A church without all the trimmings

The Unitarian Universalist way of running congregations has a built-in contradiction.

On the one hand, we’re supposed to give money to support them; they are self-governing and self-supporting. And on the other hand, church members supposed to be a covenant people with a common ultimate interest, or mission. The two ideas do not necessarily go together, particularly if there are people of different incomes and conflicting interests about what is the proper level of giving and spending in a church.

The old parish-church distinction could remedy the contradiction with a parish serving the former role and the church serving the latter. Some would be members of one and not the other, but the conflicts between the two entities aren’t hard to imagine. The remedy might be worse that the disease.

I think that part of the subtext about how awful the Fellowship Movement depends on your view of church finances. Do you want a “full service church” and a budget to match? Can you personally afford it? And if you can’t? Well, I’d fight for my little group in a rented room with everyone pitching in, too. But I’ve never heard the conflicts put in such basic terms. It makes the membership allowances for those unable to give as richly as others seem down-right Edwardian.

The bigger problem is our heritage of territorial parishes, and the idea that in most places there’s only “room” for one Unitarian Universalist congregation. That’s a pretty limiting view. Can you imagine Methodists stopping at one? Little wonder were about 8 in 10,000 in the United States. And falling.

In just about every other private endeavor you can think of, there’s market segmentation. It seems to me that if there’s a desire to grow and reach out there needs to be a willingness to allow churches to prosper at different levels of spending.


By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Your words on this dynamic have a surgical precision that is profound. Economics, structure, and function are intimately connected. But we ignore that dynamic. If we instead took the creative tension seriously, we might be able to do some truly innovative work in congregational development (both with existing congregations and with new congregations).

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