UUA: Association of Congregations or UU: Religious Movement

When can you say you are a Unitarian-Universalist? The UU blogosphere has been buzzing over that question, in part spurred by a blog post by UUA President Peter Morales which he titled Congregations and Beyond. In his essay, Rev Morales points to some statistics which show that many more people consider themselves to be Unitarian Universalists than the UUA counts as members of a particular congregation. He hypothesizes on the reasons for that fact, and also what we may do to minister to keep our faith vibrant outside of the traditional parish model.

Just one blogger to respond to this post was Christine Robinson, whose writing I’ve admired for some time. Rev Robinson shares some statistics showing that less and less people in each successive generation since WWII have chosen to actually join a congregation – UU or otherwise. The figures she quotes show that the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation has changed over this time “From 3% to 26%…and rising.”

Others have come away from Rev. Morales’ statements with the conclusion that “you can’t be a UU if you don’t belong to a congregation.” I’m not sure where they’re getting this from the essay I read, and am not convinced he ever said anything of the kind. But the truth is that the UUA counts members of individual congregations and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is open to all who don’t have a “local congregation.” From those fact, I suppose you could argue that membership in a congregation is the only way to be counted as a UU.

So what does that mean? Is Unitarian-Universalism, and all religion headed toward a certain demise since less people are interested in joining a congregation or claiming a religious affiliation? Or, is the definition of religion changing? Does belonging to a faith mean something different today than showing up at a certain building at a certain time each week and giving a certain amount of your time, energy and money to the organization that keeps that building?

By the way, you know all those great posters and T-shirts they sell at the UUA bookstore online, or at conferences? The one that lists famous Unitarians and Universalists? It doesn’t take much digging to find a name on that list of someone who would not fit the definition that some ascribe to what makes a “real UU”:

  • Albert Schweitzer – He accepted an invitation to become a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, but remained committed to his Lutheran faith.
  • Susan B. Anthony – raised a Quaker, for a time attended a Unitarian Church, and later moved beyond organized religion entirely.

There have been at least three times that I felt like I did not belong to a congregation, but I still considered myself a Unitarian-Universalist:

When I was seventeen. I had taken a part-time job which involved working after school, and often Sunday mornings. I didn’t have time to attend services. But, in truth, I wasn’t that upset about it because I had always felt pressured in that congregation to do things other than what I wanted. I wanted to listen to insightful sermons and perhaps work on some social justice programs. The ruling thought was that as a seventeen year old, I belonged crammed into a small church office with others of around my age talking about drugs, violence in the media, sexuality, and whatever other topic was “important to us.”

When I was twenty. I stopped attending services once again because I had begun to feel like I had begun to feel very unwelcome in the congregation I was attending. There were many reasons for this, but mostly it was because every time I had a conversation with another parish member, they would ask about my family or my boyfriend. When I tried to talk about my life or my theology, they would change the subject. Besides that, as a college student, I didn’t have the time or financial resources to give every time it was asked. The leaders of the church made an effort to assure me that it was okay, but individual members would walk over to me and remind me that everyone else was paying, and so should I.

Recently, when I was thirty. The small parish that I belonged to no longer felt like home, for a variety of reasons. The sermons no longer resonated. The congregation and leadership became involved in a necessary building project which unfortunately left little room for other types of building: spiritual or community. And, I had financial setback that meant I couldn’t pledge. After several conversations, I realized that I was doing more harm than good by showing up on Sunday morning, so I stopped.

The point I want to make her is that in between those times I was much more involved in congregational life. I can see the point that some are making when they say you need to belong to a congregation to be a UU. But, I also see the complete falsehood of that statement. I am no less a UU now than I was when I served on the Board of my congregation, or when I was a lay leader giving sermons every other week.

Why? Because my spiritual belief are still what guide every decision I make: from what to wear to breakfast, to whether I will take a vacation day to spend on the beach or attend Town Meeting. If I were to become famous, eventually my name would appear on a UU T-shirt.


2 Responses to UUA: Association of Congregations or UU: Religious Movement

  1. fausto says:

    I was born into a Unitarian church (it was before the merger), left when I was 8 and my parents moved to another city and didn’t join the church there, stayed out of church through my young aduthood because the local UU congregations didn’t offer me a compelling reason to be involved, then finally rejoined in my 40’s when it was time to give my kids some religious education. Throughout that time I have always identified myself as Unitarian, but I did not consider myself a member of the UUA until I rejoined a church.

    I think that distinction — between “I am a Unitarian [or a Universalist or a Unitarian Universalist]” and “I am a member of the UUA” — is a meaningful one that we should not ignore. Just because my theology and family identity is Unitarian does not mean that the UUA necessarily has a claim on my allegiance.

    The UUA is, and is properly, an association of congregations. Its congregationalism is its essential quality and its essential strength. Its purpose and mission is to serve its member congregations, not to govern them. If it also wants to proselytize “UUism” (whatever that is) to the unchurched, it either needs to come up with a successful model for gathering new congregations and new kinds of congregations (the CLF is one such, but not the only possible, model), or else it has to follow the Parable of the Sower and cast its seed profligately everywhere, hoping that some of the seed will through grace fall on fertile soil and take root of its own accord, with or without any formal institutional affiliation.

    In other denominations this latter alternative is called evangelism, which derives from the Greek for “good news”. What is our good news? Is the seed vigorous enough to sprout of its own accord if it falls on fertile soil?

  2. Reprobate says:

    Essentially, I agree with you. I think that everyone who considers him/herself a UU is one. But not all are “card-carrying” UUs. But the church is an institution and, as such, it requires active support–which includes monetary support.

    Being associated with a congregation gives one the opportunity to give as well as receive support. And that is essential in any community.

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