To better set the associational rigidity of today’s Unitarian Universalism into relief, it is worth considering other forms of associationism currently in existence which do not match this ideal. By considering these alternative forms of associationism, we can better understand that associationism is not restricted to certain received forms or ideals. In recent years, we have seen existing congregations supporting new start-up congregations with administrative and financial support, without going through traditional district or denominational structures: that is, associationism allows direct contact between local organizations without being mediated by a regional or national associational structure. In recent years, we have seen a few ministers experimenting with more entrepreneurial approaches to starting up new congregations aimed at reaching young urbanites, including store-front churches and house churches: this harks back to the itinerant Universalist preachers who adapted their religion to regional differences and to rapid changes in society. We have seen individuals or congregations developing innovative new resources on their own and providing them directly to other congregations (e.g., small group ministry resources): this recalls the efforts of groups like the Unitarian Sunday school Society before its functions were effectively taken over by the AUA.
Associationism is (or should be) a flexible, highly participatory organizational structure that allows both local autonomy and effective cooperation between local organizations. Associationism is grounded in the principles of voluntary association that involves, among many characteristics: free association within and protected from societal and governmental structures; civic engagement (i.e., participants in a voluntary association run the association themselves, rather than the state or ecclesiastical authority); the creation of metaphorical spaces within society where individual voices can be heard; combining individual voices together to make a broader impact on mass democracy or other government. Associationism is structured by written documents (minutes of business meetings, bylaws, communications between local organizations, etc.). Associationism is also structured by behavioral norms that allow voluntary association. Associationism does not require theological rigidity, or another other kind of rigidity for that matter, including the current rigidities of Policy Governance (TM) and Wesley-style covenants; at the same time, associationism can easily accommodate Policy Governance and Wesley-style covenants, if those prove to be effective organizational structures for local organizations.
Associationism should promote organizational innovation and diversity, and I have tried to show that that has been true historically within Unitarianism and Universalism (and, to a lesser extent, Unitarian Unviersalism). Associationism also supports theological flexibility. Thus, if you are looking for the greatest source of historical continuity between your Unitarian Universalist congregation today, and Unitarians and Universalists of the past, you should not look to theological similarities, nor to organizational similarities. Your theology today is almost certainly quite different from John Murray’s theology, or Samuel West’s theology. A covenant from one of today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations has little or no relationship to an itinerant Universalist preacher in Ohio circa 1810, or to the Iowa Sisterhoodin the 1870s. But we would all share a common reference point in our associationalism. Even though Samuel West was settled in an established Puritan church, he would recognize bylaws and asociational connections between local congregations. Even though that itinerant Universalist had nothing to do with a local congregation, he would have sought out a relationship to a Universalist convention, if he could find one. Even though the Iowa Sisterhood organized their congregations around ideas of home and hearth rather than around ideas of covenant, they would have known the value of maintaining regular communication with other congregations and with regional associations.
Where do we go from here?
I have used historical examples from within our own religious traditions to try to define associationism. My approach here has been descriptive and empirical: I have first looked at the historical record, and then tried to generalize about organization from there (this is in contrast to other writers who start out with a preconceived notion of how we have organized ourselves, and then ignore historical evidence that does not support their original notion). Obviously, my descriptive and historical approach is inadequate. I have ignored vast areas of our history. In the present, associationism continues to evolve in response to changing circumstances. I have also ignored other groups which rely on associationism, including the many flavors of Baptist, the Congregationalists and their descendants, etc.; as well as non-religious groups that use associationism. A fuller picture of associationism would require describing and examining these other groups, but such a task is well outside my limited range of knowledge and ability.
Inadequate though this essay is, it still has a purpose. If I do nothing else, I hope to point the way to ongoing innovation and increased flexibility and innovation. Our Unitarian Universalist associationism has gotten too rigid; we seem unable to respond to changes over time, to say nothing of cultural and regional differences. We have to get beyond second-wave feminist associationism; we can not let our organizational structures privilege educated white upper middle class people of the Baby Boom generation. We have to move towards more flexible organizational structures that will allow our religious movement to reach out to and serve young urbanites, people of color, people in areas where there’s no chance of having a full-time settled ordained minister, people without college educations, etc. Associationism should not put us into a tiny little rigid box; it should allow us to innovate, experiment, incorporate new people; it should help us to maintain communication networks that allow innovation to spread while maintaining broad associational integrity.
This ends this four-part series on associationism. Coming soon: a sequel on practical tools for associationism.