One of the most important papers I ever heard through the UU Historical Society had to do with Sallie Ellis of Cincinnati, who founded the Post Office Mission. This has usually been cited as the forerunner of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and that would not be wrong. CLF serves many folks who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot attend a local UU congregation. I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me, halfway around the world, link up with other UUs in Singapore in the days before the internet. Even though we only met twice, for the incredibly cautious purpose of discussing a book, in Singapore’s legendary censorship, even obtaining a book we could read intact was an accomplishment. It was the CLF, the old Post Office Mission, that gave this tiny haven to our quest for the right question.
But records in the Women’s Alliance archives in First UU Society of Burlington suggest a different dimension to this ministry, one of significance to the current discussion of “free range UUs.” As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth unfolded, the ladies of the Society helped their minister with pastoral care by reading and responding to hundreds of written communications seeking written responses to some query. They took this work seriously. It began under a minister who had no wife, continued when ministers had wives sharing their labors and then allowed the congregation to confidently call another minister who had no wife.
I didn’t see the letters themselves, which seem to have been disposed of, but I learned of their diverse nature when the Women’s Alliance presented a series of programs to help their members distinguish among the various types of pastoral correspondence. It may or may not be the earliest care network training I know of (I’m not a conclusive resource on this), but it remains one of the best.
You can read details when my book comes out (funded by that same Women’s Alliance), but the point want to put out there is that the Post Office Mission did not compete with congregations, it supplemented them. So while I applaud the work of the Church of the Larger Fellowship for UUs without local gathering options, I hope the current movement to draw in more UUs via internet access will help invigorate our congregations and districts rather than building a two-tiered system of local and denominational relationships. The youth movement tried that in the late twentieth century, and it was not considered successful.