Leicester, Mass. Unitarians end federation relationship

I’ve written from time to time about federated and multi-denominational Unitarian Universalist churches, in part because that’s where you find many of the Christians in the UUA and also because they are an interesting polity situation that makes for illuminating case studies.

There aren’t tons of them in the UUA — most are in New England — and they tend to be pretty stable. Federation partners include the United Church of Christ, the American Baptists, the United Methodists and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Am I missing anyone?
In short, the difference between a federated church and multi-denominational community church is one of organization. In a two-way federation, there are three corporations: one for each denominationally-specific member church and a third corporation to manage the relationship. Each with its own board, budget (perhaps) and membership roll. A community church is a common entity — one board, budget, incorporation etc. — that holds its membership in two or more denominations. My read on federated churches is they became more palitable when ministers became scarce and more expensive — so the federated church could share one — because of general falling memberships. My gut instinct is that these relationships are more difficult when there is more than one building to maintain.

Last Wednesday’s Worcester (Mass.) Telegram reports that a Unitarian-Congregational federation in Leicester, Mass. (no website) will end September 1. The church is functionally a family-sized church — and knowing families — I hesitate to suggest any reason for the de-federation than the one stated: a proposed move to merge the congregations into a community church.

I wish both churches well, and if you’re a Unitarian Universalist minister in central Mass — well, there’s probably some supply preaching opening up soon for the Unitarian congregation of 10.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. This is speculation, but I get a faint whiff from the article that the Unitarian faction may be motivated by…

    (1) a sectarian urge which says that be a real liberal church one must be a Unitarian church. An ecumenical liberal body will not do.

    (2) a notion that being more specific about Unitarian beliefs, which are supposedly less specific than Congregational beliefs, will bring more growth.

    I’ve seen very few federated church organizations that work well long term. They tend to be partnerships that invite competition between denominational factions.

    With regards to my speculations #1 and #2 they tend to stoke a long held worry of mine. That we in the UUA, who strive to be so broad and inclusive, are continuing to trend towards a rather exclusive sectarianism where we refuse to be in partnership with other liberal church bodies. And that we in the UUA somehow feel that partnerships with liberal Christian denominations need to be cast off, so that we can be REAL Unitarians and Universalists. The underlying dogma is that even sharing a liberal church identity with both the UUA and a liberal Christian denomination is somehow bad.

  2. Some random trivia about federated churches (wbout which I admit I am fascinated):

    I heard there was a fight in the Westford, Mass., federated church a few years ago, and as I understand it, the Unitarians basically got shut out. My conclusion: not all federated churches are particularly stable. (By the way, Leicester is not that far from Westford, so who knows if there’s some fallout here.)

    There were at least four federated churches in Illinois when I worked out there — Church of the Open Door and People’s Church, both in Chicago, the church in Sycamore, Ill. (originally Universalist and Congo, I believe), and I think one in Avon, Ill. — so it’s a phenomenon not just limited to New England.

    From a marketing standpoint, I think it can be a real advantage for a small church (under 100 members) to have a pronounced denominational identity — that way, your limited marketing reach is extended by association with the larger denominational “brand.” I say this as someone serving a small church (85 members) — we’re stretched so thin, we’ll take any marketing help we can get.

  3. Just letting you know that our little group of Unitarians in Leicester, MA. are still surviving on our own. We did not have an adversarial relationship with the Federated Church – but we were ready to experience our own philopsophy of religion. We love having a spiritual environment to practice our way. Check out our website – http://members.cox.net/leicunitarian/. I have posted a few sermons for your reading enjoyment. (I am behind on my administrative tasks!) All are presented by lay people – we take turns hosting a Sunday Service. We are learning about each other which has brought us closer together. We have had a christening, a wedding, and a celebration for a past minister celebrating 60 years of ministry.

    We have a long way to go – but we are sturdy New Englanders. The Unitarian Church has been the home of joint summer services between the Congregationalists and Unitarians. We are planning to continue this tradition. They are happy with their freedom to practice their brand of religion.

    We dream that one day we might have 85 people, so be thankful for what you have, Dan. Westford is fairly close – maybe 40 miles, but we are really not aware of their situation. We focus on the positive side of our independence, we don’t have time to argue with any one else. We are taking one step at time. We are hopeful that others will visit us and decide to make us their home as well. We are a welcoming and flexible society.

    God bless!

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