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.