A modest proposal concerning franchises which market the “UU” brand

Follow-up post, 14 October

Hello, dear readers, Mr. Crankypants is ba-aack! Yes, your favorite curmudgeon (and Dan’s evil alter ego) is here again, still referring to himself in the third person, and still criticizing anything he thinks is wrong with the world.

Today, Mr. C. would like to talk with about the absurd business model used by Unitarian Universalist congregations. You see, as it stands now, Unitarian Universalist congregations operate under a sort of franchise model. If your congregation has the Unitarian Universalist franchise in a given location, that means your congregation has the exclusive right to market the “UU” brand in that location. Thus we have the Prime Rule of UU Franchises: No upstart Unitarian Universalist congregation may set up shop in your location.

There are exceptions to the Prime Rule. (1) If your congregation has an internal conflict, and half your members leave and form a new congregation nearby, the Powers That Be will frown upon the new congregation for a time, and then accept them fully as a new franchise. (2) If your congregation chooses to spin off a new congregation near your present location, the Powers That Be will not frown at all, but will applaud your alleged entrepreneurial audacity.

Now consider this scenario: A certain Unitarian Universalist congregation — call it “UU Church of Halfdead” or UUCH (pronounced “ouch”) — has been the only franchise of the UU brand in a certain city for the past century. Now UUCH’s membership is down to just 20 people — oops, make that 19 people, one of them just died. All the members are over 70, there is no program for children, and UUCH has no intention of changing anything in order to attract young people (“young” being defined as under the age of 60). Did Mr. Crankypants mention that UUCH has no Web site, they never advertise, and they have no sign on their building? Most people in the community don’t even know they exist. And all they do is use their endowment to maintain their big, old, ramshackle church building.

So what do you think would happen if some enterprising and entrepreneurial folks decided to start up a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in that city? Let’s say it’s a store-front church aimed at people in their 20s and 30s. The Powers That Be would gnash their teeth and decry the efforts of those entrepreneurial upstarts. The leaders of UUCH would weep and wail and call them poachers. Everyone would make big frown-y faces at the entrepreneurial upstarts and tell them that they are Bad People. Never mind the fact that UUCH consistently gets rid of all newcomers. Never mind the fact that a store-front church aimed at Generation Y will be utterly different than a dying church for people over 70. No, we would gnash our teeth and wail wildly, because every UU congregation, no matter how dysfunctional, has an exclusive franchise!

So here’s a modest proposal:

Assume that actual and potential Unitarian Universalists constitute 0.5% of the total U.S. population. Any Unitarian Universalist congregation that draws an average annual attendance of less 0.5% of the total population of its service area loses all right to have an exclusive franchise, and opens itself up to the possibility that an entrepreneurial congregation-planter could come in a start a new congregation within that service area. We’ll let existing congregations determine the exact boundaries of their service areas — they can make those service areas as small as they like, so as to be able to claim an average attendance of 0.5% — but entrepreneurial congregation planters can plant new congregations anywhere outside of defined service areas. Congregations which choose not to determine exact boundaries of their service areas automatically give permission to entrepreneurial congregation planters to determine those boundaries for them.

If this modest proposal were adopted, someone might start up a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in a store-front near your present church! And what if the only way you could combat that new upstart congregation was to actually welcome newcomers, to jazz up (literally) your worship service, and to ditch your old Policy Governance (TM) or other outmoded organizational structure — that is, what if your only defense was to change the way you did church, and make it better than it was before?

Mr. Crankypants believes this is what is called a “disruptive” proposal… well, it would be disruptive if their were any such thing as a Unitarian Universalist who was also an entrepreneurial congregation planter. Sigh. Even so, it’s still fun to think about.

19 thoughts on “A modest proposal concerning franchises which market the “UU” brand

  1. Ms. M

    when I read the news and see how pervasive and painful “fear of change” is in our society…I have ever less hope for change in UUism. I remember working with a church very much like UUCH, they wanted advice on how to attract the young families in their area and rejected every single possible suggestion. The may still exist…yet still, there’s no website. Being at GA this past year and seeing who the decision makers are for the movement left me totally saddened. It really seemed to me that the general “delegates” and let’s face it – lots of the clergy – are like the insurance company execs – and really glad with the status quo. While I hold hope that UUism will exist in 2 generations…I think there’s adequate evidence that it will be in the form of a handful of congregations and some scrap books. Yours in crankyness and Jazzperations….

  2. Mr. Busy Hands

    Mr Busyhands thinks Mr Crankypants may be on to something. Mr Busyhands is a member of one of the 20 or so congregations which are responsible for the (modest) growth of UUA membership numbers. But he also lives near a congregation and a couple of fellowships that sound suspiciously like UUCH. And he is almost positive that his congregation would be accused of “poaching” and censured if it tried to export its successful formula in any way that impinged on the “franchises” of those fading groups.

    Mr Busyhands thinks Mr Crankypants’ analogy to insurance execs hits pretty close to the target. And we see how successful reforming THAT bunch has been….

    Stlll, if you’ll stick your neck out and propose this at the next GA, I’ll stick my neck out and vote for it!

  3. Bill Baar

    When I lived in Oak Park and attended Unity Temple there were three UU Churches within walking distance of each other: Unity Temple, Beacon, and Third U. All different Churches with different styles. One of these days I want to start visiting all the UU Churches in metro Chicago because I think they’re very different. All UU but they have different styles, traditions, and really missions when you get down to it. Given that variety, it’s a shame we have such rules about start ups.

  4. Ted

    I’m not sure that “the powers that be” are. Sure, the new group would raise indignation among the 19 members of the established church – oops, make that 18, memorial service will be on Wednesday.
    But I’m not sure that the upstarts would even know about it. Nor would they care about the condemnation thundering from 25 Beacon Street or their district headquarters that would completely obliterate the sound of one hand clapping.

    In your scenario, there will be legal and real estate problems in the foreseeable future, and the crucial decisions will probably be made by those with the least reliable information, but if the upstarts are strong, those decisions won’t matter very much.

  5. S.

    How do other denominations handle this? I have lived several places where I could hear the bells from two (or more) catholic churches, but I know they are centrally controlled. I live in MN, where you can’t help but trip over the Lutheran churches. Do they use a model like the Catholics or more like the UUs? In any case, some denominations must have addressed this at some point.

    I go to a UU fellowship that was the upstart 15 years ago, and was probably the recipient of “thundering condemnation” at one point. I have no idea how the big church nearby or the UUA perceive us, but the district has been wonderful. Also, other churches in our metro area have been supportive.

  6. ogre

    Interesting. In Madison, San Diego, and elsewhere, we have large, successful congregations trying hard to create or to foster new(er) congregations. Giving up territorial claims, as it were.

    The healthy spawn, and the ill and dysfunctional want offerings of flesh?

    Ok, so what *should* the UUA policy/attitude look like?

  7. Jeremiah

    I am seriously confused. How can the UUA STOP a church from forming? And what defines an ‘area?’ For example, I attend a UU church (originally Universalist) in Auburn, Maine, and once upon a time (almost long ago in a galaxy far far away at this point) there was a Unitarian church across the river in Lewiston. If a church formed in Lewiston, would that constitute the same “area?”

    I am extremely disturbed by this reality – I was totally unaware of it.

    As far as I am concerned, if we’re based on congregational polity, how can this truly be controlled? We’re not top-down like the C of E, or the HR Catholic Church, are we? ARE WE?

    I threw my support (and my money) to Mister Growth – I mean, Mister Morales early on because these are precisely the sorts of things I DON’T want to see.

    And I hear the old-people-dying-church thing. We lost two UU churches in as many months in Maine earlier this year. They just sort of… imploded.

  8. Mr. Crankypants

    Ms. M @ 1 — You sound as depressed as Mr. C. is about all this….

    Kim Hampton @ 2 — Mr. C. gets in enough trouble talking about the politics of one denomination; no way will he get involved in yet another denomination’s politics.

    Bill Baar @ 3 — Beacon is now dead. Just sayin.

    ogre @ 7 — What, Unitarian Universalists promoting growth? Don’t they know that growth is a UU heresy?! Shame on them!

    Jeremiah @ 8, and others — There’s no official mechanism for stopping new congregational starts, not as far as Mr. C. knows anyway. But there are plenty of unofficial mechanisms for hindering new congregational starts — withholding district support, whining and complaining, and subtle pressure on ministers and lay leaders. Unitarian Universalist ministers are implicitly discouraged from starting new congregations without approval from district or denomination; ministers are definitely not encouraged to be entrepreneurial; there is essentially no denominational support for new congregation starts any more; districts do little more than lame-ass “chalice-lighter grants.” Lay leaders who try to start new congregations can receive a little bit of support from the Church of the Larger Fellowship (which is an independent congregation, by the way, not a department of the denomination) — but such lay leaders are more likely to hear dark references to “the fellowship mentality.”

    And if some brave lay leaders and ministers try to start a new UU congregation in a store front (as opposed to renting the local Elks Hall, or trying to raise money to buy their own building) — or if someone tried to start a church beginning with a youth ministry, as Willow Creek Church did — other UUs would not quite know what to do with them. Mr. Crankypants has observed that Unitarian Universalists have one basic model for churches — 100 anti-authoritarian people and one underpaid minister in a ramshackle, badly-maintained building — and there’s great resistance to any other form of UU congregation.

  9. MadGastronomer

    My chef walked in as I was reading the comments on this entry and asked what I was doing. She’s UU herself, used to be very active in the youth movement before moving out here, so I said, “Reading about UU politics.”
    “Oh? About how badly they F* up?”
    “Yeah, pretty much. Specifically about how they refuse support to new groups starting, especially in areas where there are established but dying groups.”
    And she gave a very tidy summary of the contents of the original post, without having read it or knowing who wrote it. So I guess you have a supporter in Seattle.

  10. Peter Bowden

    Makes me think that we should have a larger campaign to promote the start of free range UU groups (like small group ministry hold the congregation) and get people meeting to talk, reflect and act everywhere. No congregation, no CLF… Not yet… That would be like the organic foundation from which new forms of UU congregations could evolve. I know UUA.ORG is clear about finding a congregation. Don’t see prominent ‘start a church’ or ‘start a group’ links. Of course, the UUA is an association of congregations. It would be fun to collect all the group resource links and church startup links on a site/page and put out a short video giving people “permission” to congregate.

  11. Jeremiah Bartlett

    What’s so weird about all of this is that UU’ism is a baby religion – it’s 50 years old! Many congregations are older than that (my church dates from 1876, for example, and lots of Boston area churches are 200+ years old, of course), but the merger was really just certifying the obvious – that Christian Unitarianism and Universalism were dead, dead, dead.

    It’s like the ghosts of our forebears continue to haunt us. We’re a 20th century religion with 19th century polity attempting relevance in the 21st. Wake up and smell the reality.

  12. JoyceD

    I don’t think anyone can stop a group from congregating and calling themselves “Unitarian Universalist”. The UUA may or may not support that group, but if it grows to a true congregation (say 60 or more), then the UUA is apt to take notice. They do want to grow. I don’t think we should look at each other as competition. We should work together – there is strength in numbers. There are 3 congregations in my county and we’re trying to work together. We just sponsored a table at the Green Fest together.

    The next county to the south has no congregation and if my congregation can grow sufficiently (a Right Relations Covenant might help since the back door is about how people are treated usually), then I’d like to see us support one there. It’s the green thing to do to not make people travel far.

  13. Ian Evison

    Dan: I am interested in the source of the experience behind something you said, namely “If your congregation has the Unitarian Universalist franchise in a given location, that means your congregation has the exclusive right to market the ‘UU’ brand in that location.” I must admit to being somewhat baffled. I am sure that you have some experience that leads you to say this. Yet I am on district staff in the Central Midwest, the district with the most emerging congregations and I did not know this rule. Many–including some in my own family–would testify that I am terribly oblivious. It may well be that this is a rule and I have not yet heard of it. Yet even for me this would be somewhat strange.

    The critique I often hear is that, as a denomination, we have been excessively focused on a single model for starting congregations and have failed to support emerging congregations that don’t fit that mold. And from another quarter I hear the critique that we don’t have adequate models of starting congregations in places where they don’t spontaneously emerge. But, if we have a rule that a congregation in a location has exclusive right to market the UU brand in that area, it is news to me.

    So, please enlighten.

  14. Andrea Lerner

    My experience is quite different – Metro NY would welcome new start congregations!! In fact, there is a fund of money waiting for a new start congregation in Brooklyn. It’s called the Flatbush Fund, left by a closing congregation some time ago in hopes new folks would arrive to resurrect the UU spirit.

    I think the old territorial thinking has been fading away for some time. Here’s the link to new congregation information on the UUA website: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/newcongregations/index.shtml

  15. Mr. Crankypants

    Mad Gast @ 11 — Mr. C. likes your chef. Woo hoo!

    JoyceD @ 14 — Actually, the UUA does have some kind of trademark or something on the terms Unitarian, universalist, and Unitarian Universalist (witness the fact that they sued that angry break-off American Unitarian Mumbojumbo group a few years back).

    Ian Evison @ 15 — Please, don’t call Mr. Crankypants “Dan” — evil alter egos never like to be called by the name of their wimpy main egos. That aside….

    It’s a tacit kinda thing. It’s not explicit, it’s not even implicit, it’s tacit. And those tacit rules are the hardest ones to fight, because it’s near impossible to pin down an Unspoken Law. But try this thought experiment — think of a well-off congregation in your district that has been on an attendance plateau or decline for some years, a congregation where the average age is, say, 50 (this could be two thirds of all UU congregations) — now think about renting space across the street from them and starting a brand-new UU congregation drawing on the insights of successful Emergent evangelical churches, a UU congregation that will attract people aged 18-45 — now imagine that your new church start becomes successful — finally, imagine what the existing congregation will say about you, imagine what district staff will say (carefully couched no doubt in the language of systems theory), and if you’re a minister imagine how you will be treated by your nearby colleagues. (Hint: the reception to that new church start will be chilly, to say the least.) OK, got all that? Now, how far away do you have to move that new church start before the tacit rules state that it will be acceptable to all concerned? Then ask yourself: If an existing congregation is failing to attract a broad demographic, or is failing to grow in a decade when we are seeing a new baby boom, why shouldn’t we be doing a new church start right across the street from them? — they’ve failed, haven’t they? — shouldn’t someone else be given the chance to redeem Unitarian Universalism in that precise location?

    Andrea Lerner @ 16 — Thanks for the link to the UUA Web site. Mr. Crankypants read that Web page carefully, and it really confirmed what he is saying above. Specifically, this paragraph is confirmation:

    “Early on in their development, new congregations—or those few individuals who plan to start one—need to contact the appropriate district office. The district office has UUA staff members who can help with advice, funding options, planning, support, partner congregations, coaches, and more. A congregation cannot become a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association without the support of the district. It is a necessary part of the process of applying for membership.”

    So the district office becomes a gate keeper who enforces the tacit rules of that district (see Mr. C.’s response to Ian Evison just above)… and yeah, there’s always a gatekeeper, the real issue is whether the gatekeeper has explicit rules to follow when you want to get through the gate, or whether the tacit rules come into play. Mr. Crankypants respectfully submits the tacit rules are determinative in this situation. And what are those tacit rules? — well, they vary from district to district, from year to year, and from case to case (because that’s what tacit rules tend to do).

  16. MadGastronomer

    Mr. Crankypants, should you and/or Dan find yourselves in Seattle, I hope you’ll drop by our restaurant. If you catch us when we’re slow, I’m sure both the chef and I would love to chat with either of you.
    Personally, I’m somewhat baffled by the whole thing. Of course, I’m coming from a Pagan background, where anybody who wants to start a group generally can, if they can find enough people to join it (I just started one myself), and many groups operating on many different models exist within fairly small area, not to mention a large number of solitaries. UUism is generally so welcoming of Paganism that I’m a little surprised to hear that they haven’t observed our structures a little more closely — or at least, haven’t learned from that observation. It’s a shame. UUism is a lovely tradition.
    From what my chef’s been telling me, it sounds like the UUA reorganizes itself every decade or two (unless that was just the youth movement); how can they have missed this?

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