I am a community-based minister, Unitarian Universalist, in what Pew Research calls “the least religious state in the nation.” Hello from Vermont.
If Professor Parini is right — and most of us suspect that he is — then Vermont is just the entering wedge of a new era in religious history. From a religious point of view — “religio” meaning “bound” — it’s a disaster. From God’s perspective –whatever you make of that term — new streams flourish, new fountains dance. The Living Water now rises in such volume that the old pipes and vessels for channeling, reserving, releasing, have vanished under the flood. States and cities deputize uncles and best friends to perform weddings; crematoria deliver ashes in cardboard cartons to potlucks spread in brightly decorated homes, where friends drink toasts and share movies about the loved one they’ve lost. Major media carry advertising aimed at families of various configurations, hues, ethnicities; even species equality has crept into programs with major ratings. And all of these families spend time inventing their own rituals, defining sacred time in personal ways.
What frustrates Unitarian Universalism is that ours is the religious leadership that visualized this era. Our rebels laid its foundational theories, our theologians advocated these tough transitions. Now it’s drowning us, imposing a fragility that doesn’t seem fair,
This past Sunday, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, joyously installed our fifteenth settled minister. We have historically been a large congregation in a small city, and so we remain. We are also a large congregation in the denomination, which means we’re on a level with sibling congregations in cities much larger than our own. So what are we doing right, and how is it working?
The first thing I’ll say is the we have NEVER relied on only one minister, because our male-only legal leadership, within our first quarter of life, had acknowledged the minister’s wife as an independent congregational servant and leader. But rather than shackle ourselves to married ministers, when the candidate we preferred had no wife, we fostered women lay leaders for leadership in congregational work: this congregation has had three unmarried male ministers, including the minister who served us the longest, in the gender-obsessed Victorian era. We maintained strong male participation in activities men found congenial: mostly the building and grounds, but also adult religious education and community outreach. We had a community-open Boys Club through much of the twentieth century. Far from being a place where people sit neatly in rows on Sundays, these interior groups have repeatedly come together to enlarge and reshape our meetinghouse for diverse kinds of activities. The Meetinghouse Bicentennial, in 2016, will be a story of diversity bursting out of every seam.
What the men of the Prudential Committee (now the women and men of the Board) did NOT do, until the 1970s, was control the budgets of these various internal organizations. Religious Education, Women’s Alliance, the Library, Boys Club, the youth group — all had their own fund-raising and bank accounts. The Society did not give to them, but on the contrary, it was they who rallied to purchase furnishings and even infrastructure for the Meetinghouse. Each group arranged for its denominational leadership to visit them, and each voted on its denominational outings. There was one exception: from the first year of the May Meetings for Unitarian ministers, the Prudential Committee paid at least some of what it cost for our minister to meet with his colleagues in Boston.
So when did the unified budget come into effect?
It is a credit to the congregation’s legal leadership that they recognized, very early, the need for paid staff members; they grew positions around competent but ethical individuals. The first group to have its own budget and staff, about 1848, was the Singing Society, which consisted of four singers and an organist. The Religious Book Society had already set up its own budget for books, but the minister was the librarian; by 1848, a parishioner was occasionally paid to keep track of the books when the minister was ill, too busy, or absent. The Sunday School Society arrived in the 1850s, but the ministers preferred to lead and teach in person for the next 75 years. The ministers’ wives or daughters usually participated in this group, but not as directors, until the twentieth century. The Women’s Alliance, begun in 1826 as The Sewing Society, fostered most of this and made donations when groups needed extra assistance. Not all these women were wives of leading men, and in at least one case, a husband’s trouble encouraged the group to support the wife in her leadership, as a comfort and identity for herself.
There has not been an incident of embezzlement in these 214 years, so what led the congregational leadership to move to a unified budget? When did it happen, and why?
Without doing a whole essay on the philosophy, I place the blame squarely on “modernism.” That marvelous conviction, which set in at the end of the 19th century, held that we all, under our diverse surfaces, consist of the same interchangeable units of life and energy. This radical universalism lent itself perfectly to the totalitarian model of social organization, for what, beyond pragmatism, could justify limitations? If the units are interchangeable, who determines where they go? Surely the larger purview available to the decision-makers, the more resources for nurture and celebration can be shifted where they’ll do the most good.
The Society called in various checkbooks at the tail-end of the the neo-Victorian 1950s and early 1960s. As I sat in the installation on Sunday, watching our past, present, and impending board presidents process with the clergy, what came to mind was that Cold War addition to our national sloganeering: “One Nation, Under God.” There they were: our representations of God’s presence among us. And not even so much a representation of God as of the “One Congregation Under One Power.” There might have been many people, various genders, various affectional preferences, but the offices were few. Even stripped of requirements for superficial identity, the processional reinforced the bottleneck design for managing power.
In Vermont, where monoculture has long been an enemy, we know there’s something wrong with this kind of image. So the Program included our Ministers Emeritiea, reading and speaking from their own words and perspectives. Our Council President marshaled the whole production, and our Director of Religious Education opened the service, even though little children had conducted a separate service earlier in the day. Vermonters know that when water pours down the hillside in over-channeled torrents, as has happened too many times, the over-swollen river or hillside sweeps everything away.