Fixing the UUA: a prologue

Unlike a lot of other bloggers, I don’t mind that the UUA, via the General Assembly and the Administration, steps up and makes political statements. I usually agree with the content of these statements, too.

What I mind is that there’s energy for these, and a number of other non-core activities, and much less evidence that the core mission — the Purposes of the Principles and Purposes — are fulfilled. These are

Oh heck. is down. I’ll add them later.

Well, I’m talking about church planting and the nuts and bolts of associated religious life. Fausto made a comment at ChaliceChick’s blog that sums up another turn the UUA has made instiutionally:

The function of our central organization should be to serve as our staff, not our leadership. We are its clients, not its flock. To the extent that it leads, it should be like the Process Theology God, by offering oppertunities, not by postulating standards.

Lastly, I agree broadly with Clyde’s experience that UUA staffers are talented, overtaxed, and earnest. Which leads me to an savory conclusion: at the heart of the current Unitarian Universalist way of doing things is despair.

Consider for a moment the frequent assertion that Unitarian Universalism is unique, valuable, and irreplacable. Add in that there is no alternate version of it in the United States. (The American Unitarian Conference is so small and disfunctional that I refuse to dignify it as an alternative.) All the eggs are in one basket, and the basket looks a little frayed. It must be carefully preserve, and its distinctive features must be played up. It must seem active, relevant, and progressive. It must be convincing and inclusive. It must be healthy. It must be all of these things, but accomplishing them is hard.
A lot of what I think’s window-dressing can be explained as an attempt — not conscious so much as intuitive — to seem active. But without real growth, with real criticism, and in a social setting that makes its worldview seem all that much more imperilled, the do-able path is the one with flashy results and good — well, any — press. Not that good work isn’t being done in Boston, but almost all of it is sustaining what we have. It is in the realm of “getting more” that the UUA falls flat programmatically, and frustrates many for its excursions into inessentials. All the while fewer and fewer new congregations enter the UUA. A recipe for a multi-generational death.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott, I really like what you say here. I believe strongly in substance, substance, substance, but it takes work and humanpower, and who will do the work? Who will do the work, I think, when we are so scattered and so few? There is so much work. I am still relatively new to UUism (member since 2001) Sometimes I feel a little bit of despair (can there be just a little bit of despair?) and other times I feel very optimistic. The way I feel about UUism as an institution is sort of like the way I feel about the world. Some people give me hope. I want to dedicate myself to UUism but I can understand why people get tired and leave, and why others people stay away from organized religion altogether. Is it worth it? Are we as a congregation better off dead? Right now I’m questioning: does UUism have something to offer the world, or does it only have something to offer to other UUs?

  2. lareinacobre, I certainly believe that UU does have something to offer the world. In fact i would think that most of us who would like to see changes to the UUA do as well. That is why we want to see the changes made in the first place. I think without reform or reenvisioning of the UUA what we end up doing is instead of offering what we have that is so good to the rest of the world we only show them political statements and protests.

    It makes us look angry and bitter. It makes us look exactly like Fundamental Christian groups. I want us to focus on what we have to offer, not on our “enemies”.

    The fact that there is too much work, and too few people to do it is hardly a UU specific problem.

  3. There is much good, and most of it is found locally.

    The UUA HQ has as one of its tasks doing publicity. Scott argues that he doesn’t take issue with the stances that UUA takes so much as the emphasis of the HQ taking those stances, effectively neglecting the congregatons, and other local efforts. There is much social ministry that goes beyond press conferences, tutoring, visiting the prisons, renewing communities. There are many extraordinary stories of people who grow religiously and ethically through there congregations that remain untold, yet our national voice spends money telling the world we are uncommon.

    New congregation starts have happened and been succesful from the point of view of the locality that get little or no publicity as well, yet promoting new starts is one of the functions of the UUA HQ. We have put all the eggs into starting large with big subdidies, rather planting slow and nurturing. The Sower is a metaphor for planting that has longer duration than the megachurch.

  4. Re: being worried about having all the eggs in one basket, here is a short sermon/lecture from a Quaker perspective on the parable of the talents that strongly argues that God calls us to risk what we have, not to fearfully conserve it:


    “The inescapable conclusion, corroborated in many other scriptures, is this: when it comes to the Kingdom, God hates the timid and loves the bold. There is no room for cowards in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Now, Friends, I have come tonight to tell you the truth—Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends is the unfaithful servant in this parable. Over 350 years ago, our master entrusted a great spiritual treasure to our safekeeping. At first, our forebears took it and invested it zealously, and it grew and multiplied. But, during the last few decades, we have become cautious, even cowardly. Instead of risking our spiritual capital to increase it, we have buried our treasure deep in the ground and run away and hid. The capital is still there, but it’s earning no interest. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We have become like the servant the master despises.

    And, now, the time of reckoning is upon us. It will do us no good to dig up the talents we’ve hidden and return them to their rightful owner. Excuses and explanations will not suffice. God is not pleased. Mark my words, Friends: unless we do something radical soon, what treasure we have will be taken away from us and given to those who have invested their five talents and made five talents more. It is already happening. We have only to look about us for the signs of the times.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to size up our situation. Our numbers have dwindled to a few. There aren’t enough Quakers left even to effectively govern our institutions. Many of our meetings are struggling just to survive. Our voice is no longer heard–at least, anywhere that matters. We have become petty and peevish. We bicker about what is Quaker and what is not. We are totally distracted by issues of organization, structure and budget. Let us not deceive ourselves. We have become a pathetic, irrelevant cult. Like the servant in the parable, we’re so afraid of losing the original principal that we’re losing all our opportunities, too. We have become ardent conservators of an arid tradition, not ambassadors of a living faith.”

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