Theological Perspective

Being part of a religious community is a personal commitment that reflects a theological vision-namely, a sense of the fundamentally interdependent, or covenantal, nature of existence. Being in community, then, is not incidental to being a Unitarian Universalist, but intrinsic and inescapable. The religious community is the vital matrix of the formation of its members' diverse personal ministries. In turn its members reshape the community. This section examines the theological implications of congregational polity in terms of a new understanding of our central mission: the shared ministry of the religious community in service to the world.

Talking with newcomers about the Unitarian Universalist faith, we often emphasize that ours is not a single, centralized church, but an association of churches and fellowships. In other words, our denominational structure, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), is a voluntary association of independent, self-governing congregations.

Usually we call these religious communities churches, but sometimes we call them fellowships, societies, or congregations. Sometimes we simply call ourselves "Unitarian Universalists," suggesting that no adequate term for the group exists, or perhaps that here we are individuals, first and foremost. And sometimes we use the term "parish" to refer to a local congregation, although parish properly refers to the geographical area covered by a congregation. The lack of common terminology, in part rooted in our dissenting tradition, tends to confuse discussions of the basic meaning of being a religious community. A congregation may serve many purely social needs, but first and foremost it must serve our need for a spiritual community, a community of mutual commitment, caring, and support.

We need not adopt any one term for our religious communities, but we do need to understand that commitment to a local, face-to-face religious community-a congregation-is intrinsic to our faith. We may share an understanding of sociological, historical, and organizational perspectives on the religious community. But because we are often radical individualists for whom religion is a private or an inward feeling, a theological perspective on the church (the religious community) seems incomprehensible to us.

Toward a New Self-understanding

The Commission believes, however, that a renewed theological understanding of the religious community-an awareness of why "being in community" or "covenanting" or a lively sense that "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" is central to our faith-is key to reaching a fresh and liberating understanding of congregational polity itself.

Our denominational name-Unitarian Universalist Association-itself reflects the centrality of congregationalism to our self-understanding. When we accent the word "Association," we invoke the concept of congregational polity. We are proud of the tradition of local independence that congregational polity represents, and we often suggest that this form of governance is more in keeping with our beliefs and values than any other form; it is more democratic, free, and respectful of local autonomy. We have tended to think and say that the right of a congregation to do whatever it chooses is the hallmark of true (or pure) congregationalism and that to stray from that principle is to violate something sacred that makes us what we are.

On the other hand, we are restive with this self-understanding; stated in this strict form of self-autonomy, congregational polity does not adequately reflect our sense of who we truly are. In some of our practices, we have largely abandoned this ideal in favor of identification with "Unitarian Universalism" or some other trans-congregational term. A notable example is the practice of ordination to the ministry, where the ordaining congregation is the ordinand's "home" church or "internship" church, rather than a church that is also calling the ordinand to be its minister. The practice reflects our sense of being part of a religious community rooted in, but not limited to, a particular time and place, to which we are called in ministry.

Few of us would hold that "the church"-in the sense of the religious community to which we are devoted-exists only on a local level, in the congregation. In fact, in the Universalist tradition, ordination was not enacted by local congregations, but by state conventions. And in the Unitarian tradition, although ordination was originally enacted only by the local congregation that was calling the ordinand to its ministry, all Unitarian congregations recognized the validity of each others' ordinations.

The idea of absolute or total independence, congregation by congregation, is impossible insofar as the principle of congregational polity must itself be agreed on by a collectivity of congregations. In some sense this collectivity is "the religious community" and is, or at any rate represents, the church as a spiritual body, something that transcends the local, gathered church community. The Puritans who wrote and subscribed to the Cambridge Platform of 1648 did not themselves hold such a purely congregational notion of the church, however wary they were of hierarchical or clerical control; they held that the church was, "in matter," the elect of God, and "in form," the covenant of believers in Christ.

Toward a New Doctrine of the Church

If, then, "the church" is more than the local congregation, what is this more? How do we name it? Theology has become attenuated among contemporary Unitarian Universalists, especially in terms of a common faith. Thus it is extremely difficult for us to reach a theological consensus or even to agree upon a common language of faith. We need a new or renewed doctrine of the church-a conception of religious community that is integral, not incidental, to our total theological understanding.

A completely "de-theologized" notion of congregational polity-one that speaks of the church in purely sociological or historical terms-makes nonsense of the idea itself. Thus if the idea cannot be theologically renewed among us, we will finally jettison it as an encumbrance or absurdity. The reductio ad absurdum of this way of thought is to say: The church is a club for our kind of people, and it matters little whether you think of it as a debating club, a social club, or a political club.

Unless we can put congregational polity in theological perspective, we will not be able to resolve the questions of practice that arise around it. (Part 2: "Pressure Points: Issues and Concerns Related to Congregational Polity," addresses these major questions of practice.) A serious discussion of congregational polity leads us-perhaps surprisingly, but inevitably-into renewed theological discussion touching many broader issues of faith.

Six Propositions for Theological Reflection

The following six propositions trace the major lines of theological reflection on the nature of religious community.

  1. Expanding our concept of governance.
    Polity refers to forms of governance, and governance is one of the central questions of religious reflection, that is, of theology. Hence we ask: How is the universe governed? How will I govern myself? How do we agree to govern ourselves?
    These three questions exemplify the complex set of questions that can be asked about governance as a theological issue. The complexity arises because questions of governance involve ontological, ethical, and political questions (i.e., questions of ultimate reality, questions of the good that ought to direct our actions, and questions of forms of government and social power). Questions of polity move us beyond practical concerns to concerns of basic outlook, beliefs, or value commitments.
  2. Reflecting on "the congregational way."
    Historically Unitarian Universalists have affirmed "the congregational way"-an imprecise designation, variously practiced in different denominational groups. When we say we agree to govern ourselves in accordance with the principles of "congregational polity," we affirm the moral and spiritual values that we believe this form of governance expresses and sustains by its very nature. Central among these values is the freedom of people to form self-determining, egalitarian, and democratic religious communities. If we are deeply committed to congregational polity, it is because its beliefs and values are central to our liberal faith.
    Renewed discussion of congregational polity in terms of our basic values will deepen our commitment to practices that are shaped by a fuller appreciation of its meaning. For example, some may argue that the Department of Ministry can do a better job of matching ministers to congregations than a local congregation can, working independently. We would still object to such a system of centralized control, because congregational polity is not only an instrumental but also an intrinsic value. The role of the congregation in calling its own ministers is not merely a practical matter of achieving "a good fit" between minister and congregation. Deliberation on the kind of ministry a congregation wants and needs to fulfill its vision of itself brings into play the basic commitments of faith and value of the congregation. By generating and affirming such a vision a congregation constitutes itself as a dedicated community.
    Furthermore, when it comes to affirming a particular individual as its minister, then "right relationship" is more important than abstract considerations like good fit. The process of covenanting, establishing a right relationship with a minister, goes to the heart of the spiritual enterprise. Congregations often complain of being misused by ministers, and ministers of being misused by congregations. These situations ask a prior question: Did they inadequately understand each other? Perhaps the church just thought they were hiring someone to preach things that pleased them, or perhaps the minister thought the "free pulpit" simply meant "you can do your own thing here." We need serious reflection and deliberation on what it means to be a community of faith and what it means to serve such a community.
    These comments on the relationship between ministers and congregations illustrate the fact that the deepest theological issues are entailed in questions of our polity, our institutional practices.
  3. Affirming the covenant among congregations.
    Congregational polity is not, and could not be, the sole possession of any one congregation; in this sense, autonomy-being a law unto oneself-is a fiction. Congregational polity is itself a shared understanding, agreement, and commitment-in a word, a covenant-among various congregations; it presupposes their being in community and it furthers and sustains the actuality of that community.
    We should recognize that it is difficult for us to give appropriate weight to this theological proposition, because we have only recently begun to regain a theological voice and vocabulary. The Principles of the UUA Bylaws begin by saying "we covenant" but they do not speak of the covenanting congregations as corporate bodies. When subsequent passages of the Bylaws explicitly mention congregational polity, it is not given positive significance-for example, as an agreement among member congregations to respect and support one another in the celebration and the living of their faith-but only negative significance in agreeing not to interfere with each other.
    We need to affirm congregational polity as a covenant, that is, a mutual agreement and a commitment to walk together and support one another; it is an expression of our spiritual vision.
  4. Embracing the church universal.
    Congregational polity presupposes, then, some sense of loyalty and commitment to "the community of self-governing congregations." For Unitarian Universalists, this community is primarily embodied in the UUA; but because there are many Unitarian Universalist-related organizations and institutions not centrally organized under the UUA, the community is often spoken of as "the UU movement." But Unitarian Universalism or the UU movement are not the ultimate locus of our religious loyalty and commitment, because there are other religious bodies in North America and around the world with whom we also enjoy some sense of community. And beyond these organized religious bodies, there are myriad individuals, known and unknown, whom we would include in any full accounting of "the church universal."
    This idea of the church universal is not limited to Christian groups. Some Unitarian Universalists would be surprised at the suggestion of a religious connection with anyone beyond the UU movement, if only because our preaching, pamphlets, and religious education have been predominantly sectarian. (For instance, we make virtually no attempt to teach children a sense of connection with the history of Christianity.) If we do not intend to suggest that ours is the only true religion, and all others are idolatries and superstitions, then we should affirm as much community with other religious bodies as we can.
    Until recently a sectarian Unitarian Universalist emphasis has undercut our sense of having anything in common with other religious bodies; indeed, we have often defined ourselves by what we have rejected and stood against, usually orthodoxy. Some people have feared that if we lose this sectarian, oppositional edge, we will lose our reason for being. However, as we increasingly seek positive ways to define our faith, our sectarian stance may soften.
  5. The congregation as a link between the individual and the universal religious community.
    Any notion of the church universal, as affirmed by William Ellery Channing and other founders of the Unitarian Universalist tradition, is profoundly theological; it alters our understanding of the congregation (the local church).
    The essential function of the congregation (the locally gathered, self-governing religious community) is to link the person to the universal religious community. We may say that the congregation is the means by which we participate in what James Luther Adams called "the community-forming power."
    The individual and the congregation need each other in the most fundamental way: For each to be fully itself, one needs to be in relationship with the other.
    Through the congregation, the individual enables the universal religious community to become more than a nice idea; the individual enables it to become a historical reality. Conversely, through the congregation, the universal religious community calls the individual out of solitariness into solidarity with social, natural, and spiritual realities that transcend the self.
    These statements relativize the congregation, in the sense of reminding us that our ultimate loyalty and commitment are not to "we few gathered here" or "our kind of people." At the same time, these statements vitalize the congregation by making explicit its basic reason for being, namely, its commitment to a spiritual ideal and to ends beyond itself (e.g., the community of love and justice). This may be called a prophetic vision of the church/congregation-the religious community not as an end in itself but as a bridge to a new community, a new humanity.
  6. Enlarging the vision of the congregation.
    A new vision of congregational polity will view the congregation as the primary nexus of our spiritual life and ministry. When we understand the central mission of the congregation to be its corporate ministry (service) to the world, then the function of the UUA and other denominational organizations and institutions also becomes clear: to enable the congregations to carry out their ministries more effectively, both to their own constituencies (through congregation-directed services, for example) and to the world (through social action and humanitarian service, chaplaincies, theological education, publications, and the formation and renewal of congregations, for example).
    A theological perspective (doctrine of the church) provides a basis for criticism and reform of both congregations and extra-congregational programs and groups. Two examples will clarify the critical function of theology.
    Racial and ethnic diversity becomes an important goal where there is commitment to a vision of the church as fully inclusive; such a vision exists in faith and hope before it can exist in reality, thus we call it theological. The religious community we believe in must represent the whole, glorious diversity of humanity.
    Community-based ministries will be fully supported only when congregations identify them as forms of our corporate ministry to the world, and community ministers are given professional roles within the congregations, including accountability, financial support, leading worship, and teaching.


As we increasingly accent the ideas of interdependence, relationship, and covenant in our self-interpretations, we will continue to build the theological groundwork for a fresh understanding of congregational polity-with emphasis on the community of self-governing congregations. As we move away from the ideal of rugged individualism on the personal level, we will also move away from it at the congregational level. This shift will have profound consequences for the ways in which we understand ministry, the meaning of membership, denominational and ecumenical relationships, the fundamental purpose and organizational form (covenant) of the congregation, and the vision of a universal spiritual community.


  1. Students in the Unitarian Universalist ministry should engage in serious study of the theological dimensions of congregational life and polity.
  2. The UUA should publish contemporary sermons, essays, books, and handbooks that promote broader and deeper reflection on the theology of religious community.


For critical review and suggestions regarding this section we are indebted to: Mark Belletini, minister of the Starr King Unitarian Church, Hayward, California; J. Ronald Engel, professor of social ethics, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, Illinois; Earl Holt, minister of the First Unitarian Church, St. Louis, Missouri; Daniel Hotchkiss, UUA director for ministerial settlement, Boston, Massachusetts; Barbara Kiellor, president, Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network, San Diego, California; Bruce Southworth, minister of the Community Church of New York, New York; and Conrad Wright, emeritus professor, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Adams, James Luther, "Radical Laicism" and "The Enduring Validity of Congregational Polity," in The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 93ff. and 127ff.

Barth, Joseph, Toward a Doctrine of the Liberal Church (Boston: The Minns Lectureship Committee, 1956).

Beach, George Kimmich, "The Dedicated Community," in If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995), pp. 131-150.

The Free Church in a Changing World, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1963.

Foote, Henry Wilder, ed., The Cambridge Platform of 1648, Tercentenary Commemoration at Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 27, 1948 (Boston: Beacon Press and Pilgrim Press, 1949).

Wright, Conrad, "A Doctrine of the Church for Liberals," in Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1989), pp. 1-24.

Wright, Conrad, "Congregational Polity and the Covenant," in The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion, edited by Dan O'Neal, Alice Blair Wesley, and James Ishmael Ford (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995), pp. 29-36.

Unitarian Universalist Tradition: A Short History >