Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Our Congregational Foundation — The Fields Well Planted

I did not intend to be writing a second blog series at the same time as I am working on developing a personal spiritual practice based in the 7 principles, but that seems to be what is happening. The blog discussion about congregationalism that has included Philocrites, Making Chutney, UU Intersections, Looking For Faith, and others has been wonderful.

I feel like I have become one of the Unitarian or Universalist pamphleteers or periodicalists that in the late 1800’s produced pamphlets debating and discussing issues of life, politics, and faith… perhaps that is what the blogs are becoming for our liberal faith.

As I read the articles on the topic of the emerging focus on congregationalism, and the burgeoning discussion about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, I realized that the points I was arguing might seem a little odd coming from me, especially for those who know me. I am a very strong supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, I have a love for our UU congregations deep in my heart, and I believe that the health and vitality of the movement of Unitarian Universalism depends on the health and vitality of our congregations. Without those congregations, our movement would cease to exist in very short order.

Without those congregations, liberal faith would be dismissed by many times many more than it is today. Our history, our congregations, and our connections give our faith an opportunity to spread our “good news” in ways that we never could otherwise. I was once part of a movement to found a “denomination” for Deism, and one of the things I discovered in the years of that effort is that without brick and mortar congregations that hold services, perform rituals and ceremonies, work in communities, and create space for right relationship, you are just spinning your wheels.

Our congregations are the foundational core of who we are as a movement, and care must be taken to see to their health, to their growth, and to their vitality. We continue to work to make them open and accepting places for all who can find a comfortable home within them. We continue to work to insure that they not only hold us when we are in pain, but challenge us to grow. They call us to give, not in fear of scarcity but in hope of abundance. From that giving, they call us to transform the world.

I have in other articles here at Celestial Lands been talking about a broader movement of Unitarian Universalism than what is represented by our congregations… a movement that includes Cons for Young Adults, and campus groups at universities. A movement that includes members of congregations, but also includes those who have visited, volunteered, and even donated to congregations without ever taking on the spiritual practice of church membership (a recent sermon of mine). A movement that includes soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who may never have walked into the doors of a congregation, but have either “Unitarian” or “Universalist” stamped on their identification tags (I’ve tried to get them both to fit, and they just wont go, so I have one of each).

But no matter how important I think it is that our movement of Unitarian Universalism stay open enough to allow for UU identity to be broadly available, it is true that that whole movement rests upon the foundation of our congregations… and the health and vitality of those congregations must be a primary concern of our movement.

I love our churches. I have visited or preached in UU churches in six states. I have gotten to know the congregations in Houston TX, in Knoxville TN, and in Chicago IL pretty well. Though it may not have seemed it when I was visiting or guest preaching, like most seminarians I study the congregations I visit. I have preached in large congregations and small lay-led fellowships. I have preached in Gothic looking cathedrals of our faith, and I have preached in a rented barn. This weekend I am honored to be preaching at one of the most renowned congregations of our faith, Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL.

All of that traveling has convinced me of one thing… I love our congregations. In every one I have been welcomed with open arms without an exception (although one was suspicious of my short hair and military demeanor until I told them I was a UU seminarian). One lay-led congregation in Kokomo, Indiana adopted me like a long lost son, and I am forever grateful to them, and will always count them among my friends. My home congregation on Galveston Island, in Texas loved me, taught me, and then sent me out. My internship congregation in Evanston, IL is a congregation of great hope, great potential, and wonderful hearted people who just get what it means to live a liberal faith. When I leave, I know I will do so with their love and support.

I probably seem a little over the top in my feelings and opinions about our churches, and I know that there is something of a “rose-colored glasses” tone to the above two paragraphs. I know our congregations are not perfect… but what in life is? Our congregations reflect our lives, and on the whole those lives and the congregations they reflect are positive forces in this world of negativity.

I have been storing up the experiences of our congregations for the “lean years” of ministerial life that are to come for me. As a military chaplain, I will spend long periods of time where there are no congregations of fellow liberal religionists even on the same continent as I am. I am trying to gain all of the experiences of our religious faith communities that I can now, to give me hope in the days when I am called to give hope to others.

Without those congregations, I could not go forth to do the work I am called to do. Without the support of our congregations, missionary and justice efforts by UU’s around the world and here at home would fail. Schools in the Khasi Hills of India would not have funding. Unitarian Churches in Transylvania would have less support. Tens of thousands of children would not have religious education. The institutional organizations of our movement would have no funding… and so much more. And, probably most importantly for me… without brick and mortar congregations holding worship, performing ceremonies, and working in communities, no one would take us seriously.

But this is not an “either / or” situation. We do not have to choose between having congregations or having a larger movement of Unitarian Universalism. We can, we should, and we must have both. Our congregations are the fields well planted, that annually produce grain. Our larger movement is the fields left fallow, and the new ground being tilled preparing for future planting. Our institutional movement is the roads connecting farms together, how we learn to grow more and better sustenance, and the way in which we share our bounty with others.

But it all begins, and depends upon the fields well planted… our congregations.

Yours in Faith,


2 Thoughts on “Our Congregational Foundation — The Fields Well Planted

  1. I feel like I have become one of the Unitarian or Universalist pamphleteers or periodicalists that in the late 1800’s produced pamphlets debating and discussing issues of life, politics, and faith… perhaps that is what the blogs are becoming for our liberal faith.

    Here here.

  2. “…this is not an “either / or” situation. We do not have to choose between having congregations or having a larger movement of Unitarian Universalism.” Right on! What we really need is support for both congregations and extra-congregational communities.

    I’ve really enjoyed your whole series of posts on congregationalism.

    And I too liked what your comparison of UU bloggers to pamphleteers; it’s exciting to be debating together the big questions of our faith.

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