It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

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Arian Evangelists? How Did I Not Know This? Does Everyone Else Have This in Hand?

Perhaps it is inevitable that a historian who immerses herself in marriage will succumb to the attractions of genealogy. How much better when matters genealogical start intersecting with my ongoing recreational scholarly deep dive, which has made its way back to medieval English history. But X marked a surprising spot: not in England, but Germanic sources on the continent. Yes, most of my forebears were German, but, more amazingly, so is my religion: England was just a byway. Unitarianism came from Arianism, and it did so because the Arians sent evangelists into the Gothic and Vandal tribes who sacked Rome. Others of these evangelists found fertile ground with Constantine, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and among the Slavs who became so many of his subjects.

So much of what Harvard taught me about Unitarian history thus proves wrong. It was not primarily a religion for Western Europe’s educated classes, leaping to brilliant rejections of Roman Catholic superstition — rather, it was a superstition of its own. People learned it from others –way back in the fading years of the Roman Empire — and passed it on the same way. It survived in places to which it was driven, from whence it emerged when able. It became the language of educated English middle classes, so far as I can tell, because that’s who conducted the wool trade by which it finally crossed the English Channel. In England, I’m guessing, it settled in as a working class religion because the fabric trade engendered an industrial enclave.

I can’t help noticing the importance of this discovery to the current political plight of progressive politics. The Unitarian disdain for evangelism is best summed up in the old saw about the Beacon Bill newcomer who admired the hat of a grande dame. Where, inquired the newcomer, had the resident bought her hat? “We do not buy hats,” sniffed the matron, “We have hats.” So it is with our beliefs: if you have to ask how and where to get them, perhaps you will not fit in among us. Maybe that explains the self-conversion culture of the Unitarian Universalism of my youth and young adult years. More importantly, perhaps this explains why we do not trouble ourselves with all those lesser down-ballot and off-year elections by which the evangelism-driven conservatives have tied us up in knots. To knock on doors and introduce yourself to neighbors, to step down from the pedestal of international world peace and talk about fixing sidewalks — it turns out these are things our Arian forebears would have done — and did — which is why we have our Unitarian religion today.

II always wondered how the theories of an aged bishop in North Africa landed in North America 13 centuries later and blossomed into this imperfect but aspirational democracy. What happened in between? Was this some weird religious locust, emerging only when the climate allowed, even after so much time had passed? Historians debate two models: continuous and discontinuous. I’ve done enough gardening, tended enough children, done enough genealogy and genograms, to believe there is no such thing as radical discontinuity.So my religious roots appear to be more natural, less rebellious than my adolescent ego ever suspected. Not only does this apply to me, but to my religion itself.

 

 

 

 

Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.

Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.

Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.

Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?

Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.

What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.

But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.

 

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A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

Presidential Job Description

The Unitarian Universalist Association, within which I am a longtime covenanted gadfly, has posted a job description for its next president. I had been ignoring this news, partly because my life is already overfilled with personal joy and work, and mostly because I feared sliding back into the black hole of polity, which tends to leave my house in a mess and my body in pajamas all day. However, someone whose opinion I honor has asked me for some thoughts. Trusting her compassion, I will answer briefly — and then get dressed and clean the kitchen.

First, let me reiterate my strong moral antipathy to the foundational vision of our current structure. Rather than emphasizing Policy Governance and Prophetic Voice, my highest requirement would be for someone with a vision for transforming and empowering our regional bodies, in keeping with the vision of Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Churches, or the Universalist National Convention. The top-down homogenizing elitism of our current model has an odious history, from Joshua’s invasion of Canaan to Vladimir Lenin’s “entering wedge” reinterpretation of Karl Marx. Seeing ourselves as a movement means willingness to tear up the landscape; I prefer a polity which begins with a commitment to living with, on, and from said landscape. Our centralizing polity traces to Samuel Atkins Eliot, whose stated goal was to transform the entire continent to the Jeffersonian ideal of educated householders. This led him into good works, such as personal tutoring for incarcerated people and their families, but his primary personal “prophetic vision” called him to leadership of the stated ethnic genocide performed by The Bureau of Indian Affairs. I cannot support a polity which has not cleansed itself of those foundational assumptions.

Secondly, I do not support corporate structures in which the Chief Executive Officer sits on, or leads, the Board to which she or he is supposedly accountable; this is how the One Per Cent propagated itself. This means that I support a shift from vaguely unicameral to clearly bicameral leadership. Our Board of Trustees structure has little to recommend it, according to either private sector or religious sector analysis. Politywonk urges ALL UUs to study the reforms instituted by the Council of Trent to make local bishops (Roman Catholic, now also Anglican/Episcopalian) more familiar and accountable to those they serve. A bishop is required to visit every congregation, in its setting, in person, every year or two, on an occasion announced in advance and open to all attenders. This openness includes dialogue time, not just with leadership but also with the individuals. Where the number of congregations is too large for one bishop to visit on this basis, secondary bishops are instituted, accountable to the primary bishop, but again, accessible on a regular basis to all the people. Here is where we see the wisdom of Bellows’s polity: regional leadership with enough personnel to be both reflective of, and accountable to, the many sacred voices shaped by each local historical and geographical ecosystem.

So, then, given those concerns about our Bylaws, is there good to be found in this job description for our next president? Each UU must answer that question for her or himself.

First, go through and look for all the stuff that speaks of an egotistic, arrogant, triumphalist public profile, either to outsiders or within our community. Both our Christian and our Buddhist theological leaders have good noses for this kind of stuff. Take it out.

Second, look for stuff that calls for administrative competence. Are these elements in conflict with each other? I don’t know — and I really mean I don’t know — whether the ability to foster and lead centralized efficiency occurs in the same person who can inspire, support, and empower regional power centers. Historically, this has not been the case, but hey, what has history to teach us? In my own case, I would line up everything that smacks of prophetic voice and make it accountable to listening and delegation, rather than preaching and teaching. I suspect that this item, “Impressive leadership skills, including especially the ability to manage a complex organization, delegate to others, and assess and plan for effective work” is humanly impossible. I mean, what would be this person’s MBTI sorter?

The phrase, “Be a faithful risk-taker in service to a compelling vision” easily explains how Dana MacLean Greeley wound up shifting the Theological Fund to things he considered more important. People who see this as the primary purpose of their president make a point we have to address: how do we establish a counterweight to religiously oppressive charisma? This is especially important in the era of Pope Francis and Joel Osteen. But note that the Quakers have done this without giving away their polity. My own family includes a story of how this got done, because we are mostly Friends. During the era when my sister’s Yearly Meeting did not support equal marriage, her local meeting had to separate itself from this, their regional community, in order to witness their vision. But to the credit of both levels, the separation did not require a schism; instead, for several years, the local meeting stepped from voting to observer status. Active dialogue continued behind a publicly-stated “concensus.”

And how could they do this? Because the Friends maintain vital and accountable regional organizational structures, with annual face-to-face raw honesty among themselves. How could the Episcopal Diocese of little New Hampshire become the first to elect, install, and maintain an openly-gay bishop: because New Hampshire is a place where people can, if they choose, know each other by character rather than category. Because Bishop Robinson entered a polity structure in which his flock knew they would see him regularly, openly, they could take the risk of prophetic vision for themselves. 

As to fund-raising, I am on record, and will repeat that assertion again, that the UUA needs to move out of Greater Boston, further west and south, to the place where land prices are smaller and despair is greater. For is not the first call of Universalism to bring hope to the hopeless?

Post UU Memorial Services

So if this blog no longer concerns itself with Unitarian Universalist polity, what will be its new center of gravity? This is not so much a blog question as a ministry question. 

Spiritual liberals and progressives no longer see a value in organizing themselves into parishes or congregations, and it’s about to slam up and hit them — the free rangers — in the face. This is my experience in Vermont, which has the highest per capita UU self-identity, and an anomalously large UU society. Its meetinghouse is the not only the most identified landmark of the major metropolitan area, but the most widely trusted for the numerous “I’m not religious” lefties who have re-rooted our once-barren landscape and blossomed into a national arboretum of left-wing courage.

Here’s where my ministry comes in: I have no position on the staff of the Society. I have no formal UU ministerial affiliation, other than “retired community minister.” And yet, in the ceremonial seasons of spring and fall, my skills are needed for formal celebrations of a departed life. We are not yet off the old divinity school chart, in which one axis is “worship style” (high or low) and one is “theological style” (formal or informal). when I substitute “polity” for “theology,” I can see the same issue: people who have never “been to church” in their lives still know good liturgy — and they want it when it’s time to commemorate someone’s passing. They just don’t want formal polity to extend its timeline.

That makes total sense, because “liturgy” means “work of the people.” Lately, I find myself crafting memorial services which give more and more space for speakers from the family and community — no more eulogies, at least not many. What they want from me is structure: a framework of readings, silences, music to stop their thoughts from rambling, their tears from exploding, the throats from choking closed. On the day itself, my carefully-chosen selections have no more weight than the way I call the names of the participants, standing calmly beside them, a little way off, as they speak or play. Make sure there are tissues on the podium. The microphone picks up their voice.

No longer are there any particular words which can universally signify the comfort that “life remains as we intend.” There probably never were. But now we acknowledge that each individual death requires different readings — from global literature and world scriptures — to celebrate the life which has brought us together. As an avid secular reader, I’ve begun to let myself delight in finding the right passages, even as my Jewish-Christian spirit mourns the ebbing of a once-revitalizing tide. And the wider I cast my net, the more delighted are the fish stuck in my boat.

The problem is: how does one tie off all this shared passion? It’s rather like trying to decide whether to settle into sleep after a passionate one-night stand. Are we ready to face each other’s disheveled morning grunge, deal with who likes to talk over coffee and who just wants to listen to NPR? What do you say to each other when there is no, “What time will you be home tonight?” available? the Reverend Richard Leonard performed hundreds of weddings at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, and he used to send a card to each couple on their anniversary. I can’t do that at this age, although if I were starting out, I might try it.

Once I admitted I couldn’t be Dick Leonard (and no one else can), I understood the beauty of “C & E’s”. “High Holiday Jews.” The Membership Committee, the Canvass Chair, they are squinting through the candlelight to figure out who are all these strangers. In synagogues, I am sure the leaders are fighting off Yom Kippur hunger to see who might be ready for more than the annual ticket.  In the departure line, regular Sunday worshipers fidget impatiently as unfamiliar faces draw the cleric’s lingering conversation. What is happening is that the regulars are seeing the free rangers. The umbra and penumbra are uniting briefly into one shadow with a distinguishable shape. Beyond the boundaries of covenant, edges which bear its shape cut into the barren terrain exactly as the original fills the air inside the sanctuary. Every time I am done with one of my services, I passionately wish there were a C & E, High Holiday calendar in this religion, because then we would all know when we would meet again… maybe not just this year, but in five years. Maybe just next time someone dies.

But what is the value of this to the regulars? Free rangers (which is not the same as wanderers who stumble through ) know they have a vested interest in the regulars who covenant. On special occasions, the free rangers probably want to be asked to help out. In my favorite book about Hindu village culture, the long-ago anthropological study, “Behind Mud Walls,” William H. Wiser and Charlotte Vail Wiser describe how, on routine days, it’s just a few women who show up at the temple each day to do puja. But when the temple needs repairing, suddenly the entire village — and all the men as well — present themselves ready to work and donate. It’s a wonderful productive week, and then everyone goes back to normal life. Once again, daily puja draws only a few women and the priests. But that work week has shown that even though a lot of people don’t appear to feel a need for the temple very often, they keenly feel the need to know it will be there once in awhile.

This works better for supporting buildings than supporting clergy. I am starting to suspect that my profession — community ministry — needs to negotiate a radical restructuring of fees with the cremation industry. As caskets have gotten smaller, and usually disappeared into urns. the ceremonies have gotten larger and more complicated. No more does the cleric just pull down the standard text and appear at the appointed hour. “Attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller wrote, in “Death of a Salesman,” and that attention comes out of our lives. It’s take-out dinners instead of the slow-cooked economy model. It’s gas for the home visit, hours to read through all the old familiar quotes, the ceremonies that worked best, for elements that start the crafting of this one unique ceremony.

As I say, with all this beloved work, when these ceremonies end, the good-byes can be a little awkward. I’m not good at closure anyway, which is the main reason I want to get out of this industry. That’s what I liked about parish work — the stable, ongoing relationships.

But perhaps a lot of folks feel this discomfort — both the mourners and the clerics, the free rangers and the regulars.

So instead of just saying, “I quit, ” I’m putting it out there. What are other folks finding, both in settlement and beyond? 

Church Budget on Parade

I am a community-based minister, Unitarian Universalist, in what Pew Research calls “the least religious state in the nation.” Hello from Vermont.

Here’s an explanation, from one of our professors (yes, we have universities and colleges up here, and they are good ones) about why Pew is wrong.

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.