Mismatches between Unitarian Universalism and the Work It Needs to Do.

The mismatches: 

  • We have buildings, many beautiful buildings; but modern communications make place irrelevant. 
  • We are skilled in written words; but the world now communicates in image and music.
  • We have spirituality embedded in a long and glorious religious tradition; and much of the world wants spirituality but actively and consciously rejects religious tradition.
  • We have an expensive membership-based business model; the people have declining standards of living. The membership of the local congregation shares the expenses of the congregation where costs are rising. The membership, for the most part, is not seeing equivalent income growth.
  • Our finances are first dedicated to existing local institutions which are unsustainable at our membership level; but where we need to invest is in new institutions and ministries. Our primary form of support is pledges to local congregations, which are caught in a financial squeeze. Less to give denominational bodies, too little for innovative new ministries.
  • We have and require a learned ministry; but wisdom is no longer associated with educational attainment, but with authenticity: real experience passed through the fire of thought.
  • Our expectations of religious professionals, especially parish ministers, are unrealistic. We expect high quality worship leadership, executive leadership of the institution, and significant attention to the pastoral needs of the congregation.
  • We are led by and culturally defined by baby boomers; the people now making religious choices for their lives are later generations.  (most Boomers have made their choice already.)
  • Our shared default ways of doing and being are monocultural in a multicultural world. 
From my keynote presentation at the Metro NY District Conference: The Dawning Future. Held at UU Congregation of Shelter Rock on November 14, 2015. 


  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Yes. This. And the next question - to which I do not expect you or anyone else to have one, single articulate answer, because we are entering a phase of engagement where that paradigm no longer applies - what do we do with what we have, in order to engage the world as we find it?

    What glorious kaleidoscope of possibilities can we use to bridge the gap between what we have been and what we must become in order to survive?

    (I'm excited about this. But I also need to make a living for the next 30 years or so.)

  2. Steve Cook11:50 AM

    Hard to argue with these basic observations. I'd like to hear more about how we/they/whoever are going to distinguish between educational attainments and "authenticity", among other markers of what might make church and ministry compelling.

  3. Steve, so would I....

    If we could name what qualities a good minister need to have, we could then try to sort out what kind and how much education is a part of that mix.

    I think that ministers have to have emotional and social intelligence, an ability to "think theologically" (draw deeper meaning from experience), expressive ability, sufficient experience in the broader world, ethics and integrity, and some sense of specifically religious vocation. (Don't take this little list too seriously -- I just made it up sitting here now.).

    I think that the MDiv is a very imperfect marker of those qualities, which is why we include it among others when we evaluate people. But is the most expensive and time-consuming.

    And how can I say with respect to my colleagues? Steve, you and I both know otherwise excellent ministers who clearly studied Christian history, Biblical Exegesis and Systematic Theology under duress and whatever knowledge they gained from that ordeal is not part of their ministerial toolbox. And yet we know them as wise colleagues. If its value is that the MDiv builds character, we could just require that they do street ministry in Duluth for a winter. Some would love it, but some, including me, loved getting an MDiv.

    But in general, I would start, not with the credentials and requirements, but with the emerging minister in mind -- what are they like, and then ask how do we know someone has it?

  4. "Modern communications makes place irrelevant. " I don't think this is even close to being true. Modern communications makes place relevant in different ways, but not irrelevant. If place was irrelevant, it would be impossible for real estate values to be so high in Silicon Valley and Manhattan, while these areas continue to do well economically relative to much cheaper areas of the U.S.

    Future UU ministries, if anything, will have to be even more closely tied to the peculiarities of their particular places.

  5. It's a good list overall, but the first item is just not so. Modern communication makes us yearn> for place. Once people gather a virtual community on the internet, they quickly find the desire and then the way to meet in physical community. Virtual location doesn't substitute for physical location; it augments it.

    The importance of place, especially in the sense of having a place, is seen in this dim light for two reasons.

    The first is that we have, as you point out, places. It's hard to miss what isn't gone.

    The second is that our diminishing economic circumstances cause us to treat our places primarily as generators of revenue rather than opportunities for service to community.

  6. The church of the larger fellowship has long been a virtual community, and over the past five years has expanded greatly over the internet. Many of us have physical community nearby but prefer to call the virtual CLF our home. CLF has found ways to "come to the community", not wait for the community to come to us.

  7. Thank you, Tom. Much of this echoes the changing ecclesiological landscape described by Mike Piazza in this year's UUMA institute seminars. My own experience is that place seems to matter more, not less, in a world of virtual communication and associations. Ironically, though, if our places are going to be imagined on the model of 'community hub', they require more paid professional staffing in a context of diminishing financial support.

    Example: we were renting out our manse at a handsome return, thus becoming a landlord/ neighbor, and had to squeeze our community engagement into the sanctuary and a couple small adjoining rooms. This naturally limited what we could do to engage the community. Over the past year, though, we have re-framed the facility as a hub, administered by a single, woefully underpaid, part-time admin assistant. The flow of community groups through the place has increased markedly, as has added to an already heathy vibrancy.

    BUT the financial return is a fraction of the rent we were getting. Money you can measure; relevance and vibrancy you cannot. When it comes to the crunch, I fear boomers will always look to what's bankable in the immediate term. The only way around landlording again, it seems, is to grow a culture where pledging matches need. But as you say, that effort would further drain an already shallowing pond.

    I pray daily for a vision that finds a way to reconcile relevance/vitality and finance. No word from on high yet. Any human wisdom would be welcome.

  8. Kim Hampton4:43 PM

    Tim Bartik and I agree on something; place is HIGHLY relevant. (I won't even qualify it the way Tim does) Part of the reason UU congregations are having such a hard time with Black Lives Matter issues is because many, if not most, UU congregations actively ignored the situations in the areas where they are situated or, in the case of many a UU congregation, moved from that area so they wouldn't have to even think about those situations. Now that some of these congregations are wanting to do the work of racial justice, they don't have the connections they need to have. Actions/decisions have consequences.

    The only way for UUism to survive is to actually pay attention to place and the places where those big buildings are. Go local or get out of the way of those who will.

  9. I'm entering UUA as a refugee from the Russian Orthodox Church because the values of UUA correlate beautifully to my own vision of divine work. I'm not coming for your liturgy, for your occasional Protestant ethos or for your buildings. I am coming because your people are warm, loving and value quality relationships with many traditions as well as embodying readiness for advocating peace in a tumultuous future. My one question: how much of your own UUA assumptions and practices can be set aside in locations where you want to be refuge for others coming in with strong mystical theologies and foreign spirituality practices but believe in equality and anti-oppression for gender, sexualities, race and nationality — all primary missions of UU?

  10. Nice observations overall. To the comments about place, I would suggest the original statement of irrelevant is overstated but would also advise readers to take the intention rather than the literate meaning. There is no question that the importance of place has shifted a great deal and that a message and even membership is no longer affiliated with location as much as it has in the past. That said, I don't think that's all good. See the book - No Sense of Place.

    Regarding no models - there are models. We are just not using them.

    Change doesn't have to be hard, but it does have to be. It remains to be seen how this plays out. For conflict to emerge without fracturing the organization, there has to be some significant leadership and alignment within the membership. We'll see who and what emerges. You did - so thanks for that.


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