Wednesday, February 22, 2006

And now a word from our sponsor...

I'm sure that there are a number of posts I ought to have replied to by now.

I apologize for not having gotten to them, as well as not having pulled three neurons into a circle to try and say something cogent. Or clever. Or just mildly entertaining. Things have been more than a mite busy for the last few days.

Real world stuff. Fellowship stuff. Distractions like deciding to write a sermon instead of a blog post (mea culpa); maybe after I polish it up... I'll post it, after I preach it (May, I'm told).

But right now? It was meetings all day. Mostly Fellowship stuff, and all of it money stuff. My brain hurts and tomorrow I have to help figure out how to help spin straw into an extra half a million bucks.

So I'm going to bed.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pondering a UU Theology

I look out, over the thin ice before me....

Having said already that I don't think we're a movement about orthodoxy, what's a common UU theology going to look like?

My guess is that there will be a core of work that deals with the implications of those values that we assert we have in common--the UU 7 Principles--and those that I've already pontificated about previously. Once that work's done, and we've described the implications, theologically-speaking, our various communities, the UU Christians, BUUdhists, etc., can wrestle with the specific concerns presented by the intersection of that theological work and their faith tradition.

Anyone else up for starting to gnaw on this bone? If so, I could post seven distinct posts--one for each principle--where we can discuss and contemplate them, and an extra one to handle anything extra that comes up.

Friday, February 10, 2006


I've seen talk of UU megachurches. First, let it be clear that there ain't none. Not at this time. The largest UU congregation last year (haven't seen figures for this year, yet) was First Unitarian Society of Madison, at just about 1400 members.

"Megachurch" is often defined as starting at 2000.

But I've seen a couple conversations around the web about the idea. And I spent a big part of a couple days talking with a friend about the idea of starting one.

Today, an AP article cited in my local paper caught my eye. It's talking about Protestant megachurches, and how they're still growing. They've doubled in number in the last five years. Average attendance is up.
"The main thing we work really hard at is having a good program for every age group," .... "We want the affluent to feel welcome and the hardworking, labor person, living payday to payday, to feel as welcome as anyone else."

There's nothing in that which a UU congregation shouldn't want to achieve.
Well-stated goals for growth, including orientation classes for new members, and a slew of programming for many demographics were a pattern for megachurches in the study. They also commonly have contemporary worship services with electric guitars and drums and frequent use of overhead projectors during multiple services throughout the week.

Does your congregation have a well-stated goal for growth? Mine's worked at this... and I don't think I can say that it does. Oh, people are open, even enthusiastic, for growth. But the key point was a goal. I'll bet that if you asked our members privately, you'd hear that they envision anywhere from maybe... a membership of 200 to 550 in the next several years.

Programming? How's yours? Ours is a work in progress, with significant ideas... but it's damned thin on the ground right now. It's certainly not designed with a wide range of demographics in mind. I'm not even sure that it's designed with demographics in mind at all. It's still in the "If we offer this, will they come?" (I hold myself as accountable as anyone for that; it's a weakness).

Contemporary worship services? We're starting to break out on contemporary, I think. You? But throughout the week? Nah. Sunday morning. With a poorly advertised, weakly attended Vespers service one evening a month. Overhead projectors? Egad, no. It's pretty forward that we have a house band that is playing live rock. Guitar--not electric. Drums, check.
Their emphasis on evangelism, propelled mostly by word of mouth from enthused members, has been a constant, said researcher Dave Travis with Leadership Network.

Ouch. UU evangelism. Funny, the Universalists, in particular, had arich tradition there. We bobbled that somewhere....

About those megachurches;
... one-third reported they were founded 60 years ago or more. It also countered the notion that they are all independent congregations: 66 percent report belonging to a denomination — although most downplay this aspect in their church names and programming.

Interesting, no?
56 percent of megachurches said they have tried to be more multiethnic and 19 percent of their attendance is not from the majority race of the congregation.

I've yet to see a really good argument for why there can't be UU megachurches.

Some of our most noted clergy have, in the past, preached to what were very large congregations for the time. I think that there's still a message there today that could be preached to large (for today) congregations.


Update: On a closely related topic--reaching out to young adults--see this.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

So... what is UUism about?

Well, there are the Principles.

But, unless you're entirely new to this conversation (and to find this obscure corner of the blogosphere, with me trying to kindle a small fire here... it's not likely you are), you know that this is widely being discussed as insufficient.

So, I'll boldly offer an opinion or two, and see if anyone wants to argue--you'll have to bring your own coffee, I'm afraid.

We have, I submit, reached the end of one road that the Unitarians and Universalists pointed down; having abandoned creeds long ago and having displaced Christianity from a special place in the constellation of revelations, there's nothing that's easy to hand to a visitor or seeker who wants to know what it is we believe. We--as a movement, not as individuals--don't hold up Jesus as the Way any more than we hold up Buddha as the Way, or think that Lao-tze pointed to the (one) Way. So there's nothing that we've figured out that's the modern equivalent of the Winchester Profession, although it's worth noting that most of that profession is acceptable to most UUs--as long as one's willing to provide a lot of latitude about "God".

Despite being derided as insufficiently poetic (or is it sexy? I can't recall), the Principles do capture some fundamental features of our faith. Broadly depicted, there's still a universalism in these principles (although one that's lost much interest in the question of hell. Not surprising for folk who more or less concluded that they didn't believe in it); the 7th Principle affirms that we're all tied together, inextricably, and that whatever happens to us... happens to all of us, and to the rest of the universe. It's a statement that completely subsumes classical Universalist concerns; along with everything else, salvation would be something that happens to all or none. But it's more than that, since it also establishes a firm basis -- theologically speaking -- for a conservationist ethic of environmentalism.

Other principles (no, I'm not going to discourse on them all) affirm the rights and value of the individual, proclaim democratic values, and so forth. Through them, it's hard to imagine a UUism that isn't congregational or doesn't value and respect the individual.

The question keeps coming back to "what's at the core?" In the past, however perceived or thought of, Unitarians and Universalists thought of a singular deity, perhaps as Deists, and kept a hand on the Bible. So there was always the easy answer of "Christianity." I suspect that the answer was... easy.

But that's not really what those faiths were about, ultimately, nor is it what UUism is about.

What we are about is humanity. Whether there's a god or not isn't crucial; if there is, we've undertaken already -- those principles -- undertaken to take care of creation as best we can and to take care of human beings, individually and collectively, as we can. We affirm that to be... enough. Or at least, it's enough for the movement as a whole. Beyond that, we have undertaken to cradle and cherish each person's search for the truth.

Those are core values. And there's one more that's sometimes swept aside as just part of congregational polity. But it's more; our faith is truly all about what gets talked about as "Beloved Community." Community is at our core.

Sure, there are people who affirm that they're Unitarian Universalists, but who aren't part of any congregation (not even CLF), nor any of the organizations affiliated with the UUA. I don't buy that any longer. They're not UUs. They hold values and beliefs closely akin. But they're solo operators, and I think that UUs are only UUs in community.

No, that's not unique to UUism; every religion provides something of community. But what's different is that community is an adjunct to other faiths, it comes with the rest. For us, community is what lies at our core now. Over and around that, we layer the rest. Although the result can look an awful lot like traditional religion, it's not the same at all.

The same sort of conundrum exists for people who don't grasp the character of Judaism and ancient religions for which the crucial question isn't belief, but practice. People who grow up in and surrounded with faiths that practice and insist on orthodoxy, right belief, find the idea of a religion that's only tangentially concerned with right belief... and focused on orthopraxy, right practice, baffling.

UUism, however, is precisely that kind of creature. Stop asking what we believe. It's not the right question. We're not about belief; we're entirely in favor of you finding and having beliefs, but that's... secondary. Change them if you find you need to; that's great. We're about practice.

We dance up to this when we talk about "Deeds, not creeds." Then we lose sight of it and worry about what it is that we're about. Someone asks what it is we believe and we get intellectually antsy about belief. It's not belWe're about being in a community that is honest, caring, respectful and supportive. We're about being in a community that upholds, affirms and lives out the values that are in our principles.

It's about doing, being--not believing.

If someone asks you... "So what is it that Unitarian Universalists believe?" the answer is;

"We're not about what we believe; we don't even agree on what we 'believe.' We're about what we do. We share a set of values and principles, and those -- and our heritage -- call us to action, regardless of our belief, doubt, or lack of belief. We are UUs because we feel impelled to act, called to act, obliged to act--for good, for justice. We're about being and growing our community, and the community of all humanity, so that it can be, and is, a tapestry of people living in peace. We do not believe that we all need to believe alike. But we do believe that we can love alike, and that becoming that universal, loving community is what we must work to achieve. Ours is a religion that says 'You must do. You must act.'"

So... now I need to go and educate myself about the theology of orthopraxy.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Simple Desultory Considerations...

Perusing things written here and there (thanks to the various UU blogs I've been reading at) about what's wrong with UUism, where the movement's (not) going, what to do, I've decided to devote a blog to it.

I don't promise to stay on topic.

I will try to keep wandering back to it.

Reading a bit of the history of UU growth here, it occurs to me that the lesson learned may have been the wrong one. It's not that the fellowship movement failed. Monroe Husband's efforts got plenty of congregations started--and most of them in places where no one would have imagined them appearing on their own. I know; I attend one of them, now. Circumstances change; places that 40 or 50 years ago were the boondocks are now sometimes inner suburbia... the exurbs... flourishing small cities with neighboring cities. My own congregation was one of the fortunate ones; its founding members were a steady, sober lot who sank their teeth in and made it happen. They were fortunate again; an early member gave the fellowship land, and today there's a building and the congregation's been out of debt for years (it's about to go back in, but that's because it's growing, and has outgrown its building).

Reading the article, it's got a downbeat. Sure, a lot of fellowships were created, but a lot died. A significant number reached a nice, modest size of perhaps 100... and have stayed there. Some, of course, have boomed. The focus seems to have been on all the ones that failed.

That strikes me as... unreasonably negative.

Stop and look at it; these were high-risk plantings, mostly in areas where there didn't really seem to be the population for a congregation. They were given some support--but to expect a group of randomly selected lay folk to build and maintain a congregation from scratch, without a minister? That's not a small feat.

If there's an idea that had to have been in mind, it had to have been the Biblical parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-8);

Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.
Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.
And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

I'm not suggesting that the program ought to just be restored and continued; programs ought to be reviewed and improved. But it seems to me that the success of the fellowship movement seems to have been downplayed... or forgotten and ignored.

From that same UU World article:
By 1958, Bartlett reports, 315 fellowships had been formed, attracting an estimated 10,000 members, of whom three-fourths were new to the denomination. Of that original 315, some 40 had already failed, while 26 had become churches (though not necessarily changing their names). No wonder she called the movement "the growing edge of the denomination."
Looking at the growth numbers Thom Belote posted at Philocrates, it's pretty clear to me that we'd... well, not kill... but be mighty excited by a program now that boosted UU growth by 10,000 members, with 7,500 of them new to the faith. Maybe that can be improved on. But the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

It's clear to me that the UUA's scheme for planting new, big urban congregations that would be almost instantly large... has failed, and failed pretty miserably--particularly considering the amount of money spent to achieve its ends.

As a representative of one of the fellowships that's succeeded; grown, become stable and successful, called ministers, is building a new building, I find the conclusions of the sidebar assbackwards and offensive.
The lesson of the fellowship movement seems clear: Congregations that start small tend to stay small. Even those that experience a period of growth once they call a minister tend to hit a ceiling at the point where a larger staff is needed to maintain the growth momentum.
Just--as my son would say--duh.

Congregations that start small... in small, out of the way places... tend to stay small. Duh.

Bismarck doesn't have a small UU congregation because it's small. It's small--and it actually has a UU congregation because an effort was made to help create one there! Sure, sure, there are--sometimes--issues with fellowships where they don't really care to be very involved with the UUA, where some don't care to call ministers. So? The congregational model is bottom up; it'd be nice (and valuable, too, in my view) to get more engaged. With all the love I hold for several very talented ministers, one of the lessons is that it is possible to do our faith without clergy. That doesn't mean it's better, or easier. It's not. Not at all. But it is possible--and that's a good thing.

But notice this--having gotten a congregation to start... it was left more or less to its own devices. I know mine was. And when it finally got around to calling a minister... it had to struggle to do so. Having learned to pinch every damned penny until it screamed (thanks, we'll distribute most of our directories, surveys and other things in person, and only mail those we have to), having held bake sales and rummage sales to pay the mortgage (the mortgage that was backed with the personal assets of the founders!), there's a culture. And there's a real sensitivity to what money means, can do--and how hard it can be to get. In this, our fellowships are very close in attitude to our Puritan congregational roots....

No support.

Over time, people grudgingly accepted that a half-time office administrator was necessary, too.

We've no DRE. We've no Music Director. Not as paid staff. Fellowships learn--and live--the pick yourself up by your bootstraps and carry yourself lesson. We've done those things. Sometimes not so well, sometimes... brilliantly. We know we're at the point where our size really requires a DRE. A Music Director too--though we know we can't really do that at the same time.

We're growing. We've scraped up the money to build another building.

No support.

If the UUA had pursued fellowships as something more than seed scattered along the roadside; had come back, offered some gentle suggestions... offered, when the size and circumstances of a congregation needed, a leg up to get an administrator and a DRE in place, it would have been a god-send. (We needed that... three to five years ago.) It's no wonder that many congregations stall at a certain--small--size and struggle to get past it. It's been observed that the transition out of "small" is the hardest of them. For congregations in places that are outposts... it's a bit harder.

There's something a mite... bitter... in reading that the UUA has concluded that to launch a congregation, they need to set forth with a minister, a religious education director and an office administrator. I'm not saying they're wrong; it might work well (but it's not vital--look at the fellowship successes...). But I think that they've really done a disservice to the small congregations that are helping fund that effort. I'm glad that my fellowship, with its rather frontier "We can do it" attitude (and "We don't need Boston") isn't really aware of that program... because it would make it harder still to persuade the folks who are funding the operating budget and paying for a new building that they really have to stretch farther to afford a DRE right now. Consciousness that the current analog of the fellowship program plans to start with that support would really torque some people; particularly the ones who are Chalice Lighters, the ones supporting the UUSC, and so forth.

If the Association wants to help grow congregations past their current size, it needs to look at the circumstances of each one, and enter a dialog. Some don't care to grow--perhaps for good reasons. Maybe helping start a neighboring congregation would be a better project. Some would love to, but have a challenge. The funds spent on Pathways would have funded something around 50 half-time DREs. How many congregations could make some significant breakout growth if they just got a year's help over the hump?

I think it's time to undertake growth plans having already openly embraced the possibility--even the probability--that many of the efforts will fail. Some of the seed will fall on rocky ground. But scattering seed is opportunistic. Some will succeed. Some will find rich soil. It's a better scheme than putting all our eggs in one or two baskets.

Take another look at that article.

In 1974, someone asked at a General Assembly plenary session, "How many of you discovered Unitarian Universalism through the fellowship movement?" and half the delegates stood up. Twenty years ago, John Morgan estimated that a third of all congregations had at one time been fellowships — but he also noted that between 1937 and 1983, 300 Unitarian or Universalist congregations had closed.

So? Sure, it's sad that congregations close up. But if the price for adding a third more is that we have to accept that we'll see 300 not make it, that's a price I'd pay. If we have to see some of the seed wither, some of it eaten, some of it lost in the weeds--but we get half of the delegates at GA again members brought in through new congregations--it's worth it. There's nothing wrong with failures, as long as they're coupled with successes that justify them.

It's time for some risks, some gambles, some shots in the dark.

There are communities today that are big enough that they might just support one of those new, small, struggling fellowships. We ought to be fostering them. There are congregations now that could use just a small nudge to get over a threshold--and we ought to take the chance and see how many of them can stay over it. We ought to try seeding congregations in places where they clearly ought to exist, too. They don't need to start out as large or large mid-size. Given enough efforts... some will grow to that size--and some of them will be in surprising, wonderful places like Bismarck, and the movement will be better and stronger for it.