Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Response to TK - CC's stab at Church Polity for UU Noobs

A new reader named TK has taken the wind out of my self-righteous snit by being a perfectly reasonable and kind new UU who came to us from a conservative religion. Or if he/she is not, he/she totally has me fooled.

TK writes, in part:

I'm a new UU, myself, having signed the book only 9 mos ago, read only one short book about the theology/history, attended one district conference, and read some blogs and papers. (I come from a very conservative background.)

Somehow, I got volunteered to be on the Board of Worship (BoW) actually before I signed the book, so now I'm in a leadership position, planning Worship meetings, for a church that I only moderately understand the theology and even less understand the polity.

I'm just trying not to step on toes. Of course, as we're a "Society," I keep accidentally saying "church" and I see a couple people wince when I do so. It's just a habit, not a policy decision.

Anyhoo, that's my situation. Please have some sympathy for those of us who have great deal of energy and enthusiasm and are trying to bumble our way through.

It would be wonderful if you more experienced UU's wrote some stuff, say, here, about the relationships between the laity and the minister and other relationships within the church.


Honestly, that you are approaching this in the way you are suggests to me that you're doing pretty well. I've been a UU for a third of my life and say "Church" all the time. Nobody winces at my church, but I know that's not universally true of all churches. Anyway, a lot of what you need is common sense and it seems like you have that. There's a world of difference between presenting an idea like it will be the savior of UUism and simply asking if something like it has been done before and I suspect you know that the asking route is always the reasonable one when you're new.

Trying not to step on toes is always good. Listening is good.

The exact relationship of the minister and the board should be outlined in your bylaws, but here are a few general points, which I type with great anxiety as the Chaliceblog has the attention of people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I trust any missteps will be corrected in the comments. If I screw this up, don't tell Katy-the-Wise*

-The minister serves at the pleasure of the congregation and the congregation votes to install or fire him/her. Policies of the church are set by either the congregation or the Board, which is elected by and from the congregation**

-Therefore, the congregation does, or at least should, have a great deal of sway over what goes on in churches. We come from a congregational tradition, meaning that our churches are, at least theoretically, independent entities that are loosely united by a connective body. Our connective body is the UUA. In theory, at least the congregations should have approximately the unity of NATO. Other Congregational churches are the UCC and the Baptists.*** It is not uncommon for UU churches to vary a great deal and most people fit better in one sort of church than they do in others.

Conversely, some other churches/religions/denominations are more like France in their organization. In France, just about everything is run out of the Federal government. One has a federal driver's license. I call these churches "Federalist" churches because I'm a law student and that's how we talk. Mormonism and Catholicism are both pretty Federalist, which means folks who come from Mormonism and Catholicism often have very Federalist expectations for churches and get pissy when they aren't met.

-That said, all things tend toward the center and UUism has gotten more and more Federalist as time has passed. Since at least the civil rights era there has been debate about various issues relating to polity, with "Does being a free religion with a commitment to that polity mean a congregation has the freedom to not allow black members?" being a question that kept some good people up at nights**** and caused a division in the church for awhile.

While few would argue that the UUA is unreasonable in not allowing congregations that discriminate on the basis of race to join the association, the philosophical line between the UUA setting reasonable ground rules and the UUA bossing the congregations around for their own good is continually debated and moved around. I tend to want the congregational polity to remain as pure as possible and take a dim view of a lot of UUA initiatives that other people think are ok.

For example, and I apologize to long time readers since I've used this example a lot in the past, the UUA thinks it's just wonderful when a church becomes a "Welcoming Congregation," meaning that it has done a bunch of training and is certified by the UUA as a congregation that has doors wide open to potential Gay and Lesbian members. First off, I think that's pandering and would be disinclined to attend a church that was so proud of themselves for accepting me were I a lesbian. But more to the point as far as polity goes, in this rural congregation, the members were not at all used to homosexuals or homosexuality, and a lot of them felt that the church just wasn't ready. That notwithstanding, the board pushed the program through in response to UUA cheerleading. So now they are a "Welcoming Congregation" and can advertise themselves as such, but the actual members who weren't ready and had this thrust upon them likely aren't going to be especially welcoming to homosexuals who respond to the promised welcome and come through the door. Even more disturbing, this is a college town where new homosexuals who show up to the church are likely young and probably really need that welcome, so to be promised a welcome and not get one is a pretty nasty thing. The local church knew they weren't ready, and the UUA's attempt to coerce them into the 21st century didn't actually do anyone any good I'm guessing.

So anyway, arguments can and do happen all the time about the proper role of the UUA in encouraging churches to set their agendas certain ways and when letting local churches be local is a better idea. The Chaliceblog was more or less at one-sided war with the UUA Washington Office for awhile when they were doing stuff like encouraging ministers to preach on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Alito. They've become a lot less inclined to do stuff like that and I don't have a problem with them at this point.

-- Last year, the UUA kicked out a vast number of "affiliate groups" and they no longer have official status with the UUA. These groups ranged from political causes (UUs for Animal Rights) to organizations of UUs with particular spiritual tendencies in one direction (e.g. UU Buddhists). Most of the spiritual groups were let back in, most of the other ones weren't. There's lots of debate within UUism still today about whether that was a good idea. I wish it had been done with a little more finesse, but I certainly recognize that the affiliates were spending a lot of time lobbying the UUA for stuff and the UUA is supposed to be responsive to the congregations, not the affiliate groups so I ended up supporting the decision in the end. LinguistFriend disagrees and his post about why is linked here.

- A lot of people will tell you that the problem with Unitarian Universalism is that is has no center and no core of belief. In my non-religious-professional opinion, that's bullshit. But Katy-the-Wise says it better than I do when she writes of the center of our faith: "That unique gift is as it has always been a commitment to freedom of belief, of thought and of conscience. Those who confuse freedom with license misunderstand that to mean that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything at all. On the contrary, true freedom means that we are responsible for our own beliefs rather than subject to an outside authority, which puts the burden of truth directly on the individual. The bottom line is that you cannot believe that for which you have no evidence in experience or that you have not examined carefully and tested with integrity. At first people think it is very easy to practice a religion that doesn't tell you what to believe or what to think or what to do. Soon they find that taking the responsibility that freedom requires is a spiritual practice that takes all our strength and courage."

--Just because we're free doesn't mean we're alone. Indeed, that's the point of having an association. We make a deal with each other to support each other and help each other along in our spiritual journeys. We make that deal with other folks in the congregation and the congregations make that deal with one another. Katy the Wise says that the combination of these two ideas-- The we are free and in covenant with one another, is the true center of UUism.

By being in association with each other, we form a national UU religious identity and we strengthen the concept of free religion. NATO makes each of its members stronger by uniting the membership and giving the term "Member of Nato" meaning. So, as independent as we are, and UU churches can be quite independent if they want to be, this connective body is still really important. That said, the UUA is an organization of congregations much like NATO is an organization of member states. If an American wants a change in American policy or a new program to start in America, they aren't supposed to appeal to NATO, they are supposed to start it in America. So for individuals to lobby the UUA for stuff doesn't make a lot of sense as far as structure goes and the age-old new UU question "Why doesn't the UUA do X?" is better phrased as "Why isn't MY CONGREGATION doing X and how can I help us start?"

Anyway, I'm sure I'm leaving out things about the contemporary perspective on this stuff. I KNOW I'm leaving out the historical roots of some of these ideas, mostly because I'm not confident that I know them as well as I should. Fausto from is a busy man these days, but he's the layman I know who knows the most about this stuff from a historical angle.

Further perspectives on polity stuff are welcome in the comments. Questions also welcome, if I don't know the answer I will do my best to find it for you.


* Katy-the-Wise is CC's favorite UU minister. She's thought about most things more than CC has. Including church polity, perhaps especially church polity. If you know who she is, feel free to address her as "Katy the Wise" when you meet her. Apparently she gets a kick out of that, kind of.

**CC heard through a friend about a congregation where a member wrote to Garrison Keillor and asked him if he would like to be their minister. As this illustrates, most UU churches don't in the strictest since need to hire ministers to be their minister. This is not to say that hiring an untrained minister is a good idea, especially if said minister is Garrison Keillor.

*** Non-Southerners often talk about "Baptists" when they mean "Very conservative Southern Baptists." In reality there are tons of different kinds of Baptists. I was buddies with a Liberal Baptist minister in South Carolina once and it was educational about how one could be liberal and yet very Baptist. He and I met and became instant friends the day he gave a prayer service on an anniversary of 9-11 that mentioned as an aside that all people, be they believers or unbelievers, were affected by this day. It nearly had me in tears because as he was the first person in town I'd heard talk of "unbelievers" like they were human. I don't think I did cry, reporters aren't supposed to, but I was close.

**** To me the reasonable answer is "Yes, technically you do, but doing so makes no sense in a tradition whose center lies in the integrity and freedom of conscience of the individual within the community." The UUA's answer is that a church with that rule would not be allowed to be a member of the UUA.


kimc said...

It is my impression that a congregation can go through the Welcoming Congregation courses and then vote not to become a Welcoming Congregation because they are not yet ready. There is a congregational vote after fulfilling the other requirements including the class. It's a shame if a congregation is pushed into voted yes when they should have voted no.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Whew! Lots to wrap one's head about, or have wrapped around one's head.

First off: Comparing church polity to geopolitical entities can get very tricky, esp when the two you use are NATO and France. NATO would be a better parallel for, say the Anglican Communion, or the World Council of Churches, than an actual denomination. And while France is highly centralized, people still have a say in who runs the place and what goes on, which is quite different from what I see in the RC and LDS churches.

There is also the distinction between polity (how are we as a group governed) and beliefs (what do we as a group hold to be true). One might think that decentralized and democratic governance would allow for more liberal attitudes towards belief, but this is not always the case. Anglican churches can be very centralized in polity, yet very loose in belief; conversely, the Southern Baptist Convention is congregationalist in polity, but has become increasingly strict in determining what beliefs are allowed. At opposing ends of the spectrum are the Friends General Conference (practially anarchist in both belief and polity) and the Jehovah's Witnesses (extremely hierarchical and dogmatic). All this being said, a group can also change along either or both scales at any time, inevitably leading to tension and conflict within the group.

This certainly applied to the UUA and its predecessor groups. Just as American Unitarianism emerged out of the conflict between liberal and conservative wings of the Congregational churches, tensions continued between those pushing for even more openness and inclusiveness, and those seeking to maintain what they saw as core defining characteristics.

As a result, we've evolved into what many call a "covenantal" faith -- one centered on right relationship -- in contrast to a "creedal" faith's emphasis on correct belief. The tension comes from how we maintain both our idea of covenantal right relationship and the core principles by which we govern ourselves as a group. That is the balancing act which is at the center of our faith.

Paul Oakley said...

CC, thanks for this great omnibus answer!

As for other denominations that are congregational in polity, don't forget the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, the proudly self-declared fundamentalist piano-playing Campbellite/Restorationist sibling denomination (a term they vehemently reject) of the Disciples of Christ. There are approximately 6,000 independent congregations in this denomination. Their radically independent congregationalism doesn't even allow for an organization equivalent to the UUA or MFC or UUMA.

A couple of your paragraphs caught my attention for possible future response, but not now...

Great post!

Chalicechick said...


I can't imagine that congregations go through the training process then vote against it very often. Actually, I'd be surprised if that has ever happened, though stranger things have.

I'd imagine the social pressure to vote for it is pretty huge at that point. Had I been surrounded by the members of this church and convinced that becoming a Welcoming Congregation would hurt more than it would help, I'd like to think that I would have the guts to vote against it. But the rest of my church thinking of me as a homophobe if they found out is a pretty bitter pill, and that's assuming the vote was a secret ballot, which congregation votes usually aren't.

Also, it's easy to do painless good things like voting.

Reaching out to people who need you is hard, when they aren't the sort of people you're used to dealing with.


Eve said...

"...folks who come from Mormonism and Catholicism often have very Federalist expectations for churches and get pissy when they aren't met."

That hasn't been my experience at all. I came to UU from Mormonism and have been consistently refreshed and enthused by congregational polity. I have never, ever met a former Catholic UU who wanted the UUA President to be more authoritative like the Pope nor a former Mormon UU who wanted the congregation's budget determined by Boston (as LDS congregations' budgets are set by Salt Lake City).

Whenever I have wanted to start an initiative in my UU congregation (fair trade coffee at coffee hour, more contemporary music during worship), I find that the lifelong and nearly-lifelong UU's are "meh" at first -- that's not the way we've always done it here, would it really work in our local congregation, etc. Yet they are won over very easily and become huge cheerleaders of the new initiative when I provide evidence that other UU congregations are doing it, the UUA/UUSC/UUMN offers resources for it, etc. (Whereas I wasn't even looking at what others or national were doing except to bolster my case.) Perhaps I have the zeal of a convert for congregational polity.

Comrade Kevin said...

There's a balance between those who wish to save UU based on sweeping, almost grandiose notions and those who merely wish to know the particulars, and it comes down to whether those proposing new reforms are doing it to suit their own egos or for the benefit of other UUs. And this is true everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Cc, UU Church Fort Lauderdale voted against welcoming congregation in the 1980s and voted for it in the 1990s. The first effort was 100% gay run and failed, the second effort was a joint gay-straight effort that succeeded. AND even then we had some members leave and go across town (and come back a couple of years later)

Interesting that once you are Welcoming you are always Welcoming even though we probably only have maybe 25 of the member who voted for it and all else is now new.

So it happens and nothing is perfect.

TK said...

Dear CC,

Thank you very much for this extensive post about UUism and the UUA. I had some nebulous ideas about all this, but it really helped to have it codified.

I was raised First Baptist, which is congregationalist as you mentioned, but the minister had been in the church for 25+ years, and it had gotten a little ... culty. Plus my grandparents (large fx on me) were more conservative than the minister, and the minister's doctrine was that the Southern Baptists, with all that shouting and singing, were also going to Hell. I converted to RC in high school because they were so much more liberal.

My UU *Society* (see, I'm practicing!) have a 1/2-time minister who is absolutely wonderful, and I respect him mightily. However, the BoW is responsible for the other ~2 sermons/mo. I actually give a sermon for the first time in April.

I also appreciated the comment from Eve about how congregations reacted to new ideas. I'm trying, as we speak, to introduce more contemp music in the worship service. (We already use FT coffee.) At first, I got straight "oh-no-no-no, we don't do that," reaction, but I think I've won them over. Nice to know that others have blazed this particular trail before.

Thanks again,
TK the new UU

kimc said...

Reaching out to people who need you is hard, when they aren't the sort of people you're used to dealing with.

Yes, that is certainly our experience. My congregation is officially "Welcoming" but we don't seem to be as welcoming as we like to think we are.
And, as Joylightning said, we also are still "Welcoming" even though most of the people who went through the class are gone and we have many new people who weren't around when we offered it. Maybe the designation should expire unless you do something to keep it up.

PeaceBang said...

Well-done, CC! One little correction: UUs don't "hire" ministers (not even Garrison Keillor), we call them. Congratulations to the Noob. Since he is so new to the movement and in a position of leadership, I hope he'll ask his minister to take him out to lunch so he can learn more about the specific congregation, which I hope also has a handy and thorough guidebook for committee leaders.