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Communications

To be a "community of autonomous churches," we must communicate with one another and we must have the mechanisms available to do so. We have a responsibility—both within and among congregations—to be informed and to inform, to share resources, and to participate in our common associational life. Yet many of our linkages appear weak or nonexistent. In addition, an informed constituency is necessary to maintain a balance of power in our congregations, districts, and Association. This section contrasts the more unified use of print media of the past with the more fragmented communication structures of the present, and makes recommendations for widening our communications base and enhancing connections through publications and video and computer technology.

In the book Habits of the Heart, the authors define community as "a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it."[1] When the community is one of congregations, establishing avenues and habits of communication is particularly difficult but no less critical for the definition and nurturance of the community. Although many of our congregations share certain defining practices, our interdependent linkages appear weak or, in many cases, nonexistent.

Because we do not practice a pure form of congregational polity, but have some functions and powers vested in a common body that serves us—the Unitarian Universalist Association—the question becomes, What functions can best be performed by this body? Many areas of communication fall within this category.

The effectiveness and extent of our communications determines to a great extent our ability to carry out our religious principles. Poor communication—inadequate information, misinformation, or a lack of substantive discourse—causes or contributes to many of our conflicts, struggles, and failures. In many cases when we attempt to inform and engage individuals and congregations, such attempts go unread. Some of us protest that we are not informed, and yet some fellowships without professional leadership complain of feeling deluged by mail from 25 Beacon Street.

With our tradition of autonomy comes a responsibility to the whole body. We have tended to focus on our independence, but it is the relational aspects of our common life that have the potential to transform us, bringing wholeness, unity, and an experience of the holy that we seek.

A Print-based Society

Until recently, we communicated either orally or through print. Our predecessors had access to information about important issues of the day through newspapers, journals, and magazines. The Unitarians had weekly newspapers in the Christian Register and the Liberal Christian, and monthly magazines such as the Monthly Religious Magazine, Christian Examiner, and the Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association. The Universalists had such periodicals as the Universalist Magazine (which went through numerous name changes), Christian Freeman, Universalist Herald, Ladies Repository, and the Myrtle. In addition, the Unitarian National Conference published reports of its meetings. Any member who wanted to keep abreast of issues had access to an enormous amount of information. Controversial statements or reports would produce quick responses and rebuttals. In short, there was a common forum for addressing the concerns of the denominations, clarifying issues, and reaching some measure of agreement.

Present Communications: Reading Between the Lines

These are difficult times for print media. Radio, then television, have in large measure replaced newspapers and magazines in the general population. Because of costs, our relatively small size, financial constraints, or perhaps the lack of a strong organization, our Association has failed to use the electronic media to any significant extent. We have made a few attempts to utilize radio, television, and videotaping and are beginning to develop networks for computer-assisted communications.

At the same time, our official publications have dwindled to a very few. Some of these have a definite public relations slant or are targeted to a narrow audience and are inadequate channels for furthering our dialogue. Independent publications have suffered from a lack of funding and general support. For example, we have seen the demise of Kairos and Journal of the Liberal Ministry.

Our congregations are isolated from one another, with no expectations of significant relationships and exchanges of resources among congregations. To a large extent, our communication structures are oldstyle and hierarchical, with information flowing down from the UUA and districts to congregations. Although congregations are encouraged first to approach districts rather than the UUA for assistance, there is tremendous variability in district capabilities to deliver information and services and no consistency among district offices in terms of technology and delivery systems.

Looking Ahead

As part of its work, the Commission on Appraisal holds open hearings around the country and meets with staff and constituent groups. One of the continuing themes of our discussions is the frustration that members feel about the lack of connection with and knowledge of the wider movement. We hear this concern variously expressed as apathy, provincialism, rugged individualism, and isolation. We duplicate efforts by not sharing resources, often because we either don't know they exist or don't know how to secure the help we need.

Our culture has made a radical shift in communication styles with the availability of electronic communications, from traditional top-down systems to a many-to-many system of communicating, with information flowing laterally as well as hierarchically. The potential for congregations to be more informed, connected, and served is tremendous. Acknowledging the value of all types of communication, we will limit our discussion here to more formalized communication avenues and not address the issues of interpersonal communications or public relations.

The Association's Publications

The Association produces the World magazine, Ethics and Action, a REACH packet for religious education, Department of Ministry packets, and Connections. The Association also designs and publishes materials for the Pamphlet Commission. The Canadian Unitarian Council publishes the Canadian Unitarian. Independent publications of note are First Day's Record, Unitarian Universalist Voice, and The Unitarian Universalist Christian. Because of budget constraints and the rising cost of printed materials, new print publications are not likely to be developed. We need to ask how congregations can improve communications through existing publications and how they can benefit more from them.

One answer is more dialogue between the UUA and congregations about who should receive various publications, both individuals and groups. In addition, UUA publications, which are now strictly products of the Association, could include more input from other Unitarian Universalists and more exchanges between congregations and members. We believe that broadening the base of the editorial board of the World magazine to include more non-staff members would enhance its appeal and widen its perspective. According to former editor Linda Beyer McHugh, the World is about to expand its advisory board beyond UU staff. McHugh feels that an expanded travel budget for the World would also improve the staff's ability to cover stories around the continent.

Part of the stated mission of the World conveys what we as a Commission envision for our movement:

The World seeks to develop the broad denominational picture by articulating Unitarian Universalist values, purposes, and spirituality . . . promoting denominational self-reflection and understanding by making known UU activities, personalities, and history.

Addressing the issue of simply providing more information, McHugh adds, "It's a fantasy to think a newspaper can enhance our communication just by publishing everything. What we need, instead, is careful editing."

She says that new UU members are the magazine's primary audience, but that the World tries to attend to the needs and interests of all groups and to long-standing Unitarian Universalists as well. For example, McHugh adds, "With the themed issues, we can do lots on different levels to meet different needs." The addition in 1996 of the section "Congregational Life and Leadership" has the potential to meet our stated goal of enhancing our connection to other congregations and promoting interrelatedness. We commend the World and support the expansion of such a section beyond its current size.

At present, the process for adding new members to the subscription list for the World is manual and slow, making it hard to reach new members at a time when they most want information about Unitarian Universalism. This process could be done easily and quickly by computer, at least for our larger congregations, which contain most of our members. According to Steve Buccieri, former director of information services, the UUA recently purchased a database program that can compare Association files with individual church databases. We encourage the speedy automization of this process.

Although we will not address in this report Beacon Press and Skinner House publications, we recognize the tremendous contribution they make in promoting UU values and identity. We would like to see on the copyright pages more prominent mention of the Association, for example, wording such as "Beacon Press—committed to the values of Unitarian Universalism," as well as the wider marketing of Skinner House books through commercial bookstores.

Unitarian Universalist Advance, an independent organization, launched its journal UU Voice in 1994 to provide a forum for discourse beyond a house organ. The Reverend Dr. Brent Smith, former editor, believes that the role of the journal is to increase the number of voices in communication. "There is a relationship between the strength of autonomous congregations and the multiple variety of forms of communication. To fulfill our role as autonomous congregations demands we have a variety of different communication vehicles," Smith states.

Smith believes that our recent practices are becoming denominational rather than associational, with more centralization and consolidation. "I see a whole generation of ministers working in that centralized environment. With the UU Voice, we are concerned with the preservation of the free press and the free spirit. We want to hear many voices. Our interest is not in critiquing the UUA. We are focused on individual autonomous congregations."

Two Examples of Video Production

The experiences of two of our congregations with video broadcasting highlight many issues of polity and connectedness.

Since 1974, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has engaged in a broadcast ministry. The Reverend Dr. John Wolf, minister emeritus, comments that being a congregation in the same city with Oral Roberts positioned it for a television ministry: "Oral Roberts was a pioneer of electronic religion. He blazed a trail. He also created a need for others to counteract his message." All Souls, Tulsa, was also fortunate to have a congregant, Rocky Stegman, who was willing to make broadcast programs through his production company and to donate his services. Costing the church nothing for the first five or six years, the broadcast ministry in later years cost about $3,000 per segment for 26 segments produced each year. According to Wolf and to Dr. Brent Smith, senior minister, "Univision," which later became "Faith and the Free Church" very successfully accomplished its goal of promoting religious freedom.

In the 1980s they were encouraged to nationalize the program. According to Smith, the Association was in a push to solidify power in the national organization. The program's advisory committee decided that the focus was to represent various viewpoints, where Tulsa's mission had been to promote religious freedom. The production was moved to Atlanta, acquired a national director, produced one episode that cost in excess of $100,000, and the project failed. The production later returned to Tulsa, but lost the name "Univision" in the process. In recent years the program has been broadcast on the "Religion and Values" channel, which presents a variety of religious perspectives.

Smith says, "The channel loved us, because we were the only ones doing religious programs, as opposed to dealing primarily with social justice topics." The programs aired on the local religious channel five times each weekend. Viewing the programs as mission work for other congregations in the Association, the church produced short commercials for other congregations to use as lead-ins when they aired the segments in their local markets. Production, which halted in 1996 after a serious illness of the producer, was scheduled to resume in 1997.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois, now has a library of 380 segments of its "Fusion" program after 15 seasons. The Reverend David Weissbard, senior minister, says he effectively has 4,000 people in his "congregation" because of the large viewing audience. "Given the right-wing times we live in, how can we not do it," reflected Weissbard. "It's community ministry."

The program, which costs about $500 per segment to produce, has never been fully funded from the church's operating budget, but receives some support from endowment funds and other outside gifts. Weissbard says that there has never been unanimous support for funding the program within the Rockford congregation, but that there is strong support for the program's ministry.

According to Weissbard, the production costs are reasonable because Rockford is a small television market and the production rates are lower. Taping occurs in a local television studio. Airing after "CBS Sunday Morning," "Fusion" benefits from some carryover audience. Some of the segments also have been used for Sunday programming by fellowships without professional leadership.

Weissbard cites the opportunity to articulate the congregation's positions and issues and to have a panel of church members respond to the sermons to demonstrate Unitarian Universalist support for differing opinions. Weissbard has heard from people of color that they are not comfortable attending a predominantly white church but appreciate the content of the programs through television access.

For 10 of the segments each year, other UU ministers tape sermons for "Fusion" and stay overnight to preach for the Rockford congregation. The Reverend Weissbard believes that the congregation benefits from having so many ministers in the pulpit and that members feel a stronger connection to other congregations and to Unitarian Universalism as a result.

Only recently have these two productions received any funding from the UUA, and then only sporadically. Yet both producers believe that they are generating programs that are relevant and useful for the entire Association, and at a lower cost than a large market such as Boston would incur.

Partnerships among districts, the UUA, and congregations or clusters of congregations to provide products and services such as video segments, religious education courses, and church administration courses could be beneficial to all parties. Video technology may be a viable way to promote congregational interest and participation in General Assemblies as well. The GA Planning Comittee and staff could help by commissioning the creation of a video about General Assembly, to be made available to all congregations.

Will We Move Into the Electronic Age?

The UUA is developing a site on the World Wide Web almost entirely with the help of volunteers. Efforts thus far have focused on setting up a high speed connection from UUA headquarters to the Internet. The potential for electronic communications is immense. Among the possibilities are directed email; communications within districts and clusters on a variety of topics; linking congregations by various criteria; reporting on events and issues; running discussion groups; sharing ministerial, editorial, and congregational resources; publishing committee and board reports and minutes; providing information about settlements, openings, milestones, and passages; and faxing via computer modems.

By early March 1996, more than 100 UU congregations had home pages on the Internet, many of very high quality. The cost of creating home pages is reasonable. Many committees, districts, and the UUA Board of Trustees are communicating through email. An email list for UUA announcements, duplicated on the UUA web page, was recently begun under the auspices of the Public Relations, Marketing, and Information Office. The UUA Committee on Technology and Electronic Communications outlined to the board the potential uses of electronic communications by the Association. Having met its original charge, the committee in a report to the board dated January 1996 suggested work yet to be done. The Board of Trustees has since charged a new committee with this work.

The Internet creates the ability for dialogue to occur among a wide variety of interest groups, resulting in the decentralization of information, responsibility, and power. Both moderated and unmoderated discussions are possible. CD-ROM technology provides an inexpensive way to distribute masses of information, with costs in the $1 to $2 range per CD for production and inexpensive mailing. With lower costs than printed matter, CD-ROMs would be especially practical for the distribution of bulky materials such as the UUA Directory, The Congregational Handbook, General Assembly reports and information, and Commission on Appraisal reports. The flexibility afforded by CD-ROMs is advantageous, with the ability to store pictures, sound, and video as well as text.

The UUA is the logical body to provide staff to coordinate and manage the electronic communication system and to provide a database librarian. Such a system should ultimately free staff members from disseminating information to attend to other areas of need. The UUA plans to add a part-time staff person as a librarian to facilitate making information accessible via the Internet. According to former director of information services Steve Buccieri, there is a recommendation as well to add a part-time technical support position in the Information Services Department. As Buccieri comments, "The work that has been done so far primarily by volunteers is commendable, but it could use some professional midwifing." Adding these two staff positions has the potential for making information on a variety of topics available quickly and at low cost. Examples of appropriate applications range from the Ministerial Settlement Handbook to social justice materials such as the Resolutions and Resources Handbook.

A Shift in Managing Information

Such a shift in information management is radical. Rather than having information flowing to and from headquarters, the emphasis would be on managing and directing the flow of information among congregations, staff departments, and affinity groups. However, formulating thoughtful policies and practices for this type of information management requires substantial lead time. As the Reverend John Wolf says, "We let the age of television pass us by. If we don't get busy, we'll miss the electronic age as well!"

The start-up stage of computerization within our association poses inherent-but not insurmountable-problems, because some of our congregations do not have computers, although at least one member of each congregation almost certainly does. Moving into the electronic age also raises new questions: How does information get disseminated? Who holds the information (and thus the power)? How available is this information to the general membership? The process of answering these questions is important as well.

Our goal is to encourage greater participation in associational life and to use and make available all possible resources to strengthen our common community while honoring our tradition of congregational autonomy and authority over local affairs. A broad view of congregational polity suggests that information and resources developed in our individual congregations be made available to all of our congregations.

Summary

Building a truly interdependent web of congregations, districts, and the Unitarian Universalist Association is virtually impossible without communication avenues and sytems that are widely available, inexpensive, informative, and accessible. Communication is the foundation of the community of congregations implied by a broader understanding of polity. Efforts to date to enhance and expand our base of communications—through print, video, CD-ROM, and electronic technology-—have been limited, although we have several successful prototypes. The shift in information management will require significant lead time and planning as well as new staff positions and more money.

Recommendations

  1. The editorial board of the World should be broadened to enhance its appeal and widen its perspective.
     
  2. We commend the increased coverage of congregational life and issues in the World and support the expansion of this section in the future.
     
  3. The mailing list for the World should be updated monthly using the Association's new database software.
     
  4. We encourage financial support for independent, non-house publications, either through the UUA budget or grants.
     
  5. We commend Beacon Press and Skinner House Books and we recommend that our connection with Beacon Press be made more public, and that Skinner House Books be marketed more broadly.
     
  6. The use of video, radio, and local access television by congregations and the denomination should be encouraged and supported by the Association and shared among congregations.
     
  7. We recommend adding staff positions for a database librarian and for a technical support person to help congregations share resources and promote Unitarian Universalism in the larger community.

Sources

Interviews with Linda Beyer McHugh, former editor, the World; Brent A. Smith, former editor, Unitarian Universalist Voice, and senior minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma; John B. Wolf, minister emeritus, All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma; David R. Weissbard, senior minister, the Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, Illinois; Robert T. Snow, vice president for development, Unitarian Universalist Association; and Steve Buccieri, former director of information services, Unitarian Universalist Association.

Note

  1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 333.

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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.

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