On “Congregations and Beyond”

I hear the buzz, buzz, buzz online from Unitarian Universalists trying to make some sense of Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales’s recent write paper, “Congregations and Beyond.” (PDF version).

Let’s call it head scratching because this is hardly the launch into a brave, new world one would expect from its internal tone, much less the betrayal of congregational polity I’ve heard expressed.  Now that bloggers have had time to digest it, the posts are coming out and since my sinuses have been inflamed for three days, I’ll cut to the point. (I’ve removed some of my older, more banal comments. If you like, you may read my synposis of the white paper after the fold.)

First, let’s consider the Unitarian Universalist Association as a container for religious identity. Apart from a particular congregation,  this is the overarching, embodied connection to a shared religious past, and its the usual locus one moves from place to place. The UUA attracts attention through its programs, events and statements. Ministers, though fellowship and settlement, have an obvious connection, but so too other professionals, generational cohorts and campers. Over the years I’ve heard quite a number of things that Unitarian Universalism is, and however different these may be there’s always the UUA to continue as a common referent. Note I don’t make glowing or uniformly positive value judgements here, but grousing about the UUA is a lively (if frustrating) point of reference. Important, too, is that in the United States there’s not a vital alternative within the Unitarian or Universalists traditions.

This means there’s a value to the UUA greater than the programs it offers — the value of approval and a rallying point — but this value is an unhealthy dependence. And approval-giving and point-identifying is less expensive and less strenuous that having the resources churches need. Surely, if we take congregational polity seriously, we could identify that which is “truly” Unitarian Universalist in a way that doesn’t need the UUA. But then again, congregational polity has itself become code language for me liking my peculiar interpretations of Unitarian Universalism more than yours. Oh, that and not wanting to cede the right to shape a particular church in a way that attends to the needs of the people who actually attend and support it. And note that its easier now than ever to find solutions to problems: the Internet has created a wide market for resources and information. The UUA’s coordinating power will never be what it once was; indeed,why should it be when you can Google for it?

Morales’s white paper has to be read in this context. The religious movement and the “platform” language is a call to roots and foundational responsibilities. Some of the extracongregational entitles are nothing more than what others would call mission agency or support organizations. But his concept also an attempt — a doomed one, I think — to harness free agents who can offer alternatives services (even partial ones) under the UUA umbrella. Doomed, I think, because the UUA has little financial or institutional support to offer to make a trade-off of autonomy worthwhile.

And can I be plain, but the plan is hardly worth the name. Having worked closely with many self-starting social media experts, technologists and organizers, the white paper reads like a TED Talk rehash. The mangled terms of art  and the anecdotal “evidence” suggest unfamiliarity rather than leadership.

As I wrote yesterday, “there’s much there” (history, baggage) “and too little there” (vision, resources, planning) for me to be hopeful — or upset. I’ll carry on and do my piece, but won’t wait for 25 to lead the way.


This is how I read the four-pager:

  • Congregations are our ministry context, but most people who identify as Unitarian Universalists are not in congregations.
  • Anecdotally, interest is moving towards outside congregations (children exodus; chaplaincy settlements; youth cons) and coming from outside congregations (a cited large financial gift; participation in the Standing on the Side of Love campaign); also,  in-church growth is “stagnant, despite a number of ambitious growth efforts.”
  • But there are thriving Unitarian Universalist congregations, and cultural and technological shifts are on our side.
  • Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement, and should be approached as such, particularly to welcome the self-identified outsiders.
  • To this end, we need to change the way we incorporate the unaffiliated and offer different levels of options.
  • And a strategy: to keep congregations as a base, and to focus outside ourselves.
  • The implementation paragraph is worth quoting in full (italicized in the original):
The UUA’s role would be to provide the container, the technological foundation, leadership and coordination. We become a resource, a platform and a hub. This is not just about developing a set of programs, but finding a way for us to learn as a new way as an institution. 

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Oh my. Can I just say how much I love, LOVE, this quote?

    “But then again, congregational polity has itself become code language for me liking my peculiar interpretations of Unitarian Universalism more than yours. Oh, that and not wanting to cede the right to shape a particular church in a way that attends to the needs of the people who actually attend and support it.”

  2. Why indeed would an extra-congregational entity want to officially affiliate with the UUA? What would it have to gain in the process? Often the very reason these entities exist, is because of their independence.

    The Evangelical world is replete with extra-congregational entitites (home-based study groups, men’s or women’s organizations, service organizations, etc). It is my observation that many of these creatures are ephemeral. Those that are not ephemeral usually evolve into (A) alternative format congregations, or (B) organizations that are distanced or completely removed from their parental ecclesiology.

    I see no significant change coming from President Morales’ proposal. And so it does not strike me as very hopefull or worrisome.

    PS – I do, however, think that Congregational Polity is something to take seriously. Every polity implies a theology of relationships, and I believe it is best to be intentional about relationships.

  3. I know some of those self-identified UUs who don’t belong to a Church. They don’t pledge or give money or support in any way any kind of Religious movement. They wouldn’t be my first choice of folks to evangelize or recruit or outreach too. We’re just a convienent label for them. I think that’s really a flaw in Morales plan here (and it’s a pretty thin plan as you write).

  4. @ Bill

    I see what you mean about the uncommitted people who like to claim the UU label. I seem to remember a candidate for governor of Michigan who claimed he was a Unitarian, but no congregation in Michigan had seen this man come through their doors since the time he was in high school. Convenient label? Many suspected as much. When you are running for office it looks better to claim some kind of religious affiliation, than to claim nothing at all.

  5. @Derek Exactly! As someone who kicks time and money into a UU Church, and a Church that trains student ministers while paying them a wage; I get a little offended by these folks. They take the name without earning it so to speak.

    I’m afraid Scott’s nailed this. It’s a letter asking a big question while suggesting a very small answer. It leaves a UU reader underwhelmed.

    My Church lived throught the Western Unitarian Conference, the AUA, and now UUA. The reality is these central offices change. Our Church has endured since 1843. We plan to survive and expect UUA won’t. Something may or may not replace it, however we fully expect to be around afterwords.

  6. I don’t recall seeing this kind of frankness before in UUWorld. It does sound like a UUA falling apart though.
    Bill Baar


    Some members were clearly made uncomfortable by the disagreements. Pupke observed that interpersonal relationships were frayed. Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Pacific Central District, said that she wanted to work more closely with the staff and work toward more collaboration.

    However, others maintained the conversation was not uncomfortable. “I’m hearing people are uncomfortable, and I’m feeling fine,” Averett said, adding that white, educated people feel uncomfortable with disagreement. She said she did not accept the notion that the board was being dysfunctional because they were expressing disagreement. “Honest conversation in some cultures is okay. It proves you are alive, as my mother said.”

    Grubbs thanked her for saying “what needed to be said. When a wound is healing, there is a growing edge of scar tissue.”

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