Stopping Congregational Darwinism
“Although churches be distinct, and….equal and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another…The communion of churches is exercised in sundry ways. ( 1). By way of mutual care, in taking thought for one another’s welfare.” (Chapter 15, Cambridge Platform)
The above quote is from the Cambridge Platform, the 1648 declaration by our Puritan New England ancestors that established the structures of church organization that we Unitarian Universalists call congregational polity. When some of the New England churches because Unitarian in the early 1800s, they kept and reaffirmed their roots in congregational polity. And we affirm these foundational roots today.
Though congregations are autonomous, the Platform affirms that there must also be a community of churches in relationship with one another, living in interdependent mutual covenant. And the first duty of this covenant relationship is that congregations must seriously consider each other’s welfare when making decisions.
This mutual covenant stands at the deepest historically roots of our Unitarian Universalist way to doing church. And yet we tend to operate as if church autonomy requires a distorted form of congregational Darwisnism—an assumption that survival of the fittest is the way things are supposed to work and congregations compete with one another for scarce resources and members. The strong survive and the weak are relegated to the sideline to wither.
In all of my years of attending congregational meetings, I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a discussion about how the decisions we make might impact other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the cluster or district or region. Sometimes we reluctantly talk about our obligations to pay district or UUA fair share assessments, but we rarely discuss that financial obligation as part of the much larger covenantal duty we have to all of our sister congregations.
If our congregation is thriving, we rarely give thought about how we might help other congregations nearby that aren’t doing as well as our own. We might express some sympathy in passing or we wonder about gaining some new members if the weaker church folds. But we don’t see the other congregation’s fate as an essential concern of our congregation.
And if our congregation is not doing that well, we rarely think to ask for assistance from other neighboring UU congregations. We think we are fated to face a harsh reality all alone and may develop an attitude of bitterness or resentment of other congregations.
Our Puritan ancestors knew better. They believed in congregational autonomy in mutual covenant; not congregational Darwinism. They knew they were all in it together—and that the strength or weakness of one was the strength and weakness of all.
If we are concerned about the future of Unitarian Universalism and if we want to be true to our roots in congregational polity, we need to put a stop to congregational Darwinism - whether we find it on our boards, in our churches or in our districts.
Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
Congregational Life Consultant and CERG Staff Lead