Sharing Space as Part of a Different Polity Model

Sitting in our beautiful meetinghouse this morning in Burlington, Vermont, sun streaming in, great new minister, strong choir, the whole nine yards… and remembering back to the so-called Golden Era, aka, late Victorian-Edwardian hey day of Unitarianism and Universalism. Tom Schade has us (those of us who care about institutional Unitarian Universalism) imagining a single movement-wide denominational database of members/friends, etc. The key to making this work, in my mind, is the counterintuitive management tool, which is, offering all these people loyalty to more than one board.

That’s how this congregation got and stayed large, in the midst of a small general population. Unity (Young Adults), Women’s Alliance, Sunday School Society, Men’s Group/Laymen’s League — they didn’t just have their own committees, they had their own bylaws, budgets, and bank accounts. They had their own national staff consultants. They published their own worship materials (copies of which are in my library upstairs, this is neither wishful thinking nor undocumented rumor). They kept their own records, published their own calendars, worshiped and ate as part of festive, demanding meeting sessions.

They were not fragmented, but interconnected, mostly by the Executive Committee of the Women’s Alliance (which also handled Membership for the Society until WWII). It is possible to see the Parish Committee as detached and aloof, but it’s also possible to see the oversight of the pulpit and meetinghouse as having their own safe space, where programmatic and generational wars had only visiting privileges. Usually, what is now “the executive committee” was in those days the minister’s family. The wife was not optional, but, in effect, the associate minister who spent most of her time with the Women’s Alliance and maybe the Sunday School Society (although most of the male ministers here in Burlington preferred to maintain Sunday School Society leadership themselves, especially in its ties with The Religious Book Society, aka, the Library).

From a building point of view, something similar happened in many rural towns, where several denominations would go together to build a town church. Each would have their own itinerant minister in on a somewhat regular basis, agreed among themselves. But across interfaith lines, the system failed. The animosity among the co-owners ranged from vague dissatisfaction to outright horror that “those sent by the Devil” were preventing the growth of the saved. So while it might be useful to have separate boards, separate theologies are not productive. 

This, however, is precisely where the separate boards within a single larger Society can promote lifespan ministry and religious education. Everything about each generation is different from those who went before and those who are coming after. And within each generation — which is, in effect, a geographic interest group — there are individuals whose primary personal vision is not about where they are at the moment, but some particular interest, some primary calling or skill. This is why the calling of any new parish minister is usually attended by the loss of established members: those who were down have been brought up, while those in the leadership have been urged to consider stepping back.

Up here in Burlington, having various leadership nodes and gathering cultures meant everyone got used to coming together in one space from time to time, and the rest of the time, feeling strongly supportive of your sibling groups in the same Society. And we’ve very seldom had only one minister (again, counting the ministers’ wives as unpaid, full-time, under-discussed professional-level ministers). 

I’ve been up here ten years now. I arrived as one of the staff members, and now am one of the objects of pastoral concern, both supporting and celebrative. Both my fiancee and I have been able to navigate the changes in our circumstances among the various pools in the Society. But we’ve only got one Board right now, and we’ve only got one parish minister. The DRE is, in effect, a full time minister, and the Administrator and Facilities Manager have major ministerial presences as well. So in a very real sense — and recognizing the incredible class prejudice this religion maintains on who gets ordained and credentialed as an official “minister” — our functional areas of ministry are staffed.

But what about other congregations? And what about the UUA? What about the formerly-affiliated interest communities? There can be too many boards and budgets, but there can also be too few.

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