsolete, but our ministers, who should be our leaders in innovation, are dependent on the old model for their economic survival, such as it is. The problem is also that the old model works just enough to make it hard to change, but not enough to actually thrive.

  3. It was always disastrous to involve me in pledge drives because I was rather obnoxious suggesting that people might consider pledging as much as they spent on vacations or even cable TV.

  4. I don't know. It does seem possible for UU congregations to thrive, attracting a healthy number of young people, including young families, as new members. The church I belong to is only one of several in my part of the world (northeast Ohio) in which this is happening. So we know it can be done, even though it's clearly not happening in enough places. Maybe it's a bit soon to sound the death knell for the congregational model? Though of course other avenues should be pursued as well.

  5. Thank you. You express my own concern, and unfortunately my own reality. If I was not the primary income for my family I would gladly be experimenting with ministry outside the congregational setting. I love Unitsrian Universalism and ministry, and always hope for new challenges, I wish there was more funding that did not depend on the individuals within a single community

  6. I do think that we're at a time when a new model may need to emerge. I'm not sure, however, that this won't also be a model that needs full-time trained professionals. We clergy might be the right people to lead that change, but we are heavily invested in the model as it is, and trained for it, steeped in it. It takes a strong vision to step outside of the box we've created for ourselves and try something different. I think the multi-site ministry stuff is one potential future model, and one that works well for us with our current training and interests. But it's not the only option.

  7. I don't doubt for a second that there is a need for fully-trained ministers. We need to come up with some new way to pay for them.

    We may need to centralize more of Unitarian Universalism if we wish to continue to exist.

  8. An anonymous colleague, who is concerned to not identify the congregation about whom they speak, writes:

    "Brilliant as always. I felt during the nine years of my full-time parish ministry that my lovely little congregation might actually be SUFFERING in some ways from having a full-time minister. Reasons: 1 - pledge base wasn't strong enough and that created an incentive for whining and guilt-tripping to try to increase pledges. 2 - An exorbitant amount of time went to running a Thrift Shop, whose purpose was to make money to afford a minister. This volunteer energy could have been used for other things. 3 - There was a dependence on the ministry which I feared might have been hampering a full flowering of lay leadership. When I left, I felt as though I were betraying the secret code of ministers to tell the congregation that half-time ministry might be more appropriate to them. In my opinion, they would do better to have more resources flow to RE than to have them all tied up in a minister. (I recognize that being in New York, there is a possibility of their finding good part-time ministers -- in the "middle of nowhere", it could be impossible to attract a minister at all unless it is full-time.)

    This is all to say that my personal interest in keeping a full-time ministry, and my feeling of what I was "supposed" to advise them was in contrast to what my honest judgement was about what would be in the best interest of this real life community."

  9. Stephen Cook5:23 PM

    You have laid your hand on this very crucial point: If the financial facts of congregational ministry are shifting daily, as in many cases they are, what are those whose primary personal or family income is derived from ministry to do? There has been much facile commentary in UU circles about empowering lay leadership and the whole "And Beyond" project which, to many ministers, starts to look like a way to get rid of those pesky, expensive ministers with their unnecessary, fancy degrees and unreasonable demands for a living wage. I suppose we could all work for free, out of our zealous desire to "grow the Movement;"I suppose we could all start looking for part-time shift work at the local 7-11. I have no easy answer either, but I do that know we must engage this conversation as frankly as possible.

  10. Conversely, if the congregational dynamic is abusive, it may take a full-time minister to turn it around. Otherwise it tends to expel any activist lay members that come by.

  11. Once again, Tom, you afflict the comfortable! :-) And I will add my testimony to that of others -- I would do things quite differently if I weren't dependent on the traditional congregational model for my family's income. For so, so many reasons the way we're doing things not only doesn't seem viable as we move through the 21st century, but it also just doesn't seem "Unitarian Universalist."

    One of my constant challenges to us is that we need to question whether the forms we inherited from our Protestant roots are still the right forms for modern Unitarian Universalism as it has been evolving. Your question points this up as well.

    So here's another form of the question, I think. If we were to create Unitarian Universalist communities and ministries from scratch in such a way that "the medium is the message," would we create what we now call "church"? I truly don't think so.

    I'm currently experimenting with ways to move away from the "clergy-centric" model. (Plug for the GA workshop I'll be facilitating with TJMC's wonderful Director of Faith Development!) I can see, though, that the logical trajectory of these experiments would put me out of a job, or at least seriously reduce my income to create more parity among religious professionals.

    All this to say, yes. The material and professional needs of our ordained ministers are, without question, hurdles in the way of truly empowering, equipping, and sending forth the non-ordained ministers who, I believe, need to be set free.

    So now what?

  12. I always seem to be on the opposite side of these things.

    There has been talk about the dying (or more precisely, decay) of congregations for, oh, about 2000+ years. And yet congregations (of whatever religious stripe) seem to survive--in more or less the same form as we have them. Even if you look at other ways of religious people gathering (I'm thinking about religious orders) that is similar to that of congregations.

    I guess that to me, what we should really be working on is: 1.making congregations HEALTHY (or more healthy, as the case may be)
    2.encouraging those who want to experiment with different forms of congregations/religious orders
    3.putting money behind as many of these evangelistic efforts as possible

    As much as some may want to deny, religious movements grow when those small grouping develop and promote leaders who--when all cylinders are properly functioning--encourage the assembled to be both inward looking and outward reaching. Otherwise, the Book of Acts was telling tales.

  13. From what little I know about the state of American religious life it seems as if the one segment that is thriving, or at least holding steady, is the evangelical movement. Obviously the theological component of that movement is one that we can't, and wouldn't want to, replicate. That said, I know of some people who belong to conservative churches who I sense are there for some of the same reason UUs join congregations -- a sense of community, being around like-minded people etc. I guess my point that I wonder if are there are lessons we can learn if we look at the practices of even those congregations that are least like us in philosophy.

  14. The question is not whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the state of congregationally based religion. People are all over the map on that.

    The question I am raising is whether our commitment to our present forms of organization is driven by the clergy's financial interest.

    If it is, and I think it is, we need to think about that seriously, not because it is immoral or some such thing, but because it is self-defeating.

  15. Anonymous12:17 AM

    My commitment to our present forms of organization is driven by my need for religious community. I need an intentional, consistent community that calls me to live more deeply and stay awake in this numbing, dehumanizing abyss of life. I find that good ministers are much more effective at this than lay people. (Of course not all ministers are good, so there's that.) It is in the best interest of my religious and spiritual life to have a good professional minister around. (I am not a parish minister, but a prison chaplain. I work with many "volunteer ministers," and I highly value the professional ones.) (and I can't figure out how to post on this page for some reason..., without being "anonymous")

  16. As always, a thoughtful commentary. Thanks, Tom, for a valuable contribution to a worthy topic. Three thoughts come to mind: (1) It should be obvious, but perhaps necessary to remind ourselves that there is not a single model that is "the solution." In a world in which the internet is the structural model for so much else, we should expect several different models to coexist - and to fail in some places while working in others. It is not going to be either/or; rather it will be this AND that. (2) I wonder if one side effect of all this is that we often find ministers attempting to perform functions or fill roles for which they are not especially well equipped or trained, as they seek alternatives to congregational work; and (3) Would one be correct in assuming seminaries are not helping much to prepare incoming ministers to innovate and manage? In congregations with full time ministers, those ministers are certainly the leaders and often function as COO or CEO, yet often have not received substantive training or education in those skill sets, less more how to launch something truly new. A challenging bunch of dynamics out there.

  17. You did kind of open the door for a rather broad conversation, didn't you Tom? (The best questions generally do.) To your clarified focus -- "the question I am raising is whether our commitment to our present forms of organization is driven by the clergy's financial interest." -- I would have to answer "Yes, and ..." If people really wanted some other, less clergy-centric form, they'd decamp en masse and start such things. (I suppose you could argue that the "nones" are, in fact, doing such a decampment.) So I think "tradition," and "comfort of the familiar," and lack of the creative energy necessary to imagine new forms is at least as much to "blame" as the clergy's financial interest.

    One could argue that the so-called new monasticism is an effort at creating such new forms, and there are other such experiments, but I truly do believe that if the vast majority -- or even a strong minority -- of "church goers" really wanted something different, there'd be no stopping them.

    One of the other issues, I think, is the flip side of the "tradition" thing. It is known that groups tend toward inertia. Bureaucracies become self-perpetuating (in part, of course, by creating a "necessary" professional class who become financial dependent on the institution). But our culture has been fundamentally dis-empowering, training people to look to "experts" for just about everything. The modern church is no exception. This, too, ties into your question.

    As an example, I've been working for years to develop really, truly, radically, and inclusively shared ministry. I'm constantly amazed at how much resistance I receive from the laity who, in my most cynical moments, I'd say just want me to do it for them. They are a hurdle, too.

  18. After 27 years, I am entirely dependent on the old church model. Like many, I have recognized the changing nature of church and applaud those mostly younger (in terms of ministry) colleagues who are experimenting more than I am with new models and approaches. It's what we have to do.

    But like some commenters, I am not prepared to give up congregational life as a model. Sure we are in a generational shift with different understandings of membership, support and loyalty, but is that a trend or a permanent state?

    I think we need to keep the congregational model alive for the next pendulum swing even as we embrace a much more diverse understanding of what is 'church'. It's not a matter of choosing one model over another, but trying whatever comes, evaluate it and keep the conversations among colleagues, among other church workers and among UU's alive and respectful. Both/and, not either/or.

  19. Anonymous1:22 PM

    What a wonderful conversation. I am not sure if we are "there" yet but I do think we are moving in that direction very quickly and our imagination is not necessarily keeping up with the need.

    We don't know what all new models are emerging, though we are starting to get the sense of some. Certainly some congregations will continue in perpetuity. But what else? Maybe multi-site ministry, as Cindy posits. And I would not be surprised to see the opposite - multiple family-sized "churches" (larger than a small group ministry) co-exist within one congregation. Perhaps all of the same tradition, perhaps not but complementary. The advantages would be be the small size that people seem to be drawn to these days and autonomy of mission, but shared resources such as clergy, facilities, staff.

    The possibilities are only limited by our imagination. Perhaps it is my own privilege as someone with a certain economic freedom (no seminary debt, a well-compensated spouse) but I find it all very exciting.

  20. I think about what the alternatives might look like -- some of them already, perhaps, emerging.

    #1. The Yoga Class model. Many people get their spirituality from their yoga class. What if liberal religious worship were organized the way yoga classes are? Get a suitable space, and people pay through one of the various payment schemes yoga studios use. It's possible, but not easy, to make a living as a yoga teacher.

    #2. The Counselor model. Psychologists, psychotherapists, etc. see patients one-on-one all week long, and that's how they earn their bread and butter. Suppose, in addition, they invited their clients -- and anyone else who'd like to come -- to a group meeting at no additional charge (at a time on the weekend, say) that focused on spiritual counsel, included a talk, a guided meditation, and signing a couple songs. Suppose this were open to the public.

    Model #1 is missing the individual pastoral care component. Model #2 puts most of the emphasis on that component.

    What's missing from both these components is that the participants need never concern themselves with committees, bylaws, passing budgets, electing boards and all the apparatus of self-governance. When we say the "church model" may not be sustainable, I gather that's the stuff that's most at issue.

  21. Jim Sechrest6:06 PM

    Tom Schade writes: Resolved that the material and professional interests of the UU clergy hamper the development of new ecclesiological models more suitable for UU evangelism. ---------- Well, I have long felt that even UU young adults, who were leaders in local, district, or continental UU organizing, went to the seminary to die. That is, all of their interests in growing UU numbers through retention of those raised UU and how that might change "ecclesiological models" within UUism went right out the window once they went into the seminary. I was especially aware that the former UU conference youth that became UU ministers were fully compliant or even supportive of UUA efforts to demolish YRUU at the continental level, since it was ironic, given that their interest in UUism had been so greatly inspired and developed in their YRUU conference leadership roles when they were youth and again later in grass roots organized young adult groups. We were looking at evangelizing for the UU denomination simply by retaining those that grew up UU, by introducing new ecclesiological models based more on what created deeper spirituality and closer community found in UU youth conferences. It was much more difficult than we imagined, for a whole host of reasons, and we still argue about who was most to blame for its demise, the savage destructive methods of the UUA staff towards the youth conference model of spiritual and community development specifically outlined in the UU World (Summer issue 2008, available with an Internet search) in favor of poorly implemented anti-racism anti-oppression efforts OR the fault of the UU young adults and youth for not completely fulfilling the expectations of the UUA staff in that process. But, what most rankled was the complete lack of support and even rejection of the youth conference culture by former youth and young adult leaders who had become UUA Staff or UU ministers themselves, who had ironically, been involved and even leaders of UU youth and UU young adult conference organizations. But, these UU ministers and UUA staff ministers have professional and material interests. There is no benefit in bucking the institutional structures once you become a minister, you become dependent on the old structures for income, pension, and even future job placement. It is not that amazing that these raised UU conference youth completely realigned their own minds in favor of not supporting the growth of the UU denomination through the growth of deeper spirituality and closer community inherent in youth and young adult conferences, in favor of old local congregation models that did not embrace the culture and beliefs of those raised UU, who attended youth conferences. these UU ministers actively sought to support the UUA staff's destruction of the youth conference culture which empowered them to become religious leaders in the first place.

  22. Lucy I.6:59 PM

    To all "lively t" bloggers: Thank your volunteering to provide refreshing ideas/questions to help your readers engage with what it means to be UU and/or a minister or lay leader (hereafter "us") in the 21st C. Tom: Yes, "our commitment to our present forms of organization is driven by the clergy's financial interest. "They say that change can start to happen when you identify the question for which you do not have an answer. Are we there yet?
    Yes, we are. I will add: Part-time minister for 18+ years; good fortune having no school debt or dependents. In 3 congregations as solo minister, I've seen the pain and struggle of not enough money to do/be what we think the congregation should do/be. Also seen 2 of them successfully taking risks now for what they want to be. In half-time parish ministry--not my heart's desire--at UUA fair compensation (for the 1st time!) and have to supplement my income as a cashier in a supermarket. I enjoy being in both worlds. Kudos to UU ministerial entrepreneurs who have the savvy/charisma/confidence to create new paradigms of ministry. Some successfully do the congregational model as it has existed. Others seem to be investing in other models. Personally, would love to be in (or ministered to in) a multi-site ministry where the lay and ordained people share their strengths with each other, which must be: evangelism; pastoral care; worship arts; prophetic witness/ challenge/change oppressive systems; managing the organization/infrastructure/governance. We-"us"-have studied the evangelical churches, whence small group ministry and supporting lay ministries that include people beyond the walls. Some UU congregations have done well at this, either maintaining the traditional congregation or creating new ones.

  23. The question I am raising is whether our commitment to our present forms of organization is driven by the clergy's financial interest.
    YES AND lack of confidence/savvy/charisma to to turn the aircraft carrier to a different course.
    They say that change can start to happen when you identify the question for which you do not have an answer. Are we there yet?
    YES we are.
    Context: part-time minister 18+ years, possible only because no school debt or dependents. Currently working half-time at UUA fair compensation and needing to supplement my income by working "front end" cashier/bagger at a chain supermarket for minimum wage. I enjoy both worlds. In 3 congregations I have seen the pain and struggle of the congregation not doing/being what they think they should do/be because not enough $$. I have also seen the success that came from taking $$ risks to become what their visions called them to.

  24. "In the age of google, no one has privileged information."

    I really can't imagine this is true - unless you were being hyperbolic.

    First, isn't liberal religion centered on the idea that lived experience means something? That would privilege information - meaning that we might read the same thing on wikipedia (even if all knowledge were possibly indexed on the internet, which I don't believe).

    Second, I'd like to think that even though I can read a recipe - any number of professional chefs might know a better way to make a meal than I would.

    Do I agree that communities (religious and otherwise) are changing today as they always do? Of course. But "we don't know what church is now?" This again really troubles me - this insistence that everything is different now, that nothing is the way it's been before. I think that's both true (can never step in the same river twice, right?) but also a little too in-the-moment.

    Perhaps I'm an incredibly naive millennial, but I simply cannot believe that we are fully moving away from churches or gathered communities. There's still something critical to the lived experience of going to a basketball game, worship service, etc. We'll do them differently and then we'll go back to doing them the old way and back and forth in a Hegelian dialectic, making some progress (and having some regression) along the way.

    And so, while the professionals who guide those institutions will do their jobs differently (surely they already are than those who held the job in the 16th, 18th, or 20th centuries), we're probably not going to lose them altogether. There have been many ministers who worked at two churches in the same county, worked at a church and a newspaper, etc.

    I'm all for being creative about how we do church and ministry, but can we do it without throwing out the baby or the bathwater?

  25. Anonymous3:07 PM

    From a raised UU perspective I would add that local congregations, especially their committed menders and friend, lead to the raised UUs that become ministers moving away from the goal they once had of "looking at evangelizing for the UU denomination simply by retaining those that grew up UU, by introducing new ecclesiological models based more on what created deeper spirituality and closer community found in UU youth conferences", and towards strengthening and trying to do better what is the the status quo. The reason i feel local congregations, especially their committed menders and friend, lead raised UU ministers in this direction is that many of them view this kind of way of being UU and doing UU community as something that may work for youth and maybe even young adults but will not work for older adults. Another reason for this, I would say, is that it is not what most of the adult UU, of which an overwhelming majority did not grow up UU, wont. If these UU minister did not need to rely on these congregations to support their ministry, then I think a significant number of these ministers may not have ever abandoned their initial goals.

    And wen we look at the training that ministers get, especially the ones who go to seminaries that are run by denominations other then UU, we can see they learn next to nothing on one extreme and on the other nothing at all about the way UU is lived out and what the point of worship is all about in youth and young adult conference culture. I feel this situation leads to what UU ministers, in the realm of worship, expect of the local UU congregations they serve and what they feel comfortable saying ought to be their rule to them. I feel if we would like to balance out this dynamic (and I would like to see it balance out) we need to start requiring that a significant amount of their training be devoted to this stuff or they can't be credentialed by the UU ministerial credentialing body.

  26. I'm one of the nutty Beyond Enthusiasts. And I'm well aware that most of what we might try might fail... I tend to think in terms of "many small investments, and see what starts to work"... it's a model that's friendly to experimentation (which I think is a must). Unfortunately, it's not particularly friendly to the kind of salaries that Professional Ministry requires...

    I don't know about this from a systemic perspective. I'm still working it through. What I do know is that every time I get in a conversation that excites me, every time it really starts to build, someone swiftly and sharply extinguishes it with "right, but where is the role for Ministry in that model". I used to translate this in my head to "how will that create salaries for Ministers", but after the fellowship movement discussion over on Facebook, I'm starting to think there might be more to it. That it might not just be about jobs, but about making sure that the whatever-it-is that is created has some kind of homogenous tie to the history, theology, and norms of the larger movement.

    I'm still chewing on it, but I have huge appreciation for this post, and for the comments--thanks for this, Tom.

  27. Liz James wrote: "What I do know is that every time I get in a conversation that excites me, every time it really starts to build, someone swiftly and sharply extinguishes it with 'right, but where is the role for Ministry in that model'. I used to translate this in my head to 'how will that create salaries for Ministers...'"

    I don't think that that's ever the consciously intended meaning, but I think it most certainly is at least a large part of the underpinning of it.

    There is, to me, a disturbing and even dangerous conflation in that question -- "where is the place for Ministry in that?" Shouldn't the question being asked really be, "where is the place for professional and ordained ministry ..."? I'd just assume that whatever the idea being discussed the whole thing already is ministry. That'd be the point, wouldn't it? So what's being sought is a role of us professional clergy types.

    I absolutely recognize that the professional minister has a unique role to play. I don't believe that all of the things we are now assumed to have in our portfolio truly belong there. And this question, in this form, demonstrates the rarely questioned assumption that "professional ministers" are somehow different and, perhaps, even more important than lay ministers.

    (Oh I can't wait 'till I've finished the book I'm currently working on so I can add it to discussions like this. Working title? "What If We Really Shared The Ministry?
    a challenge to clergy and an invitation to the laity." Keep your eyes open for it.)


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