Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Scott Wells (Boy in the Bands) asks "What's Wrong With Fellowships?"

It's a bit late to reply to there--and I'm aware that I may go on at enough length that I shouldn't reply there. So here...

It seems like the issue of fellowships must be in the (UU) air. It's the third or fourth time in a few days that it's been brought up where I'm aware of it.

I think my first answer is "Who Cares What's Wrong With Fellowships?"

The UUA and AUA (and so far as I can tell, the UCA) have no history of a successful church planting program. Period. With one noteworthy exception--the Fellowship Movement. According to the small volume by that same name, congregations that are, or started as, fellowships account for close to a third of current UU congregations, and about the same percentage of current UUs. And I'm pretty sure that doesn't include congregations that started after the end of the Fellowship Movement, as supported by the UUA (the date escapes me now--in the late-mid 1960s, if memory serves at all). But more congregations have continued to rise up more or less along that model, even without the scant encouragement and assistance.

Great amounts of UUA staff time and significant sums of money have been invested--both before the Fellowship Movement and since--in very intentional church plantings. I don't think that even their great fans would disagree that the results have been profoundly underwhelming, considering the amount of money and support. Particularly compared to the money and support given the the Fellowship Movement (one staff person, Monroe Husbands--a name I doubt the MFC will ever ask anyone about, but should be, and some office support. Plus his slender travel funding).

What flaws would one accept today for an effort that added a few hundred congregations to our movement?

I suspect that the answer is "at least a few; even serious ones."

The complaints I have seen range from "well, many failed," to "they didn't often grow into larger churches and call ministers," to "they tended to be anticlerical." I'm sure there are a few others.

And they're no doubt largely accurate. Sort of.

So let's just sift through that, a bit.

Many failed. Of course many failed. Most new institutions fail, whether businesses or non-profits, or churches. And--lets be fair--these were start ups in places that were often explicitly in places that no one in their right mind saw as hot options for starting a new UU congregation. They were seen as marginal places, if that, most of the time. And so a higher than average failure rate should have been expected. But the author of The Fellowship Movement rather debunked that. The survival rate was actually pretty good, all things considered. And there are still ~300 UU congregations that come out of that. How many failed start-ups, with minimal UUA input, would we accept failing, in order to get 300 new congregations? (My answer? I don't think I'd bat an eye at 75% failure rate, in such conditions.)

They didn't often grow very large. True. But then... many of them started in marginal areas. And the vast majority of our congregations are on the small side. Critiquing fellowships for not being more likely to become large (and none are more than about 60 years old) than their non-fellowship counterparts is... well... . Is there an obligation to become large? And some have broken those size boundaries--particularly, it's my impression, when they're in areas that became suburbanized by metropolitan area growth in the past 50 years. In short, when there were plenty of people to draw on.

They didn't call ministers. Well, in part that's true. In part, some remain too small to do so. And in part some are happy as fellowships--with all their flaws and drawbacks--and the lay led style of worship. The implication that they're something less than real UU churches is unjust, and violates the notion of what a congregation is, all the way back to the Cambridge Platform. Of course, there's also no UUA requirement. It's something that almost all of them get over if and when they grow to a size where professional ministry becomes not simply a good idea, but necessary. It is, I think, a natural price of the very feature that made them successful and able to survive; they were able to do jsut fine on their own, thanks... and the question of why they need a minister is a shade obscure to them.

They were anticlerical. Well, there's a strong bit of truth there. Of course, so was the whole era that they existed in--being founded in the 1950s and '60s. Anticlericalism was rampant in the whole society, and in UU circles in general. In fellowships, that wasn't countered (as a result of no ministerial presence) and probably they got a bit stuck in it. Also, as they began to explore professional ministry, there were culture clashes. Ministers who expected them to be like "normal" churches, and to treat their ministers accordingly, were often oblivious to the fact that these people had done a very laudable job of running the whole show on their own, for years, and perhaps were less sensitive and graceful about things than they ought to have been. The assumption that the model of ministry in such a congregation would be pretty much just like that in another UU church was an error. And both sides paid for it. Some ministers were harmed and careers damaged. And so were some fellowships, as well.

And a fair amount of all this is, I believe, a feature of the times. Fellowships (to some degree) flourished because of the culture they were launched into, and the demographic shifts of the times. But they were also relatively isolated, and had to grow and survive on their own. They created their own cultures and ways--which actually are in many ways remarkably consistent from one to the next.

And because of the above, the UUA (and many ministers) are horrified at the idea of replicating the experiment. Never mind that it was successful--and that nothing else has been.

I'll just observe that I find that incredibly foolish and short-sighted, not to mention critical in all the worst (and none of the best) senses of the word.

New fellowships--congregations popping up along that same model, without the official encouragement--are really not different creatures. But their environment today is vastly different. It's not the 1950s and '60s and '70s. The cultural anticlericalism is a different beast. And probably most significant, these new congregations are not utterly isolated, as their forebears were. The very nature of the internet means that they have access to contacts and resources and information and models that early fellowships would have given their right arms for. They have access to professional sermons that can be used, from many more sources than they'd have had in the past. And the potential exists for them to have vastly more local support than in the past, even if just in the form of seminary students and occasional ministerial preaching. They can be informed of the hazards that their cultures risk developing, and means of avoiding them.

And so on.

What's wrong with fellowships?

Given current attitudes in the UUMA and at UUA HQ, what's wrong is that there won't be many more. "We" would rather not deal with the possible headaches--even if it means refusing to try a fellowship movement for the 21st century, with lessons learned from the first run.

Given that I've seen some of our best contemporary worship and such at fellowships that have grown up and out of their worst flaws, I think the whole movement suffers a lot more than merely missing a few hundred more congregations....

Better, apparently, that there are amazing gaps in where one can find a UU congregation--as Scott's just shown with his analysis of where there are, and aren't, congregations to be found.

I think it's a damned shame.