Monday, November 16, 2009

Lecture #10: "The Future History of Unitarian Universalism"

[Before I left for sabbatical I posted the first 9 of the history lectures I delivered last July at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin. Here is an expanded version of the tenth and final lecture in that series. I have kept the tone the same as if I were delivering it to MWLS students.]

I believe in Unitarian Universalism. I have faith in this faith.
I believe in this faith because I have received its blessings.
I believe in this faith because it has transformed my life.
I believe in this faith because it has nourished me.

Yet, I believe in this faith despite so much evidence of its failings.

I believe in this faith despite the fact that there are the same number of UUs in the United States today as there were when our two movements merged in 1961, though the population of the United States has grown by 125 million since 1961.

I believe in this faith despite the fact that it continues to be as predominantly Caucasian as it has always been while our nation grows increasingly racially diverse every day.

I believe in this faith despite the Garrison Keillor jokes about us, jokes that share similar punch lines and whose “humor” lies in the assertion that Unitarian Universalism is not a “real” religion or not even a religion at all.

I believe in this faith despite the thousands of Unitarian Universalists who talk and act as if their own religion is not a real religion.

I believe in this faith despite an interview with the star actress Ginnifer Goodwin in W Magazine in which she talks about her spiritual life, says that she grew up going to UU Sunday school and that she “doesn’t go to church but considers herself a Unitarian.”

I believe in this faith despite the number of UUs that statement describes.

I believe in this faith despite so much, but still I believe.

We have come to the last lecture in this series on the history and theology of Unitarian Universalism. Over the previous 9 lectures I have covered the rich history and theology of our faith in the broadest of strokes. The time constraints, as well as the constraints of my own knowledge, have limited us. Instead of spending a part of each day together for a week we could spend lifetimes studying our history and theology. My hope is that some of you will go further and deeper in the study of our roots. My other hope is that you will bring some of what you have learned back to your congregations.

In this last lecture I want to talk about the future history of Unitarian Universalism. (This is an easy lecture to deliver because I can basically make up whatever I want.) What I hope to do is cast a vision and say some things about what the future of our movement might be.

I am chastened in delivering this lecture by some of the comments made by Rev. Ian Evison in his Leadership Development presentations this week. Rev. Evison has spoken about the tendency for many of our leaders, lay and ordained, to embrace faddishness. We have placed our beliefs in small things believing those things will bring great changes, to loosely paraphrase a statement made by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs in a lecture he gave to the Pacific Southwest District of the UUA in 2004.

Earlier this week Rev. Evison mentioned fads ranging from Rogerian psychology to Policy Governance. “If only we developed the ability to listen to one another with greater empathy…” “If only we adopted a new governance model…” This is not to say that deeper listening or the organizational principles of John Carver are bad things, far from it. It is to say that the future of our movement and of our churches depends on doing more than adopting the latest trends. This also means that in this lecture I need to do something more than to feed you a few new fads.

From time to time I have been guilty of the kind of faddish thinking which I just described. After my second year in the ministry I spent a great deal of time studying Emergent Christianity including several visits to Kansas City’s most successful Emergent Church. For a time I was deeply convinced that this form of “doing church” could be adapted to Unitarian Universalism with great benefit to our movement. I actually learned a lot including some small things that I applied successfully in the congregation I serve, but I did not discover the cure for all that ails Unitarian Universalism.

I want to present one of the main problems that I see facing Unitarian Universalism through the telling of a rather extreme story. Tom Monaghan was the founder of the Domino’s Pizza, a chain that he sold for approximately $1 Billion in 1998. Monaghan is a conservative Catholic and sunk a lot of his fortune into the building of a conservative Catholic university, Ave Maria, and the development of a town near Lakeland, Florida. Monaghan attracted a great deal of media scrutiny when he claimed that the town he was developing would be a conservative Catholic utopia. He claimed that cable television would not carry adult films, pharmacies in the town would not carry contraception, and that abortion would be unavailable within the town’s limits.

Whether Monaghan’s Catholic utopia actually materialized according to plan or not, the sheer idea of this town raises significant questions. A town, in its classic sense, is a mixture of public and private space. In a classic town individuals and families own residences and businesses—all private in nature. However, the town also contains public space: parks, schools, public buildings, and conservation areas. Even the roads and the sidewalks are public. The town’s population gets to vote on issues that impact public spaces and “public works.” They get to elect representatives. Monaghan’s town would be quite different. The town would exist as a quasi-corporate space. People’s houses, perhaps, might constitute private space, though I am led to imagine that there would be less privacy even within the home.

While Monaghan’s Florida town may be extreme, it may bear some startling similarities to the suburban landscapes that surround most large urban areas. It may come down to a matter of semantics to try to decide whether a subdivision or a gated community counts as corporate space or private space. This question may be largely academic as long as the corporate developer is driven by profit and not by a socio-religious ideology. However, one thing I might point out about many suburban environments is that they lack public space. The architecture of many suburban homes emphasizes the back deck instead of the front porch. Larger and more expensive homes may contain a “home theater,” an exercise room, or even a basketball court—and I mean an indoor basketball court, not a piece of wood and a hoop attached above the garage where neighborhood kids gather after school.

What I am getting at here is not a point about wealth but a point about community. Where do people gather? Where do people meet? In most parts of the world the public square is used. In the Joseph Priestley biography, The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson writes about how public meetings and the salon culture in Europe contributed to everything from momentous scientific discoveries to the development of political philosophy. (As I traveled in Ecuador and Peru in September and October of 2009, I saw people gathering in public spaces everywhere I went.)

Too often our American landscape is lacking for public space. Judging from stories that parents in the congregation I serve have told me about their 5th graders playing town league soccer games that start at 10:30 at night because of a lack of available fields, much of our public space is inadequate. What does it mean that the mall—a corporate space—is a favored place to hang out for so many youth?

Let me bring the discussion back to churches. Many suburban mega-churches feature coffeehouses, fitness centers, gymnasia, sports fields, rock climbing walls, and other attractions. I think it has been the tendency of many religious liberals to scoff at these features as nothing more than marketing tools designed to seem appealing to the secular masses. However, in light of my observations about the paucity of available public space, I could argue that these churches are filling a need that is not being met in the larger community.

Now, allow me to bring the conversation back to Unitarian Universalism. I believe that Unitarian Universalism needs to have a voice in those areas where public space is especially threatened. Unfortunately, it is in these suburban and exurban areas that our churches are too rare. Though we have had various church planting movements in the last six decades — A. Powell Davies’ success at planting churches in the Washington D.C. area in the 1950s, the Fellowship Movement from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the Extension program more recently — we do not come from a church planting tradition. Alice Blair Wesley has pointed out that Unitarianism in America did not begin; it became. Unitarianism, as we learned, had its origins in the shifting theology of the Standing Order Congregationalist churches in the Northeast. Unitarians did not start those churches; those churches became Unitarian. I, for one, am not content to sit around waiting and hoping that other religious movements adopt the commitment to justice and the commitment to theological pluralism that our congregations embody.

About three years ago I authored a thought piece entitled “Other Impediments to Growth.” This essay circulated widely on the internet. UU consultant Peter Bowden reprinted it on his website with my permission. My thought piece was read by the UUA Board of Trustees who later sent a team of several board members to interview me about my thoughts on growth. That essay was premised on three suppositions.

First, churches that have ministerial leadership from the beginning tend to be more successful than those that bring in ministerial leadership later in the process.

Second, it is easier for a 550 member church to become an 850 member church than it is for a 350 member church to become a 550 member church. It is easier for a 350 member church to become a 550 member church than it is for a 200 member church to become a 350 member church. It is easier for a 200 member church to become a 350 member church than it is for a 100 member church to become a 200 member church. And, it is easier for a 100 member church to become a 200 member church than it is for a 50 member church to become a 100 member church. As churches grow larger, their growth tends to come more easily.

Third, our current system of ministerial preparation offers no incentives for ministers who wish to plant churches. In fact, our current system of ministerial preparation disinclines ministers who may have an interest or a vocation for church planting from pursuing this avenue. I can point to only two Unitarian Universalist ministers in the last decade who have planted churches that were not heavily subsidized with hundreds of thousands of dollars of start up money. The two are Rev. David Owen-O’Quill who has launched Micah’s Porch in the Wicker Park area of Chicago and Rev. Ron Robinson who has launched an organic church plant called The Living Room in Turley, Oklahoma.

I will spare you a rehashing of that thought piece for now. Instead, let me share the conclusions I reached. I concluded that we will have to change the way we train and form many of our ministers. I argued that our insistence on a learned clergy was outmoded. I called for large congregations to train prospective ministers in house while making use of various educational and developmental opportunities that probably will not resemble the semester based residential seminary model. I called for our large churches to send out the ministers they have trained (with ideally 200 parishioners) to start a separate congregation in the same metropolitan area where the large church is located.

Under this plan the new church would begin at a size that is larger than the plateaus that smaller congregations get stuck at. The previous church would regain members quickly; the larger you are the easier it is for you to attract new members. This minister leading the new congregation would continue to be held in care by colleagues as she or he continued on a plan of professional development that would include eventually earning a Masters of Divinity degree. However, the ultimate judge of fitness for ministry would be how well the minister fared in nurturing and growing a religious community, not whether she earned a diploma or satisfactorily completed the process established by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

You can read that thought piece for yourself. Rather than predict what Unitarian Universalism might look like five years or ten years or fifty years in the future, I want to make several bold assertions about what I believe Unitarian Universalism needs to do if it is to have a future. These assertions reflect my best thinking about our movement. Whenever possible I will link the ideas I share to pieces where my thinking is more fully developed.

First, I believe it is imperative that we adjust assumptions about to whom our faith is able to speak. One way of thinking about growth has been to attempt to attract more people like the people already in our pews. It has been said that Unitarian Universalists are most demographically similar to the average NPR listener. Therefore, our best growth strategy is to purchase NPR’s mailing list and send postcards, or just to buy advertising space during NPR programs. Unfortunately, this is self-limiting. Just as our nation is changing demographically and geographically, we must learn to speak of our faith in new ways. Our faith is impoverished if we believe that we can only speak to those with doctorates and advanced degrees. We must change the ways we speak. A major way to do this might be to change the sense that our churches are places where “like-minded” people gather to the sense that our churches are places where people with similar concerns gather to effect changes in the world. In this way the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is a step in the right direction. The invitation to stand on the side of love and to work with us for justice is not an invitation that excludes based on education, ethnicity, race, or socio-economic class. However, one criticism of Standing on the Side of Love is that it may not have articulated itself as well as it could have. Standing on the Side of Love for Marriage Equality is awesome. Our work does not end with marriage equality any more than Martin Luther King’s work ended with desegregating the Montgomery buses. Standing on the Side of Love is not about the changing of this law or the overturning of that statute. It is about the work of human liberation that is at the heart of all prophetic religious traditions.

Second, I believe it is time for Unitarian Universalists to reexamine and to revisit our relationship with the larger culture. Unitarian Universalism’s relationship with the larger culture is a bit tricky to pin down. On one hand, we do not think of the secular world as the realm of Satan as many conservative Christian sects teach. On the other hand, many Unitarian Universalists adopt a counter-cultural stance, opting to pursue lifestyles that eschew consumerism and materialism, for example. I think there are realms where Unitarian Universalist congregations can and should challenge the dominant culture, especially around the time pressures that the culture imposes on so many of us. It is truly countercultural to choose to defy the dominant culture in a way that provides more family time.

Third, I believe that new Unitarian Universalist congregations of the future may look significantly different from those that exist today. Some congregations may not function under the model of Congregational Polity. Some congregations may not count members or even have a concept of what membership means. Some congregations may follow the model of our congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and explore the variety of ways of being a multi-site congregation. One congregation may decide to embed another congregation within it. Future congregations will structure themselves in ways that I cannot even imagine.

I thank the members of the Midwest Leadership School for attending this series of lectures and also thank all those who have taken the time to read these lectures on this blog.
I believe in the future of our faith.
I know that it has changed the course of history and believe that it can have that power again.
I know that is has saved lives and believe that it is continuing to save lives even as I speak and write.
I know that our congregations provide, as our new UUA President puts it, “a home for the spiritually homeless.” May our doors open ever wider.
I believe in our power to shape the future of our faith in ever more hopeful ways.