Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Congregational Polity - Salon Big Question


Has Unitarian Universalism outgrown congregational polity?

Since my blogging partner has asked for a definition: I understand congregational polity to mean that a local congregation (fellowship, society, church) holds the power of self-determination. This is why congregations vote on by-laws, on calling religious leaders, etc. Further, such bodies that choose to affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), are also choosing to enter into a covenant with all other congregations so affiliated and with the UUA. The essential element of these covenants are to ‘walk together’ with others on the same path – to offer advice, counsel, and assistance. Such covenants bind us to considering carefully the best practices and/or rules when making local decisions. (I’m hoping I haven’t forgotten something essential, here. I promise you, I did pass polity class in seminary!)

From where I’ve been sitting for the past decade (and more), congregational polity has been misunderstood in much the same way Unitarian Universalism has. You know how some people are fond of saying being a UU means you can believe whatever you want? It’s been my experience that too many people believe that congregational polity means you can do whatever you want, and the heck with the Unitarian Universalist Association, rules, best practices, etc. Tweaking what I heard recently (on a related topic), many of us are “Unitarian – valuing the individual experience, opinion, and path” while fewer of us are “Universalist – recognizing the value of being members of, and accountable to, a faith community with common values and goals.”

In my experience there is widespread misunderstanding of the covenants which bind us, as members of a congregation to each other, as congregations to each other, and as member congregations of an association of congregations.

The whole point is that we are members of a group – not just a collection of individuals; our congregations are members of an association – not just a loose collection of separate churches/fellowships/societies. Too often I hear someone say something along the lines of “Well, I can believe/act however I want, and so can everyone else in this church.” We need to remember that, as individuals our faith communities exist to help us discern what beliefs are appropriate, given our shared values, and to determine what actions are grounded in our values.

As congregations, our faith communities have an obligation to each other and the larger association. I have seen sound and caring advice from people who are paid to apprise congregations of best practices ignored too often. Here again, I hear questions from congregants like “Who is the UUA (or the District) to tell us what to do?” Folks, the UUA is your association, with board members from every district – and members at large – elected by delegates to your General Assembly. Look beyond the walls of your local congregation and get involved!

Note: Slight correction: only the "at large" UUA Board Trustees are elected at GA. I don't know about other Districts, but our UUA Board Trustee is elected at our District Assembly.

I confess that my gut reaction to this month’s question was going to be “yes, mostly.” Then I read what my colleague, the Rev. Renee Zimelis Ruchotzke, has to say on the topic at her CERG Staff Blog. Now, I have to say "Maybe not."

I have to thank my colleague for reminding me of the beauty of our polity, as it’s easy to get bogged down in the petty stuff. I agree with her as far as the excellent grounding of our polity (as defined in the Cambridge Platform), and in how congregations have been re-invigorated by getting back to some of these basics. Go there and read what she wrote – it’s inspiring.

And I’m wondering how we manage this act of transformation as leaders. I’d like to see more congregations invigorated by a clearer understanding of our covenants, and the spirit of cooperation, rather than remain mired in the “we can do what we want” attitudes with which I’m too familiar.

That’s what I’ve got for now. Your mileage may vary, as always…

12 comments:

Bill Baar said...

Further, such bodies that choose to affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), are also choosing to enter into a covenant with all other congregations so affiliated and with the UUA.

I don't think that's true or has ever been true. Congregations do not covenant with other Congregations.

Too often I hear someone say something along the lines of “Well, I can believe/act however I want, and so can everyone else in this church.” We need to remember that, as individuals our faith communities exist to help us discern what beliefs are appropriate, given our shared values, and to determine what actions are grounded in our values.

We're free to not believe. We're free to not believe in much of anything. We're free to value things others in our community might not value. We promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and respect the right of conscience. Some peoples conscience can lead them to some awfully inappropriate beliefs. Our History filled with those stories.

Tom said...

I certainly do not feel that the UUA is "my association" or that I or most of the members of our church have any sort of "covenanted" relationship.

The reality is that the UUA does not represent typical UUs. It represents the small minority who are happy to spend significant money and time attending UUA events.

For example, like the vast majority of UUs, I was not allowed to vote in the last UU presidential election. Under the circumstances, the UUA president has no democratic legitimacy. He represents the GA crowd, nice people, but certainly not representative of UUs generally.

On the other hand, I did get to vote for my church president and board. So I respect them. But I don't see the undemocratic UUA as having any legitimate authority.

I am pretty sure most of my church agrees with me.

Earthbound Spirit said...

We certainly do covenant together. Check the front of the gray hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition): "We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote..." Congregations which affiliate with the UUA do so voluntarily.

As for not being allowed to vote for the UUA President: Delegates (either elected or appointed by their locally elected representatives) from congregations can and do vote for the UUA President, Moderator, and Board Trustees. I'm pretty sure absentee ballots were counted for the last election, so delegates unable to attend could vote.

Bill Baar said...

We've never read any UUA covenant in the two UU Churches I've belonged to over the years. I've never signed a UUA book. UUA is an association of congregations and the benefits i.e. right to vote in GA, contingent on fair share pledge.. this is no covenant.

Here's the first para from the UU site on Governance,

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together. The Association’s polity is congregational; Association decisions are made by congregational delegates in business sessions at the annual General Assembly.

Bill Baar said...

Not sure if the last comment went through, but here's the first paragraph on Governance from the UUA site:

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together. The Association’s polity is congregational; Association decisions are made by congregational delegates in business sessions at the annual General Assembly.

I've belonged to two UU Churches since the 80s and have never once recited the covenant cited in the hymnal.

I've attended some UU fellowships that don't recite a covenant at all. It's not part of their tradition.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Bill,
Perhaps we are understanding the concept of covenant differently. Here's my understanding: When I signed the membership book at the different churches I've been a member of, I was entering into a covenant - agreeing to abide by the bylaws of the congregation. In voluntarily associating with the UUA, local congregations do enter into a covenant with the UUA, the bylaws of which include the covenant which we commonly know as the "UU Principles" (found in the UUA Bylaws, Article II, Sec. C-2.1).

The other commenter (Tom) talked about the right to vote. How delegates are certified, and how many are allowed per congregation is also in the Bylaws (Article III, Sec. C-4.7 - 4.10, and maybe some others), but being a Fair Share congregation is not a requirement.

anacountname said...

I think a crucial point being missed is the meaning of "The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships"

It is not the association of members congregations; we vote in congregation for our delegates to speak for the congregation with the UUA.

By becoming a member of a congregation that has joined the association, you are bound to that congregation, which is bound to the by-laws of the UUA, as a member. This means that, whether you recite or ever read the by laws, they apply to your congregation.

Now, those rules are, generally speaking, pretty loose. We have Principles, but no directive on how to interpret them or the "proper" way to affirm or promote them. We have ideas and a few rules that bind us together as a movement, but we are, in reality, only "associated".

Shannon M. said...

I'm new around here, having only begun attending our local UU congregation about a year ago (I don't even think I'm a member, as such). Anyway. What I see when I go to service is a largely autonomous group or more-or-less like-minded people. The people are there as individuals, and the group acts together.

Until I read this post, I was unaware of the intermediate levels of organization, and assumed that my local congregation was attached directly to the UUA national association. And that there was probably some sort of international body, too. And that local congregations were free to work directly among themselves where ever in the world they happened to be located if that seemed suitable to those congregations. So, in my mind, the whole thing is like a network of networks with the UUA serving as a sort of clearing house of ways to get things done, to serve as a coordinating body to help the congregations work together (and with internal struggles as appropriate), and to help make sure everyone is talking the same language but not itself dominating the discussions.

And there, not dominating, is where (from my way-limited, all-but-completely uninformed, perspective) this question seems to arise. Being a non-creedal religion, what's the role of a hierarchy?

It seems pretty clear that when an individual joins a congregation, or when a congregation associates with the UUA, that both sides are bound. Covenant is an appropriately religious word; contract is a pretty good word; treaty sounds awfully weird in this context, but is in the same family as the idea I'm getting at.

Unlike with the Roman Catholic Church (my background), it's unclear to me what the UUA is there for. Since the UUA absolutely is not there to tell me what to make of the six sources or what to do with seven principles, what is it for? But, if I'm going to be UU in the world, I want "being UU" to be meaningful, which means that there has to be something like the UUA binding us all togther.

Anyway. My struggle with the mutual duties of the individual and society is one of long standing in my life...

Earthbound Spirit said...

Welcome, 'anacountname' & Shannon M. I appreciate your comments.

Yes - voluntary association is a key. Individuals voluntarily choose to associate with congregations by becoming members. Congregations voluntarily choose to associate with the UUA by becoming member congregations. I would argue that, aside from 'a few rules and ideas' that there is a rich heritage, theology and liberal religious perspective that unites us.

The purpose of the UUA (from the Bylaws, Article II, Section C-2.2): "The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles."

The complete bylaws of the UUA can be found at http://uua.org/documents/uua/bylaws.pdf

As for hierarchy, it's true that the association is fairly non-hierarchical. The District organizations exist primarily to provide services to congregations within a geographic area (often, though not always, encompassing several states). Congregations are indeed free to work together as they choose. I’d say you have a pretty good grasp on how it is supposed to operate, Shannon.

‘Covenant’ is a word often associated with the Hebrew Scriptures – the people of Israel have a covenant with God. It is a word that predates Israel, found in writing from other Ancient Near East cultures, primarily in the form of agreements between a ruler and subjects (often conquered nations). As the subjects owed the ruler fealty, the ruler also owed the subjects certain things, and these were spelled out in the covenants. It is also a word used today to describe the relationship between a called/settled minister and her/his congregation.

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Renee said...

I've enjoyed reading your post and the comments.
One of the keys of our polity (between members of a congregation and between congregations) is mutual accountability. There is a loss of freedom, but there always is that kind of voluntary loss in any interpersonal relationship. But when people are able to work together in authentic relationshiop, amazing things can happen.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Thank you, Renee. 'Mutual accountability' is the concept I was trying for, I think. In my view, we talk about freedom a lot - but not about the limits of freedom, or why there are limits to our freedom. In any sort of voluntary association, there is some loss of personal freedom - balanced (we hope) by gains for all.