Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why are UU congregations small? Part 4 - Lack of hierarchical oversight

Reasons given for the small UU congregations have included the difficulty in managing conflict, the lack of good managerial skills of leaders, lack of or poorly formed mission statements, and in this brief article we will discuss a fourth reason, the lack of hierarchical oversight.

Most major social institutions today have some sort of accreditation process or regulatory control  to assure that the organization has quality processes in place that assure the consumer that the organization is well managed. The UU fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” has created a climate in which each UU congregation is free to do as they please which in congregational life means that the congregation is independent of any centralized regulatory or accrediting body and is not accountable to any higher authority to operate according to commonly accepted and adhered to standards of good organizational practice.

The UUA has many suggestions of good practice and periodically offers workshops on various topics, but it has no legitimate organizational authority to “protect its brand”. It’s organizational members can pretty much do as they please as long as they maintain a membership of 30 people who have done nothing more than “sign the book”, and pay their organizational dues. Franchise organizations like McDonalds and Burger King care more about quality control than the UUA. Increasingly social institutions which serve the public like hospitals, police departments, libraries, etc. are “accredited” meaning that they voluntarily agree to comply with certain standards of operation in order to market themselves to the public as an “accredited” organization and in many cases their funding from governmental bodies and insurance companies require that they be accredited to continue to receive funds for services rendered. To participate in the European Common Union companies have to be “ISO 9001” accredited to assure other companies and other countries that their goods and services were manufactured and produced so as to adhere to agreed upon quality standards.

Joining the UUA requires nothing other than having 30 members, a couple letters of reference, and paying UUA membership dues. It makes an observer wonder whether anyone should take the UUA seriously or if it even takes itself seriously. The UUA has no standards of operation which its member churches have to comply with and so UUA churches are constantly “reinventing the wheel” as it were and have no structure, expectations, and requirements to use as guidelines in developing their policies and procedures, organizational key processes, and evaluation requirements to assure a minimal adherence to good organizational management practices. Consequently, churches flounder, conflict arises, a lack of coherent consensus prevails, and disenchanted members drop away.

Unitarian Universalists pride themselves in being free thinkers but free thinking can lead to anarchy and narcissism where covenantal relationships are difficult to maintain because there are no agreed upon boundaries. Boundary violations lead to hurt feelings, conflict, demoralization, alienation, and churches being left with only insider cliques who protect their own preferences in disingenuous ways to the detriment of a potentially larger congregation. As W. Edward Deming, the total quality engineer said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Unitarian Universalists have a long and proud tradition of being heretics and following their own drummer. They eschew aggressively dogma, creedal tests, and illegitimate hierarchical authority, but have UUs thrown the baby out with the bath water? Have they given up any respect for legitimate and appropriate standards of good organizational performance and quality operational processes? It seems that they have which have left congregations floundering  and in conflict over any agreement on what best practices might look like and consist of. Without any externally verified and sanctioned standards of performance one opinion is as good as another, one practice is as good as another until it isn’t and then it is hard if even possible to repair the harm that has been done by ignorance and incompetence.

Should the UUA develop an accreditation program similar to the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Health Care Organizations or any of the other Accrediting bodies which measure performance of their member organizations?

This is article #4 in a series on Why Are UU Congregations Small? An article on this topic is published every Thursday on UUAWOL.


  1. Ummm. Using the US experience only, since that is the majority of what is in the comparable cultural milieu, look at the more hierarchical religions and tell me that they are not many of them experiencing decline. Roman Catholic parish closings. Decline in Mainline Protestant membership.

    And frankly, other than a few UU nerds, I'm not sure people do know how little is required to be a member congregation. Certainly newcomers don't have any idea what is or isn't required.

    Heck, congregations typically don't even have a clue about what is required of their minister to be credentialed, let alone the shape of the path to ministry. I find UUs often are surprised that three years of seminary, CPE, and internship are required. Throw in the fully spelled out acronyms RSCC and MFC and UUMA into the mix, and nearly everyone is scratching their heads.

    My point is, only, that people aren't going or not coming because of perceived lack of central control.

    The likely outcome of such an accreditation process as you suggest in the final paragraph is, IMO, not growth but defection. Freedom of the Pulpit, Freedom of the Pew, and Congregational Polity are not just organizational methods. They are inherent in our values. A move toward episcopalization or greater presbyterianization of UU organization would be a huge turn off to many UUs. It sure would be to me.

    I'm all for keeping/making us as decentralized as possible. Less hierarchy than we currently have, rather than less.

  2. Dear Paul:

    Thanks for you comment. I think I understand in part the reasons you set forth for a decentralized governance structure which means essentially a nonexistent centralized governance structure. You write "My point is, only, that people aren't going or not coming because of perceived lack of central control."

    I think on the surface your statement is correct. Most people who go to hospitals to have medical procedures have no idea what that hospital's accreditation entails or how it assures that the processes they are engaged in have been designed in such a way as to adhere to quality standards.

    People can enjoy a well designed building and/or house and never review the architectural plans that lead to its construction.

    The point is that without well designed key processes which include an evaluative and design element, organizations are left to flounder by trial and error and success, i.e. good outcomes, occur serendipity is a congregation gets lucky rather than through well thought out design.

    As much as one might critique the Roman Catholic church it does have staying power and has been around for 2,000 years and has had major cultural impacts on most societies on every continent on earth. How do you account for its colossal social influence?

    The fact that UUs fear accountability and favor "freedom of the pulpit", and "freedom of the pew", and haphazard congregational polity will always contribute to idiosyncratic expressions of practice and meaning making that detracts from a coherent conversation with a greater whole.

    Thanks again for your comment. It has helped me think further about this topic.

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