“What Might Save Us”
A moment first about my background which has a lot to do with the direction my suggestions would take our movement. I spent the last years of the 1980s homeless, partly by choice—I could have returned to my parents’ home at any time, and sometimes did when things were really tough, but preferred to live on the road and for a short while on the streets—and during that period I noticed two important things concerning religion.
The first was that the people who were kindest and most willing to be with me, besides other homeless people, were adherents of fringe religions. Christian fundamentalists, Hare Krishna members, Santerians, followers of Sri Chinmoy and G.I. Gurdjieff, Buddhists, and people who never told me what their religion was beyond helping other people, often fed and clothed and housed me, rarely asking for anything more than my attention in return. They lived their spirituality as a daily practice and when they worshipped they made a joyful noise and moved a lot and then had a huge meal afterward. They rarely missed the opportunity to eattogether. I never asked but each one probably would have described him or herself as a minister or priest in the faith, living it out by action rather than by sermonizing.
Secondly, nearly all of them were working poor. Most of them rented apartments or trailers or property, and the few who did own their own home tended to farm (as nearly all the Santerians did) or owned it in common (as the Hare Krishnas and Gurdjieffians did). The individuals with the least to spare often shared food and clothes and sometimes money with me. I am aware that as a white man I am presumed less dangerous than others, but I am also an able-bodied white man in good condition, and while some people asked for work in return for what they gave me—a quid pro quo I offered—most simply helped me out with no thought of recompense, and if I mentioned it would say, “Help the next person you see.”
One large reason for the dramatic drop in Universalism’s numbers, and in the numbers of Unitarian Universalistsin the recent past, has to do with greater acceptance by other, more mainstreamdenominations of the bulwark we built our movement around. While it isn’t a platform of most denominations, ask anyone attending any mainstream (and many evangelical) church services if the people they know or children in other parts of the world or victims of terrorism or famine or natural disasters will be saved and the answer, especially as the question becomes more specific, will be “yes.” This has been called the reason for the failure of Universalism but it may in fact be its greatest success.
That isn’t to suggest we need to simplify our message or terminology. I am an elitist of the first order from way back. At my first UU service at Mahtomedi many years ago, I heard the words “eschatological” and “Jungian” spoken by then-minister Krista Wolf and said to myself, “I’m home!” But in his book Letting Go, Roy Phillips writes about the divide between religion and religious education as uneasiness, as lacking a center. It “hurts religion to associate with the kind of education that functions primarily as a way of adding to a person’s accumulating stock of information and concepts. Religion gets to be a matter of ideas about religion rather than the living of religion.” This is probably where Unitarian Universalists sin greatest and most often, and probably the aspect we are least willing to change. We tend to be lifelong learners and often mistake worship for an opportunity to learn something new rather than to celebrate something, even if it’s our own community. Even I’m put off by the number of services I’ve attended (and that I’ve written) that are better described as public lectures than as sermons. Many ministers, myself included, pad our sermons with minutia. At least a part of this is the imposed need, following our Puritan past and our more recent attempts at being a G.I. Bill spirituality, for twenty minute sermons that seek to integrate “the humanities and religion with pragmatic debates about politics, social issues, and psychology…Unitarian [Universalism] offer[s] the opportunity to join a high-achievement, thinking elite.”
Much of this is a response to the general settling over the fifty years since merger. Given the decline in Universalism prior to the merger, the lesson we learned was that the focus ought to be more on the mind than on the heart. The Unitarians definitely won the day in terms of their primarily intellectual view both of liberal religion and of worship. And while “Religion for Smart People” is an accurate description of Unitarian Universalism, that slogan wouldn’t gain many adherents. Again, that’s not to say our faith can’t be smart or that we can’t talk smartly about it. But maybe we’re going about the conversation wrong.
A related issue probably responsible for our damnation by other denominations as a perpetually suburban congregation is our discomfort talking about money. It is a very middle class attitude, this idea that everyone is giving his fair share and so to ask for more is to overtax her. This is reflected in our centralization of governance, both local and national—some might argue it’s a repudiation of our polity history—for which a portion of a congregation’s tithes should go to pay for national and regional resources. This is not a bad thing. Too many small congregations find it too easy to see themselves as alone in a vast sea of hostility. But a result of centralization is that we require many steps for ordination, including the results of tests of emotional fitness which come at considerable cost, culminating in two very expensive trips to either one end or the other of the continent for interviews that could, in this digital age, be as easily done by Skype. There is a need for gatekeepers—in a movement about which others say derisively that it’ll accept anyone, it’s necessary that its representatives present consistent competence—but the costs for gatekeeping are passed onto the potential minister. Add to this that many congregations who are willing to sponsor a potential minister during the required one year parish residency pay no or minimal compensation. True, there is financial help for students in the form of grants and loans, but even after successful completion of the hoops a would-be UU minister must pass through there is no guarantee of full-time oreven part-time employment. In fact, with the closing down of many congregations and the reversion of others to being lay-led because of finances, there is no guarantee of employment at all. Can we seriously wonder at the scarcity of working class clergy in Unitarian Universalism?
What would I suggest in its place? If I were devising a new movement intended to appeal to as many people as possible there are important aspects of Unitarian Universalism I would be sure to keep. We pride ourselves on being an inclusive rather than an exclusive faith. Particularly today, when many seekers look outside the traditionalspiritualities their parents brought them up on (or didn’t), a religion can be more often than not a place to land and settle for a few seasons than for life. It’s been said that working people today are likely to have three or four careers over their lives rather than the single one their parents had. There is no reason not to move across denominations, spiritualities, and practices so a seeker can find what she seeks. We see it as a failure when people leave our congregations but that may be the new epitome of success.
I would keep trained clergy and I would continue to train them in social justice issues in addition to (and maybe with greater emphasis on) theology. As the large number of our clergy involved in the successful Minnesota same-sexmarriage legislation and nationwide ecological and immigration issues suggests, we are making tremendous strides in spreading our message. We are a felt presence at rallies and protests and public celebrations and mourning. In 2005 I attended Camp Wellstone in Madison, WI, and I remember the lesson brought to us by a Lutheran minister at one workshop: Bring clergy with you and make sure they’re seen. It’s a major reason I decided to become ordained. Our visibility shouldn’t change.
What is our message? Do we have core beliefs that can be summed up in as lovely and compact a manner as the lawyer responding to Jesus’ question in Luke 10:27? I think we do. It can be summed up as “Love all life as if it were your own.” This reflects many of the pre-merger beliefs that leaned heavily on Christian interpretation—some would argue persuasively it predates interpretation and goes straight to the heart of Christian religious sentiment itself. But can that be separated from any other liberal religious faith? Can it be used to differentiate UUs from progressive Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Ba’hais, Secular Humanists, or anyone else? Perhaps not. But that may not be a problem.
To be sure, there are problems. To echo Reverend Egbert Brown, “I [am] surprised, disappointed, disillusioned as I [face]…that the failure or success of a religious venture [is] based on the number of members enrolled and the amount of dollars collected.” Congregations live anddie by whether they can collect enough to put on programs and hire a minister or, if unable to do so, to hire enough speakers to attract people to visit, then remain, then contribute in order to upgrade the process. This isn’t just in our movement, of course; all faiths are experiencing this to some extent. But in our case one rationale is that we suffer worse partly because of our smaller footprint and partly because, except for congregations in New England, we rarely benefitted from the past social expectation that members of a community would attend and contribute to a church. It’s true we aren’t flush at the national level either, and not at many congregations, even among the larger ones. But as Brown also argued, what is needed is “a religion of the present and the practical profoundly concerned with this world.” In seeking this we need to decide where to focus our efforts, whether it’s more important to have many small lay-led congregations or a few large, minister-led congregations. We can have both but eventually one will drown while the other will barely keep its head above water (reinforcing the complaint against us, that we’re an elitist faith attractive to only a few metropolitans).
We are also too beholden to our Christian roots in our method of worship. We meet on Sunday mornings, a time that is convenient for an increasingly diminishing population, and focus our service on the homily or sermon, putting its message at the center. I love writing and delivering sermons and I think I do a good job of it, but fewer and fewer people are eager to sit for a twenty minute lecture even if followed by an opportunity to respond. They can read and comment online. Perhaps services should have an adjunct in which visitors can listen to a recorded weekly message while our actual time together in body is taken up with singing, dancing, conversing, arguing (we love arguing; we will never lose our fondness for arguing), and eating. Such services don’t rely on a consistent day or place to meet.
Perhaps the time for Unitarian Universalism is past, not as an idea or a way of thinking, but for our existence as a separate movement. Perhaps what we ought not to do is continue as an independent faith just like all the other faiths that, with one or two, admittedly, sometimes major differences, believe much the same thing we do. Perhaps what we ought to do is join with like-minded progressive religions into one large, multi-churched, multi-service faith whose pastors are flexible enough to minister to multiple spiritual needs. Such a denomination would look like nothing we have seen before. But such a denomination could answer needs we have never had before.
 Phillips, Roy. Letting Go: Transforming Congregations for Ministry. Alban Institute. 1999: 80.
 Buehrens, John. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History. Kindle ebook. 2011: Loc 2368.
 Morrison-Reed, Mark. Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. Skinner House Books. 1994: 51.
 Morrison-Reed, Mark. Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. Skinner House Books. 1994: 84.