The neighborhood of Boston, mapped and planned…

From the October 20, 1921 issue of the Unitarian Register.

Unitarian churche within 25 miles of Boston, 1921.


The map is familiar; the idea of a program launching after a 90 minute meeting is pheonomenal. But why should it be so? What might a group of people, meeting over a long lunch say, accomplish or at least propose?

The Boston Circle

The twenty five mile circle drawn around the Boston State House contains two elements of profound significance: first, it has the largest permanent population of any similar district in the States; second, it has more Unitarian churches than any similar area in world. What is the obligation of churches to this population?

To answer that question the ministers of the twenty five mile circle were called together May 25. After an hour of discussion it was voted that the chairman, Rev. Eugene R Shippen appoint a committee of seven to promote an intensive membership campaign…

Can small-church Unitarian Universalist ministers oblige?

A few days I commented on Twitter about some UUA statistics and that led British Unitarian minister Stephen Lingwood to look for himself. I’m copying our Twitter discussion with his permission.



So, might there be a small (or smaller) church Unitarian Universalist minister — or several — in a dynamic congregational ministry who might be available to help? It sounds like a case for self-nomination, and perhaps self-started bridge-building.

What resources should we start with?

While I’m prone to talk about worship resources, the details of church polity or the importance of church history, I don’t think that any of these things are the most important resources to start or sustain new churches.

Rather I would think that an assortment of the following documents — expressing a variety of well-crafted and tested views — would go a long way in helping. Something overburdened evangelists needn’t create from scratch, but liberally-licensed so that he or she might adapt them for local use. (I’m a believer that you should learn the rules before you break them.) Each of these would be a theoretical document with a brief synopsis useful for explaining our intentions to the general public.

  • A good answer to the question, “What is a church?”
  • A good answer to the question, “Why the church and not some other entity?”
  • A good answer to the question, “Why do we worship?”
  • What we can do, what we cannot do and how this changes with different levels of people, money and interest.

Thoughts? Additions?

This is about theory; I have some ideas about the nut and bolts which I’ll keep for another post.


Valuing volunteers

On Sunday I re-joined Universalist National Memorial Church, where I was the pastor and a member in the early 2000s, on Sunday. I’m now ready to contribute where I’m needed — if I’m able. Perhaps that’s why I noticed this new financial valuation of volunteer service by Independent Sector. In D.C., the average dutiful soul is worth $34.04 an hour. Nationwide, the figure is $22.14. By this, the lesson geos, we are better able to appeciate the value of volunteers and thu impact they make.

From a churchly point-of-view, this also means that the generation-on-generation loss of homemakers’ time — long undervalued, until it was no longer there — as a steady workforce is particularly stinging. Paid work and other activities have proved deeply rivalous. Treating volunteers as a financial resource (even if you dispute Independent Sector’s numbers) can help frame how a congregation can deploy its resources or decide to put aside struggling church activities, like newsletters, “forum” series, thrift shops, bean suppers, certain kinds of fundraisers or what have you.

Working notes about streaming worship and virtual congregations

The Growing Unitarian Universalism blog featured web-streaming worship services (also) last week, a subject I care about and wanted to add thought to.

The idea of a remote congregation isn’t new. Postal missions and radio churches (breadcast sermons) have a long history, both for Unitarians and Universalists and others.

Metro DC holds testimony to the potiental power of broadcasting worship. All but two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area are children or grandchildren of All Souls (Unitarian) and the proximate cause of the expansion was the satellite services, driven by A. Powell Davies’s preaching. But the days of white-flight suburbanism and culturally reinforced worship attendance are over and we can’t lean on that model reflectively.

So, I think, the first thing to consider is what kind of participation is desired of, of even possible by, the person watching or listening.

There are (at least) two complementary ways to look at broadcast worship. One, implicitly knows that the broadcast experience is second-best, but simulates the experience of in-real-life worship, with the an opportunity to participate at some important part, say by watching the elevation and fraction of the host at a televised mass, or to pray for one’s own beloved dead at the Kaddish. “These experiences fill an obligation” is another way to look at it.

The other participation mode is to be a consumer of the aesthetics and information, and I’m plainly worried that as a function of our free-church mode of worship this is where the mainline of Unitarian Universalism is. It gets its value from being “the best show in town” or by being a rare conduit for some spiritual understanding. I think I can be forgiven by pointing out how unlikely the “best show” production values are, and that the more likely appeal is for those far from a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (Special spiritual understanding is possible, but let’s put that to one side for the moment.) That necessarily limits the appeal of webcast worship to the already convinced, but spatially inconvenienced.

(I’d better post this or I’ll never do it. But I do have some opinions of “how” based on what I’ve found online.)

Starting a church with how many?

I looped back to read up on the British Orthodox Church, and saw news of a new mission in Windsor:

Father Peter had prepared to pray with one person he had been visiting for some months, but as the prayers from the Agpeya, or Coptic Daily Office, began there were eight people from a variety of backgrounds who had come together to begin this new service. And a further eight people had wanted to be present but were unable to do so for various reasons.

Let’s revisit that: “had prepared to pray with one person”. I won’t say that an intended one-person mission is the best way to make something last. And indeed, there are significant polity, historical and demographic differences between the kind of churchmanship the British Orthodox have and that most of my readers (the Indy Catholics perhaps excepted) but there is something about the audacious faithfulness about starting a mission this way is worthy of respect and perhaps adaptation.

The twenty-times-a-year church

I have been combing the pages of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and came across one church – small, remote? – that meets less than weekly but more than monthly in a very sensible pattern:

  • nine months, meeting twice a month (first and third Sunday in this case)
  • two months, meeting once (January and February in this case)
  • one month without worship (here, August)

That’s twenty services a year. While I’d recommend not taking off August in the U.S. experience, to not miss the area newcomers, there’s a logic to putting thin resources where they are needed. In some areas, a preacher may come a very long distance. In other cases, the homegrown worship leadership is hardstretched. Or perhaps capacity is up from a once-a-month service but not so much as to double the activity.

If weekly or oftener worship is an impractical option, and hard weather (icy roads, un-air-conditioned church) makes some seasons more difficult than others, then this structure might be a good steward.

I’ve also written about other schedules: ten times a year, and the liminal case of worship once or twice a year.

Lacking confidence

As my regular readers now, I think a lot about church growth and decline. If I had a simple solution or magic formula, I would share it. Much of the problem lies with the change of society: religious congregations no longer have such a strong claim on cultural influence. Other institutions, as expected as good Internet access or an accommodating coffee shop, brake into religious treasuries: access to information, a meaningful context for living and means for organizing a valuable response. You don’t need church for friends or a cup of coffee. Newcomer certainly aren’t going to support an institution for that. (Rural areas and poor urban areas, with less social infrastructure, may buck this trend for a time.) And it’s doubly true that newcomers will not support weak leadership.

But let’s step back. Some churches still thrive, and it’s clearly not (to me) because they are more or less institutional, more or less dogmatic or more or less authoritarian. Self-confidence seems to be a better distinguishing factor. And how this may be cultivated a good use of time and effort. Why? Confidence says this is good better than self-assertion, and people can feel the difference. And desperation kills.

What do you think churches should do?

While some of your favorite sites are down — a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the ‘burbs — let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.

Thoughts about the UUA decline numbers

So the UUA’s a bit smaller this year than last. The question I have — perhaps unanswerable — is how many of those are (put plainly) old, middle aged and young. Are these numbers a sign of social and economic stress, or are we approaching a demographic cliff?

The answer would suggest next steps. But the good news is also the bad news. Despite the talk of cradle Unitarian Universalists, we’re dependent on converts. (The cradle UUs could use some PR help, being second only to the Quakers in making participation from infancy a smug, if unearned, status.) This is good because there’s the opportunity to grow, should we tap adequately into the culture. But the bad news is that we would probably make the most sense to those coming from a churched setting, and those numbers are falling.