The missing State Convention

While proposing this new church, I think it’s important to support it with as many of the charisms, or distinctive gifts, that Universalist Christianity has developed, whether or not they are actively appreciated.

Not that every distinctive was a charism, or deserves this attention. The Universalist habit of debating theological opponents — our alternative to tent revivalism — died (after decades of decline) in the 1920s and I intend to leave it buried. But Universalists approached theological freedom and congregational polity in a different way than did the Unitarians, and these need to be considered deeply.

If there was a Universalist golden age, it was probably in the years after the Civil War until the 1920s. The institutions were at their strongest and Universalists were at their most confident. (If not most distinctive: I take Ann Lee Bressler‘s read of postbellum Universalism’s betrayal of its early radical global communitarianism seriously.)  As far as I can tell, they grew numerically, and had a keen sense of mission in the United States and abroad.

One feature of Universalism in those days was the system of churches, state conventions and the general convention. A church member would have the fellowship of the church, the churches and ministers would have the fellowship of the state convention (or be directly fellowshipped in the places that didn’t have a convention, like the District of Columbia) and the state conventions would have the fellowship of the general convention. The appropriate level of governance would make recommendations or coordinate action for its setting.

Interestingly, with the 1961 consolidation, some actions — ministerial fellowship in particular — became more centralized. Other prerogatives like as the licensing of lay ministers and the recognition of mission-focused organizations — the independent affiliates — have been given up.

A new Universalist-minded church would have to identify what parts of the state-level system survive in the UUA districts and as a whole, and which have to be reconstituted — in trust, in a sense — at the congregational level. I suspect recognition of non-local lay ministries fall into this category. And perhaps in time, should there be a plural number of Universalist Christian churches in fellowship, some of these powers — meant to support and calm the sometimes turbulent free-spiritedness Universalists know — might be shared in common.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Your post may be more important than many at first think. With regards to Congregational polity, there is a tendency to over-focus on local autonomy as local power with “freedom from” various higher level agencies (eg. bishops, presbyteries, etc.). What we often ignore is local power with “freedom to” do specific tasks (eg. nurture lay ministers, sponsor extra-congregational ministries, etc.). In many cases the resources available in the local church may not be sufficient to the task. Therefore, there are 2 key responses. The first is for multiple congregations to cooperate in the endeavor (eg. a seasonal “school for lay ministry”). The second is to intentionally make the long-term and perhaps costly effort of a local congregation to build the needed resources (eg. Quaker meetings that create a Friends School under their care). The path chosen may be dictated by circumstances, resources, and available local commitment.

    When Universalists historically functioned at their best, they recognized the need to cooperate locally, regionally, and continentally; instead of being in strictly isolated autonomy.

  2. Scott wrote:
    “A new Universalist-minded church would have to identify what parts of the state-level system survive in the UUA districts and as a whole, and which have to be reconstituted – in trust, in a sense — at the congregational level. I suspect recognition of non-local lay ministries fall into this category.”


    Any discussion about this should look at what impact that the governance and staffing changes at the district level will cause. I don’t think anyone know what the future will bring, but the I suspect the current district structure where district staff are co-employed by the district and the UUA will change. And the UUA Board is looking at reducing its membership and not having one elected board member from each of the 19 UUA districts.

    Also, one non-local lay ministry that is often overlooked is campus ministry. I’ve been in a district board meeting where a metropolitan-wide campus ministry proposal was rejected because it was presented as a district project and not a congregational project. Some feel that the role of the district is to provide services to member congregations and any attempts for a non-congregational body to provide ministry to individuals is inappropriate.

    While we promote this congregational polity purity in the UUA, our Southern Baptist neighbors (who are also congregational in polity) support denominational campus ministry efforts that are not directly supported by congregations.

    Good luck with the 2nd Universalist project.


  3. Following up on Steve @2 – yes, the UUA is pretty much trying to get rid of Districts. Which I think runs counter to your desire, Scott, to have some organizational level at about the size and scope of states.

  4. Indeed. In an effort to save money, I think the new mega districts will be too large to provide services effectively, or provide fellowship (in the organic sense), but neither will they have the powers — ministerial fellowship, say — of a devolved organization. Seems to be the worst of both worlds.

  5. Out here in the West, I don’t see how they will even save money with regions – travelling all over everything west of the Mississippi will eat up a lot of money. Beacon Street wants all the money to flow to them, everyone to report directly to them – who cares about fellowship :-(.

    (But hey, they tell us we can do it electronically.)

  6. Scott – I don’t know if you’ve seen this news report:

    “Districts begin changing their governance role
    Four district boards agree to recognize UUA Board of Trustees as sole governing board.”

    According to the story:

    “The four district boards of the Southland Region, including the Thomas Jefferson District, the Florida District, the Mid-South District, and the Southwestern Conference, met in Orlando, Fla., December 3–4, where they agreed that there should only be one governance board in the UUA—the UUA’s own Board of Trustees.”

  7. @Steve. Thanks: I hadn’t seen that. If money wasn’t an issue, how acceptable would that be? (Considering that particular grouping ranges from Miami to Oklahoma City.) The regional concept just doesn’t seem wise.

    But without robust services — no evidence of that — an ecclesiastic vacuum will open up, say at the multi-county level. What was called clusters in some UU circles, associations in the old Universalist polity or quarterly meetings among Quakers.

    And these will function in a new and lean way. But people will begin to rely on them more and more.

    You heard it here first.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.