The UU Salon

The Big Questions in life, answered by Unitarian Universalist bloggers. It's not "the" answer. It's "their" answer.
Because that's how we UUs roll.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January Question

Has Unitarian Universalism outgrown congregational polity?

Edit:Please include your definition/understanding of congregational polity.

The Salon is OPEN.

CERG Staff Blog: The Once and Future Congregation

Earthbound Spirit: Congregational Polity - Salon Big Question

Inner Light, Radiant Life: The Big Question - Polity


  1. If by 'congregational polity' you mean: "Each local congregation is independent and self-supporting, governed by its own members," then the question begs for more definition.

    Then I have to ask: what prompts the question?

  2. Actually, I'll leave it to the writer to give their definition of "congregational polity."

    What prompts the question: I know that there are people who feel passionate about polity and people who feel a bit "emperor's new clothes" about it. I'm hoping both will share their insights.

  3. I'm fine with congregational polity. I'm less fine with the folks who feel the need--and privilege--to define it and impose *that* on every congregation. "Here's how 'we' do it."


    It's been done this way. And this, and this. Here's what's been commonplace among us.

    What works for you?

    The desire to have a highly efficient denomination is--inescapably--in tension with, and often in opposition to, a rich and highly effective faith that's congregational and liberal.

    No, you can't tell congregations how they have to be. No, you can't tell congregations whom they may ordain--and the furtive efforts to do so by the back door and under the table are far worse violations of congregational polity and the Unitarian tradition (and even the Universalist tradition, though that's more nuanced wrongness) than anything the congregations do in fumbling along.

    Not that I have any opinions on the matter.

  4. For me, the answer to this question depends on the locus of control. If the issue is centralized, top-down mandates on ordination, denominational and district dues, etc., then the answer is a resounding "no". UUs tend to have a "Live free or die" attitude that's antithetical to anything resembling an episcopal polity. If, on the other hand, you're talking about accomplishing the work of a UU congregation of 100 or more members, and you can't get the membership to support the day-to-day decisionmaking of the Board and the Program Council, you're probably doomed to a revolving door cycle of burned out and thoroughly disillusioned volunteers. At its best, presbyterian polity emphasizes several salutary core ideals related to successful group dynamics: (1) a healthy deliberative body really IS less likely to fall into error than any individual person. (2) Every member of a given UU congregation simply cannot be polled each time a personnnel or other day-to-day decision of significance must be made.(3) If the congregation does not repose some degree of trust in its self-selected leadership, no UU congregation can ever grow beyond the "family church" paraddigm.

  5. I'll bite!

    Firstly, though, I need to come clean and own that my early religious experiences were in the Presbyterian and Methodist traditions of Christianity, and to this day I find much in the way they do things to make much more sense than the way we do. There is, it seems to me, more of a sense that there is a real "there" there. (I've often made the point in newcomer classes that, organizationally, Unitarian Universalism is not a denomination but, rather, and Association of affiliated congregations. Much more gelatenous.)

    Have we "outgrown congregational polity?" By "congregational polity" I understand that at the local level the ultimate institutional authority rests with the congregation as a whole, and at the Associational level it is, in a sense, the congregation of congregations that has the final say.

    I have heard it argued -- and fairly convincingling -- that this kind of democratic system functions best in small units. (The classic New England town meeting comes to mind.) At larger scales it is simply impractical, so I have heard.

    One of the reasons for this sense of impracticality is that true democracy -- which I understand true congregational polity to be -- is extremely labor intensive. People have to be involved. People have to be informed. People have to care. This is increasingly difficult to expect or, even, pretend to.

    And here, I think, is the crux of the problem. (Or, at least, A crux.) I am no polity scholar, but the way we work now seems to me to be a mixture of things. Can a Policy Governance model really be overlayed on a congregation that takes seriously policy governance? How about at the national, Associational level? We have, it seems, an unconscious and, perhaps, even unintentional mish-mash of forms and that, I would say, we have certainly outgrown.

  6. RevWik: Policy governance(TM) is designed for organizations other than churches--the idea that it's applicable to a covenanted community is, I think, pretty questionable. Which is not to say that some of its ideas aren't things that should be borrowed. But even then, it's hard to apply it meaningfully (or beneficially) to a congregation that's on the smaller side (which means most of our congregations).

    But the bottom line here, for me, is that this is an absurd conversation, really. Imagine the association announcing it's a denomination and has authority over the member congregations. It'd be like trying to grab hold of barely set jello. Even *asking* for the beginning of such authority will get a rousing, almost unanimous, obscene Anglo-Saxonism in reply.

    A more meaningful question would be "What does congregational polity mean for us, today, in the context of our times and society? How can we best live it out, and how do we minimize its drawbacks (recognizing that every organizational system has drawbacks)?"

    In part, we're caught in the incomplete compromises of the merger. We've overstressed congregational autonomy to the point that the (very, very old, very good) idea that congregations *should* be in active relation with each other, locally, and should be helping each other figure things out, solve problems, etc. has been largely lost in the attic.

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  9. Some random thoughts:

    The vast majority of UU congregations are small, less than 150, and need denominational resources around religious education, how boards work, etcetera.

    Policy governance works very well when it is done right, and in larger congregations and at the district level. That's probably a separate discussion.

    There is more than one form of democracy practiced in our congregations-- from the small church consensus driven model which RevWik refers to, to a model where authority and responsibility are delegated. For example, the congregation reserves the right to vote on real estate and calling or expelling ministers, and delegates oversight of everything else to the board of trustees. The board, in turn, may delegate all of the operations & administration to a minister or staff or committees, or some combination thereof.

    I think it is safe to say that we UUs are generally suspicious of religious authority at worst, and slightly anxious about it at best.

    In my mind, congregational polity only means that ultimate decisions that affect the congregation are made by the congregation, and not a group of elders, a bishop, a particular apostle, a group of ministers, or a pope. That's all it really means. It doesn't mandate a specific form of democracy beyond that basic caveat.

  10. My contribution to this discussion:

  11. I'll introduce the importance of the religious mission of UUism to this conversation. Unless a congregation has a clear, concise, compelling sense of AND commitment to its true religious mission- no form or style of governance will matter.

    While different governance structures may be implemented effectively or ineffectively- even the best of total democracy or total authoritarianism cannot make up for lack of mission.

    Where a congregation is without solid grounding in mission, perhaps congregational polity more easily invites private agenda and personal preference for what the congregation's mission should be- usually a poor substitute for the actual mission that all religious institutions were created by society to carry out- popular substitutes such as community for community's sake, token social action efforts, and politically correct posturing.

    I will say I am an advocate for Policy Governance- and emphasize the importance in its faithful implementation based on its principles.

    While it may be tempting to see "doing governance better", "doing congregational polity better" as what will help congregations grow, I suspect such remedies will be short-lived technical solutions where an adaptive process is needed to meet the adaptive challenge to fundamentally change UU culture- a UU culture that for 50+ years has been "mission-less"- an institutional way of being that has come to be accepted as the normal state of UU affairs.

    So in closing I'll offer this question as response to "Has UUism outgrown congregational polity?"-

    "Has UUism outgrown the various 'mission-substitutes' and will UU leadership at last reclaim the true religious mission for which society created religious institutions?"


  13. I meant to post about this in January, but didn't get around to it. All I wanted to say was, "I'm not sure we've grown into congregational polity yet, let alone grown out of it."


  15. I find that this entire thread reminds me of nothing quite so much as the following excerpt from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL:

    " ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady. I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
    Who's castle is that?
    WOMAN: King of the who?
    ARTHUR: The Britons.
    WOMAN: Who are the Britons?
    ARTHUR: Well, we all are. we're all Britons and I am your king.
    WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
    DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship.
    A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
    WOMAN: Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
    DENNIS: That's what it's all about if only people would--
    ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
    WOMAN: No one live there.
    ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?
    WOMAN: We don't have a lord.
    ARTHUR: What?
    DENNIS: I told you. We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
    ARTHUR: Yes.
    DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.
    ARTHUR: Yes, I see.
    DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,--
    ARTHUR: Be quiet!
    DENNIS: --but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more--
    ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
    WOMAN: Order, eh -- who does he think he is?
    ARTHUR: I am your king!
    WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.
    ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.
    WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become king then?
    ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,
    [angels sing]
    her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
    [singing stops]
    That is why I am your king!
    DENNIS: Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
    ARTHUR: Be quiet!
    DENNIS: Well you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
    ARTHUR: Shut up!
    DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin' I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they'd put me away!
    ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
    DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
    ARTHUR: Shut up!
    DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!
    HELP! HELP! I'm being repressed!
    ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
    DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you here that, did you here that,
    eh? That's what I'm on about -- did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn't you?"