What makes a (UU) church?

I recently read a post by a Charismatic Christian, Mark Driscoll, who wrote about what, in his view, makes a “True Church”. I thought it might be fun to examine those dictates and see how they can (or in some cases, absolutely cannot) be applied to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I am going to cut it to just the headers, because the original is easy enough to find, and I am not trying to debate his views directly.

1. The Church Is Made Up of Regenerated Believers in Jesus
We start with what, I am sure, was the most obvious statement for Mr Driscoll, and what will be the most contentious for the Unitarian Universalist revision. My readers and Twitter followers know that I am not one to shy from controversial statements, and here comes one: We need Jesus, too. I’ve said it before, and I will reiterate it now: The Juedo-Christian traditions are one of our sources, and we do a great disservice to our intellectual heritage to ignore them. Still, I don’t believe that UUs need to feel “regenerated” at all, much less through one source or another, to be UU.

There is still something crucial in this that I have seen missing from some UU congregations. We need to seriously reflect on the idea that a church, if it is to use that word to describe its self, needs to be a faith community with a belief in something greater than the lives of its members. There is a gap here, in the Unitarian Universalist movement. It is hurting us in many ways. There is a schism brewing between those who desire faith community and those who would gladly see the UUA become a social fraternity. There are those who would channel our energy and funds into social reform with no consideration for any greater Spirit of Life.

We should consider carefully what it means to us to be a religion, and what it means for our congregations to be faith communities. A church needs to believe in something greater, and we cannot call a thing  a church if it refuses to welcome the question of why we are here and whether the Universe has a Creator. We can all come to our own answer, but we have to welcome the question.

The UU version is rather obvious, to me:
1. The Church Is Made Up of People Honestly Seeking Truth and Meaning.

2. The Church Is Organized under Qualified Leadership
This is a tougher nut for a congregational organization working under the notion of polity. It shouldn’t be, but I’ve expressed some of my concerns with the basis of polity before. The fact is that any recognized congregation (one that pays dues) can ordain any of its members to be a Reverend minister. There is a long vetting process for “fellowshiped” ministers, but it is an add-on. It happens very rarely, in this day, but it is a problem that we could face when the only definition of a Unitarian Universalist is simply “a person who pays their dues”, and the definition of a minister is “One is is called a minister by the congregation”. There is a lot of room for abuse in that system, and I know there are many trying to address it, but doing it right means ripping off a few band-aides, and exposing some sore spots to new examination.

I believe we need to codify the ordination process, so that we know that leaders in UU congregations are qualified leaders. I think it ought to apply to both the senior minister and the DRE. I know that it means the loss of some of the congregational polity and independence, and I say “good”. We are being held back by our rabid individualism; it isn’t appealing to the mass of people under 40.

So, I present my ideal UU version of this header as:
2. The Church Is Organized under Qualified Leadership

3. The Church Gathers to Hear Preaching and to Respond in Worship
Here, I have to take a very broad definition of what “preaching” is to come close to agreement. I come close, but I still fail to get there. I think that a great many “preachers” from various traditions have actually been people who challenged their listeners. They didn’t come to simply affirm the status quo, but to question how the community was living its message. I don’t think anyone is better for coming to a Unitarian Universalist service and simply having their assertions repeated back to them. Our Principles state that congregations are there to promote spiritual growth. That doesn’t happen without challenge and contemplation. Even if nothing is said that one disagrees with, I hope that they are asked to look at an idea from a new angle, or to reexamine a definition.

I am similarly at a loss over the word “worship”. We should give thanks to the Spirit of Life and the community that sustains and enhances us. Worship, though, requires that we honor something external and separate. I don’t think that the Spirit of Life can be said to be separate from the living. I don’t think that we, as humans, are separate from the Universe or its Creator in a way that is meaningful enough for me to call my practice “worship”. Still, I recognize that there are things and ideas that are not me, that are worthy of some reverence, and there are certainly UUs who believe in true divinity, separate from creation, and in some cases even multiple individualized divine entities.

The wording needs a lot of thought, but in trying to keep with the spirit of the original, the UU bulletpoint might read something like:
3. The Church Gathers to Hear Meaningful Questions and to Respond in Wonder.

4. The Church Rightly Administers the Sacraments
On a certain level, I have to admit that I regret the lack of sacraments in the UU tradition. Many of us have OWL milestones to mark particular points on the road to maturity. We do have water and flower communions, to draw our personal stories and travels into the community and give us sound emotional footing. My own congregation has a bridging ceremony for our newly appointed Young Adults, but it is often poorly attended even by those it seeks to honor.

Again, polity takes some of the blame here, but also the undeniable fact the the consolidation of the AUA and the UCA has created a new religion that, while drawing from their traditions, as well as other sources, has yet to establish many unique and widespread traditions of its own.  We are simply too young to really have much to call our own.

That being the case, each congregation is left to its own traditions and remembrances. We owe it to our children to create memories they can cherish, and traditions that hold meaning in their lives. If we are to create a lasting religious tradition from our fledgeling movement, then we must create a cultural language that we can pass on; one that our children will carry forward, feeling that it enriched their lives.

I cannot offer a lasting UU version of this claim, except to say that we ignore our lack of sacrament and symbology at the cost of our own children and the continued existence of our ideals.

5. The Church Is Spiritually Unified
Honestly, I cannot say this any better, except (in very UU fashion) to try to reshape the word Spirit in the context. I believe that in changing the way we see the word, I am not so much re-defining it as I am reclaiming it. The Greek word that is translated to “spirit” is “pneuma”, which means “breath”. The Latin is spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” related to spirare “to breathe”. The idea of the spirit is in the breath and the air; felt, but unseen. Even the actively non-religious have defended their use of the term more or less thusly.

If we are one in breath, recognizing that we share the community and that its health is our health, then we are one in spirit. If we acknowledge that the congregation has one mission, and that we are all trying to aid that mission to the best of our ability, then we are one in spirit, even when we are opposed in action. We have to respect the inherent worth of each person, and allow them the chance to make their contribution where and when they can. We have to encourage, not insist on, a healthy level of participation not only in carrying out the mission, but it allowing each person to shape it so that they can own it, too.

The UU version of this must be  very different in wording, if not intent:
5: The Church is bound by common vision, to affirm and promote the Principles of the UUA.

6. The Church Is Holy
Mr. Driscoll points out that his intent is not to say that the people of the church are perfect, or that the congregants never make mistakes. Instead, he makes this prescription about forgiveness and spiritual growth. Like the 5th point above, I have no problem with the intent here, but the wording is too bound up in dogma for even the original essay to leave unexplained.

A church does have to be transformational; if you leave the same person you were when you came in, then you’ve wasted your time. That’s equally true of a movie, a book, or even a piece of music, in my opinion, though. Religion should challenge you and then assist you in bettering yourself and your impact on the world. A church should be a safe place to explore your place in the universe and shape your life towards a beautiful set of experiences.

To try and mimic the point above:
6: Church is constructively transformational.

7. The Church Is Devoted to Fellowship
This feeds neatly into my on-going (though so far neglected) project to read “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” by James Luther Adams. Adams lays out 5 Smooth intellectual stones with which we can slay the conservative Goliath which is so often set against us. The second and third stones, speaking of the importance of mutual consent in all relationships and the obligation to establish “just and loving community” respectively, build the idea that a UU Church must, also, be about fellowship. We have it in our Principles that we will not only accept others as beings or worth and dignity, but that our congregations have a responsibility to encourage growth and a search for truth and meaning. The congregation isn’t meant to be a passive body in the lives of congregants, or even just a stabilizing body in times of turmoil (though this is certainly crucial to the mission), but a force to improve the world, in no small part by fostering growth in individuals and improving their interactions with the world-at-large.

This one is pretty easy to read in UU language as:
7: The Church Offers Acceptance and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth.

8. The Church Is Committed to Jesus’ Mission
Again, I cannot dismiss what Pastor Driscoll is saying, but I must reframe it.

Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matt 22:36-40

Again, I personally love the red letters in The Bible. Jesus said a lot of really great things that resonate with me. I don’t appreciate what was done with his work over the last 2000 years, but I am glad that the Church has preserved as much of his message as it did.

Jesus’ mission was to love. Love God. Love God’s Creation. Love one another. He was sent, it is said in John 3:17, to save the world, not to judge it. There is no salve for the soul like love and compassion.

Still, I think that Joshua of Nazareth is so widely misunderstood and blatantly misrepresented, that we do no service to our goal by referencing him in a single sentence.

The UU version does not exclude the mission of Jesus, but broadens the appeal by refining the meaning here:
8: The Church is Committed to Spreading Justice, Equity, and Compassion in the Broader Community.


16 Responses

  1. This is one of my hot button issues…
    You CANNOT codify ordination. That is antithetical to congregational polity.
    If you want codified ordination standards, then what you want is Presbyterian or Episcopal polity; with all the attendant issues.

    Look at what’s going on in the Methodist Church or the Prebyterians (PCUSA); both of which are having problems extending the circle of who is “allowed” to be called. Do you really want that?

    Congregational polity, when done right, is not about rabid individualism. It is about LOCAL INDIVIDUALITY. Why should a group of people in East Podunk not be able to ordain someone whom they want to have as their minister because the MFC (or whatever group) doesn’t think that that the potential ordinand would be a good minister in South Podunk?

    To codify ordination standards leads us down the path of the Methodists and Presbyterians. That’s not a path we need to go down.

    Besides, if you look at the MFC requirements now, it’s amazing that anybody makes it through the process reasonably sane.

    • I already see so many fellowshipped ministers complaining about the hoops and the various organizations that are supposed to see to their needs. It doesn’t seem like everyone is happy with the situation we have. Maybewe aren’t doing polity the right way, but I don’t see enough calls for change to convince me that polity is all it is cracked up to be.

      As for who leads the congregation, we have plenty that are already lay-lead, meaning that there is no reason the woul-be minister can be a board member or other lay leader. It also means that we don’t have official officiants running around un-checked.

      It doesn’t matter how we do the job, we are going to have problems. We do, and we aren’t addressing them very well. I see a need to make some changes, but I am very open to discussing what kind of changes would work best. If these discussions are happening, I’d love to hear about them.

      As for the MFC requirements, I often find my self questioning if anyone does make it out sane; in fact, as they are public knowledge, I wonder if anyone sane ever even tries. There are good kinds of crazy.

      • I’m going to push you on this because you didn’t answer my main question; mainly because I think there is much confusion and equalization and intermingling of the terms “fellowship” and “ordaination”.

        Fellowship is done by the UUA and is independent of ordaination. Ordaination is the inherent right of congregations in congregational polity. Without this right, there is no such thing as congregational polity. As such ordaination is independent of fellowship.

        Back to my question…
        If East Podunk UU Church wants to ordain Jane X to be their minister, why should the UUA get into the middle of that (by way of the MFC)—to say that since Jane X has not met some requirement to be available to be the minister of South Podunk UU Church—and say that East Podunk shouldn’t ordain her? If Jane doesn’t particularly care about UUA fellowship, what is the UUA’s interest in getting into the middle of a process between a congregation and the person they call (or want to call) to be their minister?

        To another point…you state:
        “As for who leads the congregation, we have plenty that are already lay-lead, meaning that there is no reason the woul-be minister can be a board member or other lay leader. It also means that we don’t have official officiants running around un-checked.”

        I’m confused. Congregations already have the right to grant administering-of-the-sacrament privileges to any member (or friend) of the congregation that they so choose. The UUA cannot stop that. And there is really no way to stop official officiants from running around unchecked—that’s what congregations are for.

        I find it disconcerting that many of the groups that are Presbyterian or Episcopal in polity are trying to become more congregational, yet some on our side are trying to change the essence of who we are. But then again, lots of things disconcert me.

      • Kim,
        I am sorry that you didn’t see my point when I said, and you quoted, that we don’t really want unchecked clergy running around with the authority of ordination.

        Why is this a problem? Especially for the people of neighboring South Podunk? What happens when an enthusiastic congregation anoints one of their own, and that person turns out to be completely unfit in some way? What if the new Reverend is manipulative and controlling? What if she is a kleptomaniac? What if he is a womanizer? It only gets worse from there. And what happens if the people of East Podunk decide to double down on this internal promotion, and embrace a message of free love and orgies? Or any other perversion of the actual UU message? Which would be pretty easy, since there isn’t actually a concise UU message to begin with…

        I completely understand the difference between ordination and fellowship. The MFC understands that, while new ministers are called out of existing congregations, there are hazards to having them serve at home. They strongly discourage interns from continuing to serve OR fellowship with congregations they interned with. There are very good reasons for this separation of the new minister from the congregation that fostered them. Polity, of course, allows us to ignore all of that. Why do we even have the MFC then? Why are the overwhelming majority of ministers Fellowshipped? Why does almost every church choose a properly vetted and fellowshipped minister? Because it is widely recognized that the process is there to protect not only the minister and the congregation, but the integrity of the movement and the office of Minister.

        So, it matters a great deal, and everyone gets that, in reality. I am only proposing that we formalize the process that is, almost, universally recognized as the right way to do things. Again, nothing stops a lay-led congregation from appointing one of their own to a leadership position, but there are many excellent reasons to limit that position’s actual (or even just assumed) authority in the rest of the community.

        And to suggest that someone who is as committed to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning as I might be more comfortable in the PCUSA, where I spent my formative years, simply because I think that we are governing ineffectively is not only dishonest and dismissive, it is insulting. I am not looking for dogma or imposed accusations of sin, I’d just like to know that every member of the clergy is actually a qualified, stable, and concerned leader who can be trusted with authority.

  2. You made one statement that made a particularly strong impression on me, because I strongly agree with one implication of the statement, and disagree with the other.

    “A church needs to believe in something greater, and we cannot call a thing a church if it refuses to welcome the question of why we are here and whether the Universe has a Creator. ”

    I certainly agree that the church needs to believe in something greater than what we often focus our attention on in our daily lives. I also agree that the church should welcome questions and a variety of answers about transcendent reality.

    I wonder, however, whether the true focus of the church on something greater should be on the nature of transcendent reality, since there is unlikely to be any consensus on this topic, or at least sufficient consensus to provide useful guidance. Can the “something greater” be on how to live our own lives and our lives together more truly, more virtuously, more nobly, and more beautifully? As Christopher Hitchens said in one of his last debates, isn’t this the only conversation worth having, about what is good, true, noble, and beautiful? http://socraticmama.com/2011/12/16/christopher-hitchens-and-the-poisoned-chalice/secular-parenting . And I don’t think that is the same as saying that the focus of the church should be social activism, not at all.

    If you read a book such as Jim Holt’s recent “Why Does the World Exist?” it is quite apparent that we as humans do not have the foggiest ideas of how even to come close to a definitive answer to this question. I don’t see how this could close to unifying a UU church.

    Isn’t there something greater and inspiring to be found in this world? Kant famously said that “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Both the heavens and the mind can be perceived in this world.

    • “Something Greater” is how we build a loving and just community, and from where we draw the authority to label anything “just”. Some will see, feel, or invent supernatural elements, and that is fine as long as they are not disruptive to the community. What we can’t forget is that, if there is a God, we are the hands of God here on Earth. I am an agnostic with theistic leaning, but also a humanist myself, not seeing the hand of God stopping hurricanes, fires, or mad gunmen. I know it is up to us to put in the hard work to make this a better world.

      The Search for Truth and Meaning certainly includes the efforts of science and philosophy both. How we do that, and why, are both worthwhile questions.

  3. Thomas,
    I did not say that you should be a part of the PC(USA). I said that if one wants codified ordaination standards, then one needs to find a church that is either Presbyterian or Episcopal in polity. There is a difference.

    Now…to your broader point…there is clergy misconduct now–under the system we have; which is as close to ordaination standards as one can get in a congregational polity system. You are never going to be able to get rid of that. So what would be different in the system that you think should be?

    I’m still trying to understand the pushback on traditional congregationalism. For a good deal of Unitarian history, congregations called their own. Other congregations had the right to not recognize that calling–as it relates to their congregation. So if East Podunk wanted to ordain Jane X, South Podunk has the right not to recognize her ordaination if she happens to visit South Podunk. The Universalist tradition was a little different, but not by much.

    So I’m wondering what would be different in this new system that you think should be? You can’t stop clergy misconduct. You can’t stop congregations from going the route of out-of-the-norm ideologies and theologies.

    Maybe you’re seeing something I’m not seeing. So I’ll stop here.

    • You know what? My reply will be FAR too long for me to just leave it a comment. You’ve asked something that goes much deeper than just responding to the post above, and I’ll gladly prep it for publication, maybe by day’s end.

  4. Oh, Mark Driscoll. He’s a very polarizing, and dare I say unpopular, figure in my area, Seattle, as is his church, Mars Hill. We get folks from his church checking out mine on a semi-regular basis. There’s been some bad local press about Mars Hill Church members shaming each other and such. Driscoll talks a big game about Jesus but the application is very strange. It sounds like they ostracize first and then forgive later if and only if you repent. Which, as I recall the new testament, is not very Jesus-like. Heaven knows the grudges I’d have if I worked that way.

    I suspect that his church is large, and thus he is prominent, partially because they are savvy business people and there is not exactly an abundance of conservative churches out here. The pastor of the next largest mega-church, Quest, a fellow by the name of Eugene Cho, is all about egalitarianism, anti-racism, etc. All the Catholics I’ve met were pretty liberal. The Methodist churches have rainbow flags, despite the UMC’s decision about gay marriage. And then there are us UUs. My minister has joked that our beliefs are so mainstream PNW, it’s a shock we don’t have thousands at our door. Keep that in mind when he speaks with authority.

    Most of Driscoll’s starting points are so very different from those held by most UU’s that I’d be weary to apply them. It would be like building a house on the foundation for a shed.
    -One, they are biblical literalists in a very narrow way.
    -Two, their “literal” interpretation is read to favor old cultural norms. Some of the things the church does seems to affirm this more than the Bible I read. He’s said that he’s most interested in recruiting those he perceives as having power in the future: college-bound young men, the righteous, as opposed to those Jesus really hung out with: outcasts. The reason: that’s how you make the church powerful. Telling, eh?
    -Three, the organization that Driscoll founded, Acts29, explicitly calls out Universalists as heretics. Their starting point is that lots of people will go to hell for the sin of disagreement. I see this as an application problem for us. We’d either have to be completely contrary, or ignore it.
    -Like many evangelical churches, Mars Hill is more about the correct beliefs than a free search for truth and meaning. There’s no interdependent web, it’s Us and Them. Devotion to fellowship means, “Make sure everyone believes the right things as we define them.” Really.

    In practice, Driscoll’s definition of “Qualified Leadership” is really “Men Who Read the Bible In the Way that I Interpret it”. That statement is more likely to affirm his own righteousness, “you are only qualified if you have a penis and agree with me”, than make a comment on how a church should be structured.

    As you may gather, I am not particularly a fan of his theology. I think it is too incompatible with UUism to apply it.

    Their church is not all bad, obviously. They helped out the foodbank I was volunteering at. The local pastor I worked with was a warm fellow. I am writing this to say that I would be really careful drawing inspiration from him. I appreciate some of your re-framing, but realize this: He wouldn’t put anything into UU language as you did. I suspect he’d just tell you that you were wrong, and that you did not understand what he was saying.

    • Of course, I accept that he might even be insulted by my post. That is a threat you face when you put ideas out there. That being said, I do feel that using his framework left huge gaps in the concept of a UU church, but it gave me something to work from that might be more familiar to those who haven’t studied who we are.

      Honestly, I wanted a post I wasn’t ashamed of, and I was pressed for time after a busy weekend. This was an old idea that became a workable draft really early Tuesday morning, and I cleaned up after sleeping on it. It isn’t my best idea, or my best work, but it was a good post for drawing out conversation about at least one topic that UUs need to have a discussion about.

      Thanks for the input, and for reading. I can’t improve my writing or learn from mistakes, intellectual or creative, in a vacuum, and those really are my goals for this blog. I want to be more effective in the world.

      • As someone with more than a couple [dozen] posts on her blog that I’m not thrilled with, I can relate to your comment. I realize reading now that my post slants more critical than informative. (Gracious writing is a skill I am still cultivating…) Your post is not bad, and like I don’t expect someone not in Seattle to have the same understanding of what Driscoll’s about. Read alone, your interpretation does make sense. I am just saying, the long story short, is that everything Driscoll says is part of a long persuasive argument about why churches like his are the only legitimate ones. We don’t make those arguments, thank Goodness. I think that is why using his definition does leave gaps in the definition of UU church; we’re not like that. I was probably a little trigger happy with my comment because his variety of faith would marginalize folks like me: women who feel like they have something to say, and an equal authority to say it.

        • I think I made it clear that I disagree with his perspective, but his movement is growing, and ours is not. We can’t be afraid to learn from others. We need to be willing and able to change as the times have.

          I took no insult. I honestly welcome the perspective you bring, because we need it when we analyze an idea for what it could mean to us. Maybe his points are too specific to his theology to be of any use. I don’t see it that way, yet, but if it is true, I welcome the information.

  5. There is nothing about the ordination or fellowshipping process that can ever render ministerial intercourse safe. Denominations that do it differently than us have shepherds abusing their flocks despite all. If you want to roll on a condom to render ministerial intercourse safER, then there is only one approach. Congregations and Ministers have to live in covenant with each other, holding each other to account in love. And I’m NOT talking about the employment contract that gets called a covenant rather than what it really is. I’m talking real covenant. If clergy and congregations are not in REAL covenant with each other, nothing will protect either, in the end. Without proper prophylaxis, no one gets out of church undamaged.

    • Again, I feel like my response is going to be too long to post as a comment. It is certainly going to require more thinking, and maybe a few links. Please check back tomorrow for a new post where in I agree with you almost completely, and ask you to look at the bigger picture.

  6. Addressing just item 5 – “The Church is bound by common vision, to affirm and promote the Principles of the UUA.” The “principles” sprung into being in the mid-1980s. They Seven Principles exist as something to put into a bylaws for what is essentially a trade organization to provide common services, not a hierarchical source of authoritiy in a real denomination. Further, they are theologically really thin soup on which to base a religion. “Covenant” has also become another magical incantation to invoke a “real” church.

    For a longer essay on both the Principles and “covenant”, see Marlin Lavanhar, http://www.meadville.edu/uploads/files/134.pdf.

    • I understand what the principles are, and how they currently serve us. I also am very familiar with the limitations of the UUA. It seems that this has dominated my online discussion for the last week.

      As your reference points out, though, they are all we have at the moment, and they are a covenant between the Congregations and the UUA, even if they are not intended to imply personal responsibility. We need to do better, in my opinion, but this is where we are and what we have to work with, and it is a covenant that the congregation, or church, agrees to, in theory, though there is no way to enforce the covenant should they fail to live up to it.

      As for the concept of covenant, I’ve written about that more (or, most as of the time of this writing) recently. I welcome you to check out other posts and give me your thoughts.

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