Non-affiliated Unitarian Universalists

A myth that has wide currency within Unitarian Universalism (UUism) today tells the story that every Unitarian Universalist (UU) must be affiliated with a congregation. This “myth of the affiliated UU” has become one of the stock myths told by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and by many UU ministers.

Let me tell you why I think we should stop believing in this myth.

Years ago, when I was serving as a volunteer on-call chaplain at a hospital in Massachusetts, I visited someone who called themselves Unitarian. Without going into any confidential details, I can say this person was a member of a non-UU religious congregation and was quite happy about that, but still considered themselves a UU. As a chaplain, I of course accepted this person’s religious self-identification, and hoped that they would be able to use that religious identification in their healing process.

Only later did it occur to me that I knew of a fair number of other people like that person in the hospital — people who called themselves UUs but who didn’t, for whatever reason, belong to a UU congregation. Then the Web took off: I was a member of Church of the Larger Fellowship as it turned into an online church, and then I started this blog, and participated in a lot of online conversations, and I came into contact with a lot of people who call themselves UU but who aren’t part of a congregation. Really — a LOT of people.

We need a name for these people. I’m going to call them “non-affiliated UUs.”

Non-affiliated UUs are definitely UUs, but they aren’t affiliated with any congregation. They aren’t even affiliated with the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is a happy home for a great many UUs, but which doesn’t suit the needs of lots of other non-affiliated UUs. I’m going to guess there are thousands, even tens of thousands, of non-affiliated UUs.

In the early days of Unitarianism and Universalism, you were a Unitarian or a Universalist if you said you were one. For many years, the American Unitarian Association accepted individual memberships. As for Universalists, there were lots of them who lived in rural areas or on the frontier where there weren’t any Universalist congregations. Read a book by Hosea Ballou, or a sermon by William Ellery Channing, and — bingo! — you could call yourself a Universalist or a Unitarian.

There’s a relationship between the current myth of the affiliated UU and the way we began funding UU institutions in the mid-twentieth century. From the UUA’s inception — in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated — the UUA as an institution received much of its revenue from per-member assessments levied on congregations. At the same time, ministry became an increasingly professionalized profession, typically requiring an expensive education that made economic sense only if the minister could count on a guaranteed income from working in a congregation. Thus, the myth of the affiliated UU became a convenient myth for both UUA staffers and lay leaders, and for parish ministers.

But the way we funded UU institutions in the mid- to late twentieth century no longer works. Too many UU ministers complete their expensive education only to find that they can’t find a job that will allow them to pay off their debts. (Not surprisingly, many people training for ministry are now turning to community ministry, so they can find non congregational jobs that will allow them to pay off their educational debt.) As the number of members of UU congregations decreased, the UUA finally gave up on the per-member assessment model, and has turned to assessments based on total operating budget of congregations.

Yet too many UU ministers and UU leaders continue to cling to the myth of the affiliated UU. This myth is taking on a destructive form: “You can’t be a REAL UU unless you’re affiliated with a UU congregation.” As a result, people who could be non-affiliated UUs are deciding that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t want them. In other words, the destructive form of this myth is forcing too many people to become religiously homeless.

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker made a famous distinction between the transient and the permanent in religion. He said that we sometimes cling to things that we think are an essential and permanent part of religion, but which are actually inessential and transient.

Being a member of a UU congregation is a good thing for many people. But congregations are a transient, inessential feature of Unitarian Universalism. You don’t need to be affiliated with a congregation to be a UU.

What is permanent about Unitarian Universalism? That you live an ethical life. That you challenge yourself to use your reason to engage with religion. That you allow yourself to doubt. That you allow your religious attitudes to change and evolve. That you value the Western religious tradition of which anglophone Unitarian Universalism is a part, while remaining open to insights from non-Western religious traditions. That you are in conversation with other UUs.

That last point deserves elaboration: How can non-affiliated UUs stay in conversation with other UUS? Through “sudden villages,” conferences and gatherings of a few days or a week where you get to meet other UUs face-to-face. Through reading UU writers, and listening to UU podcasts. Through online contacts: social media, blogs, email, whatever.

And how can UU institutional leaders welcome non-affiliated UUs? By sponsoring “sudden villages” that don’t require affiliation with a UU congregation. By supporting community ministers, those ministers who aren’t serving in a congregation. By allowing themselves to be in conversation with non-affiliated UUs, even when those conversations challenge core-but-transient assumptions about what constitutes a UU. By giving financial support to efforts that reach out to non-affiliated UUs (e.g., independent podcasts).

Above all, UU institutional leaders can welcome non-affiliated UUs by ceasing to retell the myth of the affiliated UU.

Coming up: How to be a non-affiliated UU….

Religious attendance may be down, but income is up

Over the past decade, our congregation has seen flat attendance, slowly declining membership — but a modest increase in income when corrected for inflation. Turns out we’re not alone:

“A new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance….

“‘We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,’ said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. ‘But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.’ Or as the study succinctly states: ‘Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.’ “

Article.
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices study.

Generation gap in organized religion

A Pew Research report released today aggregates yearly political surveys in which people reported religious affiliation, and finds that self-declared Christians are declining in the U.S. at a “striking” rate. According to an article on Religion News Service, attendance at weekly religious services is also way down, as Americans who attend services once a month are now in the minority:

“‘It’s quite shocking,’ said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. ‘This rapid shift is about generational replacement. The most religious folks are the ones who are dying and the least religious folks are the ones coming in.'”

I guess I’m not shocked, nor even mildly astonished: those of us who are involved in organized religion have been watching this trend for some time.

But I am interested in why self-reported religious participation is in decline in the U.S. The article offers several reasons:

“Thumma pointed to a number of cultural reasons that may be speeding up the generational shift, including [1] less social pressure to go to church; [2] the clergy sexual abuse scandal, especially in the Catholic Church; and [3] shifting attitudes toward sexuality and gender that clash with traditional Christian teachings. Greg Smith [associate director of research at Pew] said [4] a dissatisfaction with conservative political ties to evangelical Christianity may also be fueling the growth of the nones. [numbers are editorial]

To these reasons, I would add: [5] the decline in face-to-face community (the “bowling alone” phenomenon documented by Robert Putman and others); [6] stiffening competition for people’s leisure time including the increased availability of customized leisure-time activities; [7] the “post-church” movement within Christianity; [8] an increase in multicultural encounters that leave people doubting their own religious traditions; and [9] changing conceptions of what constitutes spirituality (sometimes reduced to secularization, though there’s more going on than absence of Christianity).

Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.

Why someone might actually want a new civil war

In an opinion piece published on Religion News Service, historian John Fea, a progressive Christian evangelical and an expert on evangelical history in the U.S., offers some pointed commentary on right-wing evangelicals like Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham who are warning of “civil war” should Donald Trump be impeached. In response, Fea offers a historian’s view of why right-wing evangelicals like Jeffress and Graham might welcome a new civil war:

“[Robert] Jeffress’ own First Baptist Dallas, with its long history of segregation … was built upon a Civil War fracture that has not yet healed. Under his leadership, it has failed to confront its long-standing commitment to racial injustice in any meaningful way.”

AAR religious literacy guidelines

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has released a set of “Religious Literacy Guidelines” setting minimum standards for all graduates of two- and four-year colleges in the United States. An excerpt from these guidelines summarizes the minimum knowledge about religion that all college graduates should have:

“‘Religious literacy’ helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
— Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions;
— Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions;
— Understand how religions have shaped — and are shaped by — the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions;
— Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts;
— Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements…”

It turns out that in 2010, AAR released a set of religious literacy guidelines for K-12 students. The K-12 guidelines are also well worth reading. They include some basic premises from the scholarly discipline of religious studies, premises which AAR considers essential for teaching religious literacy:
— religions are internally diverse;
— religions are dynamic and changing; and
— religions are embedded in culture.

Anyone who has gained basic familiarity with religious studies at any time in the past 20 years will find no surprises in either set of guidelines. For example, even though these guidelines are new to me, I’ve been using the underlying premises for at least a decade, as I develop curriculum on religions. But though there’s nothing new here, by formulating these guidelines, AAR has done us all a favor: now we have checklists that we can use to assess how well curriculums promote religious literacy.

We can also use these guidelines for some rough-and-ready assessment. When I look at these guidelines, I see that for the most part Unitarian Universalist adults do not have solid religious literacy, e.g., many UU adults are unaware of the immense religious diversity within Christianity, many UU adults are not able to discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions, etc. This becomes problematic when adults with a low degree of religious literacy teach religion to children; and this suggests that curriculum development needs to include basic religious literacy knowledge for adults teachers, as well as content for children.

…very careful in the words…

We live in times when it is worth looking at the way old white guys in power cloak themselves with words. They also surround themselves with expensive ties, expensive watches, expensive haircuts — but their words are the primary tools they use in wielding power.

Rev. Robert Jeffress, evangelical Christian and senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, told Fox News in a televised interview: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Donald Trump quoted Jeffress in a series of Twitter posts, which Jeffress then retweeted. What did Jefress mean by talking about a civil war? When interviewed by CBN News, he said, “Well I was very careful in the words that I chose, I was not predicting and I was certainly not advocating an actual civil war.” And, he went on, if anyone thought he was in fact advocating for a civil war, they must be “too stupid to understand what we [he and Trump] are saying.”

When you are an old white guy, it’s so easy to surround yourself with the sound of your own words, so you don’t have to hear anything beyond your own words.

Kindness

Kindness has been neglected as a societal virtue in recent years. A popular catch-phrase tells us to practice random acts of kindness. While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in random acts of kindness, it’s also easy because it doesn’t require you to be kind all the time; you can just be kind when you feel like it. It is much more difficult to attempt to be kind most of the time.

Religions tell us to practice compassion, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But compassion and love have their roots in the ordinary care and respect we should show for others. We begin by caring for and respecting those closest to us: our households, our families, our children and parents. This includes care for our physical selves: parents provide food for their children to eat; members of households share in day-to-day tasks. Kindness begins with such physical needs, but it extends to a sense of respect for each other as humans. A sense of respect requires us to attempt to understand others: what are they thinking and feeling? — or if not to understand, then at least to appreciate.

Care and respect should be mutual: when care and respect are given, but not in turn received, it becomes difficult to keep on caring and respecting. Random kindness in intimate relationships does not suffice; kindness should permeate households, families, and the relations between parents and children. Indeed, kindness should originate within one’s self; if you regulate yourself with kindness, then you are more likely to be kind in your household. When those in your household are kind to each other, you will more likely be kind to others; your entire household will practice consistent acts of kindness.

Some people assume that kindness means things like cutting out paper hearts and giving them to people; or, when you’re stopped at a tollbooth, paying the toll of the vehicle behind you in line. But these acts, while well-intentioned, are not particularly kind. Kindness strengthens the web of interdependence that exists between us all, and that requires consistency in thought and word and deed. Thoughts and words do matter. I wish that all supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties would understand this. When supporters of the Democratic party refer to supporters of the Republicans as “Repugs” on their social media accounts, that is not consistent with kindness, and no number of random acts of kindness can really make up for it. When Republicans make similar comments about Democrats, once again, they are being unkind.

Unkindness weakens the bonds between us, the bonds which make us human. Unkindness makes us less than human. The Non-conformist minister Isaac Watts, who late in supposedly owned a pew in a Unitarian chapel, wrote in a poem for children:

Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too.

To bark and bite and growl and fight makes us less than human. While I feel Isaac Watts maligns dogs, bears, and lions — they too can show care and respect to their offspring, and sometimes to larger groups — it is true that their social relationships do not extend as far as those of humans. Bears are fairly solitary, lions less so, and dogs are pack animals, and none of these species is as social as humankind. In a globalized world, you or I can connect with thousands, even millions of other people. In our widespread human connections, we can bark and bite and growl and fight, or we can be kind. Growling and fighting break human connections and lead to dissolution of society.

Confucius taught: “Recompense injury with justice, and kindness with kindess.” Kindness begets more kindness, crowding out injury, and helping justice to grow and flourish. Kindness, consistently cultivated — first for ourselves, then for our families and households, then more and more widely, eventually for all humankind — strengthens human bonds, and makes it possible for compassion and love to take root as well, and to shoot upwards towards the sun, and to flower, and to set fruit that will nourish us and allow each of us to thrive and grow ourselves.

Health break

I continue to make progress in recovering from the pulmonary embolism of a year and a half ago, but I still get tired easily. And I’m finally learning that sometimes when you’re tired, you should rest a little bit rather than trying to maintain the fiction that you’re perfectly all right. So I’m resting.

If you’re looking for something to read, there are some new and thoughtful comments on this recent post.