Merger and its aftermath
Upon the merger (the legal term was “consolidation”) of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, two different forms of associationism had to merge. I find it significant that some of the old Universalist state conventions determinedly maintained their separate corporate identity; such a thing was not practically possible in more centralized Unitarian form of associationism. This also reveals something of the associational rigidity that the Universalists had fallen into; they could not let go of old associational structures; and this does not compare well with the associational innovation of the Unitarians at that time.
The merger of the two forms of associationism proved awkward at best. The Universalists felt like they were being taken over, and from an asosciational point of view that was true. The Unitarians, for their part, forgot to keep on innovating. Dana Greeley, the Unitarian who took over the presidency of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), acted as if the 1950s were never going to end: he ignored signs that economic growth in the United States was slowing, and he was unable to deal effectively with the changes in society that confronted him, most notably when the Black Power movement came to the UUA. The 1970s were a period of serious decline in the UUA, as the 1950s associational models proved incapable of handling the new society that was emerging: it was not longer enough to start more fellowships and centralize curriculum development; something else had to change.
The first great innovation in the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association was second-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism forced Unitarian Universalists to implement profound changes in the way they associated with one another. It was no longer acceptable for an older white man to consolidate power so that he could make executive decisions on his own, the way Samuel Atkins Eliot and Dana Greeley had done. Second-wave feminist associationism emphasized processes in which more voices, particularly the voices of women, could be heard during the decision making process. At its most fully developed, second-wave feminist associationism required consensus decision-making where no decision could be made unless everyone concerned agreed to the decision.
Second-wave feminist associationism completely changed the face of Unitarian Universalism. By forcing the full inclusion of women in the religious associations, it opened the door so that other marginalized groups could be more fully included: gays and lesbians first, then African Americans, then other people of color, and so on. The egalitarianism implicit in second-wave feminist associationism harks back to the egalitarianism that emerged in the earliest Universalist and proto-Unitarians in the late 18th century.
But second-wave feminist associationism had weaknesses. Designed originally by and for middle-class educated white women, second wave feminism did not work as well for working class women and women of color (nor did it work as well for men of color, some GLBTQ persons, non-Anglophones, etc.), who still got shut out of full participation in Unitarian and Universalist religious associations. Consensus, one of the key innovations of second wave feminism, has proved particularly troublesome: consensus is too easily manipulated by powerful articulate educated moneyed people. Political correctness has proved to be a double-edged sword: while political correctness can protect vulnerable persons and groups, charges of political incorrectness can shut down proposed innovations instead of appropriately modifying them (I suspect fear of political correctness has led to a certain rigidity of thought and lack of innovation among moneyed white people, which was certainly not its original intent).
The emergence of today’s associational rigidity
Most troubling, the generation of white middle class women who pioneered second wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s have clung to whatever power and authority they managed to wrest away from the old boys network that used to dominate the Unitarians and the Universalists. The older old-boys network, and the newer old-girls network, both cling to their power, and in clinging have effectively prevented associational innovation. Our current model of associationism, heavily influenced by second-wave feminism, has essentially lost its effectiveness. Membership growth has stopped in all but a few larger congregations. The last associational innovations we saw, the fellowship movement, and the extension movement to revitalize urban and other dying churches, have been shut down. Unitarian Universalist associationism has been reduced to the following ideal:
A Unitarian Universalist congregation consists of about 200 active members (i.e., an average attendance of 200 adults and children) who support 2 to 2-1/2 full-time-equivalent program staff, including a full-time ordained minister, a part-time lay religious educator and a par-time music director. The congregation is located in well-to-do suburb, or a similar community that will have enough upper middle class educated white persons. There will be about 50 children in the Sunday school (average attendance) and 8 teens in the youth group. The local congregation will participate in the district association by paying its full fair share dues, sending delegates to the annual district meeting, and sending teens to district youth conferences. The local congregation will participate in the national association by paying its full fair share dues, and sending delegates to the annual general assembly of the association; in return, the local congregation depends on the national organization for all programming materials and for its ministers (though not for its non-ordained staff). The congregation, the district, and the national association are each organized using the Carver Policy Governance (TM) model of doing business. Local congregations and the national association are organized around covenants, as defined by Alice Blair Wesley in her influential Minns lectures of 2002.
While this ideal form of associationism — call it Wesley covenantal assocaitionism, based on its most distinctive feature — actually works quite well for a few local congregations, it is not working well at district and national levels; the proof thereof may be found in falling membership across the association. Considered in the context of the history of associationism within Universalism, Unitarianism, and Unitarian Universalism, it appears to be peculiar and almost aberrant: how much does this peculiar covenantal asociationism actually have in common with the itinerant Universalist preacher, the Western Unitarian Conference and the Iowa Sisterhood, or the urban extension movement?
Next: Moving away from rigidity