If I was planting . . . VI

One of the things that worries me about the organization of new Unitarian Universalist churches – and especially Christian ones – is where the spiritual leadership comes from in its developmental stages.

Reality 1. Only the rarest of situations would allow a start-up corps of lay persons to retain the services of a minister for anything more than technical consulation or supply preaching. There just isn’t the money.

Reality 2. A minister who wants to start a church wholecloth will be expected to live on air, good wishes, a partner’s salary, a tentmaking job, and relatively little denominational help. This wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t an inherited, traditional block against tentmaking ministry, an onus on secular work, and (again) relatively little denominational help. These realities collude to hinder entreprenureal church starts.

Reality 3. By professionalizing the ministry, we have found ourselves at ease when talking about lay leadership in administrative matters and children’s religious education (witness the training opportunities in any given UUA district) but can’t/haven’t/won’t talk about spiritual leadership coming from the laity, except within the context of small groups. Perhaps I’m overstating the case, but this seems to be part of the “old fellowship-real church” divide in thinking, and an unstated assumption that new churches need to exist to employ (yes, I said employ) ministers.

Reality 4. How are we going to have strong spiritual leadership if we’re not pussy-footing around what each of us believe, and how belief informs and conditions a church’s mission? Can anyone tell me what mainline Unitarian Universalists mean when speaking of spreading (their) “gospel” or “Good News”? I mean, what is the content of this gospel?


  1. – Scott, there is a mountain of stuff I need to say here. I might need to reply in spurts between classes. Reality #1 and #2 are very pressing, since the UUA has foisted the financial responsibility for smaller new churches onto the Districts, who have no money to fullfill the mandate.

    And even without funding for a start-up pastor, where is the non-staff start-up funding going to come from. It takes money to rent a public space, pay for a pianist, do outreach/evangleism, etc.


  2. Scott – I’m back for round #2. With regards to reality #3, we would do well to look into other churches with congregational polity. The UCC, especially in Western states like the Dakotas and Colorado, has been commissioned lay pastors for small congregations (often in rural areas). Each lay pastor trains through a program of short-courses at the semi-defunct (German Congregationalist heritage) Yankton College. At the end of the process such folks are certified for a commissioned lay pastorate in their home community. The NACCC has a simmilar provision in their polity for commissioned pastors. Such folks are often more effective in their congregations than ordained leadership brought from outside.

    Reality #4 has been hitting me hard lately, since it has become increasingly clear that what I mean by Universalism, is not what most other folks in the UUA mean by Universalism. Let alone the problem of the ambiguous “Good News”. The adamant vagueness makes me worry about standing for nothing and falling for everything.

    If I start a church, theology is one thing we will need to be more clear about. We can not be everything to everybody, and still be meaningful.

  3. Scott,

    1. I’m trying to think back to the folk I know who’ve done church starts in Christian denominations…

    In the Evangelical Brethren, new ministers are pretty much expected to start a church if they want a job. Almost the entire denomination is geared around it, and there are all sorts of tapered grants and salary supports. Needless to say, they’re growing like crazy.

    The United Methodist vary from conference to conference, so your results may vary. But the conference I’m familiar with budgets out for x-many church starts a year (one to three, if I remember correctly). Ministers have to stand in line to get to do church starts, which means those who do them are not always the best qualified at church starts, but at playing church politics and kissing the bishop’s ass. Still, they manage to do a small but steady trickle of church starts every year. And the vast majority succeed.

    Starting a new church isn’t any harder than starting a new nonprofit org. If it isn’t happening, it’s because people don’t want it to happen. The question then becomes, who doesn’t want it to happen and why not?

    2. I’m only a three-year-old UU, so I’m not the best judge of this, but do UUs have some mystique of clergy leadership? Is there the assumption that UU laity can’t handle the traditional clergy responsibilities well enough on their own? If so, that’s disturbing. Most evangelical churches thrive precisely because of their active lay ministry programs.

    I’ve encountered a subtle attitude since a UU, and I don’t know if I’m making it up or if it’s just my particular congregation or what. But there seems to be the belief that either (a) you have the “gifts and graces” and are in ordained local church ministry or (b) you can’t cut it. There’s no concept that you could have the “gifts and graces” (and maybe the degrees, too) but choose to remain a layperson who is also a minister.

    So is this just me and my imagination (entirely possible, by the way), me and my particular congregation, or is this the way it is across the UUA?

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