Is Unitarian Universalism too large?

I’ve been thinking about the general fellowship of Unitarian Universalists — I often do, and I mean more than the membership of churches though the UUA — both because of the current crises at Starr King School for the Ministry, and the pan-mainline concern about ministerial salaries, maintaining buildings and (generally) the survival of theological seminaries.

But another, familiar question came up over coffee at church yesterday.  That, in essence, it is very hard to describe what a Unitarian Universalist is, what keeps us together, or even what brought us to this place. That is, without rolling the bus over someone.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we’re too small, but too large.

I’m half-joking, half-serious. We are institutionally too complex, with structures that are just large enough that they have to invest a high level of resources to keep going, but without the benefit of an economy of scale. I bet that’s true of a number of congregations, too. And yet we have systems that try to span the variety of religiosities we’ve inherited. Can’t speak for others, but these systems do not serve Christians well. What would we do if each of the new regions had to go it alone? Or if the theistic and Christian churches stood off? We would certainly have change and a lot of work, but sometimes a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

Of course, “staying large” (if what we have is largeness) is not in our hands. Social, economic and demographic challenges will probably cause us to shrink, refactor and contract. Indeed, we’ve been going through this for several years already, and when we get further along we’ll know when the decline started. But shrinking what we have won’t be enough of a solution. We’ll need solutions (possibly institutions) that address needs quickly — not “at the speed of church” — and creatively, with few resources.

If not, we’ll end up very small, still muddled and surely embittered.


11 Replies to “Is Unitarian Universalism too large?”

  1. May I introduce you to the Religious Society of Friends?

    I’m being half-funny, half-serious too and about to give institutional Unitarian Universalism the one compliment that I can give it at the moment. Even with all the institutional problems that it has, at least they/we haven’t split the way the Quakers have. How good or bad that may be, I’m still trying to figure out.

    And, having hung out with Brethren (you have too, right?), I’m not particularly sure that smaller necessarily means better and more adaptable.

    But I think the question is worth asking.

  2. I did think of the Quakers, and the FUM and FGC are about that size. Ish.

    Yes, they have problems: big ones, and some are the existential crises we have. So, I’d not replicate that, even if I could. And with many generations of decline and strife, thank God it’s not something that could be replicated. But there’s is a scale of structure that bears consideration. And something to be said for a lack of competition.

    And the Brethren are too large for this thought experiment. But I do like their hymnal.

  3. I’d argue that we are too small — not numerically, but too small in our theological stature.

    I just had a lovely conversation with a friend who in the five years I’ve known him has moved from fundamentalist Christianity to unitarianism (small “u”). I knew better than to invite him to come to my Unitarian Universalist church, because there are too many fundamentalist atheists who would be more likely to mock him than engage in reasoned conversation about theology.

    Theologically we are naive and uneducated. Most Unitarian Universalists are so sure that God is an entity — as if Tillich never wrote! Most Unitarian Universalists believe the Bible must be taken literally, or not at all — as if the higher criticism never existed! Most Unitarian Universalists are utterly unaware of the complexities of Latin American liberation theology, Black liberation theology, eco-feminist theology, queer theology, etc. etc. Naivete and lack of education can be fixed, if the will is there — but I’m afraid too many Unitarian Universalists are theologically smug and resistant to any kind of further education.

    We need a bigger theological stature.

  4. I’ll buy that, Dan. But our current “all things to all people” approach quickly flips to “no good for anyone.”

    The two ideas are related. (And a nice tee-up for my next blog post.)

  5. I almost want to apologize that we don’t have an ideology. You see people like restrictions and constrictions that affirm a semblance of righteousness. But see Hindus have millions of gods and they think nothing of largeness. Buddhists don’t think they are woowoo with their concept of nothingness. Are you looking for a truth that we can wield for power, or you might say for greater influence? Your question is vague. There is a reason the prophets often go out of bounds ending up with the unorganized, the marginalized. There’s a reason why the organizing part of religions bears evils. We were not meant to hers people with our constructs, but to free each other and ourselves.

  6. Sorry this is a bit stream of consciousness. Working at the Quaker end of things right now, I can tell you that the tendencies to split… And the culture of shrinking religious participation… Add up to a process of sifting. What is truly important? What will continue to receive our limited resources? In the end, perhaps good questions with positive possibilities. Resources got to what truly matters. We build on our strengths and passions (Divine leadings?). Legacy institutions, programs, ideologies that no longer have a value no longer get fed, and the resources they consume are no longer squandered. In a way it is an exercise in simplicity.

  7. I think Dan Harper and Derek (hi Derek!) talk about two sides of the same coin; the need for theological education.

    I’ve thought for a long while that what we U.S. U/U/UUs need is something that resembles the Hungarian Unitarian Catechism or the Quaker Book of Faith and Practice. I know…Faith and Practice changes depending on Yearly Meeting, but I wonder how many more people (I’m thinking adults, but youth too) Unitarian Universalism would retain if there was some sort of shared something that isn’t the Principles and Purposes.

    I’m rambling. So I’ll stop.

  8. Kim – Hello Kim! I think there was a bit of Universalist short-hand for what you speak of, via the various Universalist avowals of faith.

  9. My reading of this is that UU-dom (the wider circle of Unitarian Universalism) has embraced an organizational paradigm which fits neither our numbers nor our desire to shape the world. Thus prompting questions such as:

    * How big a bureaucracy do we really need? Not just in terms of number of staffpeople and titles, but number of regulations to keep everything in check?

    * UUA leaders talk a great deal about “accountability” and “transparency” – but are they able to explain, in simple terms, who is accountable to whom, or how any individual UU might discern how things are done?

    Sometimes it seems those groups which are relatively younger, smaller and less complicated in their structure are better equipped to get things done, including getting their message out. Which makes me wonder (and worry) why the UUA and other institutions have not sought to learn from that.

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