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Don’t Do It The UU Way, Please!

ian07

This advice might at first seem perverse, given that you who are reading this are UU leaders and I work for our association.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I do indeed wish someone might take our advice.

Yet, consider the matter from another angle.  One of the big shifts in congregational life is the increasing need for congregations to focus on their specific and unique missions.  In the post-World War II era we had one of the biggest booms in congregational church building the world has ever known.  In that era what worked was having franchises that specified every detail of the enterprise and following all these details completely.  This is pretty much the formula  upon which the great franchise operations were built up through the 1980s, whether this be McDonald’s or Howard Johnsons.  When you brought the car full of hungry tired kids into the restaurant there was nothing surprising or even interesting about it  that could be in the least bit welcome—especially if you found it in the washroom.  Uniformity of brand experience was a value that trumped anything else.  It was worth sacrificing a lot of other good things about your dining experience—including taste and nutrition--if you knew the kids would get those French fries quickly and that they would eat them without complaint when they arrived.

In the congregational world, something analogous happened.  The way you succeeded as a congregation was primarily to get a franchise of a good religious brand in a good location.  A good location, by the way, was very much the same sort of location a restaurant franchise might choose.  Wisdom was for many years that, to succeed as a new congregation, you could either do a lot of your own research about location or you could find a favorite spot for the franchises and get a location near there.  McDonald’s did their homework.  Why not crib a bit?  In the UU world, congregations in this era were most often called the UU congregation of this or that explosively growing suburb.  In this climate thinking deeply about a congregation’s unique mission was not a high value.

Loren Mead, one of my mentors in this work, commented once that if you walked up to a congregation and saw spalling concrete, you knew they needed to clarify their mission.  All those congregation founded in the 1950s through the 1970s used a lot of slabs of concrete that after thirty years begin to crumble with chunks popping off revealing the steel reinforcing bar underneath.  More often than not these were congregations founded in the era when hewing close to the franchise worked well and considering unique mission was rather a diversion.

The reality is that today this works less and less well.  The congregations founded in this era now find themselves oddly at a loss.  Across much of the old Protestant mainline brand loyalty is giving way to mission loyalty.  Even where brand loyalty remains relatively strong—as in Unitarian Universalism—the prime attractor tends more frequently to be the mission or the program or the mission as embodied in the signature programs of the congregation whether this be worship, religious education, or social justice.

In short, being generically UU counts for less.  A congregation needs a mission statement which, when read aloud, makes people shake their heads in assent and say “that captures us well; that is what we are about and couldn’t be any other congregation.”

I will perhaps relent a bit here and say sometimes it is good to ask the UU way of doing something—we have for example a quite characteristic method of matching ministers and congregations.  Yet, far more often, congregations need to ask “what way would fit our mission?”  The truth of the matter is that there are almost always many, many UU ways to do things.  When we use the singular definite article “the” it is generally a hint that we should instead be asking the mission question.

Ian