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With this report the Commission invites Unitarian Universalists to embrace a new vision of congregational polity. We have called attention to the paradigm shift in liberal religious thought as a whole-from independence to interdependence, from individualism to relationalism. We believe that thinking of congregational polity only as a principle of local autonomy disempowers us. We believe that understanding congregational polity as the principle of "a community of autonomous congregations" empowers us and is more in keeping with our spiritual vision of who we are and what we seek to become.
We reaffirm the historic centrality of congregational polity within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), its member societies, and its affiliates. But congregational polity brings out both the best and the worst in Unitarian Universalism. It brings out the best when it reminds us that power is ultimately in the hands of the membership, the people who are gathered in a local community. They know and depend on one another in many ways; they rejoice in one another and bear one another's burdens. They also exercise creativity and moral courage in ways that, as they know, few would do alone. They think of themselves as devoted Unitarian Univer-salists and the focus of their commitment and their giving has a name and address in their own local community. No wonder, then, that they take deep pride in the fact that they are self-governing and self-sustaining communities.
But congregational polity as we have understood and practiced it also brings out the worst in us. It does this when it invites us to look inward rather than outward, to go it alone rather than welcome the wisdom, aid, or examples of other congregations. Sometimes congregational polity seems to justify a suspicious or hostile attitude toward external authority or higher ups. Even where attitudes toward denominational bodies or other congregations are highly positive, a parochial form of congregational polity often gives absolute priority to the local congregation's needs; financial support of denominational bodies, theological education, or ecumenical or community social-service agencies are not represented at the budget-negotiating table. The negative spirit sometimes infects the congregation; for instance, seeing its purpose in purely self-serving terms; treating the minister as a hired hand whose job is to please people; adopting an attitude that our group is for "our kind of people." An understanding of congregational polity that inoculates the congregation from accountability to other congregations, associations, and established ideals and standards allows such destructive patterns of thought and behavior to perpetuate themselves.
The Commission believes that a new awareness of congregational polity as a community of autonomous congregations will strengthen both local congregations as self-governing, self-responsible units and the associations through which our congregations come together and develop mutually beneficial relations. We believe that this practical goal can be secured through a broad range of specific actions, as detailed in this report. The matters considered in this report, though wide-ranging and numerous, are not exhaustive; other actions consistent with the same goal-to further the community of autonomous congregations-are important.
We make the following section-by-section recommendations for concerted study and discussion of congregational polity in theory and practice.
We note the following section-by-section recommendations for harmonizing our understanding of congregational polity with our quest for innovative or reformed institutional programs.
In all these ways the Commission is confident that Unitarian Universalism can become a new community of autonomous congregations. We believe that these recommendations are consistent with winds of change that are already blowing among us. We want this report to raise consciousness of basic institutional and spiritual concerns and to help us address various practical issues that need decision and action.
We urge Unitarian Universalists to take these matters to heart, to deliberate them with each other, and to act on them in ways that further our collective renewed vision of interdependent congregations.
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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.
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