Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What makes UU distinctive?

I have just started to read Kate Tweedie Erslev's book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways To Grow Lifelong UUs. In the introduction by Judith Fredliani she writes that the book should help people in congregations with leadership, evaluation, experience, and growth.

As we are starting a new congregation in Brockport, NY, the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I am thinking and feeling that we can use this kind of information, experience, and advice.

My first thought as I start reading and digesting the ideas in this book is about the title. Do we really want to "grow lifelong UUs"?

I don't think so.

What I want to do at BUUF is build an institution which facilitates the spiritual development of people in alignment with UU values and traditions. I am expecting that many people will outgrow their UU identity even though I hope that it enriches their lives in a wonderful way that will never be forgotten.

I am about contributing to, creating, developing, and building a faith tradition which nutures people and transforms the world whether people identify as life long UUs or not. Maybe I am niggling at a subtle point which isn't all that important, but I don't think engaging and retaining people is as important as helping them transform themselves and the world.

In the first chapter, Erslev summarizes a sermon given by Rev. W. Roy Jones, Jr. entitled "Our hidden commitments" in which he summarizes four beliefs that UUs hold dear:

1. There is the possibility of good in the universe.
2. The ultimate religious act is choosing.
3. We make the best choices with intelligent love.
4. We learn best in community.

These beliefs make sense to me but I don't see anything there that is different from what I was taught in the Roman Catholic church except perhaps #2. Even that is questionable because I was taught that the individual conscience supersedes any other teaching or dogma of the RC church.

So, I will keep reading Erslev. I continue to wonder what makes UU special. I can think of two things in my mind which hasn't been suggested yet, and maybe they will, and these two things are

1. Universal salvation

2. Congregational polity in a democratic process.

Both of these things are huge stumbling blocks for people of other religions traditions with the exception of Buddhism. In talking with people about considering coming to our church the first question I get is "Well, what do UUs believe?", and "how is your church run?" Unitarian Universalism is off putting to people coming from other religions because the answers to these two questions are very counter-cultural.

And so what makes Unitarian Univeralism distinctive and what does it have to offer people in a gut grabbing, concrete way?. How does it engage people and facilitate a passion for the tradition which becomes nurturing, facilitative of human development, infectious in attracting others and transforming our world in a positive way?

This is article #1 in a series on Growing A Church.


  1. Hi David,

    I'm a newish UU at FUSRC, in Rockland County, NY. I really like your post, here. I've also thought that our RE programs are vital and important, but that UUism is a "grown-up" religion and some of the concepts may be developmentally beyond most 18-and-under kids. If that is so, what should we teach in RE class? Should we strive for lifelong UUs, or nurture those who are ready for for the freedom it offers?

    Anyway, I've been reading your posts, and good luck with your church planting.


  2. Dear TK:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I think UU values can be taught lifelong not only though words but more importantly though behavior/interactions, and by example.

    The conceptual stuff requires a level of cognitive and emotional development which can be achieved in adolescence and young adulthood.

    What we should teach is the practice of our values first as indviduals, then in small groups such as families and friendship circles and then at a societal,systemic level. These levels of practice are not mutually inclusive but synergistic.

    What makes Unitarian Univeralism unique is are worldcentric view as compared to egocentric and ethnocentric. This springs from our 7th principle of understanding, appreciation, and respect of the interdependent web of all existence.

    Trying to engage and retain life long UUs strikes me as an ethnocentric approach and value, whereas helping people become aware of their choices and helping them articulate their preferences empowers them and gives them the freedom of choices.

    I appreciate very much your thoughtful comment and wish you and your congregation in Rockland County all the best.

    David Markham


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