Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent

I wrote this three years ago, and on March 1, 2014 — for some reason, perhaps Google searches — it was the number one item read here. So I thought I’d give it some attention.

I’ll keep this short.

I have a maxim I live by: if something you desire or rely-on continues to fail you, hurt you or inhibit you, get rid of it. The initial pain is nothing like the eventual relief. A collorary: you can’t change some situations, and eventually you’ll wonder why you thought you could.

I keep running into this phenomenon with Unitarian Universalists, in no small part because there’s so little choice. Most areas have a single Unitarian Universalist church. There’s only one functioning denomination (and a few independent movements, which I shall discuss in coming weeks) and its theological breadth seems narrower than when I joined my first church some quarter-century ago. There’s an implied bargain: accept the status quo, or leave. But don’t you dare make a fuss on the way out. Certainly, on the Christian end, the United Church of Christ has been the winner in that bargain.

I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship — and this is the first time I’ve mentioned this in public — because it was the only game and I had fond memories and friendships, but I let my membership lapse because its offerings were skimpy and quietist, and its direction haphazard. I let my membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association lapse because its programming was never directed toward my professional needs or station, never offered meaningful services, not to mention being shockingly expensive. And I’m more-than-usually weary of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself because it confuses busyness with services, and the current leadership — well, some — is engaged in a power-centralizing campaign. Monopoly, with appeals to emotional and professional dependence (perhaps not so much with the UUCF), makes for a bad bargain at the grassroots. If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn’t come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.

I still think we can do better. But not if there’s some existential fear that, without current Unitarian Universalist institutions — I’m thinking of the appeals surrounding Meadville-Lombard, but not exclusively — the whole movement will drift into the Void. Indeed, I think we would fare well without some. Call it a Lenten meditation on self-reliance, and to a degree, self-respect. We can do better.

And I gather some people have figured this out, when I read Bill Baar’s comment in a recent blog post where he states that “I’m aware [that some districts] are contemplating a life post UUA.” Or when I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Elz Curtiss in the comment following or at her blog, Politywonk, lay out the moral and historical situation from the Unitarian side.

Just keep telling yourself we can do better and remember it needn’t be with what we have now.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. There was a time when I had more energy to devote to internal reform, and a greater belief that it was possible. From the mid-1990’s through about 2005 was when I thought this was possible. I was active in the now defunct Epiphany Community Church up in Michigan. I contributed time to the Magi Network’s efforts to plant new churches. I was in the UUCF and the UUMA.

    But then there was the reality that kept coming forward. Epiphany declined, in part because our goals always outreached our resources; but also because our District did not have the resources to provide meaningfull services to a liberal Christian congregation with Unitarian and Universalist theologies. I also kept running into the prevailing UU creedal test that the only inclusive theological position, is one that practices all world religions at the same time. At a personal level I found this exclusion of committed Christian practice to be overly limiting and harsh.

    The Magi Network was never able to launch any additional churches. We did not know how to do what we needed to do, and our resources were meager. The UUA was also cutting back on extension programs we could partner with. And the Districts had no meaningful help to offer.

    The UUCF became increasinly less meaningfull to me, beyond being a statement about my own identity. Its practice sometimes felt ambivalent about Christian community, with the cultural message sometimes being “be content to be a liberal Christian in single isolation”.

    The UUMA was expensive on my meager budget, and I could not point to a single tangible way it had helped me in ministry.

    Can we do better? Yes, we have that possibility. But my experience is that it may not be possible. The prevailing currents are too strong, and I have sometimes found those currents exhausting and hurtful. And so I don’t have the optimism and energy that I had 15 years ago.

    I do not usually give up anything for Lent. I take on something – a new practice, a devotional reading, etc.. So if I am not taking up Unitarian Universalism for Lent; what then might I take up in its place?

  2. I’m greatly appreciative of this post and the comments.

    My years in the UUCF might be considered a fulfilling and not to be forgotten period, even though I have some social and political concerns that I would not expect the group to address or understand. I resigned in 2007, when what I thought was an urgent message regarding the theft of my email address was apparently overlooked.

    I’m now primarily interested in universalist gatherings. My contact with UU churches here is now largely limited to a very occasional visit to the library of Unity Church Unitarian over in St. Paul. I first became interested in the Unitarians in 1956, and attended the First Unitarian Society in Mpls for a few years. I was active in the Unitarian Church of All Souls in NYC in the 1970s.

    I’ve attended only one UUA GA, and can’t see any role for myself there. I enjoyed a brief visit to the exhibit hall at last year’s GA in Mpls, and joined some friends at the CUUPS gathering there.


  3. Derek, what we have to take up, this Lent, is the conviction that our forebears sacrificed to give us a theological treasure to share and carry forward. Obviously, since the UUA is no longer interested in that particular mission, we who love these theologies need to keep covenant with each other and our forebears, instead of wandering off to silently chafe in some Trinitarian Christian pews when our spirit needs company.

  4. Having grown up in a largely but not exclusively non-theist, humanist church, having experienced the unpopularity within that community when I began to follow Jesus as a teenager, and now as a minister of a unitarian Christian church in Boston, I resonate strongly with much of your post, Scott. I am likewise frustrated with ‘least-common-denominator’ theology and worship, and I feel strongly that clergy are doing a disservice to our congregation’s members by promoting it.

    The hatred of Christianity seems to me to be the elephant in the UUA’s proverbial room; the UUA pays significant lip service to our corporate need for nurturing and healing, but does little to actually promote the kind of targeted healing so many of our ex-Christian seekers seemingly need. For me, it is here that I hear my call, not just as a minister of the Gospel, but as that minister within the context of the UUA. If we as a body of faith are truly to grow from ‘adolescence’ as Rev. Sinkford called it, and into maturity, we as clergy must be willing to call our people into even the healing they might deny or desperately want to avoid. As members of a voluntary association, it is their choice whether to join in that healing, but I don’t believe it’s the clergy’s job to bend over backwards to accommodate folks who don’t want to get with the program. We ought to be about healing and transformation. If that’s not what someone wants, that’s fine, but we have got to get beyond allowing those folks to hold the rest of us hostage.

    I’m not suggesting or at all hoping that all ex-Christians will come back to Jesus after confronting the painful things about their past Christian experiences. But their healing would help make room for those of us who do love Jesus to be authentic, and not feel like we have to hide a part of ourselves to be welcome in a UU church. Contrary to popular belief, UU churches ought not be places free of anything we might disagree with or find aesthetically displeasing.

    Faced with the suffocating reality of not only anti-theism and anti-Christianity but also ageism and sexism in our Association at large and even among my ministerial colleagues, I have often found myself in an emotional desert. I’m angry at the hypocrisy of an Association of congregations that has largely abandoned its theological traditions. I’m also quite disillusioned by colleagues that treat me as if I’m less capable or less trustworthy because I’m a young adult. While second and third career ministers have undeniably great gifts to offer, so do those of us who have decided early to dedicate our lives to God through service as a minister.

    And yet, I find so much hope in the new generation of seekers and clergy entering our congregations today. During my internship in Texas, I experienced the joy of welcoming folks straight out of Joel Olsteen’s church into mine, not because they were rejecting anything, but because they wanted to broaden as well as deepen their faith. I have rejoiced as new UUCF small groups have begun popping up all around the country, making good use of the improving resources the UUCF is working so hard to create and make available.

    I guess my point in this rambling stream-of-consciousness response is that I am finding hope for a transformed UUA just where Jesus worked to give it; on the margins. Alongside my feelings of frustration and resentment about our Association and its institutions grows a strong, nourishing hope that through prophetic kingdom-living and loving, those of us currently on the outside of the dominant UU culture might be able, as Jesus taught us, to help shape a better UUA.

    I am young, and I suppose much of this stems from my youthful optimism, but nevertheless these are my thoughts. I wish you a deep, contemplative Lent, and thank you for your continuing ministry on this blog.



  5. I found your blog today by following links from other blogs, as one does. I found the link that led to it while searching for examples of the way UUs might be practicing Lent, if at all, but your blog – this post – really resonated with me.

    I’m a 40-year-old cultural Catholic (from a New Jersey-based Italian American family) who spent some time in a UU fellowship (Modesto, CA) as a young teenager, and has visited others on and off since then. Currently, my husband and I are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, in Dallas, Texas. We’re fortunate, in this part of Texas, that we have 11 flavors of UU to choose from, ranging from the very corporate-church-ish to the “we’re really just a debate society with vegan food” models. UUCOC is sort of in between. It’s a growing church, and I’ve been pretty active there – but I’ve been dissatisfied with it since just after Christmas, and am also “giving it up for Lent,” though the needs of my life as a writer and the fact that a very young family member is in the final stage of terminal cancer are also contributing to it.

    I could ramble forever about what about this post made me say “YES” and what doesn’t apply to me, but not in a comment.

    For now…you have a new reader, and I’m glad your blog exists.

  6. I just read your latest blog post. I am sorry about your family member’s illness, but it sounds like you’re cultivating the kind of disciplines that’ll help you weather the worst.

    I’ll say a small prayer.

  7. Scott, this post is roiling within me, especially in tandem with my theological concern about polity. One possible next step, which you mention, is just to turn to the UCC. Another is, of course, individual radical Christianity. But I always try to look at the good and see how to expand it, and that leads me to wonder this:

    Maybe the UUA as it is currently reconsistuting itself these days (note those bishops’ stoles on our living Presidential team in that WORLD ad) is the only logical culmination of Bellow’s National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches. In that case, without abandoning the goal of democratizing the UUA, we need to focus on reembodying the original American Unitarian Association mission: to publish and pubicize theological resources for people with questions or concerns on religious topics.

    I would liken it to finding out one had a great-great-grandparent who had the same vision and worked out some methods for achieving them. How do we get back to standing on those shoulders?

  8. Scott, haven’t you already given up on Unitarian Universalism, or at least gone beyond UUism and the UUA (and its various manifestations) in being a part of the Body of Christ? I say this because it has never occurred to me to be confined to things Unitarian or Universalist or Unitarian Universalist or unitarian or universalist in being part of the “my religious journey” (though I’m not sure I like the “journey” metaphor, but let’s not go into that).

  9. I just stumbled across this blog entry, and I have to say that it really resonates with me. I first attended a UU church while living abroad in Europe. I was thrilled, thinking that I had finally found my spiritual home; not long after that, I moved back to Boston, became a member of a local UU congregation, and even landed a job at 25 Beacon Street.

    The honeymoon phase eventually ended, however, as I became increasingly disillusioned with UUism as it exists today. I fell in love with UU values and history, the religion espoused by people like Emerson and Thoreau, and still consider myself a Christian Universalist (and, to a lesser extent, a Unitarian as well), but the anti-Christian hostility I encountered (along with rampant classism and elitism) was a huge turn-off.

    After I left the UUA, I started attending a local UCC church, and, theologically, I now think of myself somewhere along the spectrum that exists between the United Church of Christ and the UUA – there are some aspects of UCC belief and worship that don’t fully sit well with me, but at least it’s rooted firmly within Christian tradition and openly and warmly embraces people like me who identify as a progressive Christian.

    I’ve now contemplating applying to seminary and pursuing a religious vocation, but I have to admit that I’m more likely to matriculate as a UCC seminarian instead of seeking ordination with the UUA. This greatly saddens me, though, because I still strongly identify with the Unitarian Universalist heritage, but its present believe-whatever-you-want, we’re-a-post-Christian-religion-more-tolerant-of-atheists-than-followers-of-Jesus stance is, again, a huge turn-off. It does seem to me that the UUA has betrayed its proud Universalist and Unitarian tradition by transforming itself into something that those UUs of old would hardly even recognize, let alone claim as their own religion.

  10. Thinking about my relationship with Unitarian Universalism since I wrote my comment of 3 years ago. I think much of what I wrote back then is still spot on. Since that time I’ve given up on the parts that have consistently hurt me, and failed me. I’ve largely given up on the UUMA, with its shockingly costly dues structure, closed-shop guild mentality, and inability to offer me anything relevant. I’ve given up on an Association government (both in Boston and at the District level) that feels LESS like religious leadership; and MORE like a company concerned with consultants, franchise consistency, branding, and logos. And I’ve given up on a prevailing UU culture that feels somewhat smug and self-important about its advocacy and activism (a “thank God we’re not like those people” mentality).

    I continue to hold membership in a small, rural Universalist church located in the next county over from where I live. However most Sundays my primary religious focus is a large Quaker congregation in the town I now live in. Even so I will probably always cooperate with UU’s where it makes ecumenical/interfaith sense to do so. And my personal theology will probably always have a Universalist streak. And the UU rural church I am a member of does important ministry few in the wider UUA appreciate. So I pledge them money, even though I rarely attend worship. I also continue to see some bright spots in UU book publishing.

    I let go (not just for Lent in 2011 but for life) the parts of UUism that consistently failed me. And I treasure the scraps of UUism that remained positive aspects of my life. In giving up much of UUism, I think I have become a better person. More compassionate, more clear-thinking, and more at peace with Reality and myself.

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