(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.

Speaking anonymously for public engagement

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Ken Collier blogs about civil disobedience and anonymity. A recent two-part series (first, second) by an anonymous seminarian, posted by Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, overlaps this and he’s just posted a defence of his publishing anonymous posts as I’m putting this post together (Sunday night). I’ll respond to these because those blog posts and comments are public, but I’m also responding to comments on Facebook and elsewhere, and these are almost impossible to reply-to here.

There’s a lot of interest — again Facebook hides much — and some denunciation, both on the content of what has been written, and by the fact that some has been published anonymously or pseudonymously. I care about the second issue, and in particular whether it’s improper to be anonymous. The logic goes thus: if you have a complaint, be bold and up front with it; this is the path of those who use in as civil disobedience. And without knowing who you are, how can we reach the goal: a discussion.

As if there was an etiquette for this sort of thing. I’ve found an article I read before called “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?“, by Michael J. Glennon, persuasive. In particular, accepting punishment has been, for most of the people who conducted it, non-optional. To be present to resist is to be present to be prosecuted, or at least known. Given the sacramental esteem a protest arrest has among some Unitarian Universalists — one that never gets the white privilege treatment, by the way — little wonder that rules might be assumed.

And we are talking about more than integrity, but about punishment, real or suspected. The kind of thing you can’t get bailed out for and be praised as a hero. Standing up by name sounds noble, but only if you think a world without whistleblowers is worth having.

Part of the problem comes from our own self-conception: as family of faith with close bonds, rather than a network of persons and institutions that have competing priorities and values. Like all people, those with authority (including well-established ministers who may not think of themselves so) think their actions are fair, and don’t appreciate being challenged, or sometimes even having their authority pointed out. Money and settlements are insufficient, so it pays to not be identified as a problem in a structure built on relationships and policed by covenant, a concept that gets expanded and abused as convenient. (I’ll be coming back to this some other time.)

I mentioned whistle-blowing before, and inasmuch as the testimony of an anonymous complainant is a disclosure, this is also a kind of whistle-blowing. It’s certainly a call of alarm. The value of an anonymous disclosure and complaint is to get the item in public discourse, something that’s easier in the Internet era than ever before. It tests the general merit of the complain, pulls out disputants who don’t wish to be anonymous and flushes out devil’s advocates. And this testing and discourse shows if it’s safe to be more public and candid. People who have less to lose go on the record about something they would have never otherwise chosen. (And accordingly my opinions of some people are much lower now; others, much higher.)

For the record, I require signed comments unless there’s a good reason to keep an identity hid from others. But I demand a working email address and some evidence that the person is who she or he claims to be, and I did (and) allow anonymous commentary about Starr King School for the Ministry and the credentialing process.

The could-have-been Southern seminary

With the building sales at Meadville Lombard, the leadership crisis at Starr King, the closure of Bangor and the God-knows-what at General (Episcopal) (one, two)… well, it’s easy to have misgiving about the future of seminaries, and with it the future of ministerial formation.

When I looked back to the 1927 Universalist Year Book, I’m reminded that the future is contingent. Affairs needn’t have turned out the way they did. For instance, did you know there was a ministerial training program in Chattanooga, Tennessee? I didn’t, and I wonder if it was the premature death of the Harriman, Tennessee parish — Tennessee Universalism was far from strong; these were the only two churches in the state and thus they had no convention of their own — that caused this to end, too.


The School of Evangelism, Chattanooga, Tenn.

A school for the special training for the ministry for those unable to attend the regular theological schools of the Universalist Church.

Organized 1917. Has the use of the Q. H. Shinn Memorial Church for study purposes.

Board of Management: Manager, The Minister of the Q. H. Shinn Memorial Church; Vice-Manager, the Chairman of the Educational Committee of the Board of Trustees of the General Convention; Sec.-Treas., Rev. W. H. McGlauflin, D.D.; Mrs. J. W. Vallentyne, Rev. Francis B. Bishop, D.D., M. O. Hill, and Mrs. J. G. McGowin.

The minister was a B. H. Clark, of whom I know nothing. The education committee didn’t exist, but if the scholarship committee was intended, then that was Lee McCollester, of Tufts. We already met Dr. McGlauflin in a sad episode about thirty years prior.

I’ll keep my eyes open for more details.

A summertime analogy for ministerial formation

Summer is at its peak. It’s hot. And for reasons outside your control, the otherwise-reliable power supply has been cut. No air conditioning, and since you don’t know when it’s going to come back (it will come back, right?) you don’t dare pillage the fridge, so to preserve the chilled food you have left.

What do you do to stay feeling cool? These make my list

  • keep the curtains closed when the sun is up
  • try to draw a breeze by opening two or more windows
  • keep meals light and cold, or at least uncooked
  • keep the lights out, even if modern lights don’t produce much heat any more
  • take frequent, light showers (or at least make good use of a damp wash cloth)
  • drink as much cold water as possible
  • air the bedclothes before sleeping
  • wear modern fibers, which wick sweat, dry quickly and minimize feeling sticky

Of these, all but the last was common in my grandparents’ day, and perhaps their grandparents’.

When we read about — heck, know — about highly educated (and deeply indebted) ministers who are unemployed or under-employed in church work, it’s not hard to sense that times are changing, and are very unlikely to return to the go-go days of postwar Protestantism. The power is going out: short stoppages now, but there may be a day when the grid fails completely. We need to prepare for this risk, and be grateful that we still have choices (if not always happy one) and that these are not fundamentally life and death issues.

And, looking back on that hot weather solutions list, I’d like us to consider the wisdom of an earlier time that faced some of the same problems and had to cope. Relying on a practical ministerial education more, say, than an academic model. Forming more parish yokes. Making ministerial fellowship more flexible for dip in and out of (better paying, one would hope) secular work. Revisiting credentialed lay ministry, an inheritance from the Universalists, was only formally laid down a few years ago. Not to mention making conference attendance and professional development less of a financial burden.

There is surely room for modern technology, but I bet we already know and have known the essential steps to making necessary changes. The will is another matter. Until then, the heat is on.





This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry

January 17, 2015. I’m not writing a new post about the Starr King School for the Ministry crises, but the newest blowup has driven traffic to this article, first published on June 2, 2014.  I do have some added questions:

  • Who benefits from the status quo?
  • What is the role of money — paid out, raised and possibly withheld — play in these crises?
  • What named, tangible benefits, other than the emotional, does Starr King provide to the Unitarian Universalist community?
  • What is the role of SKSM’s prior reputation? The role of a (possibly) over-professionalized ministry? The different approaches to ministry in different generations? West coast vs. East coast vs. “North coast”? 

Feel free to comment.

So, the Unitarian Universalist-o-sphere is blowing up around a crisis at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist-related graduate seminary in Berkeley, California.

I would go into detail about the crisis, but there aren’t many details to be had, and much of the commentary — including an appeal letter from incoming president, Rosemary Bray McNatt, lately the minister of Fourth Universalist, New York — takes place on Facebook, and that’s hardly a reliable archive.

The nut is, or seems to be, this: someone gave confidential documents about the presidential search process to those outside the process, including other Unitarian Universalists, the press and the theological seminaries accrediting board. (I have no idea what these documents say.) The Starr King board has made an inquiry. Two graduating Starr King students have not been graduated (a contingent graduation) pending further investigation. Unsubstantiated reports tell of two board members resigning. Past UUA moderator Gini Courter has established a legal defense fund for the students, who are being represented by lawyers. Talk of ethics, boundaries and leadership abound, with a predicable amount of expressed horror and people supporting their friends.

Rosemary Bray McNatt’s open letter is here. A statement from the lawyers representing the students is here.

Not suprizingly, web searches have brought readers to a post I wrote about Starr King in 2007. My basic opinion about the school hasn’t changed, and (plainly) I have a hard time caring if it prospers or dies. This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry. It’s about Unitarian Universalist self-conception.

  • This is the second time in a year (or so) that an unnamed consultant has been brought in to handle major Unitarian Universalist institutional conflict. Who is the consultant? A forthcoming introduction would go far to instill confidence that the consultant is qualified and has no conflict of interest.
  • The lawyers refer to ‘an investigator for the board’s law firm’ which, if true, is alarming. But is very much in character with Unitarian Universalist culture which claims to create bold leaders yet makes the formation process a gauntlet of circumspection, wildly uneven power arrangements and keeping your head down. You have to pass to play. But you can’t build bravery though fear. (So no points to Gini Couter for “doing the right thing.” I’ve never seen so many good people sigh relief as when she stopped being Moderator. For some reason, people are afraid of her. If this is Unitarian Universalism, you can keep it. But she’s out of office and the rest of us are still here.)
  • Which is, I believe, why Unitarian Universalist ministers are so deeply conformist, at least in public, and why ministers close ranks with the speed and force of a bear trap. Can you think of another denomination that avoids public fights so hard? It’s particularly bitter when you consider the brave souls we lionize, say, like John Haynes Holmes.
  • When you spend all you time being “revolutionary” expect revolutionary justice. As in, innocent blood on the guillotine. But we aren’t that revolutionary, and weirdness is not a substitute. I’ll take sober, thoughtful leadership any day. Our rhetoric doesn’t match our reality, even a reasonable aspiration.
  • There’s a Yiddish word you should learn if you don’t know it. Mishigas. Crazy-nonsense. Boy, do we have it. Good, self-differentiated people smell it and they stay away or leave. Remember that the next time you hear someone mew about the Millenials being our future.

As I said, this is far past a Starr King issue, but it is a test for Unitarian Universalist leadership, and we should all be watching.

Bold experiment in ministry

I’m a member of the Universalist National Memorial Church, and today Sunday the church’s leadership made an exciting announcement at the climax of a congregational meeting: we are moving into the next phase of the church, but it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen. In consultation with district and association staff, and after six months’ work from the search commitee, the church is beginning a part-time, shared (but non-spousal) contract ministry by two theologically-trained laypersons. Some of you may know Crystal St. Marie Lewis, M.T.S, from her blogging. David Gatton, M.Div., is a long-time member of the church, but has had a secular career.

So this something new. Neither we nor they know what to call the experiment, or even what titles to use for them. That’s less important than them developing a working partnership, and the congregation providing support. (If all goes well, we hope to increase the percentage to full time within three years.)

Read the outline of the proposal here.

The team ministry begins June 15, and I pray them and the church every success. I’ll return to this subject from time to time.


Congratulations to Crystal St. Marie Lewis, who received her Master of Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. today. She blogs here (Window on Religion) and tweets here and is well worth reading.

Preparing for the ministry at Tufts, 1903

I was — and am — looking for a practical expostion on Universalist worship like the one from 1901 I found for the Unitarians a couple of weeks ago. In the process, I found the Tufts 1902-03 catalog, and its pages dedicated to its now-lost Divinity School.

A couple of items to note: one could enter as an undergraduate and study through, and option that died very recently in the United States with the closure of Bangor Theological Seminary. And that the curriculum included logic (for nongrads), economics, psychology and the “Biblical languages” of German, Hebrew and Greek. And PE for the men.

Class of 1897
Class of 1897

If you were approved, you would have gotten a generous scholarship — to imagine an early pastorate without student debt! — from the Universalist General Convention, though non-Universalists were admitted. Lodging “heated by steam and lighted by gas ” included, but you did have to provide your own “sheets, blankets, pillow cases, and towels.”

A fun read.


The lure of the bright lights…

So I was trolling for Universalism in digitized newspapers (as one does) and I found a short article from 1913, entitled with lurid lettering: Clergyman Turns Actor.

Frederick A. Wilmot, a Tufts grad and assisting (presumably licensed) minister at the Church of the Divine Paternity, New York (now called Fourth Universalist) gave notice and left to tread the boards.

“The humdrum of parish life bored me stiff.” That is the real why, the real wherefore of the transformation of Frederick A. Wilmot from parson to actor…”Why should I devote my life to becoming a fair preacher when all my inclinations point to my becoming a good actor?”

Little did he know then; the Broadway stage wasn’t his future. The Daughter of Heaven was his only credit and it closed after 98 poorly-reviewed performances.

But later that year, he was ordained and installed as the minister of the West (Third) Somerville (Mass.) Universalist Church serving until 1916, and later pastoring in New Bedford. Later references point to a Fitchburg, Mass. pastorate (until 1940), writing the religion beat in Providence, and active participation in Christian ecumenicism. Indeed, it looks like he had a successful ministry.

He died July 22, 1952 in Providence and is buried in the Locust Grove Cemetery there. Shall we visit his grave during General Assembly and give thanks for his ministry: the one that began with such doubt?

Good for him Google (or Facebook) didn’t exist then. And good for him the call reappeared.

Clergyman Turns Actor,” The San Francisco Call, April 13, 1913.