“Social Movements and Congregational Responses”

The Congregational Consulting Group blog has a new post by David Brubaker titled “Social Movements and Congregational Responses”:

“Congregations [in the U.S.] often experience conflict in response to social movements in the world around them. Since World War II, movements regarding civil rights, the war in Vietnam, the ordination of women, and human sexuality—each vitally important in its own right—also have raised challenges inside congregations, forcing leaders to address internal questions of power and culture.”

Brubaker gives a brief overview of four external social movements that had a big effect on U.S. congregations: the Civil Rights Movement; the movement against the Vietnam War; the movement to ordain women; and the LGBTQ+ rights movement. I’d like to take a look at Unitarian Universalist (UU) response to each of these movements.

We Unitarian Universalists like to think that we were on the “right side” (i.e., the progressive side) of each of these movements, but that’s not true. We don’t often tell this part of our history, but if you talk with older Unitarian Universalist (UUs) — or if you’re old enough to remember these movements yourself — you know that we had a very mixed record for all these movements.

Civil Rights Movement

We like to tell ourselves the story that we were early and unified and vigorous supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. There is little evidence that was true.

First of all, the vast majority of our congregations were racially segregated. In fact, during the early to mid-1960s, the era of the Civil Rights Movement, there were several UU congregations that were deliberately segregated, White-only, congregations. Beyond that, while the vast majority of UU congregations may not have been vocally segregationist, they were de facto White-only, segregated congregations. So only a tiny handful of UU congregations pursued deliberately integrationist policies, most notably First Unitarian in Chicago and All Souls in Washington, D.C.

Nor did every UU congregation, and every individual UU, support the Civil Rights Movement. I believe a careful study would discover that only a minority of UUs actually provided whole-hearted support to the Civil Rights Movement during the mid-1960s. We tell the stories of of those who provided amazing levels of support, people like James Reeb and Viola Riuzzo. We might also tell the less dramatic stories of the hundreds of UUs who worked tirelessly for civil rights in their own communities. But there are other stories that we don’t tell: the few UUs who were openly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement; the many UUs who sat on the sidelines; and more complicated individual cases like the White UU minister who wanted to support the Civil Rights Movement publicly but whose Southern segregationist wife wouldn’t allow him to.

David Brubaker, in his blog post, says: “When any group is advocating for greater inclusion, participation, or equality, the deeper challenge often has to do with power and authority.” During the Civil Rights Movement, that was true for us UUs, both within and outside of our congregations. Within our congregations, progressive ministers and progressive laypeople seem to have been vastly outnumbered by laypeople who weren’t especially interested in challenging the status quo. To our credit, once the Civil Rights Act became law, the vast majority of us supported it (or at least didn’t publicly oppose it). But the Black Empowerment debacle within Unitarian Universalism from 1968 into the 1970s, when Black UUs questioned White UU leadership within the denomination, showed that we weren’t quite as progressive as we wanted to believe.

Anti-Vietnam War Movement

The anti-Vietnam War movement lasted from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, and it divided many of our UU congregations. Sometimes, the minister and a few laypeople decided to publicly oppose the war — there’s the famous story (told about several UU ministers) about the minister who preached a strongly anti-war sermon, got some strong complaints, and responded by preaching more strongly anti-war sermons, with the result that the congregation was divided. I’ve also heard of congregations where the minister preached pro-war sermons, and who shut down any opposing views from laypeople. Not talking openly about the war also resulted in divided congregations, it’s just that the divisions weren’t openly acknowledged.

I suspect a few UU congregations managed to follow a middle path of open conversations that allowed both sides to be heard. But from what I can tell, most UU congregations either refused to talk openly about the war, or had one faction or the other dominating the conversation. Both sides tended to take hardline stances. The pro-war people saw the Vietnam War as a war against an existential threat, Communism that threatened to overwhelm the United States. The anti-war people saw the Vietnam War as a moral atrocity which must be stopped. Following a middle path of open conversation on the war would have been almost impossible.

There was another complicating factor: some of the anti-war (male) ministers were also engaging in sexual misconduct, having sex with multiple women in their congregations. I know of at least two such ministers (one of whom served at least three different congregations during the Vietnam War era). While these two ministers were ousted from their congregations ostensibly for their anti-war views, I believe both of them were actually ousted because of their sexual escapades — and in both cases, their sexual escapades are still not talked about publicly, so that both of them can be perceived as martyrs to the pro-war factions in their congregations.

If we learn anything from the anti-war movement within Unitarian Universalism, it’s this lesson — No matter how hard it may be, congregations need to figure out ways to talk openly about difficult topics.

The Movement To Ordain Women

We UUs like to tell ourselves the story that we began ordaining women in the mid-nineteenth century. So of course we avoided the problems that other denominations experienced during Second Wave feminism in the late 1960s through the 1980s, as women’s ordination became a hot-button topic.

That’s not a true story.

Yes, we ordained women as ministers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But women ministers found it nearly impossible to find congregations to hire them, and they received little support from denominational officials. By the early twentieth century, both the Unitarians and the Universalists were actively discouraging women ministers — Samuel Atkins Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association from 1900-1927, is especially notorious for his efforts to discourage women ministers, but he’s just the most famous example.

If you look through the Unitarian Universalist Association yearbooks from the 1960s, you’ll find a few women ministers listed. In the 1965 Yearbook, I counted 14 women in full fellowship, only three of whom were serving as parish ministers; the rest were retired (e.g., Maja Capek, Sophia Fahs), working in religious education (e.g., Nancy Wynkoop), or working outside of congregations (e.g., Dorothy Spoerl). So yes, there were 3 women serving as parish ministers, but that’s out of roughly 725 total ministers — that’s less than half a percent.

Not only that, Unitarian Universalism could be actively hostile to women ministers. I’ve talked with a few of the women who came along as new ministers in the 1970s, and every single one of them tells stories of male UU ministers or denominational officials sexually harassing them. Nor did women ministers find a level playing field: as recently as 25 years ago, when I was in seminary, the highest-paid UU ministers were almost all men, whereas women were more likely to get jobs in smaller congregations with lower salaries.

During the Second Wave feminist era, my sense is that Unitarian Universalists didn’t come right out and say that they didn’t want women to be ordained. But once women were ordained, they weren’t welcomed by Unitarian Universalism. To some extent, that’s still true. And mostly, we don’t talk openly about our resistance to ordaining women.

The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement

I remember one UU congregation during the 1990s that went through the Welcoming Congregation program, and that had made the effort to talk openly about LGBTQ+ rights. Then one day the rainbow flag disappeared from the front of the church building. What had happened to it? Did dome vandal from the surrounding community steal it? No one really knew. The parish minister suspected a member of the congregation removed the flag, but couldn’t prove it. The mystery was finally solved when the youth group found the rainbow flag — it had been thrown to the back of a little-used high shelf. Clearly, a member of the congregation had stolen the flag, for only a member of the congregation would have disposed of it in that way.

In his blog post, David Brubaker writes: “It is one thing, for example, to declare that we are a ‘welcoming congregation’ — and another to become one. The attention that we give to planning dialogue and decision-making at the front end needs to be matched by the energy we invest in implementation and culture change, post-decision.”

This has been my experience with LGBTQ+ rights in UU congregations. Many of our congregations have gone through the Welcoming Congregations program, and then they wonder why no openly LGBTQ+ people join them. The obvious answer, of course, is that LGBTQ+ people come to their congregation and don’t feel welcomed, regardless of their official Welcoming Congregation status.

I feel this is the untold story of the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement within UU congregations, and Unitarian Universalism as a whole. Our congregation goes through the Welcoming Congregations program — we even go through the Welcoming Congregations renewal program — but culture change is hard. Examples of failures in culture change that I’ve seen: congregants who never fully accept an LGBTQ+ minister; congregations that drag their feet about remodeling to make single-gender bathrooms; congregations that swarm newcomers who are obviously LGBTQ+; etc.

Where do we go from here

Let’s go back to David Brubaker’s blog post. He points out that for every external social movement, there will be internal impacts on a congregation:

  1. Whatever is happening in society will also eventually affect the congregation.
  2. Whatever the identified issue, the underlying issue for the congregation usually revolves around power and authority.
  3. Whatever decision we make, the culture of the congregation will shape its implementation.

I think our history has showed us that trying to avoid the impacts of those big social movements does not work. It’s much better in the long run to confront them head on. Figure out how they interact with your congregation’s current issues around power and authority. Be realistic about how much you can change your congregation’s internal culture. Talk openly about all of these things.

And talking openly about these things does not mean pounding the table and declaring that you’re right. That did not work well during the anti-Vietnam War movement, and there’s no evidence it will work well today. It can be very hard to listen carefully to another point of view when you know in your heart that you’re right and that other person is wrong — but ultimately the way we change the hearts of others is by that kind of careful and sensitive listening.

Those male ministers who sexually harassed women ministers? — that was not careful and deep listening. That person who threw the rainbow flag away? — again, not careful and deep listening. It’s especially important to listen carefully and deeply when you’re in the majority — which is what some White people needed to do more of during the Black Empowerment debacle. But you also have to listen carefully and deeply when you’re know you’re right — back in the Vietnam War era, if some ani-war activists listened more carefully they would have discovered that the people opposing anti-war ministers were actually opposing those ministers’ sexual misconduct.

Open conversation. Careful and deep listening. It’s difficult, it’s hard work, but that seems to be the best way forward.

2 thoughts on ““Social Movements and Congregational Responses””

  1. It’s a small thing, but I think you’re too quick to treat pre-consolidation Universalists and Unitarians the same with respect to women’s ordination.

    Looking at the fellowship record and obituaries, you find a steady pulse of women ordained from the 1880s onward. In part, surely, was where a woman became ordained after her husband forming dual ministries, often in circuits. I read a few licenture applications at the archive at Harvard Andover library where the applicant said her reason was, in so many words, to help her husband. But not just them: long-serving pastors like Nellie Mann Opdate and Sarah Stoner had a ministerial profile not unlike their male peers (that is, hard work for low pay) and I don’t think either was married at the height of their ministries..

    So far as I can tell, there were no women pastoring the largest pulpits, and looking at the names my gut says those were passed among a small circle of men. Worth a study in its own right.

    I suspect a culture of informal and less-formal ministerial formation (no seminary requirement until 1946 if I recall correctly), fellowship at the state level and the higher dependence on circuit preaching gave Universalist women options unknown to the Unitarians.

  2. Scott, upon reflection, you’re right. I don’t know much about Universalist women ministers after 1900 (i.e., after Eliza Tupper Wilkes). Even my knowledge of Unitarian woman ministers in the early 20th century is limited to a few specific cases: Julia Budlong, Leila Lasley Thompson, Rowena Morse Mann, a few others. Actually, I was surprised at how many women I found in the 1965 UUA Yearbook serving as parish ministers. Though any number greater than zero would have surprised me, there were at least three, and (if I remember correctly), at least one each in both historically Unitarian and historically Universalist congregations.

    There’s scope for an interesting historical study here. How many women were ordained during the 20th century, in both the Unitarian and Universalist denominations? What were their paths to ordination like? On the Universalist side, how many licensed lay preachers were women? Were they all White? Can we determine if any of them were lesbians? How were they treated by the Old Boys Netowrks in each denomination? I’d say there’s enough here for a book-length study….

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