(Talk about) the Fellowship movement never dies

So, there was a discussion on Facebook about — in so many words — the Fellowship movement, midcentury Humanism and church development. But with all things Facebook, it’s as hard as Hades to find it once the thread grows cold. And since my long comment was essentially a blog post, I thought I share it here, and am sorry if there are jarring omissions now that it’s out of its original context.


I think the “trouble with authority” and “crusty Humanist” tropes are canards, and follow rather are the source of the mixed blessing and hard feelings about the Fellowship Movement. When in doubt, follow the money.

Even at the height of the Fellowship Movement, and for decades before, some Unitarian churches were developed in a conventional, cost-intensive “airdrop” model. About three at a time, and the success rate was far from 100%. Some of the middle America Progressive-era churches come from this. But these were very expensive, and ministers were few. (The Unitarians transferred Universalist ministers in, an untold history.)

The “lay center” concept goes back a hundred years. In the post-war era, they were ideal: lay-led and cheap. Many had religious education of the Baby Boom at their core. And one demographic reason it just can’t be restarted.

But remember the old UUA subtitle? “Of churches and fellowships”? Because they were long regarded as different things. A fellowship could become a church, and there were (in the 1950s, anyway) fixed standards for church status: a settled minister and at least 65 families, for instance. I believe the “fellowships not real” feelings come from the genesis of the distinction, and (I suspect) are fueled by ministers short of work, and lay-leaders tired of the long-established dynamic.

As for a para-professional class, well, the Universalists had one — fellowshipped lay ministers, a twentieth-century development to cope with the minister shortage. But the door was closed on this option at the formation of the UUA. In time, they all died out and — what? ten years ago? — the fellowship category was at last eliminated.

2 Replies to “(Talk about) the Fellowship movement never dies”

  1. Fellowshipped lay minister? I suppose that could describe me. Fellowshipped via MFC but not ordained. To what extent do you think credentialed religious educators take a similar role?

  2. Scott wrote:

    Many had religious education of the Baby Boom at their core. And one demographic reason it just can’t be restarted.

    The children of baby boomers are now adults who are entering the parenthood time of life. Minister and religious educator Rev. Dan Harper mentioned this second-wave baby boom a few years ago:

    This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reported the fourth year of decline in religious education enrollment in congregations. This decline came after a couple of decades of steady growth. Worse yet, 2007 marked the highest number of births since 1961, at the height of the Baby Boom, which means we should be seeing an increase in the number of kids in our congregations.


    So … we are seeing a similar child demographic growth that we saw during the Fellowship movement. But there may be other things going on today that weren’t happening 65+ years ago.

    The problem now that wasn’t present during the years immediately following WWII is the shrinking of religious institutions in North America. The only region where Unitarian Universalism is showing growth in the South:

    Between 2004 and 2014, the number of members of UU congregations, and the number of kids enrolled in our RE programs (detailed on the first page, not included here) has remained virtually the same. But a look at the chart above shows that this stasis has not been the same across the country. Some regions, like New England and the Central East region, have dropped in both adult and children participation. The MidAmerica region and Pacific West have grown slightly in adult participation, but dropped in children’s participation. Only the Southern region has gained in both adult and children participation over the last 10 years.


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