Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

Well, we’ll see how long things live in the blogosphere, because after only a few hours I regretted posting intemperate remarks about the congregation I currently belong to. They are good people, and our interim minister is fantastic. It pains me that they would be hurt by what I wrote there.

But I did have a couple of points, so I’m gonna follow the lead of Patrick Murfin and try to focus on a theme here. For my starting place, here’s the part of that post I want to lift up:

“Free-Range UUs” is an attractive phrase (it attracted me), but from a ministerial and denominational level, it needs a little unpacking.

Genuine free-rangers just don’t resonate to weekly, even twice monthly, attendance at congregational worship. I number among those who believe there are other forms and times of ministry and community that could bring more of these folks closer.  Up here in Vermont, as the nights get longer and colder, farmers are starting to talk about where their free-range chickens are going to spend the winter: barns, coops, etc. Out in the drought and heat, large animals have limited their wanderings to convenient reach of the watering and feeding supplements. Our denomination needs to think like these farmers, and get more living water and daily bread out to where the animals want to wander.

Not to be confused with free-rangers are the folks taking fallow time to renew themselves, after tons of time teaching RE, chairing some committee, serving on the board.  I believe that this, too, is a neglected ministerial field.

And then there’s the group in which I put myself yesterday, the “pissed off.” Sometimes we’re just disappointed, but we’re alienated. The denomination’s current approach to this group is to just wait for it to go away. No standardized exit interviews, no workshops like the “Coming Home” series run by Roman Catholics. Either they come back or they don’t.

I haven’t read the whole bylaw change on virtual congregations, but they seem like a good idea. As someone who has spent the last two years finding spiritual community primarily on Facebook, I can testify that in the end, a computer isn’t enough. You start to want to see people, to hear their voices. Facebook friends now figure in my travel plans, and I hope my hospitality for those who want to cool off with a summer week in northern Vermont.

Which means that, in the end, there’s no substitute for ministering to the various groups currently sheltering under the “Free Range Label.”  And happily, there’s a survey asking “Free Range UUs” to take a few minutes to describe ourselves to the denomination. I hope Free-Rangers will do this. Our denomination is taking some courageous steps forward, away from what now turns out to have been the mistaken effort to redefine ourselves as only “an association of congregations.”  Both Unitarians and Universalists achieved their greatest growth and prestige in an era that made provisions for individual as well as communal covenanters.

I took the survey, even though I don’t really qualify as free range, because I pledge to a congregation and worship there regularly.  After all, two out of three types of free-rangers — the fallow and the disappointed — are sitting in our pews right now, trying to strategize an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.

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4 thoughts on “Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

  1. In the blogosphere, some things can live forever – even though it has been taken down, I received your previous post via an RSS feed while it was still up. I didn’t find it particularly intemperate, or necessarly addressed to fellow members of your congregation. I found it quite honest, and it resonated with a lot of anger and hurt that I and some others feel about parts of UUism.

    • Thanks, Tom. One of the problems in many organized religions is that people feel it is not nice to express anger. So we go away. But some anger is relatively minor in the context of the larger relationship. I’m still a UU, although the question of where I belong remains open and vigorous.

  2. Thank you so much for this, especially for the last paragraph. I too find myself in the fallow and disappointed currently with my UU congregation. I’ve attended for several years and served for the last 2-3years and currently find myself in a place of fatigue and apathy (and occasional irritation at my fellow board members) and am contemplating, as you so expertly said, “an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.” It was a comfort to know that I’m not alone in my time of inner conflict. Thank you for that.

    • Aikasan, I’ve had a chance to look at your blog and the scholarship and depth of inquiry shines through. It prods me to get serious about finishing my book so I can start working on the Society for Community Ministry chapter on Denominational and Scholarly Ministries. This is a place where outsourcing killed us: we assumed we would always control the universities and our folks would learn what they needed to learn while they were there. This turns out to be wrong in many ways: our control has gone, deepening one’s faith through scholarship is a lifelong process, not a one-off decision, and the scholarship that enriches one’s faith life doesn’t always have anything to do with what people want from formal schooling. Your blog is one of the resources by which we find our way.

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