Associationism, part three

Part One of this four-part series

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

15 thoughts on “Associationism, part three

  1. Bill Baar

    [i]I suspect fear of political correctness has led to a certain rigidity of thought and lack of innovation among moneyed white people…[/i]

    no kidding…

  2. Victor

    …shouldn’t that be fear of political incorrectness?

    The concept of congregational polity is deeply-ingrained in our religious culture. Without tinkering with congregational polity, I don’t see how it would be possible to change the “rigidity” of the Wesley model of covenantal associationism (which I think was also influenced by JLA’s theology).

  3. Victor

    Rather than trying to change the organizing principle of “covenants” into “associationism” as a way of theologically grounding our congregations, it might be a good idea to take a second look at the Findings and Recommendations in the AUA’s “Unitarians Face a New Age,” – and, in particular its recommendation concerning “Doctrine.”

    Having every congregation participate in the process of listings its areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, concerning beliefs would initiate a discussion on liberal theology the likes of which has never taken place in any UU church. As the reports indicates, some people will leave over this, and there will be tension – but out of tension comes life and hope.

  4. Bill Baar

    @Victor… I can’t think of anything more boring than a room full of UUs talking about what they believe; including myself. Much more interesting to reflect on what we all do.

  5. Victor

    @6 Bill:

    If by “what we all do” you mean social justice, then making a choice about talking about theology (beliefs) versus social activism isn’t helpful in my view. Being grounded in a strong liberal theology I believe would help bring focus and direction to one’s individual pursuit of social justice, and just perhaps, the congregation’s as well. My perception in many UU churches is that social justice is seen as the “project” of just a handful of people in the congregation.

    It also bugs me that we UUs think we’re the only faith interested in social activism – we conveniently ignore the fact that many other faiths do as well, if not better, than us. I think we promote social justice as being one of the hallmarks of our faith, because, frankly, we’ve forgotten how to talk about liberal theology.

  6. Bill Baar

    @Victor Social Justice the least of what we do. I mean what is happening when most of us gather each Sunday. A handful of us doe ss work. Once a month most of us kick in a few bucks for a cause. But every Sunday a big chunk of us do something at Church. Almost all of us show up at a least a few times during the year for Church. Forget what we believe. What is it we’re doing? What do we think we’re doing and why do we do it? But please no more I’m a hyphenated UU this or that…. “I am..” is a terrible baby boomer legacy.

  7. Victor

    Bill – Beliefs are about more than just a “UU-” label. That’s not the kind of discussion I have in mind. Talking about what we do in church and why we do it would actually be a good topic for a discussion on beliefs.

  8. Bill Baar

    @Vic… what do is tangible…what people belive is often delusional. I’m more curious what people do, and their delusions make me sleepy.

  9. Dan

    Bill and Victor — Seems to me the two of you are having exactly the conversation that so many of us in Unitarian Universalism are having right now. How much should belief matter to Unitarian Universalists? Some of us feel belief is central to our religious faith, and others of us feel belief is at best a side issue — and where does the conversation go from that point?

  10. Victor

    Dan, perhaps you recognize the following?

    “Ours is not a religion for complacent people. We can’t just come and sit in church once a week for an hour, and say that is the extent of our religion. The search for truth and goodness draws us ever onwards, into deeper and more careful reflection.”

    We’re not a social club for upper-middle class liberal white folk. We’re not a charity operation. Unitarian Universalism is a faith, and beliefs are central to faith, even a non-creedal faith such as ours.

    My partner and I host a covenant group meeting at our house which is taking place this evening. I have gotten more out of these meetings than I have from attending most Sunday Worship services. Only when people start talking from their hearts is it possible to really connect in a deeply spiritual way, and that’s generally not possible when you are busy doing stuff on Sunday mornings.

  11. Bill Baar

    @Dan…sort of, except I think there’s a disconnect between what many UU’s profess to believe, and what they do.

    And that what UUs do is a better reflection of their beliefs, than what they spin, when pressed to say.

    We believe something because that’s what draws us all together Sundays. Few reflect on our acts and explain what we do means. You come the closest.

  12. Alice Blair Wesley

    “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.”

    Really, what you have written here is not history! A major reason for delivery of my 2000-01 Minns lectures was that the overwhelming majority of UUs had completely forgot – and had no understanding of – our covenantal history.

    Had we a wide and broad understanding of this history, the covenant a congregation enters with other congregations to form regional and/or a nation-wide association of congregations would be a meaningful covenant. It would include the promise to attend – without fail – decision-making meetings of the officers of member congregations and to provide – without fail – that level of financial support voted by the officers of member congregations at duly called meetings.

    Were we truly a covenantal association, we would not have hundreds of tiny, all but completely isolated congregations who never give or receive help from any other congregations. We would have an Association governed by the officers of member congregations, not by the board/staff.

    There are many reasons for falling membership in all the mainline (middle class) Protestant churches, including ours, some of which have nothing to do with the churches’ form of governance. But by my lights, one of the major reasons we UUs never – before or after consolidation – fulfilled our potential is this: We never made the explicit connection between theology and governance, between a doctrine of the free church – rooted in a vision of love, freedom and commitment – and our liberal gospel. Where there is faithful love in community, there is meaning and freedom. The spirit of love saves! The spirit of love is worthy of our fidelity!

    I am encouraged to note that some of our preachers “get” that connection. We will grow significantly when we have a covenant of association that we actually practice as congregations in association, and when we have many preachers able to articulate our gospel in historically rooted and appealingly current terms.

    Thine, Alice Blair Wesley

  13. Dan

    Alice Blair Wesley @ 14 — Glad to hear from you! You write: “Really, what you have written here is not history!”

    Yup, it’s not history, it’s polemic. If you want to be kind, I suppose you could call what I’ve written here theology.

    But I believe that to say that Unitarian Universalism has a covenantal history is a problematic statement from a strictly historical viewpoint. There’s a reason so many Unitarian Universalist ministers had forgotten about covenant — because many congregational covenants were no longer in effect. This trend was paralleled in many instances by the disappearance of the old distinction between the church (which might have had a covenant as an organizing document) and the society (which might have had bylaws).

    You also write: “one of the major reasons we UUs never – before or after consolidation – fulfilled our potential is this: We never made the explicit connection between theology and governance, between a doctrine of the free church – rooted in a vision of love, freedom and commitment – and our liberal gospel.”

    This, I think, is the real point. Forget the history — we could argue endlessly about the history, and provide examples and counter-examples ad infinitum. I basically agree with you that we have to have some connection between governance and theology, but what I am arguing is that covenant is too narrow a term to adequately encompass the connection between theology and governance; I am arguing that associationism, a broader term that can include covenant, is more accurate, and provides a better fit with our theology.

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