Associational Covenant

Unitarian Universalist Association religious leaders speak often about covenant as an association of congregations, especially our relationships to one another.

Talk for five minutes and someone will haul out the Cambridge Platform of 1648.

Thanks to an excellent series of Minns Lectures by the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, the conversations follow a predictable route. We are independent congregations who share responsibility for one another.

That Rev. Alice Blair Wesley was calling Unitarian Universalist Association members to a recovenanting is often skipped right over. She wrote, “we need to do two things: to reclaim and creatively adopt covenants in our free churches, in our own liberal way, for our own time, and to invent what we have never yet had, a Covenanted  Association of Congregations.” (Lecture 5, p. 3)

The conversations about

  • Regionalization (shifting from District middle judicatories to larger regions of shared resourcing, faith community and staffing),
  • living into Policy Governance (Board sets policy, General Assembly confirms it, Staff & Congregations figure out how to fulfill it), 
  •  Fulfilling the Promise (anti-racism, anti-oppression work),
  •  the Fifth Principle Project (making our democracy really work, especially for historically underserved and underrepresented peoples), and
  • Affiliates (originally, a way to connect external organizations, then transformed into non-congregational, internal faith communities), and
  • Congregations & Beyond (vital faith communities of many kinds in covenant together, serving the world together)

are essentially efforts to reclaim and creatively adopt our promises to one another and to the Holy (yes, check out the language of the Cambridge Platform of 1648) and figure out how we are called together in service as a faithful people.

The Orlando Platform is one of the ways the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association names that calling, particularly in relationship to Regionalization.

Our promises are binding, but how we understand and live out those promises over time changes, has to change, in relationship to our own spiritual growth, our changing world, and our changing appreciation for our shared calling.

Faith communities do not have to be congregations as we have known them to be faithful communities. How can an association of congregations live in covenant with emerging and new forms of faith communities that has a broader and deeper understanding of congregation. We have left behind the understanding of the Cambridge Platform that only the saints may form the congregation (the voting body and religious leadership of the worshipping community). The idea of congregation that many people have - that is is local, with a building, with a Protestant culture of worship, with occasional charitable good works, and with a lot of programming for its members - is only one way of being a faith community. There are many, many ways for faithful people to be called together to worship, to learn, to give thanks, and to give back. Now we have another opportunity before us to find a way to promise together in diversity to serve the Holy in this diverse world.

UUA Ends & Congregations & Beyond

Sharing a concern that we actually live out the piece of our covenant where the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees is responsible for creating ends and UUA staff and congregations for figuring out how to achieve them, how could Congregations and Beyond achieve our Association’s goals? This is my personal speculation, since a formal statement from UUA Administration connecting the two has not been released. The UUA Board ends are in bold type.

What are our goals as an Association of Congregations?

First, we have the preamble understanding:

"Grounded in our covenantal tradition, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association will inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world."

Our primary question, which we must always answer, is: how well are we leading lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, that transform ourselves and the world?

Congregations and Beyond must invite us further into living humbly, purposefully, connected to one another and serving the world with transforming love.

Congregations that unlock the power to transforms lives. People:

  • develop a personal practice
  • participate in meaningful worship
  • learn and practice empowered leadership and generosity
  • find their ministry in the world

The first two practices are things that probably primarily occur in congregations and faith communities. The second two practices, however, are ones that we can nurture both inside the congregation and as congregations risking faithfully in the larger world. If we focus only on achieving the first two, consider the third to refer only to congregational administration, and think of the fourth as highly individual, then no, there’s no requirement to live faithfully as part of the larger world, beyond the membership rolls and congregational walls. However, I believe that interpretation fails the first and larger understanding or really transforms people’s lives after a certain stage of faithing is reached.

Congregations and Beyond imagines more face-to-face opportunities for people, more opportunities for service, more ways for folks to connect with our religious movement, which surely must involve congregations as well as other faith communities.

Our congregations are:

  • Vibrant - joyful and excited about their ministries
  • Intentionally multi-generational and multi-cultural
  • Embracing and struggling with issues of oppression and privilege
  • Open and inclusive in their outreach and welcome
  • Ministries deeply shared by ministers and the laity
  • Active participants in ministerial preparation and development
  • Growing in membership
  • Living their mission in their communities

Yes! Joyful diverse faith communities where everyone’s gifts matter, are cared for, and useful in serving the larger world are exciting communities. They’re also communities that are not insulated from the rest of the world, but are deeply part of the issues and concerns of their local areas and our earth.

Congregations and Beyond will only be effective if it is a ministry of every body, working together, taking responsibility together, engaging our troubles, sharing our strengths, and serving our world with courageous love.

Congregations that live in covenant with other congregations in our Association through:

  • A strong, articulated sense of Unitarian Universalist and community identity
  • High expectations of their members
  • Full participation in Associational life
  • Networking with each other

Yes. Congregational life isn’t just about the First Congregation of Prudent Hope and Excellent Boundaries. Vibrant faith communities know who they are, care about other community members (not only membership rolls), attend to the stranger and make them neighbor and kin, and take responsibility for the vibrancy and health of the whole world.

Congregations and Beyond invites imagining how to better sustain and engage one another, the estranged and the seeking.

Congregations that move toward sustainability, wholeness and reconciliation.

Our congregations answer the call to ministry and justice work:

  • grounded in the communities in which they live
  • nationally and internationally
  • with interfaith partners and alliances

The public engages in meaningful dialogue and takes action informed by our prophetic voice and public witness.

These ENDS are all of equal importance and are to be achieved within a justifiable cost, with their priority set by the President.

The invitation into the Unitarian Universalist Association is not currently the same as the invitation into Unitarian Universalism. Some of our faith communities operate that way, but many do not. We can change that. We can engage this faith even more fully and more generously, caring more attentively for our planet and for one another. We can work more often, better, and more faithfully  with local, regional, continental and international partners. We are the only ones who can decide to take up the faithful risks, to experiment, to fail and learn from our failures lessons other than not trying, to be more generous than ever before, and to live humbly, joyfully, and purposefully in service to and with transforming love.

Congregation to Community Center

What’s beyond congregant serving programs, worship services, faith development and administration? It isn’t just hospitality hour. Sometimes faith communities think primarily or entirely about “their community” as being the same as “their membership”. What kinds of wonderful can happen when our congregational identity is as a vibrant, living part of the whole larger community in which our congregation is located?

Another way to learn from what’s possible with Congregations and Beyond  comes from a congregation that has become a regional community center - First Unitarian Philadelphia working with Rev. Nate Walker.  First Unitarian Philadelphia is a faith partner to community initiatives in the areas of Spiritual Growth, Wellness, Education, Culture, and Civic Life. The congregation’s strengths and the building’s strengths (downtown, large, landmark facility) serve the larger community’s needs for a central place to meet and grow thicker and stronger community. More than 2,200 people use the facility each week, 10 times the number of members in the congregation…and growing!  First Unitarian is preserving an historic building and making a more accessible space - not for itself, which is easy to assume, but to better fulfill its mission as a regional community center.

Becoming a regional community center is a relatively easy change for many of our congregations. It is an attitudinal shift, an embrace of an historic mission to serve the whole world (of which we are just one part), and developing real trusted partners (not just renters) in the larger community. Doing so to save a building - which is how the First Unitarian story was reported in the UU World — isn’t a change. That’s still “what can others do for us?” The change is living out of the question, “what can we do for our local community? what can we do faithfully for and with the whole world?”

First Unitarian Philadelphia points out the fact that we don’t have to have big congregations to have big effects. We do have to know our strengths, build partnerships in our communities, and take some faithful risks in serving, growing spiritually, and being weavers of wider, stronger communities.

Mental Health Ministry - Congregations and Beyond

Congregations and Beyond will be most effective if we know our strengths as faith communities and what we are offering to the world, and if teach each other how to share those strengths. The reality is that there are many vital congregations with ministries larger than serving themselves. Sharing the wisdom we already possess with one another is part of how we all grow stronger and better answer our larger call.

Let’s take a virtual trip over to Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist to explore another example of excellent ministry based in a congregation that serves well beyond the walls of that congregation. The Rev. Barbara Meyers leads a mental health ministry from MPUUC, one that serves the entire county the congregation is located in, through the Mental Health Matters television show.

I work with Rev. Barbara Meyers as part of EqUUal Access’ communications team. Consistently, I hear the greatest number of thanks for sharing resources via Twitter from Rev. Meyers’ Mental Health Ministry. Individuals and families living with mental illness and seeking mental health want supportive faith communities affirming every one’s worth and dignity and holding folks with loving care.

The Mental Health Ministry also educates religious leaders around the globe on how faith communities and leaders can support individuals and families in great mental health ministries. The Caring Congregations Curriculum is FREE and does not require special training. For communities ready to go further, there is a seven workshop form of the curriculum, priced modestly to support the MPUUC Mental Health Ministry.

An early adapter of technology to make sure the resources of this valuable ministry were available 24/7/366 and to the widest community possible, Rev. Meyers makes sure new episodes of the television show and other new resources are uploaded regularly.

Rev. Barbara Meyers is also a spiritual director, serving the larger community in her area. If you look at her spiritual direction page, you will notice the incredible flexibility and generosity of her rates, which encourages people to give back in service for goodness.

Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation is living its mission to serve the larger community for social justice and in accordance with Unitarian Universalist principles. The Mental Health Ministry is a ministry of dignity, caring, community, and transforming love. Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the Rev. Barbara Meyers are one great example of how a vibrant faith serves the whole world.

Mental Health Ministry:

Mental Health Matters TV Show:

Caring Congregation Curriculum:

Spiritual Direction:

Off-site delegates and remote participation in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is one of the biggest ways the UUA uses technology to support congregations in serving Unitarian Universalism together. Why? Because to support our faith together requires being able to talk to and attend to one another and make difficult decisions together. To meet some of the people involved in that and the huge amount of tech already required for the large annual meeting of the Association, check out Peter Bowden’s vlog for the UU World linked above “Behind the Magic Curtain”. The remote delegate process, tested for the past few years, has been so successful, last year’s Annual Meeting voted to make the experiment into regular practice. Offsite delegates meeting with onsite delegates is an example of taking down the walls and financial barriers through sharing resources and attending to how we are together faithfully.

How can we teach and equip congregations in clusters and regions with similar technologies - paid platforms like the ones we use for UUAGA and existing free or low cost solutions - so that we can have more of these conversations together?

Let’s benefit from the wisdom and learning of people who have successfully lead a multi-year process in the fundamental practices of congregational polity and a basic practice of faithing together. UUAGA leaders and techies, please teach all of us what you know. What are the basics? What do we need to know and consider? I look forward to learning more about how we can expand this strength created and developed to help us practice the heart of democracy more faithfully together.

For congregations to grow faithfully together, we need to be able to connect more fully, not through a centralized organizational structure or staffing, but directly, communities of people responsibly considering, deliberating, and encouraging one another in faith. Knowing how to practice democracy and attend to one another and truly take responsibility together for the vibrancy of our Unitarian Universalist faith between congregations will create a pattern of engagement, too, for non-congregational faith communities growing in relationship to one another and to the Association of Congregations serving Unitarian Universalism.

Sharing With Trust & Hope

There have been plenty of great ahas! and sharing during the Congregations and Beyond conversation in Orlando, because that’s what happens in learning communities where diverse people share their best thinking, their hearts, and what they are already doing. For me, this has been even better because the sharing in the room has been so connected with the sharing in the Facebook Public Group (Unitarian Universalists Exploring Congregations and Beyond) and on Twitter with the #congbeyond hashtag. That sharing amongst one another and as a faith community as a whole has been made easier with these tools and with Chris Walton of the UU World creating a Storify. We even were able to have a brief tweetchat at noon on Thursday.

My personal hope coming from all of these conversations is that we are taking another opportunity to grow faithfully, as individuals and in all kinds of faith communities (congregations - and there are all different kinds of congregations - are still only one kind of faith community). I have found that faith community in the digital sphere is possible using our creative spirits and a lot of goodwill. I have found that we can support folks in crisis, answer the call to mercy and compassion, laugh and cry together, pray together, seek understanding and share wisdom together. The technologies of social media only work when they meet and reflect how we grow faithfully and grow in community. That’s true too for other, older technologies, like what many people think when they say “congregation”. At the end of the day, this life of faith involves faithful risk, courageous love, and the generosity to share with trust and with hope.

A Faithful Hub

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales’ call to action in Congregations and Beyond is to transform our Association of Congregations into a hub of faithing in support of Unitarian Universalism as a whole.

He’s talking about us being a learning, faithing community building on what we know how to do well, and learning new skills together. What is a faithful hub?

Faith hubs sustain social learning, faithful practices inside and outside the comfort zone, faithful risk, connecting beyond our usual communities, and help communities and individuals equip each other to live more faithfully. Being a faith hub is no more the purpose of a faith community than congregations are the purpose of a religious association. Both hubs and congregations are strategies to sustain, support, and grow faith. Neither hubs nor congregations are uniquely set apart and blessed as the end and purpose of a life of faith; they are ways we work, learn, and faith together. As strategies of how to live more faithfully, neither a faith hub nor a congregation are in competition with each other. They work together.

Faith hubs are associationalism in action, but it isn’t the kind of associationalism that has a resource center serving congregations. Faith hubs are congregations and other ministries and individuals serving the faith - in this case, Unitarian Universalism, Universalism, and Unitarianism — together. As as association that is faith hub, we don’t say, “the UUA isn’t providing us with what we need!”  We turn to the connected communities, ministries, and individuals and say, “hey, anyone have some ideas or programs for how to do this thing we need?” The communities, ministries and individuals respond. They may not be plug-and-play program solutions, but when was the last time your congregation bought a curriculum and didn’t change anything in it? We’re always adapting faithfully to our cultures and communities, where we are, as we are.

What faith hubs can also do is make room for the people and ministries that are outside of congregations. Unitarian Universalism, Universalism, and Unitarianism are too big to be limited to one association of congregations. The Unitarian Universalist Association is part of an international community of other associations and denominations. And with changes in community technologies, we need to act on the reality that we’re part of larger faith that cannot be and never has been strictly contained in or even centered in pews and walls and annual meetings.

One of the beloved liturgies for many Unitarian Universalists is the Flower Ceremony, originated by Norbert Čapek. We gather together many different flowers, representing the many different people, the many different gifts we have to share in this life of faith. For a bit of time all those flowers, gifts, and different people come together. Then we take a different flower with us than we brought, honoring and glad for the gifts of others’ faithful lives. That’s how faith hubs work.

A congregation is just one local form of a faith hub. Nonlocal faith communities are another form of the faith hub. An association of congregations that recognizes, values, and shares with a variety of ministries and provides ways for nonlocal faith communities to be connected is another form of the faith hub. We do not grow faith without interacting with others; we do not live faithfully apart from the rest of life.  We faith together, and grow stronger in faith together.

Congregations & Beyond - Reflection

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales has just released a strategic vision statement called “Congregations and Beyond”. Download the pdf here to read the four pages statement.

The key point: The Unitarian Universalist Association exists to lead a religious movement where innovation based on generosity and courageous faithing joins existing successful strategies.

Congregations can be effective strategies for faith serving the community. Congregations are changing, too, and learning more about faithful service beyond their walls, across denominations and faiths. Unitarian Universalists are joining a larger movement of people adapting faithfully to a rapidly changing world.

Generous and innovative ministries are growing and living faithfully, serving the larger community and connecting people in faith communities. Congregations are not the only effective strategies to faithfully serve the community.

 We’re all called to serve the larger world, wherever the world is at, with what issues are at hand and what gifts we can share. It may not be what makes us most comfortable. Congregations are called to serve the larger community, not just the folks making it into the sanctuary.

We’re recognizing that a lot of people who consider themselves Unitarian Universalists, Universalists and Unitarians are not members of Unitarian Universalist Association congregations. There are lots of reasons for this, and we get to address those reasons, with the gifts each ministry and community has. Those gifts and ministries will also have more of us working with people from many and from no faith traditions. We celebrate the diversity of ministries, beliefs, and gifts.

Let’s focus more on connection, the meaning of rather than the form of, membership. Let’s focus more on using the gifts each of us has to work together in aiding and abetting the growth of goodness in this world.

We can be an open source faith, crowd-sourcing wisdom, taking a great core of faithing and making that faithing more relevant, connected, and stronger through generous and courageous innovation based on gifts and needs.

The vision President Morales puts forward is itself a product of shared work and faith among three groups already composing the Unitarian Universalist Association - the Board of Trustees, the General Assembly of Congregations, and the UUA Staff. The Board proposed a by-law amendment last year to remove the requirement of location for faith communities. The General Assembly approved that amendment this past year, and will vote on it a second time this year (as our by-laws require). The UUA Staff are working on becoming “a resource, a platform, and a hub” (p. 4, “Congregations and Beyond”). Now, those of us working beyond congregational walls and in faith communities who’ve been lowering their walls and figuring out how to serve the larger community of which they are one part are invited explicitly into the mix. May generosity and courage guide us we risk faithfully together.