David R. Weissbard
Problems Needing Creative Solutions
When I thought about counter-productive patterns into which we have locked
ourselves, I thought about my ongoing frustration regarding our congregation's
support, or non-support, of the Association of Congregations of which we are a
part. Each year at budget time, I advocate our meeting our responsibility to the
Unitarian Universalist Association by paying the full share paid by two out of
every three other congregations, it goes in the preliminary budget, and it comes
out of the final budget when we find we "can't afford it." And I get this
burning sensation in my stomach.
If we were to step back and look creatively at how to change this, we could
not avoid asking the fundamental question, "Do we really need the Association?"
"Why not go it alone?"
An Historical Reminder
A two-minute historical orientation to religious liberalism in Rockford. A
Unitarian and a Universalist congregation were founded in Rockford in 1841. The
Universalists joined with the Unitarians soon after. It was a somewhat fractious
group, calling ministers and then sending them packing when there wasn't enough
money to pay them. One student of our history suggested that it was because the
Universalists were more conservative and quickly became dissatisfied with the
liberal Unitarian ministers called by the majority. In June of 1870, The Rev. D.
M. Reed, then minister, resigned during a statistically healthy period-
allegedly because of poor health, although he lived another 20 years. Before the
church had an opportunity to seek a new minister, the very liberal Baptist
minister, Dr. Thomas Kerr, resigned his pulpit and in September, 1870, 48 members
of the First Baptist Church who resigned with Dr. Kerr, joined with members of
the United Unitarian Universalist Church to form a new liberal
non-denominational church which they called The Church of the Christian Union.
The theoretically non-denominational church was, in fact, closely aligned
with the Unitarian movement. When the cornerstone of its new building was laid
in 1888, virtually all of the guest speakers were Unitarians, and a great
Unitarian hymn writer wrote a special hymn for the event. Dr. Kerr received
associate fellowship as a Unitarian Minister. Unitarian hymn books were used in
the church, and Unitarian Sunday School curricula. But it was a
non-denominational church, so it had no obligation and contributed no money to
the American Unitarian Association. I can find no indication of how the
congregation found The Rev. Robert Bryant, the successor to Dr. Kerr, but it is
clear in the records that the secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference
helped put the church in touch with The Rev. Thornton Anthony Mills, Bryant's
successor, and the church did send a small contribution to that group. The next
minister, Dr. Charles Parker Connolly, who was called in 1913, was a
Congregationalist in background, but he quickly became involved in Unitarian
circles. It was in 1928 that the congregation voted to affiliate formally with
the American Unitarian Association, which merged with the Universalist Church of
America in 1961 to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The UUA is an association of independent congregations. Its primary purpose,
according to its bylaws, is "to serve the needs of its member congregations,
organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist
institutions and implement its principles." The support of the Association, like
the support of our own church, is entirely voluntary. As with our church, there
is a requirement that members contribute, but the amount is not specified. In
practice, the Association's Board annually designates an amount which is a
"suggested share" based on so much per member. (The current amount is $39 per
member.) The reality is that most of our churches and fellowships take that
number seriously and more than two-thirds of them give at least that amount-some
more. It has been many years since the Rockford church has come even close to
giving its share - its full share is $19,000 - and it is currently giving
When I have raised the issue of this discrepancy, some people have insisted
that the UUA isn't worth that much to us, and others have urged full support
only until we have come to the point where we would have to cut something local
to meet our continental responsibility. It may be important, but it's not that
Hence, my radical suggestion: How about our "going it alone?" Since we are
not prepared to be a fully responsible member of the Association, perhaps we
should sever our ties and go back to our former status of sympathetic but
unaffiliated. We could save $10,000 and any guilt we might carry about being
only partly responsible. [And Emerson suggested a minister would not dare to
examine "the ground of his institution."]
What's It Worth?
A reasonable question to ask is "What do we get from being a part of the UUA?
The reason for the founding of the American Unitarian Association in 1825,
according to William Ellery Channing, was "to spread our views of religion; not
our mere opinions, for our religion is essentially practical. The convention
should bring together [people] from every part of the country to compare their
views, & ascertain the wants of different places."
Fundamentally, the job of the gathered group was to print pamphlets and
support growth of new churches in the West (ie. West of Worcester). The UUA
continues to print pamphlets that we use to introduce ourselves to visitors, and
it supports the growth of new churches. But we could probably print our own
pamphlets, and does a new church in Door County, Wisconsin really affect us?
It is true that we would be hard pressed (impossibly pressed) to do religious
education without the curricula that are written, field tested, and published
for us by the UUA. It is not very productive to throw kids and a teacher in a
classroom and say "be together." The "being together" is important, but it is
fostered by the curricula that we choose as a context for that interaction, and
we do have values to share and support. Most of what happens in our church
school is a result of UU published curricula. Now, some have suggested that
since most of our members have grown up in traditional Christian churches, maybe
it would be more effective to close our church school and ship our kids off to a
Christian Church against which they can later rebel. And then there are also the
adult education materials that the Association also develops. One possibility,
of course, is to simply buy curricula from the UUA at their publication cost
which is a very small portion of their actual cost. Morally we'd be stealing,
but hey, what the heck!
Perhaps next in line of importance is ministry. The UUA helps to recruit
students for the ministry, and to support seminary education (to an inadequate
degree.) It then, as we know from some dissatisfaction with the process, tries
to filter from that graduating pool, people whom it believes are not prepared to
offer the quality of ministerial leadership expected by our congregations. There
are goofs in both directions - passing some they should not, and placing
obstacles in front of some who should be encouraged. Probably the most essential
service in the eyes of many is the provision of an intensive process for
assisting in the matching of prospective ministers with congregations in search.
Now, some of our members have pointed out that we could save a lot of money by
seeking out a liberal Methodist instead of a UU minister - their ministers are
paid a lot less than ours. Or, if we disaffiliated with the UUA, our church
could simply pirate ministers who had been educated with UU scholarship money
and gained experience in UU congregations. I know of one liberal Baptist church
that does that - but it has succeeded by offering salaries that even UUs can't
turn down. There goes that savings, and that isn't really ethical conduct.
The UUA also provides congregations with consultant services, like the
Canvass Consultant who helped us so much two years ago at a price much lower
than we would have paid on the open market, and consultants in conflict
resolution, religious education, capital fund drives, social justice, and church
growth. There are interfaith organizations from which we could purchase these
services, as long as we are prepared to do the theological and structural
translating that is necessary - they often don't understand our form of
The UUA's Faith in Action Department - formerly Social Responsibility - keeps
us in touch with ways in which we can speak out in the world for the principles
which we value. It was that department that initiated the Welcoming Congregation
program and has stood out nationally in issues of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and
Transgender people's rights. It is that office that helps us address issues like
abortion, gun control, privacy, racial justice, religious freedom beyond our
local community. But, maybe the ACLU , the League of Women Voters, and Rockford
Peace and Justice suffice. Do we really need that service from Boston?
It was the UUA that, through a major process, developed our new hymnals, as
it and its predecessor organizations did the earlier versions. One local church
could never do that, but then again, we have members who would be just as happy
to sing the old Christian hymns or no hymns at all. Then there are the
international and interfaith activities in which the Association represents us,
but if we became simply the Liberal Church of Rockford, we wouldn't need any of
Ditto, the World magazine which keeps our members informed about what UUs are
doing around the country and world. And there are the annual General Assemblies
which offer a tremendous, diverse, and intense experience of Unitarian
Universalism, but few of our members ever attend those. There is a variety of
electronic communication going on now, with many specialized groups sharing
programs and ideas over the internet, and there is the UUA's homepage which
offers information that is tapped into quite frequently. But none of that is
really important to us - is it? The truth is, a lot of what any organization
does is aimed at self-preservation and self-enhancement. There are times when it
seems as if the people in Boston, at our headquarters, act as if it is the
headquarters which is most important and the reason for local churches like ours
to survive is simply to support the existence of the headquarters staff.
The Central Reason
The hardest to pin down, but probably the most important reason for our
affiliation with the UUA is that it makes us more than an isolated congregation
in Rockford, Illinois. By being part of the Association we link ourselves with
two historical movements dating back two millennia, and with a small but
hopefully effective contemporary liberal religious movement with 150,000 adult
members. Would it be the same if we were to become the "Liberal Church of
Rockford" and sever that connection? If we are to be honest, for many of our
members that local presence is all that matters on any practical level. Few of
our adult members come into contact with UUs out of town: for most of our
members, their concern primarily is local.
We Could "Go It Alone!"
In all honesty, I have to tell you that our church could survive without the
larger Unitarian Universalist movement - at least for a while. We've done it
before, and we could do it again. There would be some losses, but maybe there
would be some gains.
It is clear that, unlike those other religions which are legitimated by their
connection to a central authority structure which, in fact, has a measure of
control over them, we do not need a continental organization to make us a valid
If we are really going to get down to the nitty gritty, and examine the
ground of the institution, this line of reasoning forces us to raise the even
larger question of the need for any church at all. Our church does not offer its
members any keys to the Kingdom of God. No supernatural blessing is carried by
participation in our church. There is an old saying that you can really be a
Unitarian Universalist by yourself.
Virtually everything the church can offer is available somewhere else. There
is intellectual stimulation available from a variety of sources. There are gurus
like Brother Macki and others who come to town periodically, or are available on
tape or television. There are organizations for social justice.
There are other sources of counseling. Take it apart piece by piece and you
can get it all somewhere else.
What if we were to sell our building to our neighbors at Rockford College and
use the proceeds for housing the poor or reducing the school deficit or some
other good cause? What if the $350,000 it takes a year to operate our church
were channeled directly into other good causes? If you can be a Unitarian
Universalist by yourself, then seriously, who really needs the church?
Putting It Back Together
As a kid, I was really good at taking things apart, but not so good at
putting them back together. I hope I can do better this evening, or we are in
Independence vs. Interdependence
The reading from Emerson's "Self-Reliance" speaks of our belief in the virtue
of "going it alone." That is an important part of our cultural heritage -
particularly the liberal heritage. Remember Emerson's words:
It is only as a [person] puts off all foreign support and stands alone that I
see him [or her] to be strong and to prevail. What did Emerson prefer in a
church? The silent church with people sitting around in utter privacy as if they
had walls around them, which, in New England box pews, they did.
Traditionally, Unitarian Universalist churches attract people who are
independent - people who are not looking for a religion in which they are
dependent on a supernatural power or an authoritarian structure. People who want
those things do not stick around long. I have come to believe that self-reliance
lives in a healthy tension with community. Our individual integrity is
important, but so is cooperation. One of the great concerns of our time is what
is being called "the new communitarianism" - a realization of the need among
people for community.
The great Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing envisioned this modem
concern for community a hundred and seventy years ago. Channing is seen by some
to be the one of the original articulators of the importance of voluntary
associations. Writing in 1829, Channing said this (I have made gender
People, if it is justly said, can do jointly what they cannot do singly. The
union of minds and hands works wonders. [People] grow efficient by concentrating
their powers. Joint effort conquers nature, hews through mountains, rears
pyramids, dikes out of the ocean. [People] left to [themselves] living without
[others], if [they] could indeed so live, would be one of the weakest of
creatures. Associated with [their] kind, [they] gain dominion over the strongest
animals, over the earth and the sea ...
Nor is this all. [People] not only accumulate power by union, but gain warmth
and earnestness. The heart is kindled. An electric communication is established
between those who are brought nigh and bound to each other, in common labors.
[People] droop in solitude. No sound excites us like the voice of a
fellow-creature. The mere sight of a human countenance, brightened with strong
and generous emotion, gives new strength to act or suffer.
Channing was fully aware of the dangers of associations dominating
individuals - all the sins which concerned Emerson but it was his belief that if
we were cautious, the potential good of people voluntarily linking themselves to
others was worth the risk.
If you accept the value of cooperation and community as being of at least
equal importance with self reliance, let us look again at the church. I disavow
none of what I said earlier. The pieces of what the church offers are all
available elsewhere. What the church offers uniquely is the combination of all
of them in a community gathered around certain principles.
Why is it that so many of our members say that life in Rockford would, for
them, be unthinkable without our church?
The word Unitarian historically referred to the unity rather than the
three-personed view of deity. In a modem sense, it can be seen as a testimony to
the unity of our lives. Our churches are places where we gather to celebrate our
joys and concerns, articulate our dreams and acknowledge our disappointments.
Our churches are places where we gather in a community which began before us and
which we are committed to seeing continue after us.
There is much in our lives that is transient, but for many of our members,
this church represents a long term commitment. There are some who are here only
for as long as it "feels good," as long as it is "meeting their needs." Such
members come and go through the traditional revolving door. But what our
churches are really about is those who sink their roots in them, who stand with
them through good times and bad, who declare that it is their church, come what
may, because they feel empowered by their relationship to it. They are the
The Larger Movement
That brings us back to the question with which we began, with the value of
our larger movement - the Unitarian Universalists beyond our communities.
I would suggest to you that the non-denominational independent Church of the
Christian Union was, in a sense, a fraud. It could not have been what it was
without its connections to the Unitarian movement. It was, to be brutally
honest, a kind of parasite which lives off something without contributing to it
Just as we are in our churches because we need one another, and gain strength
from being together, so too our individual churches need the support of their
sister churches, and they gain strength from being the part of a larger movement
that makes us more significant than we would be alone. More important than
anything the UUA does is the fact that it is. An excess of self-reliance is our
version of original sin: it is our curse. We alone are not enough.
But if we are to be a part of the larger church, we need to fully accept not
only the benefits but the responsibilities of membership. We need to affirm our
commitment to support it in a way that is consistent with other congregations,
and stop putting our local needs and desires as the overwhelming concern and
letting the UUA take the hindmost. We are troubled that some of our members
treat us that way. We should be troubled when we treat the UUA that way.
We cannot just "go it alone." We need others. We need other individuals,
which is why we have our churches. Our churches need the support of other
congregations, which is why we have an Association of congregations. As our
local congregations sustain us, so our Association sustains the local
congregations. We always have the option of "going it alone," but we need not to
pretend that is our choice when it comes to our responsibilities to it, and
claim otherwise when we collect the benefits.
We need to be responsible in our relationships. We need to decide consciously
what relationship we want to have with our larger movement. If, in fact, it is
not important enough to us to support it fully, then the most honorable path
would be to cut ourselves off from it altogether. I urge you to give serious
consideration to that relationship and to how we will respond to the
responsibilities it places on us.
For the "Time for Reflection"
People sometimes complain that responsive readings trap them into saying
words they have had no time to contemplate. I ask that you take our time of
reflection to look at and consider the words by my friend Mark Morrison-Reed
which appear in our hymnals as unison reading #580, "The Task of the Religious
Community." I will then invite you to join me in reading them aloud.
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind
each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the
particulars of our own lives, and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us
to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on
our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is
essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and
our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision
widens and our strength is renewed.
As true as these words are for us as members of this church - so do they also
apply to our relationship as one congregation in the larger movement of which we
are a part. ALONE IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford of Rockford, Illinois
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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