Unincorporated churches: the why of UUA polity

Digging into the Rules of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a church-planter would find Rule 3.3.5.f, which begins:

A congregation should be incorporated when possible under the laws of the state in which it exists. A congregation shall include in its articles of incorporation or other organizing documents a clause providing that the assets of the congregation will be transferred upon dissolution to the Association.

So one the one hand, a congregation should be incorporated, but it might have other organizing documents. Why?

A thought experiment. If you and a group (4? 400? 4,000?) of like-minded religionists agreed to meet and function as a church, and organized it according to religious principles as you understand them, you would have at an unincorporated association. Many religious institutions, in fact, wok this way — though that doesn’t keep them out of trouble. Under the common law, unincorporated associations aren’t legal entities. In broad strokes, they can’t receive gifts (because there’s nobody to receive them), can’t own or transfer real property and legal liability falls upon all the members and officers. (Unincorporated associations have other distinguishing features, so this isn’t an exhaustive list. Do I need you to talk to a lawyer?) Little wonder the UUA advises incorporation, as it creates a legal structure that can hold property and shield its members and officers.  So why not require it?

Some “behold! the mark of the beast!” churches, after all, make a virtue of “not registering with the government” — as if incorporation makes that church subject to Caesar and not God. Good luck with that; let’s see if the municipal water authority buys it. If a church didn’t or doesn’t incorporate, one way of handling the question of property is to put it in trust. Now we have a situation where trustees can float beside the covenanted church, having the cash and the property, perhaps with limited responsibility to the congregation itself. Anecdotally, I’ve heard where this option has fostered long-term dysfunction. (If you comment, no names, please.)  And until recently, churches in Virginia and West Virginia weren’t able to incorporate at all.

I’ve written at length about the parish-church (or society-church) model of church organizing upon which both Unitarians and Universalists have historically organized, but to recap, a parish or society functions as a legal and fiscal entity which incubates and later holds a church. The parish or society holds the building and the money, is governed by elected officers, is usually incorporated, and could easily look to the outside world as a secular charity, save that it “shared” a minister with “its” church. (Unitarians were fond calling the minister, with respect to the parish, “a public teacher.”)  The church is then a spiritual body, governed by the minister (as pastor) and deacons, provides spiritual support and the ordinances (sacraments) and in the Universalists’ case, often bound its members to some recognition to a theological statement. See this example.

But this doesn’t sound much like Unitarian Universalist churches today. Even historically, the practice was lumpy. One way of looking at the eastern Massachusetts “Unitarian Departure” is to see a divorce between the more liberal parishes that went Unitarian and their more conservative internal churches, which then nested in new “second” parishes, making up many of the older UCC churches there now. Universalists, whose great spiritual discipline was debate, so often stopped their organizing at the parish phase that convention leaders would scold them into forming churches, and later, recommended fused parish-churches to simplify the administration. (I’ve noted that the avowedly Christian churches in the UUA tend to have more of the “church” features in their organization, a subject for a lacuna-seeking historian perhaps.)

So incorporation law has a heavy, unspoken presence in our institutional consciousness — one that rewards business and secular charitable models above our own stated views, and forces us to adopt to models we do not choose. It makes you wonder if the “mark of the beast” crowd has a point, if an unintended one.

But there’s a partial remedy, for later.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. I declined to allow a comment that is misleading, conspiratorial and links to a site that intends to profit upon this by selling materials that seeks to remedy a problem I don’t believe exists.

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