The heart of the Unitarian Universalist Association

A while ago, I asked readers to make comments about how the Unitarian Universalist Association could right it after hypothetical insolvency. What would survive and what would not? Thanks to those who commented.

I think this kind of question is helpful in understanding what strengths our current system has and how these can be supported while we remove energy from those parts that take more than give.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is a chimera. Unlike a hybrid that merges the aspects of two distinct entities, a chimera bears the tissue or organs of different beings in one body, like a sphinx or griffin. The greater part of this body is associational and missional, and this is the orthodox way to understand the UUA. Reading the actual purposes of the UUA, we see “the primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles. “ This makes the UUA sound like a home missions agency (I wish it were moreso) and a coordinating body. In fact, it does more. Rather, it is more. Besides this strict programatic mission, there is also an ecclesiastic or connectional component.

The reason the Universalist General Convention was redubbed the Universalist Church of America was more than simple marketing. The national body, of its own authority, had a ministry to and for the component state conventions and parishes. This isn’t a case of “the reality only being with the local church”, and the Unitarians, if less definatively, could muster joint ministry apart from the parish. The best known example is the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches a.k.a. the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in metro Boston. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the source of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s authority, and to a lesser degree the powers associated with Settlement and Church Staff Finances. (I still wish the parishes were subject to fellowship authority, for which they could be drummed out for cause in extreme circumstances, not unlike violating ministers.) Plus, and this is where it comes home, there is an intuitive sense — a synergism — that binds the parishes and members, and in an additional way the pastors and now teachers.

So, should the UUA ever fall on hard times and wither, I think it is this secondary-yet-vital element that should and will survive. Much of the programming in any denomination — and with our culture of independent affiliates, ours perhaps more than many — comes from “off-program” mission societies, professional groups, apostolates, consultants, and businesses. The last of these is the one we’ve cultivated the least; no, t-shirt vendors don’t do so much for us. There are a lot of services that — if the price was right — could be farmed out to commercial interests. Other services could be reduced to a computer algorithm and be generated from a database and server. But the core reason for the Association being is an intangible and tanglible set of relationships and responsibilities.

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