What’s wrong with fellowships?

Before I return to my previously scheduled congregational data, I have to ask the assembled readers — those who know Unitarian Universalists, at least — what’s wrong with the Fellowship Movement?

I know there are reasonable points for both praise and concern — perhaps even scorn — but there’s something about the Fellowship Movement that causes sensible people to spit blood.

Why is this, and what are the specific charges? I suspect some of it can be grouped under their difficulty for American Unitarian Association and later UUA staff, and perhaps their unwillingness or inability to grow, or their propensity to die.


And some background, from UUWorld.org.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott wrote:
    “I know there are reasonable points for both praise and concern — perhaps even scorn — but there’s something about the Fellowship Movement that causes sensible people to spit blood.”


    If a person is metaphorically “spitting blood,” has this person left the realm of sensible and reasonable for something else?

    I agree with one of the UU World conclusions that you linked to. It was one of the few growth strategies that the AUA could afford to implement. It may have been the only affordable option available for us during the post-WWII era.

    Perhaps those who are spitting mad about the fellowship movement should not ask themselves if the fellowship movement was the best growth strategy in absolute terms.

    They should ask themselves if the fellowship movement was the best choice among the few realistically available options for the AUA at that time.

    They should also weigh costs vs. benefits. The UU World article concludes that our religious movement is better off for having the fellowship movement as part of our heritage than we would have been if we didn’t pursue this growth strategy.

  2. Why do some people have such harsh criticism for the movement? I think it’s because most people don’t pay much attention to history. They react to the latest facts or impressions.

    Not knowing the history very thoroughly myself (it’s on my to-read list), my impressions of the Fellowship Movement are basically two: it was a creative way to plant congregations, more successful (in the medium term, anyway) than anything since; and some of the fellowships got stuck where they were and resisted change, as congregations of all kinds will often do. Altogether, not at all a reason to spit blood.

  3. As one who was involved in a fellowship movement style congregation in San Bernardino County, there are several issues I saw with fellowship style congregations. They seemed to be more welcoming to persons who like to talk about faith but not persons of faith. A significant lot of them seem to embody an anything but Christian attitude and exhibited an appalling lack of knowledge of Unitarianism or Universalism. They seemed not interested in growing their numbers or doing evangelism. Most of these fellowship movement congregations were focused on an anti-clerical stance in respect to leadership. While they were interested in learning from different religions they didn’t bother exploring any of them in real depth and they lacked a theological center. The politics seemed to overshadow the theology or ritual. There was a lack of ritual. Or if there was ritual it was superficial and shallow, disrespecting to rituals of our Christian faith like communion. Worship was treated as a form of entertainment. My soul was dying of neglect in that congregation. Thank God I found the United Church of Christ (UCC) when I did. I also still have my affiliation with the UUCF. However, to the fellowship movement’s credit, they were able to provide a Unitarian or Universalist presence in areas that weren’t currently served by Unitarian or Universalist parishes, they were able to empower the role of lay leadership.

  4. Were there biz plans for Fellowships? Start small with the intention of moving towards a larger Church with Minister, and here’s how we get that outcome on this path? Or was it just let a hundred fellowships bloom sort of thing?

  5. Bill — in some cases, having a business plan for growing into a larger size and greater complexity would make sense (e.g. calling minister, hiring staff, buying building, etc).

    However, there are fellowships in smaller towns that may have no realistic chance of growing beyond the fellowship stage. That was my experience when attending the Black Hills UU Fellowship in Rapid City SD and visiting the Longview TX UU Fellowship. Both of these congregations are doing very well in the smaller towns they live in without calling a minister etc.

    That may be a realistic business plan for these two fellowships.

  6. Having been a member of a fellowship starting with an extension minister, and going thru several other permanent and interim ministers, the fellowship was suspicious of professional leadership and pretty humanistic/agnostic but has evolved over the years.

    One difference I perceive is that having been layled for so long, if a minister comes in and wants to completely take over, there is resistance. There is a lot of energy for partnership and sharing leadership; there is not the “flock” idea waiting for the minister to have the bright idea or steer the flock.

    I don’t have the same length of time in a “regular” congregation to compare it by, but the fellowship model served a lot of folks, including scads of children in RE, and in my congregation, led to a number of people going to seminary and becoming successful ministers themselves, which I think is a success.

  7. My impression from conversations with American UU ministers (or at least one, now I come to think about it) is that the Fellowship movement intentionally tried to do without ministers. Those who believe in strong leadership think this is the wrong direction.

    Having said that I think more American fellowships have developed in a healthy way than any British ones ever have (correct me if I’m wrong).

  8. The Fellowship Movement tends to get trashed by the section of the UUA that is more interested in promoting UU ministers more than it is in promoting Unitarian Universalism (or believes that UUism doesn’t really exist outside of the teachings of its fellowshiped ministry.)
    For all the protestations that we have moved beyond the traditional formulations of Christian theology, UUism as an institution still strongly adheres to much of the structure of Protestantism, whether it’s the format of the worship service or the training and responsibilities of its ministry.
    The Fellowship Movement was the first deliberate attempt to work around some of these issues – sort of a “fast, cheaper, smarter” approach. With the assumption, that as these Fellowships grew they would naturally want ministers (and indeed many did.)
    However, if a congregation takes that Radical Reformation at face value, and its members are also priests (or as JLA would say, prophets) is using half or more of a small congregations resources to hire a minister really the best way to move the mission of the congregation forward?

  9. All in all, I think the fellowship movement was a success, given the number of congregations that were started at that time and still exist. It would have been nice, however, if there could have been a different model for fellowships to emulate, something that acknowledged that lack of ministerial leadership. Rather than doing church as if it were just another faculty meeting at the local university, perhaps they could have learned from the Quakers, who had developed processes over the years that held members accountable to each other (Circles of Support and Accountability, for example).

  10. As a young but not new member of a fellowship (its all I’ve ever known), I am often jealous of more established (ministered) churches. I used to think we were just a humanist debating society, but things slowly change. The younger members long for the day when we can afford a minister, but we know until that day we are the ministers. We focus on personal/spiritual growth, taking care of each other, and trying to (whenever we can) to extend ourselves beyond the group. We wish there was a formula, but realize there there is no external model, so we improvise and focus on intimacy. I think sometimes we thought we needed a bigger local church to mentor us, or consultants, or district advice, but now I think we are of the attitude that we will set the standard, that we will meet others as equals and things will happen in their own time. There is no need to rush or force anything. Every could be better, everything is fine. We are together sharing our odd beliefs instead of feeling alone in a small town and thinking that there is only space for spiritual variety in a large city. We are not large but our hearts are.

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