I normally write blog posts in the evening for morning publication, but I wanted to sleep another night before writing about the Economics of Ministry Summit, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and hosted this week in St. Louis. So far as I know, its only live presence was by Twitter, with the hashtag #sustainministry, so you should revisit those tweets for context.
This isn’t about that meeting’s outcomes, but how I want to approach the enterprise. I’m not going to start by being appreciative, by saying how wonderful the opportunity is and how talented and dedicated the participants. This has been a norm of communication among Unitarian Universalists, often repeated, for several years now and a response to our long-cultivated habit of minute criticism. An over-correction, I think, because it telegraphs an unwholesome cheeriness, softball responses and lowered expectations. That’s hardly respectful, or useful. It’s as if adults can’t be trusted with the truth. So I won’t question the sincerity, intelligence or diligence of the parties of this or any similar conference, but you can have all of these and still end poorly.
At root, the would-be leadership of the UUA has a trust problem with the would-be follower-ship. With each passing year, the UUA does less to justify its existence. What are the high marks for the last few years? Board governance? A property shift? These are internal matters, not missional ones. Are we building or redeveloping churches? No. But worse, we still have a model of ministerial formation that treats people like expensive, yet disposable, liabilities. And a raft of churches — and few will speak of this — that chew up and ruin the ministers they get with impunity. As for our external, missional successes, these come in the form of partnerships, formal and informal. Easy enough to ask, “why not affiliate with whomever’s leading?” If there are successes, they’re in local settings and perhaps informal networks. Again, a challenge to a national body. Unitarian Universalist structures have historically been hard to use, with little money offered. Sluggish, a bit haughty. You learn not to ask for much, and expect less.
At the risk of being cheerful, let me hold out some hope. When you look at the summit in tandem with the emerging communities pilot, I do see a willingness to entertain options and lower the opportunity costs of working within the UUA, and that’s good.
No: it’s better than good. It’s essential, because this work will take place somewhere, and without some structural change it will take place elsewhere.