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. Continue reading