Monday, November 15, 2010

What is a Unitarian Universalist?

Edit:  This post is in response to the UU Salon's November Question:  What is a Unitarian Universalist?

Boy, this is something I've given a lot of thought to, gone back and forth on.
  • To recognize anyone who self-identifies as a UU, as a UU, is too broad for me.
  • To refuse to recognize anyone who is not currently a member of a UU congregation, as a UU, is too restrictive for me.
To explain:

The Potential UU

I met someone recently who self-identified as a Unitarian Universalist.  How exciting!  We got to talking, and although I found her a fabulous person, who has the potential for being a UU, I would not describe her as being one currently.  Why?
* she had never joined a UU church
* she had only visited a UU church once; found that congregation disorganized, and never visited another
* she had never read anything substantive about Unitarian Universalism
* knew nothing of our history or theology

All that she knew was that we were not Christian and had freedom of belief.  She also likes New Thought, Unity, etc.  I suggested she take that beliefnet test, not because it's a significant arbiter of religious belief, but just as a starting point.  Her top was UUism, followed by some of the usual suspects.

So, I believe she has great potential to be a Unitarian Universalist.  However, I do not believe she is a Unitarian Universalist.

And on the other side:  Unitarian Universalist as Identity

I was born into this religion.  Its values are so deeply ingrained in me, they are a part of my identity. Isn't that something we want with our children?  Not to raise them in a way that Unitarian Universalism is not merely a choice of churches in the area, but something that becomes part of their DNA, that affects how they see the world, a way of being?  Progressive, missional Christianity struggles with this; I think we should, too.  What is Unitarian Universalism itself?  Is it a system of beliefs/non-beliefs, the club we belong to at the moment, a history, or a way of life?

For my children, for myself, I want it to be a way of life.  The Way of Unitarian Universalism.

Then, too, there is this:

Ordination vs. Membership

At some point in the foreseeable future, I hope to be fellowshipped, then ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister. Once I am, unless de-fellowshipped, I am forever an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.  Even if I do not have a church, I will be recognized as a UU minister, by other churches, by my colleagues, by our association.

So how can we say that once a UU minister, always a UU minister, but once a Unitarian Universalist ... "well, only so long as you maintain membership in a UU church." ?

Now, balancing back the other way ... there sure is a lot more involved in becoming that UU minister.  An M. Div. degree, CPE, internship, numerous gatekeeping functions throughout the fellowshipping process and you're still not an ordained UU minister until a congregation makes you one.

Contrast that with:  come forward in a service (perhaps you didn't even have to attend a new member class), sign your name in a book, hear some pretty words (but you probably don't have to state any words of commitment), receive a carnation.  Back to your seat, now.  You're a member of our congregation and hence, a Unitarian Universalist.

So, do we just leave it like that?  Easy in, easy out?  No real commitment required from you to become a UU, but your identity as such is just as ephemeral?

I do not attempt to answer here what a Unitarian Universalist is.  I will answer what I would like a UU to be.  For this, I've thought about other religions -- to be recognized a Catholic, you've gone through rigorous religious education, baptism.  To be recognized a conservative Jew, you've gone through rigorous religious education, a test that you must pass, a ritual bath, a ritual circumcision or symbolic blood-letting.

I'm not proposing we embrace the latter.

What I would like to see --

A Unitarian Universalist has:

* Taken classes in Unitarian Universalism: history, theology, polity
* Been encouraged to journal/pray/meditate/study how this fits with their personal journey
* Taken classes that specifically deal with their local church: its history, mission, what will be expected of them, and what they should expect in return.
* Had a one-on-one conversation with the church minister or the membership person (who takes their position seriously) about why they want to join the church, why they want to be a Unitarian Universalist, and how they will live under the church's covenant.
* Joined a Unitarian Universalist church -- both receiving and giving words of covenant and commitment.

Just as when a church ordains me, that ordination will be recognized by other churches, even after I leave the ordaining church, so should the identity of one as a Unitarian Universalist be honored even if one leaves their "conversion" church. 

(They still fall under the rules governing membership in joining a different UU church -- still need to learn about that church, its covenant, have the conversation, and go through a joining ritual -- but their identity as a Unitarian Universalist remains in effect until they say, "Nay.")


Anonymous said...

In my church, we hit at least 3 of your points: before you join, you must take classes in unitarian & universalist history (part of point one), UU beliefs and values (point one again) and membership in our particular church (point three - thats exactly what the class is about). To join, you meet with the minister (tho to be honest, I don't know exactly what she covers in that talk). Our service of welcome for new members includes words of committement for both the congregation and the new members. I guess the only thing we don't do is point two, tho we definiately encourage exploration of other UU churches and not joining until you have been coming quite a while, to see if we are a "fit" for you.

I do like your differentiation of the "potential" UU and the UU as identity.

Bill Baar said...

How about "UU fellow traveler"? That seems a more apt description for you UU friend above.

Steve Caldwell said...

Lizard Eater wrote:
"At some point in the foreseeable future, I hope to be fellowshipped, then ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister. Once I am, unless de-fellowshipped, I am forever an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister."

Our former minister (who resigned from our pulpit in 1999 after allegations of ministerial sexual misconduct while counseling adult congregants) still calls himself a Unitarian Universalist minister even though he resigned up his fellowshipped status after the MFC investigators found enough evidence to have a formal hearing.

His reasoning here was that fellowshipped status was a separate matter than the ordination performed by a UU congregation and the congregation's ordination was still in effect.

The unfortunate outcome is that he's still doing counseling using his ordination as his counseling credentials. Our state's laws exempt ministers from the credentialing and licensing requirements that secular counselors are subject to. And this counseling is happening without any ecclesiastical oversight.

Andy said...

I agree and I disagree.

I guess, to you, I wouldn't be a UU, and that's hard.

I joined a church, but I recently left that church because they weren't providing any kind of worship experience and a prominent board member made it clear that my presence wasn't valued.

But I do consider myself a UU. It is one of the biggest parts of my identity right now. there's not another church close by that would provide anything different. I could join CLF but I really prefer being in a church.

I live in a rural area of Maine. Prior to moving to the city I live in now (under 6000 people) I lived in a town of under 3000 year round residents. I drove 45 minutes to church every Sunday. I really, really valued it.

But right now I don't have a church, and I can't really figure out how to change that any time soon. I've tried the other churches in the area (one is 35 minutes away but it's tiny and dying, one is 45 minutes away and they just seem closed off to new members, and one is an hour away and my car just can't take that on a weekly basis, especially during the Maine winters).

So I'm a UU without a church. I went through some of that stuff you mentioned during the new member classes but not all of it. My minister, before she left the congregation, informally taught or suggested some more of it to me, but I don't meet your "requirements."

Lizard Eater said...

Hi, Andy. Nope, to me, you are a Unitarian Universalist. Those criteria are what I wish we would move toward, not what currently *is*.

My point in all this isn't about gatekeeping, and I obviously didn't make that clear. It's about what we do on the front end of the "equation," for you, the new UU. It's about how we form Unitarian Universalists, what is in other traditions called our "conversion process."

And it seems like in your case, we didn't quite get it right. We were not providing a transformational worship experience (unfortunately not uncommon), we didn't make you feel like a valued member, and, even bigger picture, there's not enough UU churches to have another one close to you.

I'm glad you're staying connected via blogs. I hope you find a church that you can mutually embrace.

cUrioUsgUUrl said...

I'm intrigued by this whole discussion. Thanks for starting it Lizard Eater!

My church used to have a 4-session new member orientation, in which the minister did give us UU history and church history, and conversation about the 7 principles. Now there is one 2-hour session. I'm not sure if this was the new minister's idea or the membership committee's idea or a combination of both. I know the logic behind it is to lower the barriers of entry. Our church is trying very hard to become muli-cultural, multi-ethnic and so I'm guessing the decision to change the orientation is a part of that, to make us as welcoming as possible, as easy to join as possible.

But given that our Adult Religious Education program fell apart between the going of our old minister and the coming of our new one, there is no way for members both new and old to steep themselves in UU history and theology. It's great that our church is growing (though not in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic ways as of yet, but I can't help but wonder at what cost. I don't know than answer to that yet. But it's on my mind.

This is an enormous and multi-layered topic and you've provided a lot of food for thought. Thanks!


Steve Chapman said...

After my recent experience with the divine I have a new take on it all...Unitarian, Buddhist, Baptist...we're all one, really. We draw lines of distinction for our reasons, not His.