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

The Center of a Liberal Faith Movement

What it means to be a Unitarian Universalist has been on my heart this last week.  Not surprisingly, considering that many UU’s are currently thinking about similar things in reaction to the recent white paper from Rev. Peter Morales titled “Congregations and Beyond”.  I know there is a lot behind that paper that is not seen on the surface… internal UUA politics between the President and the Board; the latent energy around the UUA disaffiliation of groups a few years ago; reaction to the ascendance of some of the Congregational Polity Purists in UUA issues; many of the inherent tensions between a Carver Style Policy Governance, and something more designed for a religious faith, such as a Hotchkiss style Governance and Ministry system.

I also know that my own pre-conceptions are wrapped up in this.  I despise Carver Style Policy Governance.  I think it is a travesty when it is applied in any kind of religious setting.  I think it is antithetical to the purposes of a religious faith.  As every congregation I have ever served has heard me say, the purpose of religious faith is not efficiency, it is spiritual growth.  I am, however, a fan of the work that Dan Hotchkiss has done, to adapt the best parts of Carver to match the purposes and needs of religious life.  I also have expectations that the President of the UUA be a prophet and a visionary, not an administrator.  I also have long thought that if we make Congregational Polity Purity the center of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, then we deserve to be the declining religion we are thought to be.

There is a tension that is inherent in “Organized Religion”, and that is a tension between “organized” and “religion”.  I often begin my work with a board around Governance transition with a reading from the first page of Dan Hotchkiss’ book Governance and Ministry.  He says it better than I ever could.

“Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be, and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above self-interest, and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo.

Organization, on the other hand, conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity. People sometimes say “Institutions are conservative,” and smile as if they had said something clever. But conservation is what institutions do. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos. Organizations can be flexible, creative, and iconoclastic, but only by resisting some of their most basic instincts.

No wonder “organized religion” is so difficult! Congregations create sanctuaries where people can nurture and inspire each other – with results no one can predict. The stability of a religious institution is a necessary precondition to the instability religious transformation brings. The need to balance both sides of this paradox – the transforming power of religion and the stabilizing power of organization – makes leading congregations a unique challenge.”

The question that has been on my heart is whether the “Organized” can ever fully encircle the “Religion” without ending that which makes it religious?  I wonder if in trying to define what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist through the means of our congregational life, if we have been trying to exert control over that which is ultimately uncontrollable?

The art of religious governance is not creating a perfectly controlled institution.  The art of religious governance and organization is knowing how to bring just enough order into  the beautiful complexity of religious faith so that we can walk in religious life together… and not so much order as to stifle the creativity of and complexity of the human religious spirit.

In congregational life we do define who is a member of a particular church.  That is a necessary and good aspect of religious organization for a congregation.  But membership in a particular congregation does not and should not be what defines an individual’s religious identity.  What is true at the micro level does not necessarily translate to the macro level.  When we move to trying to link membership in a congregation to a person’s religious identity, then we have gone too far toward organization, and are stifling the human religious impulse.

Now, here’s where I think I part with Rev. Morales… I’m not yet sold that the current Unitarian Universalist Association can be the center for a wider Unitarian Universalist Movement.  I have not seen in the UUA the necessary ability at the art of balancing the paradox between the creative impulse of religion and the organization of institutionalism.  I wonder if the best we can hope for from the UUA is a recognition that they do not own the brand of Unitarian Universalism, that the movement of Unitarian Universalism is larger than our congregations… and then have the UUA focus on the strength and well-being of our congregations.

I wonder if perhaps we need another center for the wider movement…

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David


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