The big news at the last UUA Board meeting is not Arizona

The big, unrecognized news at the last meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association wasn’t about the 2012 Phoenix General Assembly — see — but internal matters: things we can effectively change. Indeed, can be changed with a bit of red pencil. One relates to internal transparency — more about that later — and the other concerns proposed bylaws changes respecting congregational membership, and thus new congregations.

The January meeting was more than two weeks ago, so this has to be seen as a reflection rather than advocacy. But assuming that everything proposed was adopted — there are no draft minutes or District Presidents Association notes — and that the General Assembly adopts the same, church planters shall see a profound change in our polity. And for a change, it’s a change I approve.

The changes are in the bylaws and rules, related to congregations. Download this PDF (“Bylaw Changes Recommended By Congregations Working Group“, 61kb) to follow along.

Much of the bulk of the change would make “churches and fellowships” known simply as “congregations” and the more generic identification of staff groups. But that’s not the important part. Also gone is the word local.

I see this as a repudiation of the geographic parish, that dates (on the Unitarian side) to before the disestablishment of state worship in Massachusetts, and has become less and less relevant in the successive ages of steam, automobiles, telephones, aircraft and the Internet. People have become increasing mobile in their weeks and lives, and yet our polity is anachonistically attached to place, and with it the idea that existing congregations have a territory from which they can inhibit the formation of new congregations, or their later recognition and acceptance into our fellowship.

One of the reasons I spent so much time cataloging the unserved towns and cities of the United States is that it’s that much harder to reach into an underserved area, since the existing congregations — whether or not they would be negatively affected — have a voice in their gathering. But expectations of how people communicate, visit, work and pray are rapidly changing. The polity should keep up. (It also makes the continuing allusions to the Cambridge Platform, dislodged from history, deeply troubling. We’ve developed quite a bit in the last 350 years.)

Indeed, we even have lively models of non-geographic churches, even if they don’t fit in our mythology.That’s why the Church of the Larger Fellowship — the non-geographic church that provides services though the mail, phone and Internet; publishes worship and education material; supports the program of smaller churches; and holds in-person worship services at General Assembly — has seemed like such a oddity and exception. I’m unclear of the work of generationally-focused Church of the Younger Fellowship, a subset of the CLF, but encouraged by its existence I can easily imagine others wanting to imitate the CLF for their own needs. And the CLF is large and growing. Certainly the Christians — who frankly don’t seem well served by the CLF; I gave up hope years ago — would want to imitate this mode of church, if it could. But the CLF’s monopoly status has, until now, been unchallenged.

Also gone in the proposed rules: “including adult worship and/or discussion and when feasible establishment of a church school in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.” The other piece is that new congregations could have members with a continuing membership in another congregation. The rules, if less directive, may be more open to innovation.

So two actions:

  • Let your district Board member and congregational delegates know you approve of the Congregations Working Group proposed bylaws and rules changes.
  • Think aloud how underserved groups — rural areas, ethnic and linguistic groups, theological cohorts perhaps — can make a non-geographic congregation come to life.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Bright Galaxy talks about the origin of the “ask the local congregation first” rule about start-ups. Apparently people were using the Fellowship model to deal with conflict within congregations. An unhappy segment of a congregation would apply to become a fellowship, putting the association in the awkward position of choosing sides in the conflict.

  2. The wording is still tied to place, in that the process for new congregations includes consultation with the District President. (Section 3.3.6) So congregations are still expected to have a geographical District to which they belong and approves their joining. This would still seem to apply to Heather’s comment about conflict – in principle the District could be choosing sides.

  3. I haven’t liked the “establishment of a church school in the Unitarian Universalist tradition” bit since the moment I first read it, precisely because it seemed to discourage innovation in faith development, especially in conjunction with building intentionally multigenerational communities of faith.

  4. The Congregations Working Group is to be commended for their forward thinking. What is proposed goes a long ways toward improving diversity in our membership.

    I live in an area where the “franchise” was busted some years ago. There are six congregations in the Triangle Area of North Carolina. They are very different and get along well. It is a repudiation of the idea that split offs are a bad thing.

    I agree with Tom Wilson’s comment about consultation with the District. Either provide an alternative for prospective congregations now located wholly within a single district or waive that requirement for such a congregation.

  5. I was reading the current UUMA Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry. ( and was struck by something that still suggests geographical restrictions on church formation, separate from any UUA By-Laws.

    In “Expectations of Conduct” it says “I will seek consultation among my colleagues practicing the diverse forms of parish-based and community-based ministry within the same geographical area, so that we may develop a mutually agreed Letter of Understanding regarding our several roles and the ways in which these may and may not intersect.”

    To me this says the the existing ministers have an implicit veto on new church formation. Maybe this is what Dick @5 is referring to as “breaking the franchise?”

    So my reading of this is that a hypothetical UU Rick Warren (what would THAT look like? -:) could not just look at a map of the U.S., put all his or her belongings in a U-Haul and go set up shop with 15 or 30 miles of some other UU churches, without permission? This still looks like echoes of the Standing Church.

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