Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on "Congregations and Beyond"

The UUA President, the Rev. Peter Morales published a working paper titled "Congregations and Beyond" last week.  It's available in its entirety here.  In it he says, "I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we
 connect with people." and "We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think
 of ourselves as a religious movement." 

The Rev. Morales says, "
Congregations as local parishes arose in a different era. They arose in a time of limited
 mobility and communication. Most members lived within a couple of miles of their
 church."  This is something that I've been thinking about recently, as well.  The time that the church is where you go to in order to hear the latest ideas or even the latest gossip is a time that's behind us.  The church is no longer the central, or even a central, hub for how people get and exchange information and ideas.  There are still things that churches do better than other institutions, but those things are fewer and far between.  We're no longer the best source of therapy--the psychological profession, as it emerged, has taken over that role.  We're no longer where you might hear the best, most engaging lectures--you tube gives you access to the best in the world, and it's a rare church with a minister of that level of academic excellence.  We're no longer the place where you hear first what is going on in your community -- our newspapers and even our friendships are available 24/7 on the computer.  We are, still, the best form for worship, I think, although much of that is available in electronic form, as well, except for the communal aspect.  We do retain the role of being one primary way that brings together groups of people for personal connection -- the social role of face-to-face regular gathering is filled less and less by other groups in this society, while we're still going strong.  But the point is, congregations are less needed in many people's minds, and, accordingly, we're not growing.

The two-part strategy the Rev. Morales outlines is:

  1. Congregations remain the base

  2. Focus energy on creating a movement beyond the congregation
Honestly, it looks pretty much like a one-part strategy to me, as part 1 is basically just reassuring us that this congregational thing that we're already doing will still be important.  So what does part 2 entail?  Looks like his answer is social media, re-engaging the identity organizations formerly known as "affiliates," small groups of other undefined sorts, and social action. 

It is, well, vague.  And not clear exactly what it would entail that's not being done currently. 

But the question that he points to, well, that's intriguing.  Morales points out the there are, as we've known, bunches of people who identify as UU and who don't attend UU churches.  And there are bunches of people who were raised UU who don't attend UU churches.  Some of them are fairly well connected to UUism in other ways -- he points to the fact that a significant number of people who attend SUUSI don't attend any UU congregation.

I'm sure any parish minister can name dozens of potential, former, or raised-UUs in that minister's geographic area who are not church members.  And, like Morales who says we need "A great deal more research about those who identify as UUs but are not members of
 a congregation," most of us don't know why these UU-types are not UU-affiliated in our towns. 

But what I think is new about "Congregations and Beyond" is that Peter Morales is not suggesting we find out why they're not in churches, but, rather, find out what they are interested in doing that would connect them to our movement in other ways.  Some people will never be church-goers, he's saying, but that doesn't mean that they can't be part of the UU religious movement.

It's a radical concept and one we ministers often argue against, saying such things as, "You aren't a Unitarian Universalist if you're not a church member, because the Unitarian Universalist Association is an association of congregations."

But I also know that there were a few years for me -- four of them, to be exact, the college years -- where I was not in a congregation but very much considered my religion to be Unitarian Universalism.  I didn't attend church in my college town, which didn't have a vital campus ministry in those years, and I would occasionally attend when I was home from school, but not often, because my church didn't have any specific get-together for those of us home on holidays or summers from college, and so I wandered off from us as an association of congregations, but not from my UU identity. 

I have trouble envisioning the way we strengthen these sorts of connections and grow this "movement" Morales speaks of, but I hope we'll keep talking about these ideas and exploring the potential.

3 comments:

Christine L. Slocum said...

Do you think perhaps some of this issue is the way that UUs see religion in general?

One is Christian because they believe in Jesus, right? So, one is UU because they believe in....

...the UUA's principles?

I think that may be the problem with trying to get the like-minded unchurched to identify with us. How do we figure out what like-minded is when we do not have a clear conception?

I think about this a lot.

Anonymous said...

We who value UU congregational life don't really know what UUism might offer to UUs who don't want to join congregations. I think we need to find them and ask them!

LisaTO said...

Hello,

I'd like to invite you to participate in the conversation about Congregations and Beyond during the consultation that will take place starting tomorrow night. You can join in here https://www.facebook.com/groups/334403263248852/ or on twitter with the hashtag #congbeyond.

Lisa