The Unitarian Fellowship movement was the most successful liberal church growth program in living memory. It was not perfect, but given how different these fellowships were from what came before, it’s amazing it worked — or was allowed to work — at all.

The Unitarian Fellowships get a bad rap today, which I think odd as there’s no institutional plan for any new church starts. Little wonder what does get developed often looks like these fellowships. Cue the naysayers. “So many failed” — which is even more true of restaurants, but people still establish them. I figure that without a risk of failure, there can not be an opportunity for growth. But I do have misgivings: mainly that the Unitarian Fellowship movement came at a time of great optimism, an unparalleled birth rate and social pressure to attend churches. Those days are over, and I’m not complaining.

But one objection keeps coming up, and few confront it: that the fellowships were anti-clerical. Some were (and are) and some were not. But so what if they were?

A church can uphold its mission without making a false mortgage to unsuited forms. If a congregation said, “we feel be can live our our mission best by renting space, limiting our activity and not calling a minister” then they deserve support for clear thinking and resolute decision-making. Or perhaps this church would say, “we prefer to develop our own leaders — for governance and spiritual care alike.”

More power, I think. If there’s a problem, it is too often a lack of direction and that can be found in congregations both with and without a minister. Churches are not employment agencies for ministers, and if a congregation can find its way without one, it should be supported — or at least respected — on these terms without smirking or derision.

21 Replies to “Anti-clerical?”

  1. Sometimes I have wondered if the phenomenon being labelled as “anti-clericalism” is truly anti-clergy. Or is it, perhaps, “pro lay ministry”? Or perhaps it is against certain clergy-centered styles of authoritarian leadership where “father knows best”?

    I think that underlying the anti-clergy concern, is often the unspoken notion that a real congregation has clergy; and that if you don’t want or need clergy, then you are refusing to “grow up” and “get real”.

  2. I heard Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George on a talk show once mention his Father was anti-clerical. The host asked what that meant and George said his Father didn’t think your Priest should be your friend. You went to a Priest for the services you expect from a Priest. You didn’t go to him for anything else. That puts a healthy boundary on clerics too. I wonder if the success in the 50’s could in part be attributed to a sense of anti-clericism in that sense by everyone involved: clerics and laity.

  3. While I agree with Derek, I think there’s a big difference between the anti-religious/anti-clerical mission of the fellowships and the minister-less religious community. Let’s be honest about what the fellowships wanted to be: conversation clubs operating under the rubric of free religion (ironic, since so many of the most staunch members would have described themselves as not religious). Was “spiritual care of the members” really in the vision of those fellowships? I think rarely, as the word “spiritual” gave so many of them the heebie-jeebies.

  4. I’m don’t think anti-Clerical = Minister-Less religous community.

    Anti-Clerical to me has always meant being against Clerics using their authority outside the religous community.

  5. I’m going to disagree with Peacebang here. I think that she’s expressing a common impression or understanding of what fellowships started to be, as opposed to what developed (which did have some anti-clerical, conversation club characteristics).

    Fellowships were (while the formal program was running) organized with the assistance of Monroe Husbands. I’ve been fortunate enough to *know* several of the founders and charter members of one of those fellowships for over a decade. I don’t think a one of them is/was a theist. Stop and think about this–these people cared enough to want a church that didn’t look like the ones they’d fled, or the ones that existed locally (in small communities, almost in all case, that meant right of mainstream, and quite conservative). They spent vast amounts of time and money to start congregations up. They could have had the things that they’re derided for without the time, trouble and expense.

    Yes, they were very wary of ministers. And they also sought ministry. Perhaps, in both cases, they had cause–in their experiences and in the times.

    But they weren’t brand new Unitarians or UUs, all of them (some were, some weren’t). One couple had been members of Community Church of New York, and the husband spoke very fondly of Rev. John Haynes Holmes. The very few who were actually somewhat rabid in their desire to be and remain lay led were… well, very few. The first call for a minister here exceeded 95% approval. Anti-clerical? No. But they wanted to negotiate their relationship; they’d gone from nothing at all to land in the midst of cattle grazing land to a building (with no funds other than their own–hardly the act of people who just wanted a conversation club), and they acted, too.

    To be honest, PB, I think you’ve been unfair. I can show you the 86 year old man who’s been an utter pillar of the church for 50 years–served on the board, cut grass, raised money, cleaned toilets, fixed things, run the nursery (for over a decade), and who has only very, very warily adopted language that acknowledges what he’s been all along, a religious Humanist. He’s spiritual, but the word triggers a certain amount of heebie-jeebies for him–not the actuality.

    They’ve been “gathered together in worship [another word that’s taken a decade’s work to make tolerable–though they’ve been fine, even enthusiastic, about the content, most of them…] and reverence” for decades. They’ve taken care of each other’s joys and losses, illnesses, good fortunes, and deaths. They’ve made space at “their” table for the influx of seekers and Pagans and Buddhists and theists–including Christians. They were startled to find that a significant number of such were already among them, just closeted, but more comfortable and happy in that community, doing good work, than they’d be elsewhere.

    But people didn’t freak out or complain over a communion service (contextualized in relation to our Transylvanian kin), nor many other things.

    My own sense and perception is that fellowships became what they were in part because of the times, and the larger culture. And because they were isolated, existing in small communities (mostly, or for most of their existence) in what were relative backwaters (and certainly to UUism). Cranky at times, strongly opinionated, and gee… that’s not like other UUs. They were ignored, largely. And to a degree, they survived like the small congregations in Transylvania, feeling isolated, a bit beleaguered, and entirely on their own. UUA attentions during the Fellowship program were largely for startups; after it… they essentially ceased. No wonder they felt so little connection to the movement, to Boston, and didn’t “get” professional ministers. Can’t really blame them.

    But I’ve watched them–and I’m not just speaking of my own congregation; I’m in a position to observe a couple others, too–open up and grow.

    There’d be so many fewer of us, and in so many fewer places, without them. Ulrich’s stats say we’d be poorer by at least 30% of our numbers (members and congregations). Feeding the homeless, caring for each other. Attending worship–in the sanctuary (I’m using the words that are moving into accepted use now). Talking about spirituality (1/6 of all our members signed up for a single, very over-full, session of BYOT II (cross section from founder to brand new member), and 1/7 signed up for a class on UU spirituality (cross section from founder ot not even a member yet).

    At times, it seems to me that the one community that’s fair game for bashing amongst UU ministers is fellowships.

  6. We are a very tiny New England church mentioned in an old blog of yours back in August 2007. We had spun off from Leicester Federated Church and you had seen the news article.

    I am not sure we are anti-clergy, but we are successfully holding services every week with lay-ministers. We still only have 10 members, but we have other obstacles pending (like adding a indoor bathroom) before marketing ourselves. We remain very spiritual and plan to grow one day. We do get our message out as I maintain a Cyber Sermon distribution list. (an additional 24 members of family and friends! to add to our local group of 10). We do have a Facebook page – Leicester Unitarian Church.

    I think people want religion, but life has changed and we need to accomodate that change. Todays world is faster and Sunday mornings aren’t always convenient for everyone. Elderly and shut-ins especially enjoy the weekly updates. We don’t preach at folks, just try to figure out how to live with each other and be good people.

    I am not sure how the UUA perceives us – I think we may be too small to hit their radar scope. 🙂

  7. Thanks Scott for bringing all of this up. I have always felt that the Fellowship movement was one of the bright moments of Unitarian history (I say Unitarian because of the movement predates the merger). It fostered enormous growth and provided an important cultural space for liberals, progressives and free thinkers at a time when such a space did not exist in the wider culture. Indeed, I think that much of what good the Unitarian Universalist movement has done in the last sixty years can be attributed to the Fellowship movement. Some of the Fellowships served their wider communities in ways undreamed of by larger, clergy served, established congregations. The Berkeley Fellowship, to give one example, played and continues to play an important role in the development of public radio (many of the early supporters of Pacifica were members, when Pacifica had its internal conflicts in the 90s the Fellowship was an important organizing space for dissident Board members).

    Personally, I would love to see the UUA try to nurture something like the Fellowship movement again. I fear it won’t happen. Why? Because I think in many ways the Fellowship movement challenged the power of the clergy. I have always suspected that it ended in part because of the precisely this reason. And note that the demise of the Fellowship office almost precisely coincides with the end of significant growth of our religious movement. We grew rapidly through the 50s and 60s (when the movement was supported by the AUA and then the UUA), declined in the 70s and only started to gain members again in the 80s. I am not saying that the demise of the Fellowship office was the only reason for the end of this period of growth. I am, however, fairly certain it was a factor in it.

  8. A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday AM with Chicago’s All Souls Free Religious Fellowship. It was they’re 60th anniversary and also their Black History Month celebration. They’re lay lead and also formed at the time of the Fellowship Movement. But they can also trace origins to Jenkin Loyld Jones Unitarian Church, and Chicago’s St Paul’s first Universalist. I think the lay led format (although I don’t think they started that way…they had a Minister until some point.)

    Anyways, point here is I didn’t sense them particularly anti-Clerical. They want to grow, and I don’t see how growth can happen without eventually calling a Minister.

    They’re also –I’m betting– the only All African American congregation in UUA. As one told me, we used to have white members but they’ve all passed away…

    …so the Lay led format may just suit Churches at certain points, but I don’t think it automatically brings anti-clericism either.

  9. As a true child of the Fellowship movement I disagree with Peacebang as well, they weren’t conversation clubs. They were assemblies of all the hopes and cares that members had for society – a place to realize those dreams. My parents were founders of the Anaheim, CA fellowship and then the Fullerton, CA one – they and their peers were looking to form what they had in college (they were Emerson society members) and they weren’t anti cleric. They just couldn’t find many clergy who would serve these congregations filled with progressive, strong willed, action oriented folks. How many of you were part of these? How many are part of one now? I am now and then – unless you have had that experience first hand I don’t think you can understand. It is easy to stand on the side and judge, harder to get inside and get involved.

  10. “They just couldn’t find many clergy who would serve these congregations…”

    Maybe the clerics see this as doing Church-on-the-cheap and anti-clerical from their perspective?

    I’m not that well versed on the history but guessing these fellowships never grew into Churchs calling Ministers; but that doesn’t mean the Fellowship model couldn’t be tweaked to that in the future.

  11. Bill, “…guessing these fellowships never grew into Churchs calling Ministers; but that doesn’t mean the Fellowship model couldn’t be tweaked to that in the future.”

    Um, that depends. The first thing everyone needs to remember is that start ups are prone to fail–businesses, churches, non-profits… you name it. Like seedlings, they’re delicate. Ulrich (in “The Fellowship Movement”) offers data and an argument that the fellowships did fairly well; they didn’t fail nearly as often as either other non-profits or businesses, and they lasted longer, even if they failed… on average. But many survive–and thrive–today. And a very significant number have called ministers (some still bear the name fellowship, some changed their name to “church” or something else at some point in time, most often, I suspect, after calling a minister).

    Largely, that’s a matter of size. I’ve not seen or heard of a model for a lay-led congregation that’s really mid-size. The large end of small, absolutely. But that transition’s hard for any congregation, and I think it’s one where a minister’s skills and presence make a difference. In addition, the human and organizational dynamics involved in mid-size seem to benefit from someone in that kind of leadership role. I’m thinking o businesses I worked in which moved from start-up to close to 100… and then moved to 200 or more. The relationship of the employees to management and to the president (etc) changed. I think it’s a scaling issue related to human beings. (But I digress…)

    I think the single biggest tweaking of the fellowship model for a Fellowship Movement II would revolve around recognizing that the demographic issues of the mid-20th are very different (not Boomer, not vast shifts to almost-brand-new cities and new sprawl… but rather more ethnic/racial considerations–new fellowships might well be the field of many experiments to figure out how more truly diverse congregations will work…)–AND in recognizing that the Web totally changes the level of connectedness that new congregations can have to what UUism is and can be like, all over the continent. Being able to hear podcasts, being able to see video, of services… and other activity… that hugely changes the context. It means it’s far, far less likely for people to develop a new culture that doesn’t have any understanding of what a minister does or can do, for one thing.

  12. It isn’t just size. Some Fellowships just want to be lay led. They are moving in the direction of Emerson and his enlightened crew – searching for meaning themselves. They affiliate with the UUA because they believe they have some golden truth, but that truth doesn’t come from a minister.

  13. Wow… we have such a mindset in our culture that bigger (and more organized, layers of administration and autority and structure) is better, even when it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love a glorious classic structure, service and sanctuary. Preferably with a big pipe organ. For me, the worship is largely in the music, the silence, and the fellowship. The words may be inspirational or not, reach me or not, but the music always does. I live three hours from the closest structure, but even if one were closer, the classic sanctuaries seem to be moving away from organ maintenance costs. For me, that is my one reason for making the long trip on occasion. I don’t have a fellowship any closer than the larger churches. I wish I did. I’d attend. And participate in the music. For me, the minister is windowdressing for the most part – inspirational at best, often “in the way” of what I am there for. We’re stuck in old organizational structures and forms that made sense in the time they arose, probably – but I deeply applaud the innovative movement of the fellowships, many of which did go own and choose a structure and call a minister. My guess is for some of those fellowships that choice was a conflicted one – not the structure, but the minister. With the right minister, who nurtures and respects the strengths of the bottom up approach, who creatively enhances what the fellowship folks have been doing on their own rather than trying to “retrain” them, it seems to work, sometimes better than others. But it seems unfortunate to me in the liberal open minded and open hearted traditions that we seem to stuck on needing to reinvent an authoritative model. A minister can truly serve a congregation and their needs rather than imposing her or his own. But she or he or they are stll single pronged leadership, no matter how much lay ministerial activities are still
    built on. There is a power differential, rather than
    a web of evolving, flowing, peer ministry, creation,
    service, maintenance, each overseeing first their
    own involvement, and then mutually transforming the vision and the reality as needed and chosen.
    Its far more fluid, and in my view, far more effective and cohesive a power structure, a life structure, a social and educational and transformative structure.

    There have been studies done showing that 80 people are the max that one person can truly be personally involved with with any degree of intimacy.
    Transformation, of self, or of anything, requires (from my perception) involved, active intimacy. If our churches are to be powerful transformative
    agents, 80 may be the size at which a fellowship and/or a church should max out. I would love to see a whole network of fellowships spanning the country, all self-ruled, all bottom up organizations.
    Perhaps having a few of the big sanctuaries, regionally, remaining, so folks wanting a taste of
    traditional, with all the bells and whistles, or folks just more comfortable with “big church” can have that. But what if fellowships were the norm? What if the resources we place into administration went into facilitating fellowships and/or smaller churches to get off the ground. Consultant services,
    expanded materials library, etc. What if money starts running out and big churches start to dry up, no money to maintain them or for folks to travel or to pay ministers. Prayerfully our economy won’t get that crazy, but what if? We’ve had enough scares to think about this. What if we had developed a whole fabric of fellowship resources to help folks in
    building and evolving their own services and structures. Why do we feel so necessary about making sure its done “right”? Whose “right”??
    Why can not each congregation determine what is right for them, in the liberal open hearted open minded tradition?? Why can not folks come together regionally to compare notes and gather ideas. Why does there need to be a centralized structure, other than a service based one – consultant services and resources.

    I have two brothers who spent their lives as missionaries in a conservative evangelical demonination. One of them had the foresite to
    develop a bottoms up organization, training interested congregants in ministering, spending most of his resources in developing materials
    and in consultation. The local “ministers” were better received, more effective. The synodical board was freaked, wanted more control. But when money ran out, this was the one mission that thrived, and went on to expand to all other mission areas sharing that language (other missions had no developed materials, so most of the work in such areas is lost). But those missions with that shared language, where local facilitators had been trained and materials provided, where they had been running the show – these missions are thriving. They’ve developed their own synodical body, an affiliate of the original one. The original synod still
    has one called missionary, who serves only as a consultant to the local “ministers”.

    I think if we expand our notion of what is a church, of what “growing” means – of what ministering is or should or needs to be – that we have an opportunity to expand exponentially. Or we can put all our resources into “tightening our belts” and streamlining things from the top down – I believe doing such will ultimately be a deathknoll to UU. If we want our faith to grow, I believe we need to facilitate and encourage and even insist on bottom up organizational process, letting the local folks of various cultures present and interested in involvement, develop what is needed and appropriate for their fellowship. I believe doing so
    can make our faith a growing and thriving one, one that will not dry up in economic hardships, but thrive.

    For the record, I’m not “anti-minister”. I believe ministers have much to offer. Even those I’ve butted heads with, and I’ve done so, particularly with one
    along the way, I’ve honored – that one in particular, so much so that I left the congregation rather than
    disrupting his ministry. I gained things from each minister I’ve had over the years – but they are things I could have gained, perhaps in a more effective and empowering way, in a smaller fellowship. Except for my favorite minister – a minister of music, an amazing organist. That one would be hard to replicate in a fellowship. So, at any rate, I’m not anti minister. I’m concerned about top down organizational and power structures. I don’t think they are long term effective or productive or sustainable, particularly in increasingly difficult economic times.

    Sara Joy

  14. @Sara: You’ve some excellent points. Bigger is not inherently better. But it’s not inherently worse, either. The biggest thing that leaps to mind as an advantage to growth is that there are a whole range of programs that don’t (often) work in/for small congregations (with or without a minister). Given that fewer youth attend than younger kids, Youth programs rarely seem to work–much less be vibrant–until a congregation’s about double the 80 member size you mention. OWL programs certainly don’t–there are just too many adult advisors needed for a small congregation to provide them (particularly when you recognize that parents of the youth going through them should not be advisors for their own kids).

    There are others–the sub-groups of individuals who share an interest in a given spiritual tradition/practice, for example.

    Larger congregations have more resources–that allows them to do more, and it lets them be financially more resilient; the loss of one or two major donors isn’t as devastating. Yes, there are human dynamics that don’t let one know everyone in the congregation. But there are ways of dealing with that–one of them is simply finding/developing one’s small congregation within the larger one, and enjoying the fact that all of the many small groups overlap and interweave.

    I look at my own fellowship… and the personal transformation opportunity/experience and social justice work have significantly increased now that we’re more than double that 80 member number.

    The truth is that I’d love to see many more fellowships all over the continent. But I don’t think that they’ll come because larger congregations don’t exist.

  15. Ogre – I agree, smaller isn’t necessarily “better” either.
    But, when monies are pinched and belts are being tightened, I do truly wonder if it makes more practical as well as effective, sustainable sense, to be expanding in smaller ways outwards rather than in centralized, concentrated development and dispersal of resources. I agree that larger gatherings have benefits. But I wonder if these couldn’t be replicated in other ways than through one centralized larger church in an area. For instance, having various fellowships come together
    for programs and activities for which that makes sense. The clustering not determined by anyone
    “above” but by the people desiring to make use of that program or be involved in that activity.

    I have Amish neighbors and friends. Each of their “districts” are not allowed to grow to over 80 members, including children. This is the maximum number of people that can gather in one of their homes – which is how they worship. Once the fit is tight, they organically create a new district, sorting out by inclination, often experimenting with new, or different interpretations of the rules by which they live, maintaining their simple/present way of life.
    Some of these experiments work, some don’t, some
    evolve back to a path more similar to the original,
    some in other directions. But the “familyness” of the new district is maintained, they’ve become cousins rather than brothers and sisters in their spiritual community/family. Yet, when projects or needs make a larger gathering organic, districts combine their energies for such undertakings.

    Young people, during their “running around” years –
    usually 16 till young adulthood – gather across districts. They gather independently, not under adult supervision, but often a neighboring district will provide one on one mentorship to these young people making the transition into adulthood, needing some space from the authority of their immediate family and church. Such mentors are not assigned, are usually offered in a cooperative way between
    districts of similar inclinations – each district offering mentorship for any youngsters desiring such from the other district. Or the youngsters can turn to whomever they are drawn, an older relative, someone in a more distant district, even an “English” minister or therapist.

    What is different within these smaller gatherings, these districts, is that the children are fully included
    in the congregation, are listened to, are involved in all programs and activities. They are taken seriously as active members of the church. And from little on can turn to anyone in the congregation for guidance or assistance. They are assigned tasks within community projects that are attuned to their natures and abilities. Their input and ideas are listened to and taken seriously. This culture has
    really amazed me, the interweaving possible with such small intimate bonded intergenerational groups.

    I’m not saying fellowships are the only way, or that none of them should have more than 80. I am saying that experimenting with a variety of ways to expand on our network of fellowships seems a very wise thing to do, and would have benefits. Perhaps
    a larger congregation sponsering two of three or four or more smaller fellowships, who are self-defining, but also “belong” in an extended way to the larger congregation. I understand the inclination would be to expand the larger church’s own membership, but if extended forms of membership might be more productive, it would be something to experiment with. Yes, of course within a larger congregation, people find their own flow. And that is one way to have the best of both worlds. I have a sense that there are definate benefits as well to having the central focus being on the fellowships, the smaller gatherings. Perhaps seeding such in clusters that facilitates gathering as chosen and appropriate for larger projects/programs.
    Finding creative ways to both develop and nurture their own identity, and to interactively cooperate for chosen activities… I think, given limited funding, that such smaller, lay led fellowships can and should be a huge priority. Sara

  16. Scott writes, “Churches are not employment agencies for ministers.”
    Very true, that’s a function of the UUA. Unfortunately, this role so dominates its other functions that it is reticient to support the start up of any congregation it believes to be unlikely to be a “ministerial employment agency” client.

  17. Scott, good to say hello and thanks for the post. I’ve wrestled with this Anticlericalism issue for a couple of years now. My impression is that pretty much any indiscretion is pardonable in the Christian church apart from the ‘unforgiveable sin’ of working for a truly mutual community. I’ve blogged about anticlericalism (e.g. and ‘enjoyed’ an extended conversation with quite a few very threatened clergy. I don’t believe there is single definitive model for Christian church but I am convinced that Jesus’ servant community and Paul’s mutual view of ministry are undermined by ordination. Now that Christendom is breaking up I think there’s a glimmer of a chance that a church without clergy won’t be viewed as totally barmy. That’s not to say that such a church wouldn’t need resourcing. I don’t necessarily think that paying adminstrators, evangelists, community workers or ‘agents of direction’ (as John Howard Yoder used to say) is incompatible with a non-clerical ecclesiolgy.

  18. What a civilized and thoughtful thread this is!

    Sara Mandal-Joy wrote “what if fellowships were the norm? What if the resources we place into administration went into facilitating fellowships and/or smaller churches to get off the ground.”

    Is there any possibility the new administration at 25 Beacon street might consider this a desirable goal?

    Thank you Scott for starting this discussion.

  19. I started bending Peter Morales’s ear about that back at G.A. a year before his election. He listened. I intend to bend it more…

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