Tuesday, January 11, 2011
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…