The Rev. Peter Morales
President, Unitarian Universalist Association
I am a parish minister at heart. I loved serving my former congregation. I still miss the richness and depth of congregational life. It was my passion for growing the membership of our congregations that led to my involvement in denominational work. At their best, congregations are deeply engaging and serve essential spiritual, emotional, and relational needs. Congregations can be wonderful springboards for acting in unison. Congregations will always be at the center of Unitarian Universalism.
And, I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people. We have always seen ourselves as a faith, as part of an international religious movement. The Board’s bylaw proposal that we expand the definition of a congregation is the result of more than a decade of discussion that recognizes that the nature of congregations and religious life is changing.
I have observed a number of things that speak to me of the truly historic opportunities and challenges that are now before us. Here is a partial list:
I am also convinced that our movement has enormous potential to involve more people and have a greater impact. That conviction is based on a number of facts. Chief among them are:
What follows is an exploration of a strategic direction for Unitarian Universalism that may seem a radical departure from our past, but which I believe is a natural development consistent with our core values and reflective of our historic emphasis upon being willing to push beyond pre-determined boundaries.
We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement. The difference is potentially huge.
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. When Unitarianism and Universalism were in their infancy, no one would think of belonging to a congregation ten miles away. Churches were the centers of community life in a largely agricultural society. (When Channing, Parker and Emerson were in the pulpit, Boston had a population of about 30,000, slightly more than Beacon Hill today.) To be limited to a traditional parish form of organization in the 21st century is like limiting ourselves to technology that does not require electricity.
The implications of thinking of ourselves as a religious movement rather than only a collection of congregations are profound and liberating. Here is an initial list:
The UUA’s role would be to provide the container, the technological foundation, leadership, and coordination. We become a resource, a platform and a hub. This is not just about developing a set of programs, but finding a way for us to learn a new way as an institution.
The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations. We have always treated this as a problem to be solved by devising ways to get people to become members of our congregations. But the reality of today’s world is that not everyone who shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation. The fact that so many share our values is an enormous opportunity, not a problem. The future relevance of our faith may well depend on whether we can create a religious movement beyond, as well as within, the parish. I am confident that together we can seize this historic opportunity for our faith.
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Last updated on Saturday, April 27, 2013.
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