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

Policy or Vision as the Mission of the Church?

Recently, in private conversation, on this blog, and among radio hosts I listen to, there has been conversation about why the liberal churches do not get involved in certain national policy issues… and each time I hear that call I cringe. Though I have friends in several of our UUA Advocacy Offices and social justice organizations, and have even written for the Washington DC Advocacy office blog, I still have a sense of unease when someone calls for our faith (or any religious faith) to be involved in the formulation, proposition, or support of policy.

I know that there are those who wish the UUA or other religious denominations would take a more pro-active stance in certain political issues. I know that I am probably in the minority with my discomfort. I do not mean to suggest that UU’s as individuals should not participate in the political process (they certainly should) nor do I mean to suggest that the church cannot form relationships with political and advocacy organizations that share its vision of the world.

Because, for me, that’s just it. The mission of the church is not policy, but vision.

Let us imagine some day that I am in a position to be the minister of someone serving in the congress. If that congressperson were to come to me and ask what I think about a particular bill, I hope I would decline to answer. Rather, I would continue what I hope would be an ongoing discussion with the congressperson about their vision of our faith, about our values and principles, about the teachings we hold dear, and about what responsibilities our faith calls us to.

Trust me, I have opinions on policy… my wife hears them every evening as we watch the news together. I write my congressman about them. Every once in awhile they creep into my writings here at Celestial Lands, though I try not to let that happen too often. On much of domestic policy, many of my regular readers and friends can guess what those opinions might be, although on foreign policy the guessing might be trickier…

However, the ministry and mission of the church, in my opinion, cannot be about policy. It must be about vision. It is the mission of the church (any church) to propose a vision of the world that is in line with their values and beliefs, and to try to bring together people who share that vision. It is the mission of the church to inspire people to take action in their lives based upon that vision, and to provide support and association with organizations that share that vision.

The prophetic witness of the church should be to point a lens, based upon their vision, upon the reality we are living. It is not prophetic to call people to a particular reform, but it is prophetic to call attention to where the suffering or hypocrisy may be (and to sometimes point this out within the faith as well as without). It is prophetic to point out where in the current world we are not living up to the vision for the world we hold as a church. When the prophetic becomes too linked to policy, it is no longer prophetic… it becomes mundane… we become not prophets, but lobbyists. I believe that the role of religious faith is to continually point out where we fall short of our ideals and values, and to present a vision of what the world might be like if we lived those ideals and values in their fullness.

When we come together as a faith, it should not be to debate the how, but the why. There are plenty of opportunities outside of church life for how to make reforms and changes… within the walls of the congregation is the time to share our visions, to share our hopes and dreams, to see where we are moved, and to explore what it is we would like the world to become. For the how, we go to a political party meeting… it is for the why that we come to church.

And there should be enough room within the faith for us to differ on the how, as we explore our agreement on the why.

In my early years as a Unitarian Universalist I was deeply uncomfortable with what was presented as the “political pre-requisites” of being a Unitarian Universalist. I found that I shared the vision of the world that Unitarian Universalism promoted, but I did not share what seemed to be the expected means and methods of working in the world for that vision. I still do not share all of those means and methods. So, for several years I bounced in and out of Unitarian Universalist Churches, believing deeply in the UU vision of the world but not so much in the assumed way to live those values, vision, principles, and beliefs.

This is why I regularly remind myself that, in my public persona as a minister, my role is vision, not policy. If I wanted to do policy, I would take off the robe and become a politician. As a minister of a prophetic faith, my role is values, principles, and story. My role is to highlight where we are not all we could be, and to call forth where we exceed our lesser selves. My role is to look for what is below the surface and call attention to it. My role is to try and see what we don’t want to see about ourselves. My role is to listen and facilitate all of our hopes and dreams into becoming a vision that can inspire.

It is the mission and purpose of the church to craft and share a vision of the world that is in-tune with our deepest held ideals and values, and to trust in individuals to find how to live that vision in their lives and in the world.

Our world is in desperate need of vision. It is too easy, in a sea of policy, politics, and compromise for vision to be lost, for the “why” to be lost, unless there are those dedicated to calling us back to it. This, I believe, is the role of the prophetic church.

Yours in Faith,

14 Thoughts on “Policy or Vision as the Mission of the Church?

  1. I’ll keep it short, as I posted quite a bit.

    When I was a young Marxist, my Comrades and I talked of Praxis in the spirit of Marx…. “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    While it’s been a long path from Marx, I still believe in Praxis and that your vision or belief is very less important than what you do, and if you come to Church what you believe is far less important than what you do by “doing Church”, and that in fact over time, while you may not change the world, you will certainly change; and that is very much the point of coming.

    When a Congressman asks for advice, when a congregant, when anyone asks, you must always be ready to draw on your experience and training to over advice on what is to be done. You don’t beat them over the head, or necessarily spell it out, but judge and define… they chose, they must and should because it’s about the doing, not the belief or vision. If you do, then the vision and belief will come.

  2. Bill,

    If you do not first have a vision, then is your doing not aimless?

    Yours in Faith,


  3. Thanks for this post, David. I, for one, agree with you.

  4. David, I’m largely in sympathy with your point of view. One of my favorite UUs describes herself (with great amusement) as “a token Republican in the UU church, and a token pro-choicer among Republicans,” or words to that effect. I certainly get uncomfortable with attempts to herd all UUs into the same, narrow political corner, and I feel much solidarity with your expressions of regret in past posts (I spent a good part of last evening reading your new PDF summarizing your 2008 writing) at being dissed by other UUs for holding views they didn’t agree with vis-a-vis the military and related subjects.

    But surely from time to time vision requires policy to be achieved. Or policy must be measured against a vision–and recommended for, or against, accordingly.

    Take, for instance, the issue of Gay Marriage. In my state three years ago there was a successful referendum vote to pass a state Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Our UU Church took a formal vote to endorse a “No” vote on the referendum. (While churches are not permitted under the tax laws to endorse candidates–people–they are permitted to endorse for or against pieces of legislation such as this one.) Our vision was about the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. But here was a policy question in which (forgive the cliche) the rubber met the road.

    That said, I would not want us to be coming out with positions every other day on every policy question. I like what our new UU President, Peter Morales, said today about focusing on compassion and democratic process in the health care debate–while also leaving room for differences of understanding about the specific sort of policy to achieve health care reform.

    But while I share your preference for vision and reluctance to dictate policy, sometimes policy decisions and recommendations arise naturally from that vision, and it’s important not to shy away from that.

  5. David,
    You are less in the minority than you might think.
    Also, there is a difference between liberal people of faith getting involved in these issues and churches getting involved. I wish everybody on the liberal side would see the difference. Things get a little crazy when churches get involved (just look at the Catholic church as an example).

  6. Dairy State Dad,

    Of course I believe the policy is necessary for anything to actually happen… I’m not arguing against that. I’m simply stating that I believe the development of policy is outside the realm of what the church should do. Now, I do believe in partnerships, in associations with organizations that do focus on policy work.

    I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Many of the UU congregations in the Chicago area are associated with a policy based community organization called “United Power”. Many organizations who share a similar view of the world and a vision for the future are involved with United Power. I think this is a good thing.

    In the model I am working with, congregations focus on the “why” they are moved to work in an issue, and through associations provide opportunities for congregants to discover ways to “do”, inspired by the “why” that fit with who they are and how they feel called to participate as individuals.

    What I am struggling against is the continued blurring of the line between a religious faith and an activist organization. I believe that the blurring of that line is a detriment to both.

    Now, making statements on issues, if framed properly, can be a deepening of the vision of the congregation, and not policy, advocacy, and activism. Let’s take the example you used, Same-Sex marriage.

    Rather than stating that the congregation supports a particular bill or law, I would frame it that part of the congregation’s vision of the world includes where no one is discriminated against because of their sexuality practiced with other adults. I would then seek partnerships where the congregents who feel called to can find productive ways to work in the world for this cause.

    Our justice work within the church becomes about crafting and sharing our vision, and forming alliances to do work in the world.

    Yours in faith,


  7. “Policy or Vision as the Mission of the Church?”

    Does it have to be an either/or equation David?

    I agree that Vision obviously has to come before and *inform* policy, as your response to Bill Baar suggests, but why can’t a religion or church have certain policies that arise out of its vision aka “mission statement”? Certainly this can become problematic if the church tries to make its own religious policies into public policy by influencing the political process but I see no reason why *any* church or religion cannot create its own religious policies on various moral and ethical issues. OTOH I do see how doing so might cause some people who disagree with those policies to feel excluded from the church/religion.

  8. Perhaps the term “policy” is a little mis-leading… because what I mean by it in this context is “public-policy”. Churches can make policies about whatever they wish, although they should certainly be aware of its issues around welcoming.

    Perhaps what I should have said was for Churches to focus on sharing and promoting their vision for the world, as well as using their prophetic imperative… and yet avoid moving into the realm of politics.

    Why? Because I believe that it is hard for those in the depths of politcal fighting, compromises, and contests to keep their eye on the vision… And it should be the role of the churches to continue to call us all back to the vision.

    Now, in many ways I am writing this to religious professionals and congregational lay-leaders acting on behalf of the congregation or the denomination… As individuals representing themselves… they can do policy and politics to their hearts content… What I am talking about is what we do in official capacities representing a religious organization…

    And in that, I believe we need to focus on promoting a vision of the world, and not on inserting our religous faith into the nitty gritty of policy and politics.

    Yours in Faith,


  9. If you do not first have a vision, then is your doing not aimless?

    No, far from it. Covenant with us. Practice a Church Life. Your vision may will come. It may take a very long time, and you my not see it until your last moment, but it will come.

    We are most centrally the Church for those who are blind, for whom visions do not exist. We only say “do this”, and offer hope the vision will come if you do.

    We preach praxis; not vision. We do not describe the world, we offer a path to change your spirit.

  10. David, you are navigating your way among many pits here, and doing a good job. Thanks very much for this post.

    Although the “political position” of UUs is very comfortable to me — and since I was brought up a UU, it shaped me — I too am uncomfortable at the idea that of-you’re-a-UU-then-you-must-believe-X. We sometimes seem in the position of having no religious creed but having a political creed, and I believe we should find that unacceptable.

    As far as having policies is concerned, we are a religion, not the League of Women Voters. I am a past LWV president as well as an elected official, so I am all for involvement in the process, but I believe there is a bright line between my own involvement and my church’s institutional involvement. That bright line is a mighty thin line, however, but I believe it’s our responsibility as both UUs and Americans to locate it.

    As a religious organization, our mission statement should be about our religious vision. UUs have a wider view than do many about what a religious vision is, and I’m not suggesting that we narrow our vision. But our vision should not be that only candidate B is acceptable, or that a given legislative bill is the only way to achieve a given vision. Peter Morales’ words do not limit us, they protect us. Remembering that bright line, we are free to be ourselves as long as we remember that we are 501(c)(3) and not 501(c)(4).

    So far I’m speaking legalistically. It sounds like my focus is on protecting our non-profit status. But I’m actually trying to protect what Forrest Church has called “the gospel of Unitarianism” — our good news. If our good news is that within a ‘religious” organization we promote and protect intellectual freedom, it must be with the understanding that there are many varieties of truth all serving the same spirit.

    Where I think we have problem with, for instance, a Catholic bishop speaking out and saying that, for instance, no confessing Catholic can support freedom of choice — is that UU is not the diametrical opposite of Catholicism. We are both religions, but they accept a central, defining authority and we do not. A bishop can speak to a Catholic in a way that would not only be intolerable to us individually but is unacceptable within our definitions of ourselves as UUs. When we object to that, it’s because we’re responding to that bishop as if he were within a UU context, which of course he is not. Within a Catholic context, he’s doing his job, reminding a Catholic that to be Catholic is to accept certain restrictions.

    That bishop is doing exactly the job that David describes as his job.

  11. We accept a central and defining authority but find it within each sovereign person. (Read Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Sovereignty: God, State, and Self to see how that’s going).

    Trying to resolve the conundrum of radical autonomy and what we owe each other one of the ongoing problems. Trying to define it in a vision or mission statement a lost cause.

    I once told my Minister after Church that she gave a great sermon, I agreed with her vision that Sunday so to speak. She turned away from me and looked around the sanctuary and said the sermons are a very tiny piece of what we DO here each Sunday.

    That’s stuck with me. What we UUs DO. What we’ve DONE. That action speaks.

    In new UU class we ask people to stand on a spectrum of belief from God to No God as a way to get folks talking about belief. That habits increasingly useless to me. I would just say forget where you stand. If you have no vision, fine, stay with use a DO Church with us, and I think you’ll become a different person for it. You’ll grow. And you’ll grow in Community, which is the only answer to the problems of lonely autonomy.

  12. Bill,

    Once again, I think you have set up a strawman argument in contrariance to my original essay… In other words, I think you have misconstrued my original argument in order to argue against something I did not even say. When you did this the first time in this line (though the second or third time this week), I tried to answer it as briefly as possible, by implying an answer with a question, as your post was not in line with the point of the essay. That did not work… so I will answer both my own argument and the strawman argument you brought up directly.

    No where am I arguing against doing… I too agree that our faith is one of deeds not creeds. I believe you are conflating your arguement with mine.

    First, the article is not about praxis at all… the article is about at what level in the discourse in our society do we, as a faith, engage as a faith? What I am calling us to is for our engagement as a faith (not as individuals) to be at the level of ideas, of vision, of principles, and of values.

    I am arguing that we (as a faith, not as individuals) do not engage in public discourse at the level of policy or politics. I am arguing that our role (as a faith, not as individuals) is to continually call the rest of society back to those ideas, vision, principles and values.

    The majority of those whom we celebrate for “doing” in our faith did not do the acts we celebrate as official acts of their congregations, their denomination, or their faith. Clara Barton was inspired by her Universalist faith to care for soldiers on the battlefied… she did not do that as an official act of Universalism She was inspired by her Universalist faith to found the American Red Cross… but she did not found it as an arm of the Universalist Church of America. The same is true of Susan B. Anthony and the founding of the National Women’s Sufferage Association.

    Both of them realized that the Church was not the place to engage in the world at the level of politics and policy… and in each of their lives the church was the source in their lives of vision, inspiration, principles, and values.

    James Reeb was representing more than himself when he went to Selma, he was representing a minister of our faith. However, he was not doing the work of policy or politics, but rather the work of calling society to a vision of equality and justice… and so in that I think that he was in line with what I envision for our faith. I am not against us doing… just our faith doing politics and policy.

    I agree, we “do” church, and that is central to how we engage with church… but it is not enough to be the why we engage with church. I agree we are a faith of praxis, but praxis that is not guided by a larger vision is a journey that is forever in the desert… not just 40 years.

    There are many expressions of the vision that I think rests at the Center of UU’ism, but one of the most common (if not well understood) versions of it is found within the 7 principles…

    •The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
    •Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
    •The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
    •Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

    The other three are more about how we do church… but these four represent a core within a vision of the world that, for many, is at the center of our faith.

    While it was not the point of the article, and since you brought up praxis, what I am saying to you in answer to the issue you brought up between vision and doing (rather than the difference between vision and policy that I was discussing) is that Praxis that is not regularly called back to a vision of what you want the world to be can easily become unfocused, compromised, and lost.

    And, if we stay wandering in the desert, we never move closer to creating the world we dream of.

    Yes, if you stay and “do” church with us, you might become a different person… but what does being that different person call you too? I refuse to accept that our faith asks nothing more of us than to become a “different” person… even a better one.

    Yours in Faith,


  13. Again, David, I don’t think we are so far apart. But it does strike me that sometimes more than just vision is called for–that advocacy at a moment in time is important.

    Rather than stating that the congregation supports a particular bill or law, I would frame it that part of the congregation’s vision of the world includes where no one is discriminated against because of their sexuality practiced with other adults. I would then seek partnerships where the congregants who feel called to can find productive ways to work in the world for this cause.

    And my church did that, too, granting Fair Wisconsin (the organization fighting the anti-gay-marriage amendment) space from which to organize door-to-door canvassing in the campaign, and inviting those who wished to to participate in that activity (my teenage son was one, something that made me very proud).

    To repeat, I am not really in favor, for the most part, of the church jumping on every single political issue and taking a position. But even though I fundamentally agree with the spirit of what you’re saying here, I have trouble with it in certain contexts where the resulting action or advocacy is just absolutely required.

    I’m trying to imagine my UU church 3 years ago issuing a statement to the effect of “Our vision for society is one in which no one is discriminated against because of their sexuality practiced with other adults,” and then NOT taking a position on a specific ballot measure that would materially enforce that self-same discrimination. I just can’t wrap my head around that.

    I do think several circumstances made this a special case.

    1) The amendment’s highly sweeping nature. (It also sought to outlaw other institutions that would be the “substantial equivalent” of marriage–meaning that civil unions or domestic partnerships were likely barred. That aspect is now being challenged by a new state domestic partnership law, by the way.)

    2) It was not the church minister or board who made the formal anti-endorsement of the proposed anti-gay-marriage amendment, but the congregation as a whole, acting after a formal, secret-ballot vote at a meeting scheduled in advance and publicized within the congregation.

    All that said, I think for the most part your basic principle is sound. I think as a rule we are much wiser to adhere to a broad vision and to encourage individuals, as you suggest, to find ways to align themselves outside the church body with specific activist groups that might seek to directly influence political action where policy is concerned.

    As I said before, in the current health care debate I think it’s good that our leadership in the UUA has sought to stay above the fray of policy specifics and focused instead on visions of compassion and respectful dialogue.

    I just think that from time to time, events are going to occur where vision and advocacy cannot help but merge.

  14. This article in UU World is exploring some of the same energy that I was touching on in this article…


    Yours in Faith,


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