The UUA really needs to do this

Within the past couple of hours, Religion News Service has posted an article titled “Reform movement publishes extensive report on sexual misconduct in its youth programs.” The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) commissioned an outside law firm to investigate sexual misconduct in their movement’s youth programs and summer camps over the past half century. Then URJ published the report in its entirety, with no redactions whatsoever, on their website.

I’m impressed that URJ has both commissioned this investigation, and that they’re being completely open and transparent about the results. Really impressed. Really, really impressed. Mind you, this investigation didn’t extend to individual congregations; that would have been a much more difficult task. Nevertheless, by commissioning this investigation, the URJ has set the standard for individual congregations.

It’s time for the Unitarian Universalist Association to commission a similar investigation into our denominational youth ministries. I was very active in denominational youth activities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I heard enough stories back then to make me think that an investigation would turn up more sexual misconduct than anyone would feel comfortable with.

If the UUA were to commission a law firm to carry out this kind of investigation, what should we look for? We should look for exactly what the URJ looked for: sexual misconduct by adults (anyone over age 18) against minors (anyone under age 18); sexual misconduct between minors; and sexual misconduct between adults at youth activities. As I look back 50 years to 1972, at a minimum the following programs should be investigated: “ConCon,” the former continental youth conference; district youth conferences; and any other programs or summer camps run by Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) or its successor Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU).

The UUA doesn’t have a great track record of investigating and publicly admitting the sexual misconduct that’s happened in our denomination. This is a grand opportunity for us to do the right thing. I hope our denominational leaders will follow the shining lead of the Reform Jews.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925

Part Five of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four

A Fresh Start, 1921-1925

In November, 1921, Elmo Arnold Robinson, known as “Robbie,” arrived at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with his wife Olga and sons Kelsey, who was 9 months old, and Arnold, almost 5 years old. Robbie, ordained as a Universalist minister, had lots of experience in small congregations, plus he had just finished a two-year stint as the Director of Religious Education at a church in southern California. Olga was also licensed as a Universalist minister, although her time was taken up with her small children. It’s hard to imagine that the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto could have found a better match for their needs.

Not much happened in Robinson’s first year, except that Sunday school enrollment dropped still further. Emma Rendtorff had been the superintendent of the Sunday school in the 1920-1921 school year, and Sunday school enrollment crept back up to 31 children, but that was Emma’s last year as superintendent; her daughter Gertrude entered Stanford University in the fall of 1921, so Emma was no longer quite so invested in the Sunday school. In 1921-1922, Elmo Robinson’s first year, the church went through three Sunday school superintendents: Jessie Morton, who was William H. Carruth’s mother-in-law; William Ewert, a student at Stanford University; and Frank Gonzales, another Stanford student who served the longest of the three. With all that turnover, it’s not surprising that enrollment in the Sunday school dropped to 20, probably the lowest enrollment since 1908.

But Elmo Robinson had already turned his thoughts to religious education. In the summer of 1922, his essay “The Place of the Child in the Religious Education Community” was published in the Pacific Unitarian. This essay outlined a progressive philosophy of religious education that was tied to social reform:

“Every religious community believes that the future can be made better than the present. Every church, while cherishing certain ideals and methods of the past, must fire its young people with a vision of the future which will encourage them to devise new ways and means to realize it. Do you want world peace? World justice? The cooperative commonwealth?… All these things can be accomplished only by admitting children and young people to the full fellowship of the religious community as friends….”

Presumably, this essay repeated what had already been going on in the Palo Alto church. Bertha Chapman Cady was one of the teachers in the Sunday school in 1921-1922, and she involved the children in helping to run the class; one of her daughters, for example, became the class secretary. Children were becoming fully involved into the religious community of the church. The lay leaders seem to have found his vision a compelling one. The next school year, 1922-1923, the charismatic William Carruth agreed to be the superintendent of the Sunday school, and enrollment immediately shot up to 33 children.

Continue reading “Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925”

Timeline of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto is in 2022. So I’ve been working on the history of the congregation, starting with a basic timeline.

Sources for this timeline: Rae Bell’s timeline for the 60th anniversary of the congregation; Annual Reports from 2009-2020; documents in the UUCPA archives; personal reminiscences; denominational sources.

Continue reading “Timeline of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto”

Transparency, part two

A follow up on yesterday’s post on transparency:

If we want to maintain trust in clergy, we have to be able to name names when clergy have been proven to engage in misconduct. By naming names, we demonstrate that we are willing to hold ministers accountable for their actions. If we don’t name names, if we keep secrets, then we cannot maintain trust.

The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association hosts the Berry Street lecture, an annual lecture given by a respected minister. In 2016, Gail Seavey gave the Berry Street lecture, and she named names. She named Forrest Church as a minister who engaged in sexual misconduct. She called out Bill Schulz, who told her she was a “new Puritan” for speaking out against Church’s sexual misconduct. And she named David Maynard, who engaged in sexual misconduct over many years at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville.

You won’t find Gail Seavey’s Berry Street Lecture on the UUMA website, though. Nor will you find Deborah Pope-Lance’s Berry Street lecture on clergy misconduct. As I heard the story, the UUMA wouldn’t post the texts of those two lectures unless there were revisions made, and those two women refused to make revisions. Fortunately, you can read Gail Seavey’s Berry Street lecture on Deborah’s website.

It’s hard to name names. Clergy who have engaged in misconduct have been known to threaten lawsuits if someone named their name. Sure, they probably wouldn’t prevail in court, because if what you say is true then it’s not slander or libel — but the mere threat of a law suit is enough to silence someone like me. I don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to defend me. In other words, someone like me can’t afford to name names of misconducting clergy, as long as they are still alive and able to sue me.

We need the kind of transparency that Gail Seavey’s Berry Street lecture provides. When a clergyperson has been proven to have committed misconduct, we need to be open about that fact. But when the UUMA refused to place Gail Seavey’s unrevised Berry Street Lecture on their website, that’s not promoting transparency, that’s keeping secrets. When the Unitarian Universalist Association refuses to post lists of clergy who have been disciplined for misconduct, that’s not promoting transparency, that’s keeping secrets.

Transparency equals trust. We need to build trust.

Update, Nov. 6, 2021: The Ministerial Fellowship Committee just announced they’ll post a list of misconducting clergy. Hooray!

Bad UU hiring practices

Over the past year, I’ve talked to quite a few UU professionals who are thinking about changing jobs. Mind you, this happens every year. If you have a professional job in a small nonprofit, the typical path for job advancement is to find a job at another, slightly larger, nonprofit. This is obviously true for part-time directors of religious education — the quickest path for a part-time professional to advance in their career is to find a similar position elsewhere that’s full-time. There’s also the classic career path for full-time senior ministers — stay in a small congregation for about seven years (until you get your first sabbatical), then move to a larger congregation that pays more.

The result of all this is a constant movement of professional employees — directors of religious education and parish ministers — among UU congregations. This kind of movement is actually a good thing, because it helps spread best practices and new ideas from one UU congregation to another. It also provides an obvious upward career path, which means we all can continue to attract the best talent into our congregations.

Problem is, there are too many UU congregations who do a lousy job of hiring new employees. I’m going to give three examples of lousy hiring practices by UU congregations. I’m going to change details to protect the innocent — and by “protect the innocent,” I don’t mean I’m going to protect the UU congregations who have lousy hiring practices — no, I mean I’m going to protect the UU professionals who provided some of these examples for me.

Requiring more than full-time work

Several months ago, a colleague showed me a job posting where a UU congregation in the northeastern U.S. posted a job that required eight hours a day, six days a week.

The first problem with this is that it’s stupid. Back in June, 2019, Shainaz Firfiray, Associate Professor of Organisation and Human Resource Management at the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, England, wrote a piece for The Conversation titled “Long hours at the office could be killing you,” in which she cites growing evidence that a 35 hour work week is most efficient, whereas longer work weeks can cause stress, anxiety, and depression. That’s even more true in the middle of the pandemic, where I’m seeing a huge increase in stress, anxiety, and depression among UU professionals.

I know we have congregational polity, so no one can stop your congregation from being stupid and demanding six day work weeks of your professionals. But if you do that, please do not complain to me or express surprise when your professionals grow stressed, anxious, and depressed — and then become less efficient and effectual — and even in the worst case scenario engage get driven into unethical or unprofessional behavior. Do not complain or express surprise, and also, please, accept full responsibility for being stupid.

The second problem with demanding a six day work week is that it’s unethical. Why? Well, first of all, if you claim to be paying a salary that conforms to UUA guidelines for this six-day-a-week job, you’re lying. The UUA guidelines are for full-time work, so if you’re demanding more than full-time hours, then you’re not paying the salary required by guidelines. I’ll walk you through this. Let’s take the example of a parish minister in a small congregation with fewer than 150 members in Geo Index 3. For full-time work, the UUA guidelines call for a range of $54,100 to $76,500. If you’re demanding a six-day work week, then on an hourly basis you should pay time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 hours. That gives a salary range of $70,330 to $99, 450. So if you advertise a salary range of $54,100 to $76,500, require a six-day workweek, and claim to be meeting UUA guidelines, you are in effect lying.

There’s another reason why this is unethical. It’s treating your professional employee like a wage slave. Actually, a congregation that demands a six day work week of its professionals is treating them worse than wage slaves. I spent twelve years punching a time clock, and when you punch a time clock your employer tends to be very respectful of your extra hours. But an unscrupulous employer will ask for more and more hours from a more-than-full-time salaried employee, because demanding more doesn’t cost them a cent.

Not publicly advertising the salary

Recently, BBC News reported on “Why companies don’t post salaries in job adverts.” UU congregations appear to be part of this world-wide trend. Over the past year, UU colleagues have pointed out to me several instances of UU congregations posting jobs that give no indication of what the salary is.

In addition, there now seems to be a trend of posting jobs with the vague claim that the congregation “pays UUA guidelines.” Except that when you get to the interview, it turns out that the salary that’s offered is the lowest possible salary the congregation can get away with. A year ago, I was shown one job posting for a religious educator that claimed to “pay UUA guidelines.” Now for religious educators, there are five different salary levels based on your level of experience and training. For example, the salary ranges for a full-time religious educator position in a mid-sized II (250-349 members) congregation in Geo Index 3 range from $55,100 to $65,200 for a Credentialed Masters Level religious educator, down to a range from $34,700 to $37,900 for an inexperienced, untrained Religious Education Coordinator. When my colleague got to the interview, this congregation that claimed to “pay UUA guidelines” for a Director of Religious Education was actually only offering $34,700, the lowest possible salary for a Religious Education Coordinator. That’s dishonest.

It’s not only dishonest, it’s stupid. As the BBC reports, “knowing the expected salary upfront lets a candidate understand whether a job will be financially viable for them.” So the hiring committee is actually wasting its own time reviewing applications and conducting interviews with people who are going to turn them down when they hear what the salary is. Furthermore, it’s also stupid because, according to the BBC, “organisations that are more transparent about their salaries can win over the best candidates and attract diverse applicants.” BBC quotes one expert as saying, “if the salary banding isn’t there, I think there can be a tendency for some of the better talent on the market to not apply.” In short, lack of salary transparency means you’ll attract a lower-quality and less diverse talent pool.

Finally, it’s not only dishonest and stupid, it’s also illegal in some states. As of 2019, Colorado requires employers to disclose pay ranges in all job listings. Similar legislation is pending in other states. The very title of the Colorado law makes it clear that this is a justice issue — “Equal Pay for Equal Work At” –and the law is designed to eliminate the gender pay gap, and all other pay disparities. So to avoid potential fines, and to hep further justice in the work world, you might as well get in the habit of posting the salary range in your job listings.

Cheating on benefits

Some UU congregations post jobs where they claim to compensate at UUA salary guidelines, but then they don’t offer the full benefits package called for under UUA guidelines. So technically, they’re not lying — the congregation is in fact paying the salary called for under UUA guidelines. But the total compensation package does not meet UUA guidelines. That’s dishonest. It’s the old bait-and-switch game.

Actually, sometimes it goes beyond dishonest into stupid. A colleague showed me one job posting where the congregation claimed to pay at UUA salary guidelines. Of course the actual salary wasn’t listed. But they did list the benefits. And the benefits package wasn’t even close to the UUA recommendations. I guess they assumed that applicants were going to be either desperate enough not to care, or ignorant enough not to look at the UUA guidelines. It’s stupid when you go out of your way to try and attract applicants who are desperate and/or ignorant. It’s also stupid to assume applicants are going to be desperate, when in actuality there’s a nationwide labor shortage.

Lessons to be learned

First lesson to be learned: There’s a labor shortage right now. If UU congregations want to attract the best candidates, especially if they want to attract more diverse candidates, they need to offer reasonable hours, they need to be transparent in their job postings, and they need to offer a decent benefits package.

Second lesson to be learned: If the congregation’s budget won’t pay for all the staff they want, trying to squeeze more work out of your staffers for less pay is not the way to go. You’ll get lower quality work, and pissed-off staffers. Either raise more money, or reduce your expectations of what you can get out of staff.

Third lesson to be learned: Financially, it’s gotten to be a harsh world for small nonprofits. We all know that staff cuts are going to be the norm for most congregations for the foreseeable future. We all know that the way to attract the best talent in this harsh world is to be fair and transparent. And I’m predicting that the congregations that attract the best talent, the most diverse talent, are going to be the congregations that survive — and even thrive — in the face of today’s harsh financial realities.

Bullying and abusive conduct by ministers: what’s it look like?

Recent events have raised my interest in bullying and abusive conduct my ministers. What does it look like? How can we know the difference between ministerial grouchiness or a minister occasionally losing their temper, and outright bullying and abusive behavior?

First of all, we want to look for patterns of behavior. Every minister I’ve known has lost their temper at least once; ministers are human beings, and human beings lose their tempers. Of course it would be best if we ministers never lost our tempers, but losing your temper once in awhile is not the same as a pattern of abusive behavior. So we’re looking for a pattern of behavior that happens over time.

Second, we want to look at power differentials. If, for example, there were three ministers on the staff of a large congregation, the senior minister has power over the junior ministers, and it’s much easier for the senior minister to bully the junior ministers; similarly, most of the time (not all of the time) the minister has more power than a non-ordained congregant. Determining power differentials is not always easy, though, and we can’t just default to a position that says ministers always have more power than congregants. For example, other types of power differentials make it possible for a male congregant to bully a female minister, or for a white congregant to act abusively towards a non-white minister. Even white male cis-gender ministers can be bullied or treated abusively by congregants who are in an entrenched power position within their congregation; in fact, because the minister is an employee, the minister’s lay leader supervisors have the potential for bullying or abusive behavior towards the minister. So we want to look for power differentials, though in themselves they won’t be diagnostic.

Third, we want to look for certain kinds of behaviors. Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian whistleblower, posted on his blog the charges against Mark Driscoll, an evangelical megachurch pastor who was forced out his position as senior pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle due to bullying and abusive behavior. These charges, which you can read here, catalogue a number of bullying and abusive behaviors Driscoll allegedly engaged in. I’ll quote from some of these formal charges to show you what bullying and abuse can look like:

“Pastor Mark exhibits anger and ungraceful ways of dealing with those with whom he disagrees and who disagree with him… by putting people down, caricaturing, and dismissing.
“Pastor Mark … has created a culture of fear instead of a culture of candor and safety….
“Pastor Mark is verbally abusive to people who challenge him, disagree with him, or question him.
“Pastor Mark uses words to demean, attack or disparage others.”

I’ll also quote from one piece of evidence used to support the charges, so you can get a sense of the specific sorts of alleged behavior that’s considered abusive or bullying:

“Mark’s response to that elder was bullying, with some elders present recalling language to the effect of: ‘I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m trying to be nice to you guys by asking your opinion. In reality, we don’t need your vote to make this decision. This is what we’re doing.'”

It’s fairly clear that this kind of behavior should be characterized as bullying and abusive. But it’s wise to remember that there will be a continuum of potentially bullying and abusive behavior, and there won’t necessarily be a bright shining line between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. In my historical researches of local congregations, I’ve uncovered a number of instances of behavior that aren’t easily categorized. In one example I researched, from the 1960s, a male minister was shouting at a female Director of Religious Education (DRE). There was a clear power differential here: male full-time supervisor and minister shouting at a part-time female DRE and employee. But while it may have a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t document that for sure. Obviously the minister should not have shouted at the DRE, but since I couldn’t document a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t be sure whether this was a momentary lapse on the part of the minister, or verbal abuse.

Which leads me to one final suggestion:

Fourth, we want to look at whether the congregation openly addresses momentary lapses of civility, or whether a lapse of civility remains hidden, secret, unaddressed. We are all human — ministers, too — and being human means we will make mistakes; we will do things like shout at people. Bullying and abuse in congregations — whether by ministers or by lay leaders, or by white people, or by whomever — is a pattern of behavior. If a congregation directly confronts lapses in behavior when they happen, I think it’s much less likely that the congregation is going to fall into a pattern of bullying or abusive behavior. But if people look away even once, I think that’s going to open up the possibility of establishing a pattern of behavior.

Update, 25 Feb. 2022: I’m closing comments on this post. Another post on the same topic started getting off-topic comments, which are not allowed, so I’m taking preventive measures. My sincere apologies to those of you who may have on-topic comments. But after two years of COVID, I don’t have the patience to deal with trolls any more.

Who writes the sermons?

Religions News Service (RNS) ran a story recently about sermon plagiarism in U.S. Christian congregations — and then, a few days later, they ran a story about why some U.S. Christian pastors feel they need to plagiarize sermons.

And before you say, “Oh those Christians, Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers would never do that” — UU ministers do indeed plagiarize sermons, and some have been caught doing it.

So why do Christian pastors — and UU ministers — plagiarize sermons? The RNS story suggests a couple of reasons. Well, writing sermons is exhausting and local preachers have other big demands on their energy (pastoral care, raising money, administration, etc.). And then people in a local congregation now get to hear those Big Name Preachers online, and they make it clear that their local preacher just doesn’t measure up.

But on the analogy that church musicians don’t write all the music they perform, the RNS article asks: shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to preach other people’s sermons? (That is, assuming they give credit to the actual writer, so it isn’t plagiarism.) Or at least, shouldn’t local preachers be allowed to rely on third party sermon prompts or outside sermon researchers to help them out? If we want congregations to hear the best, highest quality sermons, it makes sense for preachers to be able to search for, and use, the best sermons they can find.

On the other hand, maybe a sermon shouldn’t be understood as a weekly performance put on by a professional voice actor. In many Christian congregations, the sermon is often considered to be God’s way of speaking to one particular congregation, and the preacher’s sermon preparation includes both time spent ministering to the congregation, and time spent in prayer listening to God. UU congregations will understand this a little differently: I was trained to think of the sermon in a UU congregation as kind of conversation, where the preacher listens to what is going on in people’s lives and connects those personal events and stories to the big moral and existential questions.

I suspect that several pressures will drive UU congregations towards turning the preacher into a voice actor who puts on performances of the best sermons they can find. First, preachers have a limited amount of hours they can work each week, volunteers now have less time to devote to the congregation, so using other people’s sermons can free up the preacher’s time for other crucial tasks. Second, congregation members are increasingly aware of the excellent preaching available online, and this puts pressure on the local congregation to have a preacher who meets those high standards. Third, congregations compete for people’s leisure time in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and the demand for authenticity will not be as strong as the demand for polished production values. Fourth, as more congregations are unable to pay for full-time ministry, there’s going to be less time for sermon-writing and a greater demand for third-party sermons. In short, there are strong — maybe irresistible — economic forces that will change UU ministers from sermon-writers into voice actors.

I still prefer a preacher who writes their own sermons. I just don’t think most UU congregations will be able to make sermon-writing a priority as they budget money and staff time.

A history of UU clergy sexual misconduct

Loré Stevens won the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society’s History Research Prize for Future Leaders this year. The title of her paper was “‘Strong at the Broken Places’: A History of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, 1992-2019.” Some of my readers will remember that during the time from 1992 to 2019, instances of clergy misconduct were uncovered at the Nashville UU congregation.

Now Deborah Pope-Lance has gotten permission to host this paper on her Web site, here — you’ll have to scroll down past some other papers and essays on clergy sexual misconduct to find the link.

Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about the history of U.S. Unitarian Universalism in the past 25 years, or for anyone interested in the recent history of feminism in religion. If you think Unitarian Universalism has made lots of progress in becoming a feminist movement, you’ll be depressed by this paper. On the other hand, if you’re one of those who (like me) has been incredibly frustrated at how little attention has been paid to the intertwined issues of sexism, patriarchy, and clergy misconduct with Unitarian Universalism, you’ll be relieved to read this exposé of the abuse of power by male clergy and how influential and powerful people within Unitarian Universalism have covered it up.

I’d even say I was delighted to read this paper, not because I’m delighted by clergy misconduct, but because I’m delighted that this subject is finally getting the attention it deserves from historians and others. Thank you, Loré Stevens. Thank you, UUHHS. Thank you, Deborah Pope-Lance for hosting this paper online.

Internal diversity of Islam

Rizwan Mawani, a Canadian scholar, has published a new book titled Beyond the Mosque: Diverse Spaces of Muslim Worship. I’m interested in the book because according to an interview by Religion News Service, Mawani provides insight into the internal diversity of Islam:

“The challenge of writing a book like this is that there are exceptions to almost every universal we try to proclaim upon the Muslim world. I’m always hyper conscious about asking ‘Is this sentence true for all Muslims? And if not, how do I modify it to reflect a pan-Muslim experience?'”

Mawani looks at the diversity of architecture (as you’d expect from the title), but other kinds of internal diversity as well — such as how ritual practices are constantly evolving, thus providing insight into diversity over time. But, according to the interview, Mawani also tackles some hot-button issues, such as the issue of gender:

“[T]here are communities like the Alevis [with 25 million adherents], found mostly in Turkey, who don’t define themselves as Sunni or Shia, where men and women pray side by side in spaces called cemevis, and oftentimes even interspersed with one another. Because in Alevi theology, God doesn’t see the body. All he sees is the soul of the believer, and gender is ultimately dissolved.”

Although in the West, we typically divide Islam into Sunni and Shia, Mawani found diversity beyond this bipartite division. For example, many of the first Muslims to come to North American were probably neither Sunni nor Shia:

“Another interesting thing to consider is how Islam came into North America. If we look at the earliest migration of Muslim communities, we of course have West African slaves, many of whom we now know practiced Islam. Many of them probably brought a form of Sufi Islam. So though Sunni Islam is the predominant form of Islam in the U.S. today, it’s not necessarily how America got introduced to Islam.”

In the interview, Mawani also touches on the geographic diversity of Islam, pointing out that one in three Muslims worldwide come from South Asia. I was particularly interested in Mawani’s comments on how to find Muslim diversity in North America; a Web search for “masjid” is going to exclude some significant Muslim diversity:

“If you live in a big city, especially, there are lots of opportunities to engage or even work with various Muslim communities. Obviously you can do a Google search and walk through your neighborhood looking for mosques. But you may need to research other names. There are masjids, of course, that are used by Shia communities, but they also have spaces known as an imambara or matam or husayniya or something else, depending upon which part of the world that community comes from. There are many Sufi and mystically inclined spaces in many cities, so searches for words like tekke or zawiya or khanaqah can unearth communities in our own area that we may not be familiar with.”

Read the entire interview here.

Buying the book: Do the author a favor and do NOT buy from Amazon, because they drastically cut how much money the author receives per book. Instead, I recommend buying all your religion books from the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago. They do not yet have “Beyond the Mosque” in stock, but you can special order it here.

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….