Toward a New Community of Autonomous Congregations

With this report the Commission invites Unitarian Universalists to embrace a new vision of congregational polity. We have called attention to the paradigm shift in liberal religious thought as a whole-from independence to interdependence, from individualism to relationalism. We believe that thinking of congregational polity only as a principle of local autonomy disempowers us. We believe that understanding congregational polity as the principle of "a community of autonomous congregations" empowers us and is more in keeping with our spiritual vision of who we are and what we seek to become.

We reaffirm the historic centrality of congregational polity within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), its member societies, and its affiliates. But congregational polity brings out both the best and the worst in Unitarian Universalism. It brings out the best when it reminds us that power is ultimately in the hands of the membership, the people who are gathered in a local community. They know and depend on one another in many ways; they rejoice in one another and bear one another's burdens. They also exercise creativity and moral courage in ways that, as they know, few would do alone. They think of themselves as devoted Unitarian Univer-salists and the focus of their commitment and their giving has a name and address in their own local community. No wonder, then, that they take deep pride in the fact that they are self-governing and self-sustaining communities.

But congregational polity as we have understood and practiced it also brings out the worst in us. It does this when it invites us to look inward rather than outward, to go it alone rather than welcome the wisdom, aid, or examples of other congregations. Sometimes congregational polity seems to justify a suspicious or hostile attitude toward external authority or higher ups. Even where attitudes toward denominational bodies or other congregations are highly positive, a parochial form of congregational polity often gives absolute priority to the local congregation's needs; financial support of denominational bodies, theological education, or ecumenical or community social-service agencies are not represented at the budget-negotiating table. The negative spirit sometimes infects the congregation; for instance, seeing its purpose in purely self-serving terms; treating the minister as a hired hand whose job is to please people; adopting an attitude that our group is for "our kind of people." An understanding of congregational polity that inoculates the congregation from accountability to other congregations, associations, and established ideals and standards allows such destructive patterns of thought and behavior to perpetuate themselves.

The Commission believes that a new awareness of congregational polity as a community of autonomous congregations will strengthen both local congregations as self-governing, self-responsible units and the associations through which our congregations come together and develop mutually beneficial relations. We believe that this practical goal can be secured through a broad range of specific actions, as detailed in this report. The matters considered in this report, though wide-ranging and numerous, are not exhaustive; other actions consistent with the same goal-to further the community of autonomous congregations-are important.

General Recommendations: Theory and Practice

We make the following section-by-section recommendations for concerted study and discussion of congregational polity in theory and practice.

  1. Theology
    Congregational polity and practice should become the focus of our concerted theological reflection. The congregation should be seen as a mediating structure between the individual and the universal religious community. We should reflect and preach on the religious significance of being in community (rather than being in isolation).
  2. History
    We should renew study of the history of Unitarianism and Universalism relative to the origins of the congregational idea and evolving forms of governance. We should promote a fuller understanding of how congregational polity continues to evolve in response to new needs and spiritual awareness.
  3. Comparative Congregationalisms
    We should learn about the variety of forms that congregational polity takes among other religious bodies or denominations and the various polities found among Unitarian Universalists outside North America. We should enter into dialogue with others to overcome parochialism and to consider alternative models.
  4. The UUA Bylaws
    We should reconsider provisions of the UUA Bylaws that invoke congregational polity to ensure the independence of the local congregation and the provisions that establish moral or institutional commitments that are incumbent on all member congregations. We should propose amendments that reflect a more positive and less protective concept of congregational polity.
  5. The Ethos of Unitarian Universalism
    We should develop programs for congregations to promote in-depth discussion of the spiritual and cultural ethos of our congregations. We should examine the extent to which our ethos (our collective attitudes and patterns of behavior) is inward-looking and self-stereotyping, rather than outward-looking and open to the fuller diversity and vitalities of our communities, our world, and our present and potential membership.

General Recommendations: Pressure Points

We note the following section-by-section recommendations for harmonizing our understanding of congregational polity with our quest for innovative or reformed institutional programs.

  1. Congregational Life
    Each congregation should review its policies and procedures relating to internal governance, decision making, membership, and stewardship. The UUA should support and assist this process. Just as Fellowshipped ministers are held accountable to professional standards, so should congregations be held accountable to our Principles.
  2. Cooperative Relationships
    Forms of association and cooperative endeavor among congregations should be strengthened at all levels of the UUA-area, district, and continental. Congregations need to take fuller responsibility for the governance of intercongregational bodies and their official meetings (especially the General Assembly). The UUA should foster the decentralization of functions and joint ventures where possible.
  3. Communications
    Communications among congregations, their members, and special interest groups in the Association should be steadily increased in quantity, accessibility, and frequency. Print media should focus more fully on serving local interests, concerns, and ideas. Media that focus on individual interests should reflect institutional interests as well. We must fully exploit the potential of electronic media. More of this work can and should be done at the local or regional level.
  4. Religious Leadership
    Ministry-professional and lay-needs to be understood as a function of the religious community, thus closely linked to forms of governance and accountability. Specifically, our separate categories of ministry should be unified. Community ministers should maintain a covenantal relationship with a congregation. The concept of ministry as a basic function of all members (shared or lay ministry) should be fostered. Students for professional ministry should be deliberately recruited and vocationally formed. The recent tendency to divorce the ordination of ministers from responsibilities to and from the ordaining congregation needs to be reformed, since it disempowers the congregation vis-a-vis the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Community ministry needs to be affirmed by congregations as central to their larger ministry (service) to the world: by the same token community ministers need to be accountable to particular congregations.
  5. Social Justice
    Concerns of social justice and service should be fully owned by congregations (and not only individuals, committees, or special interest groups) as central to their corporate ministry to the world. Stands on issues of social justice that embody the moral and spiritual values in the UUA Principles should be enacted by the General Assembly and, on an emergency basis, by the UUA Board of Trustees.
  6. Marginalized Groups
    We must deal forthrightly with the fact that congregational polity often abets the exclusion of marginalized groups rather than welcomes them into the center of recognition and power. This is due in part to the predominance of white, professional, college-educated, middle-class people among Unitarian Universalists. To shift our perceptions of the Unitarian Universalist is imperative to our spiritual and ethical authenticity.
  7. Internationalism
    Vibrant interpersonal and institutional partnerships between our congregations and liberal religious bodies in other nations and continents (some, but not all, of whom carry the Unitarian Universalist name) are important links to the reality of a universal religious community. These relationships need to be fostered, especially at the level of the local congregation and its members, with keen awareness of the mutual benefits.

In all these ways the Commission is confident that Unitarian Universalism can become a new community of autonomous congregations. We believe that these recommendations are consistent with winds of change that are already blowing among us. We want this report to raise consciousness of basic institutional and spiritual concerns and to help us address various practical issues that need decision and action.

We urge Unitarian Universalists to take these matters to heart, to deliberate them with each other, and to act on them in ways that further our collective renewed vision of interdependent congregations.