The year in review: Unitarian Universalism

These are a few of the things I’ve been watching in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) universe here in the United States:

Article II Study Commission

The commission charged with revising Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) released draft wording of a revision. From the few reactions I’ve seen online or heard in person, I suspect most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were expecting minor revisions to the existing wording. But the draft represents a major rewrite — mostly new wording, no more seven principles, no more six sources. Kudos to the Article II Study Commission for attempting a much-needed major rewrite.

The real question, however, is whether we can build consensus around this particular rewrite, or if this reqrite will evolve into something that we can build consensus around. Personally, I’m ready for the Purposes section of Article II to be rewritten, but I’m not excited by the new draft version. What will the lovers of the “seven principles” think of this major rewrite? Will they vote for it? And if there is consensus among the usual General Assembly attendees, a tiny percentage of all Unitarian Universalists in the U.S., will the new wording be widely accepted by the rank and file? I don’t think the answers to any of these questions are obvious.

UU blogs

There aren’t many UU bloggers left. Scott Wells has finally reduced his blogging to just a few times a year. Will Shetterly moved to SubStack, deleting his old blog. People like Patrick Murfin and Paul Wilczynski are still blogging regularly, but they rarely blog about Unitarian Universalism any more. And there are a few long-time UU bloggers barely hanging on to their blogs, like Peacebang — who used to be a blogging machine, but is now down to one or two posts a year — and Doug Muder, also down to a couple of posts a year.

Nevertheless, there remain some UU bloggers left who still blog fairly regularly about Unitarian Universalism and/or liberal religion. James Ishmael Ford covers Zen and UUism over at Patheos. Carl Gregg is also blogging at Patheos. Caute, in England, continues to post regularly. Myke Johnson has been blogging a couple of times a month. UU Pagan bloggers include John Beckett at Patheos. HP Rivers blogs weekly at their website. And I’m still blogging a couple of times a week.

(Update: Looks like John Arkansawyer’s blog is accessible again! I got a blank page when I tried to check while writing this post, but whatever problems is now over. OK, John, now you have to live up to your New Year’s resolution to blog regularly.)

The best place to find UU blogs remains Thank you, UUpdater (pronounced “oopdater”), for keeping your aggregator going for lo, these many years.

UU social media

I used to read a couple of of UU Facebook groups, but I’ve grown so disgusted with Facebook that I rarely check those groups any more. I grew disgusted with Twitter back in 2014, and haven’t looked at it since. Basically, I’m pretty much disillusioned with all commercial social media — TikTok, Instagram, you name it, I’m sick of it.

But in early November, I joined Mastodon, a non-commercial micro-blogging platform based on the ActivityPub protocol. I joined just in time for Mastodon to be inundated with people fleeing from Twitter. And in the past week or so, I’ve grown concerned that with all the self-styled “Twitter refugees,” Mastodon is turning into another hate-filled cesspool like Twitter.

In any case, there is a small but growing number of UUs on Mastodon. Mastodon should be a natural for UUs — it’s open instead of closed, and it’s pro-democracy (arguably, all commercial social media is now damaging U.S. democracy). If you open a Mastodon account, search for the #UU hashtag to meet other UUs. (The best quick start guide to Mastodon that I’ve seen, by the way, is on Humanities Commons.)

Congregations on the edge

The pandemic battered many UU congregations. Even before that, many UU congregations had never quite recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2020. And to top it off, participation in organized religion continues to decline in the U.S.

I haven’t heard of any UU congregations actually going under in the past year. But it’s going to be interesting to see the end-of-year numbers, after UU congregations re-certify with the UUA. I’m expecting to see an overall decline in membership, along with a steep decline in religious education enrollment.

Ministerial Fellowship Committee news

The UUA sent out three notices of ministers being removed from ministerial fellowship in 2022:

Received in early December: “The Ministerial Fellowship Committee voted recently to remove the Rev. David Morris from fellowship for refusing to complete the terms of his probation….”

Received in December: “The Ministerial Fellowship Committee announces that the Rev. Dr. Kate Rohde has been removed from ministerial fellowship… [for] ministerial misconduct by defaming colleagues, by interfering with the ministries of colleagues….”

Received in September: “It is with heavy hearts that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee reports the suspension of fellowship of the Rev. David Kohlmeier pending the outcome of criminal charges related to misconduct….”

Three suspensions from ministerial fellowship in three months seems like a lot of suspensions. I have to think at least some of this is the result of the extreme stress many ministers went through during the pandemic.

Minister shortage

I believe there were a few ministerial positions that remained unfilled at the end of last year’s ministerial search season, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. In the previous search year (2021), several ministers were coaxed out of retirement in order to fill interim ministry positions. So it looks like Unitarian Universalism has seen a shortage of ministers for the past two years.

It will be interesting to see if this is a trend that continues. It’s easy to say this is all because of the pandemic, and I have heard rumors about ministers who have left ministry for other careers in the past year or two — although I know of only two such people personally. But I can think of many other things that could contribute to a shortage of ministers. Baby Boomer retirements? Pandemic burnout among ministers? Ministers no longer willing to put up with low pay and ow status? Shortage of new ministers in the pipeline? All of the above, plus some other factors besides? (Another view on this topic.)

But surprisingly, I remain upbeat

So much bad news in the U.S. UU universe. The pandemic and decreasing rates of religious affiliation hit Unitarian Universalism hard in 2022. I’m seeing evidence of burnout among ministers, and also among other congregational staff. I’m bracing myself for steep declines in membership numbers, once the UUA certification process is completed in late February.

But overall, I’m feeling surprisingly upbeat about the future of Unitarian Universalism. Maybe it’s because I’m in a congregation where people like being Unitarian Universalists, and where attendance numbers are very slowly creeping upwards.

I’ve also been heartened by the UUs I’ve been meeting on Mastodon — interesting people, creative thinkers. If these folks are representative of UUs everywhere, then I feel there’s great hope for Unitarian Universalism.

10 thoughts on “The year in review: Unitarian Universalism”

  1. Our congregation had a failed search for an interim and is going it on our own this year. I believe the shortfall number I heard quoted was either twenty or forty interim ministers.

  2. We’ll see how it goes. We’re doing the right things, I think, but there’s a visible age gap between the newer, younger members and the long-timers. We’re running out of middle-aged people, and it shows. This year should be a good year, but I’m not so sure what the decade holds, other than change. But as Alice asked, “Which way? Which way?”

  3. Blogs fading away isn’t just happening to UU-themed blogs. I saw this commentary in a Buzzfeed article titled “People Are Sharing Things That Were Totally Normal To Have Or Do 10 Years Ago, But Would Be Strange Today.”

    “Single-topic blogs. Remember those? Regretsy, Stuff White People Like, Cake Wrecks, People of Walmart, FML, Look at This Fucking Hipster, Shit My Dad Says, Awkward Family Photos, etc. Those things were everywhere from about 2007-’13, and then just sort of went away, though some live on, in a way, as subreddits now.”

    So . . . if the conversations that were happening within blogs have moved to other places like Reddit, then those conversations have not gone away. They’ve just moved to a different venue.

  4. Ministers no longer willing to put up with low pay and ow status?

    Ow status, resonates

  5. As a Congregational Life consultant, I can tell you that out of the 45 pastoral size congregations I work with directly, 10 of them did not get the ministry they wanted for the summer of 2022. Some found solutions, others did not. And I believe that congregations wanting part time ministry fared even worse. Don’t know about other regions and often the Midwest is hit harder than other areas, but it has been tough.

  6. Lisa, that’s a bit concerning. That says to me that we’re going to have to think about some changes to how we do things. What those changes are, I have no idea. But ten congregations in one year without the ministry they wanted…wow.

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