On curation

The historical approach to data the liberal churhes take — certainly an approach I’ve seen in my own life — begins and ends with collection. The liberal religionist is commonly described as a seeker, and the faithful life of such a seeker is to collect. Collect ideas about other religions, collect experiences, collect options and — oh my back! — collect books. Collect these things as proof of the endeavor, and perhaps even as a social marker to show you’re moving up. (A feature of class re-location within Unitarian Universalism, but that’s another subject.) The older concept was to distill the best of what you found and apply the finding as Good Living or Applied Ethics or Pure Christianity. The Capital Letters signal a Guiding Light. (Wait, that’s also another subject.)

Today that’s almost completely unraveled. The age of ministers who led that kind of thinking is (almost) gone. Postmodern thinking and identity politics makes it suspect, at least in our circles, though there are still feel-good preachers, lightly draped in historic Christianity but preaching Prosperity Gospel who show the power of the phenomenon. But it isn’t ours.

Instead the collection feeds on itself, like an episode of Hoarders. For the better part of a generation, new Unitarian Universalist congregation have been expected to be collectors of collectors: an esoteric mass of esoteric seekers. In theory, this might be fine, provided there are the resources and leadership to let people grow and mature, but that would be a mammoth undertaking, even with the best planning. For years, new congregations have grown to peak at a scant few dozen members with little evidence of sustained on-site professional development help.  This model isn’t working, and the failings are at the roots.

The new successful restaurants in D.C. have certain common themes: they’re well-designed for ease of access, are inexpensive but are driven by volume and have stripped-down menus. If you don’t want a hamburger or cupcake or rice bowl or frozen yogurt and you’re at that kind of eatery, then you’re out of luck.

When I think of good websites at which to learn or get information, I recall certain themes: they stick to a core offering, it’s easy to register and other content is kept to a minimum. Good ones get talked up.

Both examples deal with curation, which I promised to speak on. I suspect the role of religious leadership is no longer to stack the rafters with great ideas, but to project a compelling religious vision, and guide people through that vision as cleanly as possible.

It isn’t your responsibly to illumine every side-path or option. Your responsibility is to keep the main path clear and guide as many people as ably and well as possible through it, while respecting their overburdened calendars and wallets. It’s your responsibility to talk down junk and uplift mature ideas. Preach a gospel, be able to describe it in simple terms, defend it and stick to it.

If that means two or three Unitarian Universalist congregations in close quarters with different — even conflicting visions — so much the better. People will figure out there they need to be.


Categorized as Core ideas

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Ahhhh, but this runs so against the grain of mainstream UUism. Traditionally we aspire for congregations to be one-size-fits-all; kind of like the big box super-store of religion (ecclesiastic Super Target or WalMart). But in attempting to serve broadly all practioners of Liberal Religion, do we serve any of them well?

    My jury is still out on this one. But I am suspiscious that we may not be doing as well as we think we are. The evidence is the high level of membership churn (what I think some British Unitarians has termed as “having the bath spigot all the way open, but the stopper removed from the drain”).

  2. When I lived in Oak Park in the 80s we had three UU Churches within walking distance of each other: Unity Temple, Beacon UU, and Chicago’s Third U. Three very different Churches. It made sense. Third and Unity had been physically close for decades and each offered a different experience and vision.

    I understand the “seeker” idea here, but my experience with UUs is they typically “know” and while they collect plenty of books, they still already know.

  3. Most of us grow up in areas where it’s not unusual to find several Baptist congregations within walking distance, same for Methodists, and even Presbyterians (OK, i grew up in one of the hot spots for Presbyterians). It’s so commonplace most of us don’t even think about it. I could walk from one to another in 5-10 minutes.

  4. I think this is a bit of a tension in our congregations. It is a friendly tension in my own. I agree with you that my job is to project a compelling religious vision, while I think a good number of my parishioners still “enjoy” the sort of world religion survey attitude toward worship. They want me to stack their rafters, to use your metaphor. Variety feels more “UU” to them; that is what they were led to believe that UUism IS when they got involved 30-40 years ago. It’s a challenge.

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