Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Just sign the book. It's all good, pal."

This idea of acceptance of one another in our congregations in the third principle of Unitarian Univeralism is a strange idea when looked at deeply because it rarely occurs if we are honest. We constantly compare ourselves to other people to determine if we are better or worse than they are and, let’s be honest, we human, especially in the United States, are very judgmental. We strive, at least us middle class folks, “to keep up with the Jones.” Our children learn this ethical imperative of competition in school where grading is the name of the game not only for students but increasingly for teachers. Pecking orders are not only informally developed, but reinforced by incentivized rewards from awards, to scholarships, to bragging rights as evidenced by bumper stickers which say, “Proud of my honor student at__________”

The American way of life is based on the competition of predatory capitalism. Cooperation and collaboration, while applauded and paid lip service to, is recognized and acknowledged because it is unusual and stands out to attract special recognition and congratulations when it occurs and is noticed because of its rarity and thus special nature. While this competitive, envious, and jealous streak is endemic in all areas of our culture, it perhaps is no more strident and pronounced than in our religions which damn each other to hell for non-belief in whatever one’s professed creed happens to be. These religious beliefs lead to wars and heinous acts of aggression and discrimination as has happened in recent times between Christians and Muslims in the United States.

One of the major and ubiquitous topics for Unitatrian Universalists adult education is “conflict resolution.” One of the major reasons for the need for this kind of skill training is the inability of UUs to accept one another comfortably without walking away which in this day and age is very easy to do and thus the low numbers in the denomination which continue to slowly decline further.

It is apparent to those who have deeply studied this topic that power struggles love a vacuum where there is no clear leader or standards. In this environment, gossip, rumor, back- biting,  and power struggles flourish. Unitarian Univeralism is a denomination with no real leadership. It’s congregations are all independently self governed supposedly based on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, the belief in the democratic process. Perhaps Unitarian Universalism takes this idea of self governing democracy too far to the extreme of anarchy where anything goes and one person’s idea and opinion is as good as anyone else’s. It seems no one is courageous enough to say out loud that this assumption is false. Some ideas are better than others if the move forward is to be successful producing the outcomes and results desired. Further, someone has to take responsibility ultimately for the decision of the next step which the group then needs to support and follow even if they don’t agree or don’t want to accept it.

The failure of nerve in leadership is the greatest cause of conflict and non-acceptance. This is the most unrecognized factor in the failure of Unitarian Univeralism to flourish at the local level, the regional level, and the Association level. People will not long continue to take responsibility unless they have the authority commensurate to carry out those responsibilities, and this failure to grant authority is the biggest factor contributing to failure of congregations and the denomination.

In the third principle we cheer lead about acceptance of one another but have little practical understanding of how this works. Acceptance does not mean the abandonment of standards. Acceptance doesn’t mean the lack of accountability to mutually agreed upon, ratified, and sanctioned authority. Without this structure there is no security, predictability, reliability, a clearly designed organization, we can say “yes” to.

When I first was exploring Unitarian Universalism I had attended a UU church several times and the minister asked me if I would like to “sign the book”. I asked, “What does that involve? What do I have to do?”

He said, “Nothing, just sign the book.”

“Are there classes I have to attend? Any instruction I have to participate in so I know what I am getting into?” I naively asked.

“No,” he said smiling broadly and welcomingly. “All you have to do here is sign the book.”

“Well, okay. I guess I can just sign the book,” I said.

“Good,” he said. "We’ll do it at our next service.”

I really felt drawn to, and increasingly believed in, what I was learning about the values and history of Unitarian Universalism, but I felt like I was being played by a used car salesman. Is joining this church really this easy? They don’t require anything other than a willingness to “sign the book?” and later on I found out that they, of course, wanted my pledge to financially support the church.

I guess they just take anybody, I thought to myself. No questions asked. I started to wonder if Unitarian Univeralism is a real church. Like Groucho Marx, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a member of a church that would so easily take a person like me without caring about what I cared about and believed in. It was harder becoming a Boy Scout and much more was required than becoming a UU.

And so, I learned early on in my experience of Unitarian Universalism that “acceptance” really doesn’t mean anything. It’s kind of like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. Just join up. We take anybody. Don’t even bother discussing your questions and concerns because we don’t really care. They don’t make any difference. It’s all good, pal. Until, of course, it isn’t, and then the conflict arises and people don’t know what to do about it and so they need a workshop.


  1. Excellent essay! I especially like the section where you discuss the lack of leadership as a fertile ground for conflict. Of course, for there to be leadership in the organizational sense there has to be the delegation of authority which UUs are loath to do at their own peril. This is why all the jokes about UUs loving to discuss topics in a committee ad nauseum. It is a form of interpersonal masturbation where people get off in a competitive sense jockeying for ascendancy in the group rather than getting to a decision that will work. Therein is the kernel of truth which generates the jokes, and that turn people off and they would rather go it alone than waste their time with rumors, gossip, back biting, one upmanship, and petty squabbles to see who is going to get his or her way.

    This essay should be read by every board in the UUA in my opinion and the UUA needs to be re-vamped to accredit congregational members based on agreed upon standards of church operation and management.

  2. The minister sounds a little incompetent with his "just sign the book" pitch. Unfortunately, it seems this open arms approach is undermining any integrity which UU might have. We need to be open minded, but Unitarian Universalism isn't for everyone and anyone who thinks just anyone should join lacks the power of discernment. Perhaps UU would have more credibility is more was expected of an aspirant. I had to go to a 3 hour orientation program and an interview before I was inducted into Rotary for crying out loud.

  3. You hit the nail right on the head with this one. My husband and I left a UU church after two years because these people just had no vision. It wasn't going anywhere and as they muddled along, people slowly dropped out one family at a time. The lack of leadership, standards, vision left a very mediocre organization that seemed stagnant. We have been things to be doing with our time. God bless!