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.


John A Arkansawyer said...

So, to sum up your post:

What was wrong with the Fellowship Movement was that it was successful.

(Ha! My confirmation word id "blesses"!)

Bill Baar said...

Interesting post...thanks

kimc said...

Yeah -- UUs seem to have a fear of success or something.
when we were in Salt Lake for GA, we noticed that the Mormons have a whole business school of their own. (and then they invest in each others' businesses.) Why couldn't we do that? We could teach ethical business practices and maybe start a change away from predatory capitalism. Our churches could run small businesses to give our teens and young adults experience and jobs, and we could have an influx of money from somewhere other than our pockets. (Yes, I know we are non-profit, but the other churches all have businesses. Doesn't the Catholic Church own half of NYC? and the Mormons own a huge chunk of media...etc.)

David P. said...

I think was has the UUMA / UUA frightened of a renewed fellowship movement is two-fold:

1. If it were to happen again, because of all the great UU sermons on YouTube and, and the CLF - as well as the potential for theological (and other) education via webinar, etc. There would be even less reason for these fellowships to ever consider professional ministry.

2. The other is economics. The original Fellowship movement had two staff persons: a traveling minster, and a secretary in Boston. You could recreate this and operate it for *a decade* on the $1M or so that the UUA can sink on just one of its mega-church attempts.

ogre said...

Interesting theories, David P.

It seems to me that the first may be self-contradicting (at least over time). New fellowships could certainly use that material--but it would also prove to members that professional ministers actually provide great sermons of a calibre that regularly passes what the congregation can cook up on its own. These inherently expose people to a wider range of ideas and theological positions than a lay fellowship may have (or at least have people willing and able to express). That would make the perspective on ministers very different in new fellowships from what it was in the old style ones.

And people would, at some point, have to ask themselves... what *else* is it that ministers provide for a congregation than sermons? Things like pastoral care, understanding of our history, who we are...

I think the resources you point to would make it easier for a new fellowship to be successful, but not undercut professional ministry. If that were the case, we'd be seeing congregations now giving up ministries and part time ministries to mooch off the great sermons they can find for free. It's not happening--even where budget challenges are real and causing cutbacks.

What's the second point? That the UUA is afraid of successes on the cheap? I grant that it could be done cheaply. I'm just not clear on why they'd fear it--given how much they've had to cut everything else--if there weren't other more fundamental fears. After all, the mega-church planting failures are already egg on people's faces. Finding a successful scheme wouldn't make those failures more embarrassing....

Paul Oakley said...

Thanks, Pat. Very good post!

As a product of a neo-fellowship-ish "emerging" congregation in training to become a fellowshipped and ordained minister, I have to ask people who speak disparagingly of small lay-led congregations formed without major district or association oversight or without significant tutelage of an established, "successful" congregation:

1) Have 1/28th of your membership been so moved by their experience of church that they have gone into the ministry?

2) Is your church the only alternative for religious liberals in your entire county?

3) Is your congregation the only one in your wide area that publicly stands for full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, as well as in society at large?

4) Is your congregation the only religious organization in your surrounding counties that speaks out on behalf of respect for and full inclusion of members of (other) minority religions in the religious self-presentation of the community? the only one to invite leaders of minority faiths to speak from your pulpit?

5) Is your church the only one near you that promotes interfaith dialog in response to widespread Christian exclusivism and unwillingness of other churches to work with non-Christians?

If a congregation can say yes to all of the above, I will consider it the equal of my sometimes struggling, always at-risk home congregation. Otherwise, detractors need to get off their high horse and help the fellowships do what only they are doing - against huge odds.

ogre said...

You don't need to persuade me, Paul. There are many areas where there's no UU congregation.

And there should be.

Or there's only one, and there should be others.