Can there be only one?

I had this grand blog post in mind — but the one that gets written is the only one that counts. So my point.

Does the UUA’s elected leadership have it out for any entity that can be the least rival? Long past is the option for Board member dissent. Gone are the independent affiliates and the organized youth program (which had its own problems) and now the president has made odd rumblings about the directly-elected Commission on Appraisal. You rarely hear about other non-UUA entities in even a cooperative role in UUA publications, save the seminaries and they’re hardly in a position to fight. There’s no independent press, apart from the blog should they so count.

And if so, why? Perhaps because the UUA does relatively little. Dismiss internal functions and you’re left mostly with the town-square functions of General Assembly (actively deprecated), the denominational magazine and ministerial settlement. How settlement persists in its modified-historic form is a wonder; perhaps the ministerial college is too skiddish to rock the boat, but at the same time new modes of communication, the rise of a consulting class and a glut of ministers is sure to change that.

Oh, and the Beacon Press persists, which curiously doesn’t seem to be hit by the same staff cuts other parts get, but God help them if they start losing money again. They certainly do little for in-house publications needs.

I can’t escape the image of a fragile coordinating body ill-suited to adapt to cultural changes. In such an environment, it has to be easier to foster emotional ties than programmatic ones. But for how long? Sounds like a fool’s errand to me.

If I had a General Assembly vote and a pastorate, I’d likely oppose anything backed by the Board, cultivate informal and new programmatic networks, and re-orient missional giving (read: “dues”) based on results over legacy. Oh, and encourage the Commission on Appraisal to change its study subject and review the Board itself.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. I crossposted a link to this post to Facebook. A commenter couldn’t discern my point, which I’ll own as a failing of clear writing.

    So, I’ll try again, even briefer:

    UUism, through its leadership, has grown to value conformity, sectarianism and institutionalism over growth, independent thought or creativity.

  2. Scott,

    I think the current trend towards UUA board/staff centralization and the “top-down” imposition of “extreme congregationalism” explains a lot of these trends.

    “Extreme congregationalism” is the idea that the only correct or approved way to express one’s Unitarian Universalism is within a UU congregation.

    I’ve seen this extreme congregationalism used to argue against district UU youth ministry programs because of their non-congregational nature.

    I’ve also seen this view of extreme congregationalism be used as an argument against starting a UU district-sponsored campus ministry program a few years ago. The reasoning was based on the idea that a UU districts should not be providing ministry to individuals.

    Our Southern Baptist neighbors (who are also congregational in polity like UU’s) seem to be very OK with denominational non-congregational campus ministry programs.

  3. Scott,

    I get the impression that the Board and Rev Morales do not see eye to eye on a lot of things. You noticed the Board restored most of the CoA cut. As for the President’s budget actions, I guess everyone can criticize the choices he made. But somone had to choose and we elected him to do so.

    I do see your point though and suspect, as far as many members of the Board go, you are right. Our membership and religious exploration numbers are declining and the Board is setting up a committee to help the staff format their ENDS compliance reports. How myopic is that?

  4. Years ago I did a paper for Collegium charting a cycle in UU leadership priorities. I called it “The Apocalyptic Cycle.” They go through an era of expansionism — not only numbers but also philosophies and cultural expressions, in hopes of attracting said numbers. After awhile some little switch goes off inside the leadership: “Oh, no — who are these people? Who are we?” They then make a classic “small church leadership” move to tighten up their control. I take no credit: just apply Alban Institute material to the denominational leadership the way they always want to apply it to us (in the hinterlands).

    So far, the current generation is holding up to this model pretty well. John Buehrens was the “Build it and he will come” president, Bill SInkford was the “Let’s get back to fundamentals” leader, and now the Board is happily trying to figure out how to lock the barn door to keep out all those interlopers from the Buehrens era.

    And poor Peter Morales has to “pastor” to it all. Fascinating gender switch — usually the mom consoles when the father disciplines, but now the father is consoling while the unknown mother — i.e., the Moderator — inflicts the discipline.

    But gender isn’t the issue. As you have said, Scott, it’s their failure to take their own medicine and shift from a Board-controlled entity to the mid-size Counciliar model.

    Henry Whitney Bellows, Universalist polity models — where are you?

  5. It’s interesting to me as the Board tries changing governance models (from what we should probably term Ad Hoc to Policy Governance) that there is much talk of what powers and responsibilities belong to the Board, and what powers and responsibilities are given to the President/Executive, but no talk of what powers and responsibilities belong to the Congregations or their General Assembly.

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