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Building theology, reinscribing subjectivity: Cultivating a liberal identity in Unitarian Universalism

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Lori E. Leitgeb
November 10, 2009
A dissertation submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of
the University at Buffalo, State University of New York
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Department of Anthropology
UMI Number: 3391104
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Lori E. Leitgeb
With a project that spans a number of years, it is impossible to adequately thank
all the people who have shared some aspect of this journey with me. I am deeply grateful
for so much love and support I received during the ebb and flow of excitement and
frustration that accompanies a dissertation. As my grandmother often says, “My cup
runneth over.” I also thank every person who has asked me casually about my dissertation
topic. Each time this question has challenged me to concisely articulate my views and
discover new underlying ideas.
I would like to wholeheartedly thank the congregants at the Unitarian Universalist
Church of Buffalo and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst for welcoming me
into their communities, not only as a researcher but also as a friend. You have eagerly
supported my research and it has been an honor to have you share your time and
knowledge with me. This research would never have been possible without your support.
I would like to thank Michelle for some wonderful conversations that made the hours
seem like minutes while we drove all over the northeast for youth events. To the rest of
the youth advisors I worked with, you are an incredibly capable, loving, and devoted
group of people. To the youth, I have enjoyed being a part of your life and wish you all
the best as your move past high school. Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Joel Miller,
an unwavering support and sounding board throughout the research. Thank you.
Thanks to my advisor, Barbara Tedlock, for encouraging me to incorporate a
narrative style to my prose. Your hours of reading, shaping, and editing helped me grow
as an anthropologist and also as a writer. To Mariella Bacigalupo, a constant support
throughout graduate school: you have given me a strong foundation both for teaching and
for research. Thank you for pushing me when I needed to be pushed and supporting me
when I doubted myself. And to Vasiliki Neofotistos: your rigorous theoretical work and
easy demeanor inspire me. I appreciate all the insight and advice you have provided.
I want to thank Donald Pollock, as chair, and the rest of the Anthropology
Department for providing graduate student funding and excellent teaching opportunities
along the way to help me grow. The Mark Diamond Research Fund at the State
University of New York at Buffalo funded local and region travel and assistance with
transcriptions. The New York State/GSEU Professional Development Award funded
many of the specialized texts I required. I would like to thank my fellow graduate
students for many insightful discussions and so much mutual support over the years,
particularly Heather Fried, Galit Buchbinder, Amanda Granstrom, Bonnie Vest, Brandon
Lundy, Deborah Hutchinson, and Kat Hart. Joanna Helferich has been a steadfast friend
and has shared a love of learning since we were barely out of kindergarten. Most of all, I
would like to thank my friend, colleague, and co-instructor Stephanie Boyd for her daily
support as we have walked down this path as graduate students together.
I would like to thank my family: from the much-needed advice from my aunt Peg
when I started writing to hearing dissertation stories from my father, father-in-law, and
grandfather that offered encouragement and sympathy along the way. To my siblings,
Kurt and Beth Eldridge and Josh and Alyssa Heine, thank you for the engaging
theoretical conversations and much needed moral support. Thanks also to my in-laws,
Jim and Diane Leitgeb, who have spent many hours helping me craft clearer descriptions
of my research while my parents, Larry and Kas Eldridge, both read numerous copies of
my drafts, offering insightful comments and editing help. They have all been excellent
role models as intellectual partners and nurturers. Above all, I would like to thank my
husband, Justin. He has been an unwavering support from this topic’s inception in our
kitchen through the defense. He has endured my late-night anxiety, rejoiced with me in
periods of productivity, and lifted me up during moments of doubt. You are my best
supporter, most insightful critic, and an amazing theoretical partner. I am deeply grateful
for your love and support and look forward to our continued collaboration together. And
to Natalie: your arrival was a most welcome deadline to finish this research. May you
grow to share our love of learning.
Acknowledgements .......................................................................................................... iii
Table of Contents ............................................................................................................. vi
Abstract ............................................................................................................................. ix
Chapter 1. Introduction ................................................................................................... 1
Intersubjectivity, Poststructuralism, and the Cultivation of the Self .............................. 3
Liberalism and Agency ................................................................................................... 6
Toward a Theoretical Engagement with Unitarian Universalism ................................ 12
Research Background and Methodology ...................................................................... 16
Dissertation Outline ...................................................................................................... 22
Chapter 2. Principles, Heretics, and the Liberal Agenda ........................................... 26
Unitarianism.................................................................................................................. 50
Universalism ................................................................................................................. 51
The Legacy of Heretics ................................................................................................. 53
The Liberal Agenda ...................................................................................................... 57
Chapter 3. Narratives of the Researcher and the Religious Wanderer ..................... 64
Flows of Power and the Researchers ............................................................................ 65
The Fashioned Researcher in Fieldwork Relations ...................................................... 68
The Premise, Process, and Pursuit of a Unitarian Universalist Attitude ...................... 75
The Premise: Freedom of the Pulpit and Pew .......................................................... 76
The Process: Shaping the Unitarian Universalist Attitude....................................... 80
The Pursuit: Narratives of Seeking ........................................................................... 93
Chapter 4. The Construction of Individual Belief ..................................................... 103
Belief Within............................................................................................................... 112
Experience Reconciled ............................................................................................... 116
Chapter 5. Building Theology, Finding Truth, Living Authentically ...................... 129
Building Theology ...................................................................................................... 132
Searching for Truth ..................................................................................................... 134
Gendered Truth ........................................................................................................... 144
Authenticity ................................................................................................................ 148
Chapter 6. Shaping Identity through Youth Empowerment .................................... 156
Power and Empowerment ........................................................................................... 162
The Model Youth Advisor: Diversity, Homogeneity, and Frustration ....................... 176
Crafting Empowerment at Youth Conferences ........................................................... 182
Chapter 7. Branding Unitarian Universalism ............................................................ 199
Ribbons ....................................................................................................................... 202
Right Relations ........................................................................................................... 207
Theological Identity .................................................................................................... 214
Now Is The Time ........................................................................................................ 217
Voice of Liberal Religion ........................................................................................ 223
Unitarian Universalists and the Other ................................................................... 224
Welcoming the Visitors ........................................................................................... 229
Local Growth .......................................................................................................... 231
Evangelism and the Liberal Agenda ........................................................................... 232
Chapter 8. Conclusions................................................................................................. 237
The Practice of Process ............................................................................................... 240
Appendices ..................................................................................................................... 248
Appendix 1: Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes ..................................... 248
Appendix 2: My Seven Principles: A Child's Booklet ............................................... 249
Appendix 3: Lyrics to Spirit of Life ........................................................................... 249
Appendix 4: Lyrics to A Place in the World .............................................................. 250
Appendix 5: Unitarian Universalist hymnbook reading It Matters What We Believe 251
Appendix 6: Youth Advisor Quiz, handout presented at Youth Advisor Training
weekend ...................................................................................................................... 252
Appendix 7: Photo of Ribbons used for nametags at General Assembly ................... 253
Appendix 8: Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society: 2007 Statement of Conscience 254
Appendix 9: 2007 General Assembly Actions of Immediate Witness ....................... 256
Appendix 10: Advertorial 1, Time Magazine, November 5, 2007 ............................. 257
Appendix 11: Advertorial 2, Time Magazine, December 31, 2007 ........................... 258
Appendix 12: Advertisement 1, Time Magazine, October 15, 2007 and December 3,
2007 ............................................................................................................................ 259
Appendix 13: Advertisement 2, Time Magazine, April 14, 2008 .............................. 260
Appendix 14: Advertisement 3, Time Magazine, May 12, 2008 ............................... 261
References Cited............................................................................................................ 262
This research explores the method of self-cultivation at the heart of Unitarian
Universalism. As a “creedless religion,” it relies on individual members to construct
belief, determine truth, share power, and become authentic. The denomination provides a
framework that helps to guide members in independent thought.
Unitarian Universalists, as they strive to become the voice of liberal religion wellsuited for our postmodern era, employ an intersubjective approach in order to align with
liberal secular and political agendas. The process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist
requires individuals to assess agency and shape it through narrative. They internalize
liberal theology while participating in an ongoing process of interpretation that guides
both thought and action. Since this process places the responsibility on members, it
reinforces hyper-individualization which is tempered by subtle influences from group
The ethnographic research I present here explores the micropractices of
persuasion that influence individual action and create discourse within two congregations
in western New York. It is based on fieldwork conducted between March 2006 and June
2008 when I observed and participated in Sunday services, coffee hours, committee
meetings, adult education classes, and youth-group events. I also attended multiple
regional youth meetings as well as one national denominational conference. Based on the
findings from this research I examine the tension between creating a welcoming
community for all who wish to join while adhering to a prescriptive set of liberal agendas
that privilege certain notions of “the good.”
“There is a communal voice to our religion and there is a great power in this. Why
listen to one man speak instead of listening to each other?” Joel, the minister at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, asked the congregation from the pulpit. “Does
it mean that we give up our individuality? I think not. We don’t throw away critical
thinking or science either. These aid us in our spiritual journey.1 Others need us. We are
atheists, pagans and Christians sitting together and are proud of it. We have our own
system of peer review. Together we share stories of where we may go together,” he
continued, looking up from the pages of his sermon.
On that chilly March morning, Joel successfully highlighted the dialogical
processes that were occurring within his congregation and the denomination at large.
Coffee hours are a time when people connect with each other over mutually held goals.
Committee meetings, adult education classes, and small covenant groups are discussionoriented with little facilitation by a leader. Youth programming favors discussion and
teaches young people to interact with one another rather than looking for guidance from a
teacher. Peer review and self-regulation are the hands of authority rather than a minister,
a sacred text, or a higher being. The intersubjective orientation is difficult to ignore,
especially in the way it solidifies liberal discourse while requiring each person to uphold
the boundaries of religious identity.
Spirituality is generally used by congregants to denote an individual experience or connection with awe,
wonder, and sometimes the transcendent. Religion is the institutional counterpart that provides a
community for individual spiritual exploration.
Two years later in a small cafe, Joel looked up from his breakfast, holding my
gaze with his intense blue eyes, and said, “Unitarian Universalism really has changed
over the past few decades. We are trying to make it clearer for new members.” Then
looking down at his hands he continued, “It’s like building a container around a garden or
a tree so it can grow.” He framed his plate with his fingers, making an imaginary square,
and explained that the denomination was working to create this container to provide
boundaries for a Unitarian Universalist identity so roots could become strong enough to
maintain and grow membership. With the guidance of these boundaries, members also
become adept at articulating and following this liberal discourse.
Unitarian Universalist identity is built on a shared conception of how one should
think and act. It privileges individuals; most especially their capacity for reason and their
desire for freedom. Members are not required to believe what others proclaim; instead,
they choose their own beliefs. Because they are not told what to believe by an
ecclesiastical hierarchy, they refer to themselves as “creedless.” Members determine their
own religious meanings, which differentiates them from their closest religious kin,
Protestant Christians whose ascription to a commonly held set of beliefs is a necessary
criterion for their church membership.
By examining how religious discourse is formed and utilized within Unitarian
Universalism I reveal how churchgoers explore their secular and spiritual beliefs while
remaining within a particular religious discursive framework. I then ask what
implications this has more generally for human agency and responsibility.
Over the past twenty-five years, Unitarian Universalists have worked diligently to
clarify themselves as a religious denomination. Viewpoints among members vary
substantially. One member remarked, “What I tell people is that you can believe anything
in Unitarian Universalism,” then he laughed. Others strongly disagree with this statement
recognizing the boundaries of belief Joel described. Still others report that acquaintances
outside the church often say, “You’re a Uni-who?” Consequently they have had to spend
a great deal of time learning how to verbalize their beliefs. In this dissertation I examine
the necessary process of religious self-cultivation within this most liberal of
Intersubjectivity, Poststructuralism, and the Cultivation of the Self
The way Unitarian Universalists discover and describe their unique spiritual
journey is through a process of self-cultivation. Congregants employ conscious, critical
thought to build a coherent set of values and engage in self-reflection to evaluate their
actions in terms of these values and subjective beliefs. The ethnographer Michael Jackson
urges a nuanced analysis of subjectivity to account for the dialogical processes and
embodied social actions that shape and constitute selfhood. Intersubjectivity, in his
reading, is the interplay between subject and object, ego and alter ego; thus it is not
limited to the “skin-encapsulated, seamless monad possessed of conceptual unity and
continuity” (Jackson 1998:6). Even though he goes on to critique Michel Foucault and
other poststructuralists for erasing the subject by means of inflexible restraints of
discourse, it is worth examining poststructuralist ideas about discourse, the subject, and
Foucault, in a famous image, dissolved the subjective into the imperious
unity of discourse—a face drawn in sand erased by the sea. Bourdieu
disseminated subjectivity into the habitus. And Geertz saw subjectivity as
inaccessible except as it found expression in webs of shared significance
and cultural symbols. However, in recent years, subjectivity has not so
much been dissolved or denied but relocated (Jackson 1998:5-6).
Foucault is critical of the unchallenged human-centric notion that permeates a
modernist attitude stemming from the Enlightenment (Foucault 1984). He questions the
autonomy of the subject and focuses instead on the discourses that inform and permeate
the subject’s own self-understanding. Instead of recognizing the subject as autonomous
and freethinking, he locates the subject within relations of power, which restrict a
subject’s ability to act as freely and independently as the modernist attitude would
advocate. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault described how the
docile subject was created. Policing shifted from top-down enforcement to enlisting the
help of each fashioned subject to self-regulate by internalizing the roles of “teacherjudge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, and social worker-judge” (Foucault
1995:304). While Foucault focused on discourse and how it is formed, I would not go so
far as to say that individual action was erased, for it is precisely at the level of the self
where discourse flows. It is through multiple processes that the subject acquires an
internalized understanding of various discourses.
This poststructuralist approach to the subject has implications for the concept of
“the self” which in recent years has moved away from the psychological anthropologist
Irving Hallowell’s (1955) position of centering on the awareness of oneself as a
perceptible object. While his work defined the self as a physical being with certain
psychological and social attributes it became problematic when the self was described as
existing ontologically prior to the actions of a human subject.
From a poststructuralist viewpoint, an inner self that exists before an external self,
cannot exist. Instead, “selves” are always already shaped by cultural processes. The self
today, therefore, is more a product of power relations than an originator of meaning
(Kerby 1991:5). The self, as self-representation instead of a biological object, implies a
narrative process. The act of storytelling, either in silent memory or in spoken dialog,
involves a process of structuring the world, defining what constitutes an event, then
ordering and recounting events within a framing context.
This process begins even before we are capable of self-narration. Beginning in
infancy we are narrated in the third-person voice which contributes to how we later
narrate ourselves. The narratives we learn imply certain expectations and obligations that
guide our processes of evaluation. Others subtly remind us during our storytelling of what
constitutes a tangent, or being “off-track.” We are also asked to justify actions and offered
new interpretations for past actions by teachers, peers, family, and, in the case of
Unitarian Universalists, by other congregants. We are often required to “explain
ourselves.” Our explanations constitute a form of narrative interpretation and allow others
to reconfigure the interpretations with preferred ones and give suggestions for alternative
future actions.
This ongoing process of narrative interpretation, both in response to others and to
ourselves as others, changes our self-representation. As a result, the self is constructed
within a framework of interpretive discourses that are learned and reproduced as Foucault
(1984, 1995) argued, or performed in action, speech, and even in silent analysis as Butler
(1993; 1999) suggested. Self-narration is not simply reproducing the past but rather an
interpretive activity. When we remember, we imagine and fill in the sections between
partial pieces and previous retellings with ethical prescriptions (Ricœur 1992).
Jackson (1998) acknowledges the embeddedness of the subject within a number
of discourses, yet he advises that we not lose sight of the self as an intentional agent.
Aligning with William James (1950), he agrees that all reality is subjective and we are its
creators. Subjectivity is the process by which the subject is formed and shaped by
discourse. Discourse does not predict the exact actions and thoughts of a particular
subject, yet it does shape and limit the scope of possible choices of action for a subject.
Part of the dialectic of intersubjectivity is this interplay of the subject and self. We are
shaped yet also shape our own meaning. Jackson’s analysis builds on a poststructuralist
framework to reintroduce a more critical and nuanced understanding of humanism. The
subject is not primary, yet cannot be dismissed.
An intersubjective style is one that looks at the “forcefield of human interaction in
which contending needs, modes of consciousness, and values are forever being adjusted,
one to the other, without any final resolution” (Jackson 1998:14). An intersubjective
approach aligns closely with liberal theology where the subject is part of the whole, yet
retains a degree of choice and agency. The sacredness of the human individual is upheld
in this theoretical framework yet diversity, fluctuation, and uncertainty are also embraced.
Liberalism and Agency
When we look at the form this takes within religious contexts the process of moral
self-cultivation becomes a central concern, as it aligns with a secular liberal political
agenda. Talal Asad, first in Genealogies of Religion (Asad 1993) and later in Formations
of the Secular (Asad 2003) used a genealogical approach to assess the concepts of the
secular and the religious. Rejecting an evolutionary premise that discourses of the secular
developed from and overtook religious ones, he looked instead at how the sacred and the
secular depend on and are shaped by each other.
He embarked on a genealogy of the secular, which “presupposes new concepts of
‘religion,’ ‘ethics,’ and ‘politics,’ and new imperatives associated with them” (Asad
2003:2). As the idea of a Christian God became located apart from the natural world in
the “supernatural,” the natural world was opened up as a site to be manipulated,
determined, and subjected to mechanical laws (Asad 2003:13). Individualism took center
stage through a number of other processes both related to the Enlightenment and to the
formation of the modern nation-state. The sacredness of the concept of “the human” with
the power of reason became a hallmark of the modern secular state. Justice became a
matter of law, and reason became central for evaluating falsehoods by the “properly
educated senses” (Asad 2003:35). Sovereignty developed together with the nation-state,
based on political theories upholding personal property rights. The self-owning agent
emerged in legal terms to uphold the right of the freedom of belief and the separation of
church and state.
Unitarian Universalism relies on these discourses of individualism, personal
sovereignty, freedom of belief, and the process of evaluating truth claims through
properly educated senses of reason. In this way, the denomination incorporates a secular
liberal agenda to modify its Christian roots and in so doing establishes a hyperindividualized religion based on the self-cultivation of liberal sensitivity.
The discourse of liberalism requires one to perceive oneself as independent and
free-thinking, thus becoming self-disciplined. At the heart of the principle of self-
constitution is the idea of consciousness. One who possesses consciousness can think
independently and act purposefully. Self-constitution coupled with a notion of natural
rights linked to one’s own sovereignty not only underpins liberal principles but also
compels one to act in a particular way. Liberalism is prescriptive; it determines how one
ought to act and it consists of a set of utopian ideals that must be continually sought since
they do not exist naturally on their own.
To make an enlightened space, the liberal must continually attack the
darkness of the outside world that threatens to overwhelm that space. Not
only must that outside therefore be conquered, but in the garden itself
there are always weeds to be destroyed and unruly branches to be cut off.
Violence required by the cultivation of enlightenment is therefore
distinguished from the violence of the dark jungle. The former is to be
seen as an expression of law, the latter of transgression. Political and legal
disciplines that forcefully protect sacred things (individual conscience,
property, liberty, experience) against whatever violates them is thus
underwritten by the myth (Asad 2003:59-60).
The myth reinforces and legitimizes a call to action and therefore upholds the sacred
character of humanity and it re-empowers the liberal project.
To uphold its basic tenants, the liberal agenda strives to protect sacred values.
Thus, as a political outlook, liberalism focuses on equal rights and a respect for life and
liberty. In this way if affirms a democratic government with moral pluralism and the
advancement of a market economy. This is not without consequences since the liberal
ideal of state neutrality is in tension with the notion that the state must ensure everyone
equal access to the good life. As a result, liberalism is a tragic doctrine, subject to
unavoidable, irreconcilable, and necessary moral conflicts and tensions (Brink 2000).
Liberalism, and therefore Unitarian Universalism, revolves around the notion of
reasonable persons able to think and act based upon their understanding of the good life.
But each person is also caught within the parameters of normality which govern one’s
actions. As William Connolly (1991) explains, the modern rational agent is the bearer of
rights and virtues, and in theory able to contest the demands of normality. Yet this rational
agent continues to be constrained by a set of standards and expectations. The subject is
formed in such a way as to view herself as being able to choose and capable of contesting
whatever restricts her, while consenting to live within a set of norms that enable a
pluralistic and free society. This requires that one self-moderate in accordance with
prescribed norms so that all may benefit. The reasonable person, therefore, expects others
to act reasonably and rationally so that they can pursue their own independent notions of
the good life. I see this as similar to Anthony Gidden’s (1990:33) concept of “trust,” in
which individuals must trust others even when their actions are not continually visible.
But there is risk involved because people do not always act following prescribed norms
and resentment arises.
Resentment is the consequence of the idea that evil is linked to a responsible
agent. “For every evil, there must be a responsible agent who deserves to be punished and
that for every quotient of evil in the world there must be a corollary quotient of
assignable responsibility” (Connolly 1991:78). If God loses credibility as the means by
which punishment takes place, as in Unitarian Universalism, then the rational human
being becomes responsible for the evil and suffering in the world. When others fall short
of the threshold of responsibility, this is seen as a “natural defect in need of conquest or
conversion, punishment, or love” (Connolly 1991:80). Resentment comes out in higher
intensities against those who significantly deviate from the norm. This process renders
the individual less sympathetic to the demands of diversity it claims to uphold.
By combining both modernist and postmodernist modes of thought Unitarian
Universalists see themselves as ideally positioned to navigate an identity built on modern
and postmodern principles. Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a leading
theologian, explains that while liberal religion is “a child of modernity,” it is comfortable
within the postmodern era. Most liberal theologians today have adjusted to postmodern
realities and seek to continue the project of modern liberalism from a more critical
perspective. Aware of the negative consequences of modernity, they accept such
postmodern principles as relativity, the problem with metanarratives, the role of language,
and the mistrust of autonomous subjectivity. They understand that it may not be possible
to arrive at universal truths, but this does not mean there are no meaningful ideas (Rasor
I believe that a poststructural analysis, which problematizes the subject and the
notion of agency, provides the necessary theoretical distance from Unitarian
Universalism to provide a viable vantage point for theoretical analysis. Just as Saba
Mahmood (2005), in her study of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, found it
necessary to rethink the notions of both “agency” and “habitus” in order to denaturalize
the normative subject of feminist theory (Mahmood 2005:33), I also found it necessary to
rethink agency and habitus to engage with Unitarian Universalist discourse. For
Mahmood, the question was not how can these women rise up against forms of
domination, but rather, which discourses shape their actions. For me, the question
One of the ministers I interviewed who had recently been in seminary made a similar statement. For a
comparable distinction, see Harvey (1989).
became, not how are Unitarian Universalists creating a religion where they can assert
their own individuality, but rather, what discourses shape their spiritual and secular
Mahmood moves away from Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of habitus as an
unconscious power where norms become naturalized and focuses instead on pedagogical
processes that enable one to learn certain modes of habitus. She uses the Aristotelian
concept of habitus as “an acquired excellence” learned through repeated practice and
explores how the intentionality of this process comes into line with the discourse of piety
(Mahmood 2005:136). It is not through unconscious repetition that these women achieve
their goal. The process of self-cultivation requires that they intentionally practice certain
rituals so that they become habitual and eventually acquire the status of need. The end
result may be the same for Bourdieu, yet the process by which the women learn these
habits is the critical component. Mahmood’s distinction between these two processes is
crucial for understanding the intentional practice of self-cultivation within Unitarian
Unlike Asad, Foucault, and Butler, Mahmood conducts an ethnographic study
looking at the larger processes of subjectivity and discourse formation in a specific
location. She grounds her theoretical approach in everyday interaction and the way
women explain and teach piety. Thus, her analysis is not a genealogy of how discourses
are formed and change over time, but rather she examines the relationships between
words, concepts, and practices that constitute a discursive tradition. In order to study
these relationships and how they form subjectivity, she analyzes the “micropractices of
persuasion” (Mahmood 2005:106) whereby people are encouraged to favor one view
over another. As with a learned habitus, she looks to the way women acquire discourses
and then utilize them in their actions.
This does not mean that all the women in the mosque movement, or for that
matter that all Unitarian Universalists, hold the same views. Although they operate within
certain discursive frameworks, this does not have a homogenizing effect for either group.
There are ruptures and shifts within these frameworks, however, the rules of engagement
for handling contestation utilizes certain materials, reasoning, and protocols of debate. In
other words, the specific process is as large a part of the discursive field of Islamic da’wa
(Mahmood 2005:106) as it is within Unitarian Universalism.
Toward a Theoretical Engagement with Unitarian Universalism
This is the first ethnographic research conducted on Unitarian Universalism.
Despite a growing trend to analyze the intersections between religious and secular
discourse, liberal religions have received little attention compared to conservative
religions (Csordas 1994; Harding 1987). While Asad (1993; 2003) was pivotal in shifting
the focus of inquiry within the anthropology of religion toward exploring these discursive
practices more closely, liberal religion continues to be under-theorized (Cannell 2006). As
Mahmood notes, the juxtaposition between liberal sensitivities and Islamic discourse
provides a fertile ground for study. Yet with Unitarian Universalism, the strong adherence
to and support of these liberal discourses is also of great interest in how it illuminates the
liberal agenda.
While my theoretical approach to Unitarian Universalism is informed by the
intersubjective approach Michael Jackson advocates, rather than using a theoretical
orientation similar to the theological discourse of Unitarian Universalism, I have chosen
an anthropological approach influenced by poststructuralism. Throughout my research, I
focused on the interactions between churchgoers rather than on their explanations about
how they perceive Unitarian Universalist identity. Like Mahmood, I ground my work in
ethnographic data focusing on the relationships between congregants and the ways in
which they build and negotiate identity. I paint a picture of everyday life within the
church, inviting the reader to be immersed in its sights, sounds, and stories.
Because there is such an abundance of theological texts that eloquently justify
Unitarian Universalism (Buch 2002; Bumbaugh 2009; Hogue 2006; O'Connell 2002;
Pangerl 2002; Rasor 1999; Ritchie 2002), I have chosen to examine the mechanisms by
which congregants utilize and are shaped by their own self-cultivation. From a
poststructuralist standpoint, the subject can never truly be an autonomous agent, nor is
identity created from within. The self, as I use it, can better be understood in terms of
self-representation (Ewing 1990) and should not be taken as an object but rather as a
discursive formation that shapes and is shaped through action. Notions of identity and
spirituality are fashioned through group interactions and formed through practice.
Paradoxically, it is through this constant interaction with others, both in church and in
society, that an illusion of a free authenticating self is reified. This construction of the
autonomous self, by virtue of its inscribed rational thought and capacity of reason, is
necessary for following Unitarian Universalist values. The Principles and Purposes,
developed by the group in the mid-1980s to define its identity, assert how the self must be
understood as autonomous, discrete, and privileged. This is most salient in the first
principle: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” However, the “independent
search for truth and meaning,” encouraging a notion of an independent actor, also
requires members to share that search through repeated narratives. In the retelling, they
mold their independent search into a shared understanding.
Foucault’s concept of subjectivation, which both Butler and Mahmood also
utilize, is helpful for understanding how Unitarian Universalists build a stronger group
identity by upholding the liberal notion of the autonomous and rational self. Many people
are attracted to the church precisely because they have already been shaped by similar
liberal agendas (Casebolt and Niekro 2005:241). They are looking for a place where they
feel free to think, question, and act surrounded by a community of like-minded people.
They seek a religious community that provides religious freedom and empowered agency
because they have already adopted the American discourse of liberalism. This extends far
enough for many congregants to make claims that there are lots of Unitarian Universalists
out in the world, “who just don’t know it.” Ministers, Unitarian Universalist theologians,
and even a new video produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association tout how
relevant their religion is within American culture. “Our philosophy is: be out in the world
six days a week, and then come in here and tell us how that informs your faith”
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2007i).
The boundaries between the secular and the religious are especially porous for
Unitarian Universalists. Robert Fulghum, New York Times best selling author and
Unitarian Universalist minister explained that congregants encompass the full spectrum
of political ideologies, saying that there are “Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians,
Socialists, and a few who are either Anarchists or just confused—it’s hard to tell. We
share only the conviction that one ought to be active in the affairs of the world. We don’t
dictate which particular party one ought to join” (Fulghum 1998:xii). While both
Republicans and Democrats are church members, most are Democrats and some confided
to me that they knew people who had left the church because of anti-Republican
comments from the pulpits, coffee hours, and other church gatherings. This is worth
exploring not only because it demonstrates the force that discourse has on the actions of
church participants, but it highlights the duality of their discourse. The discourses serve
to limit the amount of political—and arguably racial, economic, and theological—
diversity within the group, but the church maintains an attitude of diversity and openness
to preserve a notion of individual freedom. In theory Unitarian Universalists are diverse,
in practice they are rather similar.
This does not imply that a culture produces a homogenous idea of a self. While
there are a number of ideological parameters from a modern, post-Enlightenment,
positivistic tradition that do shape “selves” in similar ways, these do not produce
“homogenous selves.” Within a similar cultural space, I will show how there are different
configurations of the self that inhabit the space of Unitarian Universalism. But I look
primarily at discursive processes that lead to similar conceptions.
As ministers encourage church attendance and produce introductory texts on
Unitarian Universalism, members learn to self-regulate and shape their beliefs and
practices, which have already been formed and internalized through other secular or
liberal discourses. In this sense, individuals cannot be “free actors” independent of
institutional discourses. Nevertheless, as the title of a popular introductory text, A Chosen
Faith, (Buehrens and Church 1998) highlights, individual agency and free choice form an
important discourse within the Church. They see their liberal value system as providing a
religious space for individual agency unencumbered by religious orthodoxy. As they
strengthen the discourse of empowered individual agency, their ideas become closely
aligned, and the spectrum of their multiple truths undercut diversity.
Research Background and Methodology
“Oh, I remember what it was like to be in graduate school. Let me take care of
lunch,” Don said as he reached for the bill across the table.3 I thanked him and packed up
my digital recorder as he went off to the cash register. This was one of my first formal
interviews. Most subsequent interviews took place in the stillness of an office or
classroom within the church or over lunch or coffee at a congregant’s kitchen table.
However, some of the longest ones were held in this Greek diner and like this one lasted
well after the two-hour digital recorder was full. Early interviews focused on members’
experiences in the church including the narrative of their search for a religious home. In
later interviews I asked people to reflect on the small classes they participated in. I
recorded and transcribed formal interviews with thirty-six participants, including four
ministers, but found, like most anthropologists, that gaining the richest information could
not be scheduled. Beyond the interviews, my data consists of close to a thousand pages of
notes scribbled during Sunday services, adult education classes, committee meetings, and
youth group events from March 2006 to June 2008.
I conducted my formal fieldwork with two congregations, the Unitarian
Universalist Church of Buffalo and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, both
located in the greater Buffalo area of western New York. The Buffalo church, or “the
downtown church” as it is known to Amherst congregants, is located in the middle of an
I have used pseudonyms for everyone in this dissertation except for the two ministers of the congregations
where I conducted fieldwork and the public figures and elected positions of the Unitarian Universalist
Association. If a last name is used, it is the person’s given name.
urban district of the city with a vibrant community culture, many small businesses and
restaurants, and a cooperative food market. Many of the 556 congregants (Unitarian
Universalist Association 2009) walk to the church or live in the surrounding
neighborhoods consisting mostly of hundred-year-old Victorian homes. The church’s
richly carved wood façade and pews reflect the grandeur of Buffalo at the turn of the
twentieth century.
The Amherst church is located eight miles away on Main Street just outside a row
of boutique shops and restaurants in the village of Williamsville. This more humanist
congregation expanded from the Buffalo congregation during the 1950s. The minister
wears a suit and the sermons do not often use the word “God,” even when it is understood
as synonymous with “Love” or “Spirit of Life.” Off an old stucco house gifted to the
congregation in the early 1960s, members built an unadorned sanctuary with large glass
windows and two separate wings for classes and events. Many of the 245 members
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2009) are employed by the University at Buffalo, the
largest public university in western New York.
I worked alternatively with each congregation on Sundays and, during the second
year, worked simultaneously with both church youth groups. These churches are similar
to many other midsized Unitarian Universalist congregations in that they each have a
full-time head minister and active religious education programs for children and youth.
However, they differ from one another in size and approach. A number of congregants
have attended both churches at different periods, and some drive a longer distance to
attend the other congregation. Each minister has a different delivery style and degree to
which he considers himself a humanist and the ornate dark wood-and-stone architecture
of the Buffalo church gives a very different feel than the modern large glass panels and
light wood benches of the Amherst church.
“Lori, I almost didn’t recognize you without your notebook,” one youth advisor
joked when we met for lunch near the end of my research. My notebook was always with
me and usually on my lap during church events. I took notes during Sunday services, and
became the unofficial secretary at meetings and classes as others asked me from time to
time if I could look up what we had talked about during a previous session. But my role
was not that of a passive note-taking observer. In most instances, congregants happily
granted me the freedom to do my research with the stipulation that I become a
participant. The most salient example was after the first meeting of a Build Your Own
Theology class. One of the women approached me in front of the intern minister and
explained that she would be very uncomfortable if I expected to be “an observer.”
However, if I were participating, she did not mind at all if I conducted research.
In my work with the youth, since each group needed additional adult assistance
with sleepovers and regional conferences, advisors suggested that I attend training
sessions and act as a youth advisor. They expressed some concern that if I did not
contribute to the group authentically, my research might have a negative effect on the
youth. Thus participation was not only a way of learning, but required of me. I was also
expected to uphold the Principles and Purposes of Unitarian Universalism and speak
authentically from my inner self, journeying with them in my own spiritual development.
Despite some initial hesitation, most congregants eagerly welcomed me, invited
me to meetings, and suggested classes I should take. Others were willing volunteers for
interviews and introduced me to people they thought might help me. Unlike my previous
fieldwork in Mexico, I was not instantly recognized as “the other,” so my participation
was important as I evaluated my own responses and moments of insecurity. This
“observation of participation” (Tedlock 1991), helped me understand that I was
struggling with multiple roles and with my own spiritual ambivalence. My notebook
became a visual boundary helping me to remember my role as researcher.
My consultants did not see my roles as researcher and participant as incompatible;
they asked me multiple times to design sermons I could present during the summer, to
call congregants during pledge season, and gave me full voting rights for the Unitarian
Universalist annual national conference, or “General Assembly.” I declined each of these
offers since they conflicted with my ethnographic role. I was often referred to as a
Unitarian Universalist or urged to sign the membership book, and before the website was
redesigned in 2009, I found my picture prominently featured on the Unitarian
Universalist Church of Amherst’s main page along with those of members. Since my
parents are Unitarian Universalists, I struggled with my potential status as that of a native
anthropologist (Bunzl 2004; Kondo 1990; Narayan 1993). However, I had not grown up
within the Church and thus I was not really “native” to the group. But by conducting
research, some perceived me as following the well-worn path of learning about the
church and becoming an active participant as an adult.
To protect the youth as minors, I did not take verbatim notes during youth-group
meetings and opted for discursive notations about these meetings. Youth decided on two
occasions—at the suggestion of the other advisors—to conduct Sunday meetings for my
benefit and talk in a large group about how they viewed the youth group and their identity
as Unitarian Universalists. On these occasions I took copious notes. But much of youth
culture is wrapped up in weekend-long youth conferences, sleepovers, and service
projects. I spent many late nights listening and talking with them about school, how they
dealt with questions of race, gender, and being liberal in schools filled with
conservatives. We spoke about politics and relationships, and I watched their strong
friendships develop as they lay talking in “cuddle puddles” long after most of the
advisors were asleep. I also learned from other advisors as we whispered in the dark in
our sleeping bags on the rugs of youth education classrooms dissecting the events of the
While most of my research was conducted within the western New York region, I
also attended one weekend of youth training in Ohio and numerous youth conferences
and training events throughout New York State. The youth conferences attracted the same
one hundred or more youth each time along with the same twenty to thirty youth
advisors. I also attended the 2007 five-day national General Assembly. This annual
gathering of Unitarian Universalists was in Portland, Oregon the year I attended.
Attracting over five thousand participants from all over the United States, it was an
opportunity not only to conduct the business of the denomination and provide learning
workshops for congregants across the nation. In this setting, I felt much more like an
observer than I was with my local congregations. I filled my notebook as I sat in on
workshops, business meetings, and worship services.
For my analysis I focused on identifying and comparing common themes. Using
transcriptions from interviews, and field notes from church activities, I identified these
themes in the way participants view their positions within Unitarian Universalism, how
they spoke about and defined their values and religion, and what words and phrases they
used to express their relationships with others outside the group. I examined the process
by which values were shared (either through Unitarian Universalist discourse or broader
secular discourses), contested, and negotiated.
Because my work is ethnographically grounded, the data consist of a compilation
of narratives—stories I have been told, stories groups create together, and stories
individuals tell to one another. I weave these stories into my analysis acknowledging the
centrality of narrative to theory and also to make my research accessible for a wider
Russell Sharman (2007:118) argues that ethnographic fieldwork often loses its
connection to everyday reality in the writing phase when experience is uprooted and
grafted onto academic discourse. He explains that as an art, ethnography should evoke
“the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of a place, connecting audience to field
informants through ethnographer” (Sharman 2007:118). He calls for the use of a narrative
style to reposition experience toward the center of the anthropological project. There have
been others who have called for this before (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Stoller 1989), and
others whose experimentation with variations on this style (Behar 1993; Bode 1990;
Knab 1995; Lewis 1959; Tedlock 1992) captivated me in graduate school. Narrative is
not new and has permeated the discipline since its inception but has a renewed vigor in
the context of the shift toward public ethnography and collaboration (Behar and Gordon
1995; Denzin 1997; Simonelli 2007; Tedlock 2005). This is even more relevant as those
we write about increasingly become our audience (Brettell 1996; Simonelli 2007). I
recognize that while I explore how narrative functions within Unitarian Universalism, I
am not outside of the narrative I am constructing. I weave narrative into the analysis to
allow the reader to interpret my work differently. Yet I also use narrative to add texture to
my story. After all, every theoretical analysis is but another story.
Dissertation Outline
Since Unitarian Universalist identity is shaped through social interaction, I
attended national as well as local events. I attended a five-day denominational conference
and conducted an analysis of the literature published by Beacon Press and Skinner House
Books, to learn how the Unitarian Universalist Association contributes to mainstream
discourses about the self and religious values. I also attended local Sunday Services,
coffee hours, and congregational meetings to see how Unitarian Universalist identity is
created and reinscribed through expert relations. However, conceptions of the self are
most saliently created and recreated within small-group classes. In requiring participants
in these intimate settings to be authentic and discuss their feelings, facilitators seek to
render transparent their interior state (Keane 2006:316).
“Preaching for Parishioners,” “New to UU,” “Build Your Own Theology,” and
“Youth Advisor Training” are four popular classes I attended and analyze.4 These are
venues where identity is the central question. I explore how subjects are fashioned and
how a fragile discourse of diversity masks a more persistent liberal discourse.
In chapter two, I provide an overview of the denomination by narrating the events
of a single Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo. At the end of
Small covenant groups are also a growing attraction in many congregations. These are set groups that
meet once every two to four weeks with an appointed lay facilitator. They discuss topics such as “What
sparks something within us?” “Let your light shine,” and “What is important?” They are another example
of how participants conduct the long-term process of self-cultivation. I did not attend these groups because
they are closed groups and the discussions during meetings are considered private. I did not pursue them
out of respect for the participants. I imagine the processes in the groups are the same as in the open classes
and events I attended, but perhaps with a deeper level of sharing.
the chapter, I explore the tradition of heresy and four-hundred years of history within
both Unitarianism and Universalism as it relates to the project of liberalism. This sets the
stage for examining how belief, truth, authenticity, and power are constructed and
function within the Church.
In chapter three, I explore the ambiguities of my role as both insider and outsider
within the Preaching for Parishioners class. Here participants learn what topics are
appropriate so that congregants leave with a feeling of hope. Participants are delighted by
the diversity of topics and marvel at how well they resonate. I explore how this class
builds the discourses of individualism and diversity while instilling an understanding of
Unitarian Universalist identity. Finally, I analyze how one congregant attended the class,
adjusted her topic to fit a Unitarian Universalist attitude, and developed one of the best
summer services that year.
In the fourth chapter I explore the concept of “belief,” then focus on the “New to
UU” classes. These four- to six-hour sessions serve as concentrated examples of the
everyday mechanisms used within Sunday services, committee meetings, retreats, and
coffee hours to reinforce individual belief. In the classes, the minister and lay experts
teach visitors and new members, about Unitarian Universalism, and provide an
opportunity for them to describe how they found the church. As members tell of journeys
through other churches, they end with finding Unitarian Universalism, “which fits their
beliefs.” While individual belief is presented as a “liberating gateway,” it often ends up
resembling the religious creeds that Unitarian Universalists try so hard to avoid.
“Build Your Own Theology” is an adult education curriculum that encourages
participants to seek their own religious and spiritual truth, meanings, and values. In
chapter five, I examine how this process of self-cultivation fosters a discourse of
individual selves with empowered agency while simultaneously providing language for
speaking about the self as fluid and multiple. When I observed participants sharing their
narratives of finding the church and defining the nature of God, I noticed that difference
was carefully woven into their stories. One woman, for example, confessed that when she
was a schoolgirl the nuns reprimanded her for questioning the existence of God. The
group laughed in support of her as an inquisitive child. She then shared her joy in
participating in this class because everyone was different but accepting. A discourse of
difference helps in defining the individual and embracing a perceived diversity of thought
enabling participants to foster a notion of multiple truths and a venue for validation. It
also uncovers commonalities between the women as they explore a deeper gendered
truth. At the end of the chapter, I explore the concept of authenticity, locating it as the
endpoint of a Unitarian Universalist process of self-cultivation.
“Youth Advisors Training” is an intense weekend session where adults interested
in mentoring teenagers learn how to facilitate a youth group following Unitarian
Universalist values. They debate how best to transmit Unitarian Universalist ideals so
that youth will want to stay in the church past high school. Through self-disclosure young
people internalize an attitude of difference while projecting a common identity. Chapter
six looks at the ways in which adults and youth internalize this idea of “youth
In chapter seven, I explore how the denomination is constructing a sense of
identity during its multimillion-dollar media campaign, “Now is the Time.” I reveal the
recent trend toward evangelism within the denomination and at the congregational level.
Members note the rapid growth of right-wing churches and see themselves poised to
grow. I examine this campaign within the liberal agenda and reflect on how they fashion
an identity as liberal subjects to market their faith to a wider American population.
In the conclusions I discuss the Unitarian Universalist process of self-cultivation
and how it relates to social justice. Social justice is seen as an extension of individual
spiritual cultivation and therefore an expression of authenticity. Since social justice
initiatives favor empowering individuals in need, there is a strong prescriptive liberal
agenda that appears in tension with the idea of multiple truths. I explore how the notions
of absolute and multiple truths are reconciled within Unitarian Universalist discourse and
extend that to examine how the dichotomy that they perceive between individualism and
community are deeply interwoven.
It was Sunday morning. The choir had arrived as usual around ten o’clock to
gather in the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary. Members held the black iron
handrails as they slowly climbed the steep stone stairs that twisted narrowly as though
ascending up an old castle turret. They sat in dark folding chairs crowded around the
organ with large illuminated pipes extending high over their heads. The loft reached
capacity at about sixty people; the architect never imagining that it would be the home of
a well-known large choir led by a beloved choir director.
As the organ piped a commanding arrangement by Richard Ellsasser of John
Bull’s Rondo in G, the sound enveloped over two-hundred congregants who filled the
pews below. During the prelude, the minister walked out from behind the ornately carved
façade surrounding the altar of the hundred-year-old building and with a beaming smile
stepped unhurried toward the pews. His long black robe and billowing black sleeves
swung back and forth as he firmly shook the hands of those standing closest to the aisle
looking at each one in the eye with a grin. As the music ended, he gazed up at the choir
director, applauded with the rest of the congregation, and climbed up the steps behind the
large carved pulpit.
“Good morning. My name is Joel Miller and welcome to the Unitarian
Universalist Church of Buffalo.” He asked for visitors to raise their hands or stand to
identify themselves. Three people raised their hands and the congregation applauded
these newcomers. Every Sunday there are at least a few new visitors present. Each week,
Joel or a member of the church repeats the same phrase, addressing the newly identified
visitors. “Please join us for coffee and conversation after the service in the Parish Hall.”
The order of service I held in my lap was an eight-page booklet made with two
pieces of white paper folded over by the automatic folding machine in the church office
each Friday. I flipped through the first three pages that outlined the Sunday service.
Prelude. Call to worship. Welcome, greetings, and announcements. Next the lighting of
the chalice and reading the affirmation printed in the order of service, followed by a
children’s story that foreshadowed the topic of the sermon. After singing the children off
to their Sunday School classes , a reading would be followed by the offertory, sermon,
prayer and meditation, and a benediction. The congregation would stand for the hymns
and to light the chalice and sit in the straight pews facing forward for the rest. The décor
of this building and the elements of the service resemble many Protestant services in the
region and reflects the Protestant background from which both Unitarianism and
Universalism emerged even though they no longer consider themselves a Christian
A few weeks earlier, Reverend Miller had reviewed the book Breaking the Spell:
Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2006) during a sermon and
chuckled as he explained the only mention of Unitarian Universalists in the book.
“Dennett dismisses Unitarian Universalists along with reform Jews and Episcopalians
saying they are atheists that can’t get over the religious habit.” The congregation roared
in laughter. The humor in this statement comes in part from self-recognition that many
Unitarian Universalist congregants enjoy the ritual of their religious pasts yet were not in
accordance with various theological tenants. What is of particular interest about this
statement, and the laughter it elicits, is the irony they highlight. Members see the
Unitarian Universalist Church as much more than the labels non-members give them of
“social club” or “a group of atheists who can’t get over their religious habit.” There is an
identity of uniqueness they cultivate within the church. As a small denomination of
164,656 members (Skinner 2009), they promote themselves as a progressive voice of
freedom using a consistent process of “othering” to differentiate themselves as a
legitimate, long-standing, yet radically unique religious institution.
The announcements this April morning started with congratulating the
congregation for receiving a prestigious community award for supporting the bisexual,
gay, lesbian, and transgendered community. There was hearty applause from this
Welcoming Congregation, which was in the middle of a letter-writing campaign lobbying
for same-sex marriage rights. There is a strong and vibrant gay and lesbian population
within the congregation, many of whom left previous religious affiliations because of the
lack of support for alternative lifestyles and families. This congregation is also the home
of the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus led by the church’s choir director. The congregation
participated in the Unitarian Universalist Association “Welcoming Congregation”
program almost a decade ago. It consisted of a number of workshops open to the
congregants and the establishment of a chapter of Interweave, an organization of
Unitarian Universalists for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgendered concerns which
sponsored political and church-focused advocacy initiatives (Interweave Continental
2009). The congregation had already voted as a group to support same-sex marriage.
As Joel commented during an interview, “They grant me the right to speak for
them on some issues. I go to some place like Albany and tell legislators about emergency
contraception, for example—work I’m doing with Planned Parenthood—or talk about
equality, of equal access to marriage for everybody regardless of whether they’re gay or
straight. The legislators will ask, ‘How big is your congregation? It’s your full-time job,
right?’ I say ‘Oh yeah, it’s my full-time job. We have four hundred families—about five
hundred and fifty to six hundred members.’ When I tell them that, they stop. They pay a
lot of attention to me.”
The church is known in the wider community not only for marrying couples of
mixed religious backgrounds, but also for performing commitment ceremonies regularly
in the church.5 Recently, with the passage in California of Proposition 8, which
eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in that state, Unitarian Universalists
have renewed their efforts in lobbying to reinstate that right. One long-time member of
the congregation admitted his initial and ongoing discomfort with the issue, yet he was
willing to join the Interweave group in the late 1990s when the congregation went
through the process of becoming “welcoming.” During that time, the church held a
number of discussions about oppression and support for the bisexual, gay, lesbian, and
transgendered community. Interweave meetings were a continuation of those discussions
along with advocacy initiatives. He told me, “I went to the Interweave group when it first
formed. It must be about seven or eight years ago now, when the church became
explicitly welcoming- I think there was a denominational program of some sort, so the
church participated in that and that was awkward, I almost say. I have a certain amount of
homophobia, you know, just like I have a certain amount of racism, and you know, I can
just feel it there. I don’t approve of it. I don’t agree with it intellectually, but I can feel it
Most couples that have mixed religious backgrounds are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or have no religious
at a certain level. I was uneasy about the whole Interweave thing. I was concerned a little;
I just thought that this might destroy the church, that this might become “the gay church”
and there wouldn’t be any more people who weren’t gay in the church, and that struck me
as a real risk. Now it seems to me that there are an awful lot of gay people in the church
and it doesn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference except if anything it makes the
church work better. It’s sort of like with the old labor unions there were more
communists. Usually it turned out the that communists were the hardest working most
selfless people and basically kept unions going when nobody else was going to do it. I get
a similar feeling that some of the gay people in the church are among the most
conscientious and active supporters.”
In this narrative, he demonstrated self-reflection in admitting his own discomfort.
He linked the active involvement of the gay community to their support of the church as
they run fundraising events, head committees, serve on the Board of Trustees, sing in the
choir, and volunteer in numerous capacities. His main concern was related to constructing
a church identity that he did not desire and that might leave him as the “other”: the nongay. He did not want his church known as the “gay church” but was willing to support the
Interweave group. While his ideas changed over the last decade, they seem to be related
to the productivity of the gay community in the church and the way he was not
marginalized in the process. Inclusiveness is accepted as long as it does not affect the
individual’s freedom. The liberal framework on which the church is built promotes
activism and equality. This congregant felt it was important to join the Interweave group,
despite his feelings of awkwardness, to address his own uneasiness and become more
inclusive. He was actively engaging in the process of self-cultivation by assessing his
actions and attitudes within the Interweave group as he sat with me on his sofa sipping
tea. He also held a liberal sensitivity toward equality. Under a liberal framework this
extends to the marginalized so that they can best achieve their capacities as productive
individuals finding their path to “the good life.” The gay community in the church was
allowed these capacities and has become vital to the workings of the church, he said.
However, he expects that while they pursue their own notion of the good life with a
sexual orientation he may not feel entirely comfortable with, they will not infringe on the
freedom of others. In other words, congregants should not be marginalized in the process
of promoting the capacities of, and including, others. His fear of the “gay church”
highlights his desire not to be marginalized while pursuing inclusiveness.
The enthusiasm of earning the Empire State Pride Agenda award for community
Service continued throughout the announcements of the Sunday service. Yet the tone
shifted as it does each Sunday as Joel lit the chalice below the pulpit, the symbolic
transition to sacred shared community. The congregation rose and recited the affirmation
used each week in this church. “We light our Chalice to remind us to use our powers,”
they said. Some looked at the words printed in the order of service, but most gazed
toward the minister as they spoke. The collective rustle of turning pages muffled the next
line as they continued, “to heal and not to harm, to help and not to hinder, to bless and not
to curse, to serve the Spirit of Freedom. In the freedom of truth and in the spirit of Love,
we unite for the worship of the Holy, and for the service of Humanity.”
The flaming chalice, the symbol used by most congregations and by the Unitarian
Universalist Association since 1976, was first adopted by the Unitarian Service
Committee in the 1940s as a seal for travel documents they were issuing to help Jews,
intellectuals, scientists, and politicians escape Nazi Germany during the Holocaust
(Hotchkiss 2001). The chalice, a large cup, is likened to the chalice used by Greeks and
Romans on their altars and the artistic monastic legacy in ancient and medieval arts. The
flame denotes the helpfulness and sacrifice symbolized by the burning of holy oil
(Hotchkiss 2001) as well as the fire of commitment and the flame of the spirit that
supports social justice. Others liken the chalice to the cup of community. The two rings
that encircle the flaming chalice are the two religious traditions of Unitarianism and
Universalism (Unitarian Universalist Association 2008e). Over the last twenty years, the
denomination has strategically incorporated this symbol into its Sunday rituals of lighting
the chalice and used it as a logo on banners, pamphlets and other media. Unitarian
Universalist artists sell chalice designs for pendants, earrings, and t-shirts. There is no
requirement for congregations to use the chalice, yet most have embraced it.
As the organ began, I opened the hymnal to the page before the first hymn and
there were the Principles and Purposes so central to Unitarian Universalist identity. It
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association,
covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth
in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process
within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we
are a part.
The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder,
affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit
and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life;
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us
to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion,
and the transforming power of love;
Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical
and spiritual life;
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s
love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of
reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of
the mind and spirit.
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the
sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the
rhythms of nature.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith,
we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As
free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another
our mutual trust and support (Unitarian Universalist Association 1993)
The Unitarian Universalist Association markets its identity on its web pages for
visitors as a non-creedal religion. They quote the Reverend Marta Flanagan saying, “We
uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not
ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. We say ours is a non-creedal religion. Ours is a free
faith” (Unitarian Universalist Association 1997a). As one congregant would later explain
to me, “I was church shopping to get here. I identify with Judaism but I will stay with
Unitarian Universalism because it will still work if I change my beliefs later.” She felt
that Unitarian Universalism encompasses a wide breadth of beliefs and religious
traditions, in line with the website description stating that Christians, Jews, Buddhists,
Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, as well as others fit within Unitarian
Universalism and all are valid paths to truth (Unitarian Universalist Association 1997a).
This is the appeal of Unitarian Universalism for those who were dissatisfied with their
prior religious affiliation. As another member admits, “I really wanted a church, I wanted
to come to something that had the structure of and felt like a church but really frankly
didn’t have much in the way of demands in terms of conformity and what I was supposed
to do and say and all that sort of thing.” While he became much more interested in
theology after he had been in the church for a while, his initial interest in the church was
the lack of imposed conformity to a particular set of beliefs.
The Principles and Purposes are a covenant rather than a creed, Ross (2001)
explains. In a covenant, there is the promise to live by a set of values in community while
the beliefs can be individually determined. The Principles and Purposes have, however,
come close to a creed within the Unitarian Universalist church over the last few decades
(Ross 2001). The original bylaws, adopted in the early 1960s when the two
denominations merged, were rarely acknowledged or used to the extent that the new
version has been over the last twenty five years.
In the mid-1970s, many women within the denomination were dissatisfied with
the sexist wording of the 1960s version and its failure to “indicate a respect for the
wholeness of life and for the earth” (Frost 1998). They proposed an updated draft at the
General Assembly in 1981. That draft was not accepted due to the uneasy tension
Unitarian Universalists have with their Judeo-Christian roots (Ross 2001). Instead, a
small committee was formed to develop “a strong statement of the ‘Principles’—one with
religious integrity, intellectual coherence, and literary quality” (Frost 1998:15). The
Principles and Purposes were voted on and adopted in 1984. In 1995 the last earthcentered source was added. The uniqueness of this document, as many see it, is its
flexibility. Revelation is not sealed, they argue, rather this is a guideline for living which
is able to be revised if it no longer is deemed adequate by the group. Over the last twentyfive years, the Principles have not changed and have become the boundaries by which
individual belief is tested.
Before these principles were approved, many Unitarian Universalists struggled to
articulate a set of beliefs opening with the statement, “well, I don’t believe….” Now
many use the Principles and Purposes to assert what they believe. Value and belief are
used interchangeably. But as a visiting minister explained to me about his recent sermon,
“What I attempted to do was to give my definition of what Unitarian and Universalist are.
I essentially went back and said it’s not these doggone principles—I get so peeved when
people say this is what we believe. It’s not what we believe. It might be part of what we
believe, but I know a lot of people that go to other churches or don’t go to any churches
that believe the same thing, so how does it make us unique?”
“It’s got nothing to do with this, “ he continued. “Unitarianism and Universalism
are an attitude. Its a way we look at the world and has to do with personal authority
where each one has a locus of control. We have an internal locus of control, which is why
the Ten Commandments don’t mean anything to us,. They’re an external locus of control.
It’s not what I taught them to grow up with. What I taught them was ‘Are you
comfortable with doing that?’ so it was always internalized. And we Unitarians and
Universalists are essentially people with problems with authority and that’s true. We
don’t want to be told what to do, we want to figure it out for ourselves. We want to have
that sense of self-worth, that sense of self-confidence, we want to have that personal
authority. Which is why people leave other churches and come here, because at some
point what they’ve been told is not working and they say ‘That’s not right, there’s
something wrong there’ and that’s not for everybody. What matters is the way we process
things, what still matters is the fact that we are not going to be told by somebody else and
we’re not going to be told that the church has power and control over our lives and
everyone else’s lives. We are going to have our own personal relationship with the sacred,
whatever that is. And I don’t need a priest or even a minister’s permission or intervention
in that. So that’s what we are about. That’s what Unitarians have always been about and
that’s what Universalists have always been about although we have different traditions
that have led us to where we are today.”
This attitude of internal self-control, questioning and personal authority is what he
sees as being unique to Unitarian Universalism. It is the idea of the internal locus of
control, the primacy on the individual who evaluates for herself, which is central to this
research. Unitarian Universalists craft a discourse of personal authority about the sacred
unmediated by the church, priest, or minister. I would liken the quest for a personal
understanding of the sacred within Unitarian Universalism with Foucault’s treatment of
sexuality. He argues that sexuality—that which is perceived as most personal, most
internal to oneself—is learned and cultivated by the mechanisms of discourse (Foucault
1990). Unitarian Universalists are shaped by liberal discourses and a particular Unitarian
Universalist process to reify the notion of personal authority. The discourse of personal
authority opens a space for individual agency and becomes a critical component of a
church focused on “deeds, not creeds” (Buehrens and Church 1998:41). This attitude is
cultivated through discussions, shared principles, classes and a constant process of self-
assessment and then projected as unique and progressive through the way they craft
social justice projects.
While the visiting minister spoke out about using the Principles as a crutch for
explaining Unitarian Universalism, many congregants appreciate having a set of
principles for guidance, especially when confronted with the question of how to explain
their church. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo’s historian paused
thoughtfully when I asked him what Unitarian Universalism was about and then stated,
“The Principles are a useful starting point. And also knowing the derivation of the words
‘Unitarian’ and ‘Universalist.’ Looking at the name, you know what it’s about: one God
and it’s universal in nature. And everyone has an opportunity to be good. So ‘Unitarian
Universalism’ gives you a hint about what you’re supposed to believe.” He paused again
before continuing. “The UUWorld also provides a really good source of stories and facts
and history connected to the religion so you are part of the mainstream in your thinking.
People think they can believe whatever they want, but if you want to do it right you really
have to think it through and be true to it and it’s not so easy.” He stressed the importance
of individual thought at the end of his statement. Yet, his overall comment emphasized
the importance of Unitarian Universalist discourses for shaping individual understanding.
He suggested reading the denominational magazine, the UUWorld, and referring to the
Principles to make sure individual thought aligns with mainstream denominational
thought. He explained that there is a right way to be a Unitarian Universalist. The
individual is required to think responsibly and deliberately and be true to the principles
and ideas of Unitarian Universalism. Thought should align with action. To be true to it is
to internalize a particular set of ideas, or attitude. To be true is to be authentic.
By internalize, I do not mean to imply that each individual holds exactly the same
views. I use the term internalize as the process by which discourse shapes the self and
promotes certain patterns of action. While Unitarian Universalists construct a discourse
surrounding the autonomous, free-thinking self, many—like the member above—also
recognize the ways in which their actions are and should be patterned. Paul Rasor, a
prominent Unitarian Universalist and theological professor, summarizes the positions of
Wittgenstein, Habermas, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Mead, stating that shared, social
language and culture affect our very way of being in the world (Rasor 1999). As this
group of philosophers might argue, “all perception is always already interpretation”
(Ormiston and Schrift 1990:16). In everyday interactions, Unitarian Universalists call on
past experience and beliefs to help guide interpretation. A number of the women in the
Build Your Own Theology class I attended explained, you interpret your life and
experience based on your past experiences and understandings. Here they articulated how
felt experience is understood and interpreted through internalized discourse.
While there is some debate whether the Principles and Purposes are common
beliefs or shared values, they have been used widely throughout the denomination. They
precede the first hymn in the hymnal and there are various “kid-friendly” versions that
are posted throughout youth religious education classrooms (see Appendices 1 and 2).
They are printed on bookmarks and wallet cards, given to visitors and new members, and
most importantly they are the criteria by which most Unitarian Universalists judge
actions. Warren Ross (2001:92) points out that at Beacon Press and Skinnerhouse Books,
the two Unitarian Universalist Association publishing houses, each editorial proposal
must also include a comment about how the volume relates to the Principles and
Purposes. In the Preaching for Parishioners class at the Unitarian Universalist Church of
Amherst, each lay-led summer sermon must explicitly relate to one of the seven
principles before it is approved for presentation. And as visitors and new members learn
in the “New to UU” classes, the covenant to abide by and agree with the Principles is a
strong expectation. “Creeping creedalism” (Ross 2001:92) it may be, as the Principles
function within prevailing discourse. One could argue that the Principles and Purposes
are central to a Unitarian Universalist belief system and the process that informs the
Unitarian Universalist attitude. I will be looking at how a Unitarian Universalist attitude
is shaped in particular ways to build a discourse of individuality, diversity and choice
while at the same time reinforcing specific prescriptive liberal stances.
The organ engulfed the sanctuary as the children finished listening to the
children’s story and exited toward their religious education classrooms for the next hour.
We stood to sing this Sunday with one of the most popular Unitarian Universalist hymns,
“Spirit of Life” (see Appendix 3). “It is our Doxology, or perhaps our ‘Amazing Grace,’”
writes UUWorld contributing editor Kimberly French (2007). Roughly a third of the
hymns were composed by Unitarian Universalists, others draw from other religious
traditions, spirituals, or other familiar tunes that members with Methodist, Presbyterian,
and Congregational backgrounds remember in their youth yet the lyrics have been
updated to be gender neutral, reflect Unitarian Universalist values, and have very few
references to God, opting instead for Love or Spirit of Life.
Joel put a spin on a common Unitarian Universalist comment a year later: “We all
know the joke. Why aren’t Unitarian Universalists very good singers? Because they are
always reading ahead to see if they agree with the words!” Some chuckled before he even
finished the punch line, but he continued. “Well, we have a Buffalo version of the joke.
We already know we will disagree with the words so we sing for the love of it!” He
acknowledges the diversity present within the congregation but then pulls together a
sense of community that is salient in this music-based congregation.
The current version of the hymnal was published in 1993 after a lengthy selection
process by the denomination-wide Hymnbook Resources Commission. The music
director for the last four decades at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo was a
member of that commission who selected 415 hymns and 318 readings for the hymnal.
The selection process and wording reflected the goals of the then recently adopted
Principles and Purposes.
We finished singing the hymn as the canvass co-chairs walked to the podium.
Canvass is a once-a-year pledge drive to raise money for the ongoing financial operations
of the church. Different congregations take different tactics for convincing members to
give the minimum three to five percent of their income that the Unitarian Universalist
Association suggests (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007a). This is no easy feat, as a
congregant on the financial review committee explained to me. “The church has been
having problems in getting enough funds to keep the place going. I think Unitarian
Universalists are notorious for being among the wealthiest of churches and the lousiest of
contributors to their respective causes so we’re trying to see what we can do to deal with
that. And some things that are happening are an outcome of that, like trying to get people
to donate to the level of three to five percent of income rather than two percent which had
been the informal standard before, to get more people to do it, and to get people to really
feel that if you’re going to be involved in the church you really should be paying
something for it because it costs something to do it.”
Canvass organizers walk a fine line between persuasion and obligation. Operating
costs of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo are not trivial with heat alone
costing seventeen thousand dollars each year. Members are expected to pledge yet no one
wants to force others to contribute. Instead, canvass chairs evoke a reasonable argument
for why congregants should feel it is right to pledge a larger amount. The two men at the
pulpit began what I anticipated would be another statement about what the church meant
to them to convince others to invest in an organization that gives them so much, or to plea
for families to consider the three hundred dollars per child that it costs to run the religious
education programs per year. Instead, they outlined the five different types of people who
make up the church. The visitors, who are the only ones not expected to give anything,
the inquirers who have attended the church multiple times, the friends who may be longterm congregants yet have not signed the membership book for a myriad of reasons, the
members, and the cantankerous. The congregation roared in laughter with the last
classification. The intent, it could be argued, was to highlight the inclusivity and
tolerance of Unitarian Universalists yet the particular word choice of cantankerous—
irritating or difficult to deal with—suggests that the non-conformists who might not even
attend the Sunday service but might be found talking in the building during Sunday
mornings or other times were not exhibiting preferred behavior. It is good to question or
to go against the grain, but participation is also expected, as is cooperation. The subtle
shaping of expected behavior under a guise of toleration seemed unnoticed as the
laughter continued. The label stuck over the following two years as a number of
congregants reused this classification, never for themselves, in our conversations.
Before the laughter had subsided, a witty choir member was at the front of the
church bursting forth with the parody “Join the Canvass,” set to Barnum’s song “Join the
Circus.” Joel began dancing in his robe behind the pulpit, as Thomas sang about
pledging, belting out “and the Reverend most respectable…but relax, it’s tax deductible”
throwing the crowd into spirited clapping, laughter, and a partial standing ovation when
the song was through. That was one of two times I witnessed a standing ovation during
the middle of a service, but as many Unitarian Universalists have told me, “anything’s
possible in a Unitarian Universalist service.”
Financial concerns are not something that the congregation usually laughs at,
especially as a new boiler was needed during the winter and as various members
lamented that they really needed at least another part-time minister to relieve Joel of his
overloaded work schedule. Each congregation is independent, following their policy of
congregational polity inherited from their forbearers, the Protestant Congregationalists.
Congregational polity places the congregation as the governing body both financially and
theologically. The denomination is an association of these self-governing congregations
and does not have hierarchical authority over any congregation. Individual churches must
elect to join the Unitarian Universalist Association and pay annual dues if they would like
to receive its services. The congregation, therefore, is the central unit within Unitarian
Universalism whether there are eight members or over one thousand. Because of the
autonomous status of the congregation, the terminology used within Unitarian
Universalism makes a shared understanding of the concepts more difficult (Unitarian
Universalist Association 2008g). Rituals, architecture, and congregational culture vary
widely within the denomination. Despite some of the trends I am highlighting, there is
variation among congregations.6 There are a few congregations that consider themselves
Christian, others that are humanist, some congregations that vary the order of service so
as not to fall into a routine of ritual, and other congregations who elect to have all
services lay-led. Congregational polity gives the congregation the authority to choose or
change a minister, or not have a minister at all. The Unitarian Universalist Association
provides services to help match ordained ministers with search committees within
congregations, but it is ultimately up to the individual church. They give the minister the
freedom to interpret scripture or other relevant material responsibly to find individual
truth and meaning and share this as one of many possible paths to congregants during
sermons. One might argue, then, that the notion of congregational polity closely aligns
with the primacy of the individual. The minister may influence but is not granted
authority over a congregation. The fifth principle, upholding the democratic process,
reflects many of the long-standing checks and balances found within the churches. The
elected Board of Trustees governs the budget and procedures of the church working
closely with the numerous committees, volunteers, and paid employees who keep
operations running.
Committees are built on the concept of the democratic process privileging
discussion and deliberation for decision-making. New members are encouraged to join
committees to support the church with their time as well as with their monetary pledges.
My work is not intended to essentialize and homogenize Unitarian Universalism and ignore the variation
within it. Rather, I have focused on examining how particular discourses within the denomination are
promoted and guide many congregants despite their emphasis on the free-thinking and independentlyacting individual.
Yet committees are the brunt of many Unitarian Universalist inside jokes. One joke asks
how many Unitarian Universalists it takes to replace a light bulb. “Three hundred. Twelve
to sit on the Board, which appoints the Nominating and Personnel Committee. Five to sit
on the Nominating and Personnel Committee, which appoints the House Committee.
Eight to sit on the House Committee, which appoints the Light Bulb Changing
Committee. Four to sit on the Light Bulb Changing Committee, which chooses who will
screw in the Light Bulb. Those four then give their own opinion of ‘screwing-in methods’
while one actually does the installation. After completion it takes one hundred individuals
to complain about the method of installation, another 177 to debate the ecological impact
of using the light bulb at all, and at least one to insist that back in her day, the lit chalice
was quite enough, thankyouverymuch!” (BearHeart 2008).
Unitarian Universalists often joke about the overuse and ineffectiveness of
committees, yet their complaints center on their lack of productivity and effective
organization. Committees are also one of the avenues where new members or friends can
become active and meet others within the church community, especially at mid-sized
(150 to 549 members) and large churches (over 550 members). Few congregations
throughout the United States are larger than one thousand members, but thirty five
percent of congregations are considered mid-sized or large by denominational standards
and these account for seventy three percent of all Unitarian Universalists (Unitarian
Universalist Association 2006).
Despite congregational polity, the format of Unitarian Universalist churches is
fairly similar between congregations. Most congregations use the denominational hymnal
both for hymns and for many of the readings. It is also common to see child-naming
ceremonies where young children and babies are presented to the community who offers
its support to the family and child. From the moment the child is presented, individuality
is recognized through stating the child’s name, yet it is also the expectation that the
family and church will help foster the Unitarian Universalist heritage of “freedom,
service, and love, which the child receives from us” (Peebles 1999). The duality of
nurturing an individual who is “secure in self” while living in and being taught by
community is the constant tension Unitarian Universalists struggle with. By reconciling
the two, limits are placed around each.
Two popular annual services—the water service and the flower ceremony—
outwardly emphasize community but individuality fuels them. Around seventy percent of
all Unitarian Universalist congregations have adopted the water service in which
participants bring a small amount of water from their travels or an important place such
as a new home, and pour them together symbolizing the community they form after a
summer apart as an annual fall ritual (Skinner 2004). The individuals become one, but not
before they tell their unique stories of why the water was important. Travel narratives are
often more lengthy than the reflection on community, and some members criticize it for
being a travel competition of who went further to Turkey or India.
Eighty eight percept of congregations hold the flower ceremony late spring as the
most popular denominational ceremony (Skinner 2004). This ceremony was developed
by a Unitarian Universalist minister in Prague to be meaningful to members of a diverse
Unitarian Universalist congregation. Each person brings a flower and lays it with the rest.
During the service congregants are reminded that “it is symbolic, then, of our community.
One flower added or one flower subtracted and everything is changed; it becomes a
different bouquet. We each add something of ourselves to the community” (Bryce 2005).
As each participant is encouraged to come forward and take a different flower when he
leaves, the congregants are reminded of the uniqueness of each individual while the
service symbolizes the beauty of community they should remember as they go their
separate ways over the summer. Overall, the flower ceremony privileges the uniqueness
of each participant and aligns strongly with the first principle of the inherent worth of
each individual. While the minister evokes an inclusiveness and importance of the
individual in making the group unique, this importance makes it more difficult to see the
forest through the trees.
I was not watching one of these annual special services this early April morning,
yet the congregation was exceptionally animated sparked by the humor and wit of the
canvass committee. They had clapped after each musical piece, including the offertory—
a practice that tends to be discouraged since it converts the service into little more than a
performance. Joel returned to the pulpit for the sermon and acknowledged the talent of
the congregation, as he often does. He then took a deep breath before settling in to his
sermon with the provocative title “This Dangerous Church.”
“What is it like to walk into this community for the first time?” He asked. “There
is a power in welcoming people. As Unitarian Universalists we attract many but we don’t
always hold on to them. As a Mormon told one of my colleagues, if we did hold on to
them, Unitarian Universalism would be the most dangerous church around.” He paused a
moment before explaining the power in having a liberal agenda. But first, he linked this
to a richly narrated tradition of heresy within the Unitarian and Universalist traditions.
This dangerous church, he explained, was built on the shoulders of a long line of
individuals who were not afraid to stand up for what they believed. “Four hundred years
ago our spiritual ancestors were burned alive for being Unitarians or Universalists,” he
started, referring to the well-known story of the Unitarian founder Michael Servetus who
was burned at the stake in the mid-sixteenth century for declaring the unity of God and
denouncing the concept of the Trinity. “Two hundred fifty years ago our spiritual
ancestors were attacked and imprisoned for their faith. One hundred years ago the
Unitarian suffragette, Susan B. Anthony, was imprisoned for trying to vote, and almost
fifty years ago FBI agents spied on our congregations because we opposed the war in
Vietnam and because we demanded honesty and accountability from our government,” he
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, the church’s history is never far
from the gaze of the congregants. An ornately carved dark wooden façade is Joel’s
backdrop around the pulpit. It is framed by carved stone pillars while ornate stained glass
windows colorfully depict biblical stories reminding members of their Christian roots.
Large display cases in the all-purpose Parish Hall house rotating historical exhibits
gathered by the church historian, John.
Joel Miller is the forty-sixth minister to serve this congregation. The congregation
was originally founded in 1831 as the First Unitarian Society of Buffalo with the
thirteenth president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, as a charter member. The
eleventh minister, and first settled minister for the current building, was the greatgrandfather of a current member, John, a veritable anomaly in a denomination where
roughly ninety percent of current members convert to Unitarian Universalism during their
adult lives (Unitarian Universalist Association 1997b). As the church historian, John had
been especially busy preparing new displays to commemorate the hundredth anniversary
of the current building, an intricate stone and wood structure designed by Edward Austin
Kent, an architect who died on the Titanic. The structure itself is the second building of
the congregation, which moved to the “suburbs” of the time from downtown Buffalo. The
corner of West Ferry and Elmwood is now located deep within the city limits in one of
the gentrified urban hotspots of an otherwise economically depressed mid-sized city. In
2006, the congregation celebrated one hundred years on Elmwood releasing a printed
book of congregants’ memories (Mernitz, Gardner, and Parke 2005), built a large cake in
the shape of the building, and had a service reflecting on the history of the church. Their
history permeates their self-understanding and shapes their congregational identity.
As Joel stood at the pulpit talking about the dangerous church, he evoked the
discourse of heresy to discuss the notion of power and to situate the Unitarian
Universalist Church of Buffalo within a liberal agenda of change. This time, he would not
talk about how both John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln sat in these very pews as
visitors. And on this occasion, he would not narrate this congregation’s role in providing
sanctuary in 1969 to nine young men evading the draft before they were forcibly arrested
a number of days later by Feds who stormed the church (Goldman 1983:257). However,
the activist history of this congregation is regularly retold alongside denominational
narratives of heresy to define the Unitarian Universalist attitude.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.” Like a mantra
repeated from different pulpits on different Sundays, the past is consistently evoked to
explain current Unitarian Universalist identity. In The Unitarian Universalist Pocket
Guide’s chapter on denominational history, Harry Scholefield and Paul Sawyer write,
It has not been our custom to reflect often on our history. We tend to be in
a hurry to get things done and look forward rather than backward. But
stopping to look at our past is reassuring, renewing, and energizing. It can
also give us a sense of who we are, open up our minds to new ideas, and
encourage us to deepen our religious life. Our story is adventurous and full
of hope. Since Unitarian Universalists have attempted to keep alive the
core teachings and beliefs of what has been called “the perennial religion,”
or universal teachings, our leaders have often been faced with persecution
and charges of heresy, in the tradition of the prophets and seers of all ages.
Discovering the depth and strength of these roots of ours is a nourishing
experience that gives us the inspiration and stamina we need to meet
today’s great challenges (Scholefield and Sawyer 1993:71).
I would argue that it is part of Unitarian Universalist custom to reflect on history,
to retell with satisfaction a history of heretics, persecuted and martyred; to recite the
names of the prominent thinkers, activists and politicians like President John Adams,
Louisa May Alcott, author and abolitionist, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross,
Dorothea Dix, reformer for the mentally ill, and Alexander Graham Bell, who also
considered themselves Unitarians or Universalists; to recount the ideas of past ministers
such as William Ellery Channing or Ralph Waldo Emerson and how they shape current
theological understandings of Unitarian Universalism; and to remind the congregants and
others of the over four hundred years of history in each hereditary line. It is precisely in
the narrative of the past that an interpretation of current Unitarian Universalist identity
emerges. As with all religious histories, this story starts with a creation story of how both
Unitarianism and Universalism came to be.7
For a timeline of Unitarian and Universalist histories, see Buehrens and Church 1998, Ross 2001, and
Schulz 1993.
As with many of the societal elite that would follow, the story of Unitarianism
begins with a king. King John Sigismund of Transylvania, moved by Francis David’s plea
on behalf of Unitarians for tolerance for all, adopted Unitarianism and then issued the
1568 Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience. As the first of its kind, this
act is a proud part of history for a group rooted in personal freedom and urging at the
very least tolerance between religious groups. The name Unitarian was a label placed on
those who denounced the Trinity. Michael Servetus (1510-1553), a Spaniard, believed
that there was no scriptural evidence to back the idea of the Trinity. He published On the
Errors of the Trinity in 1531 and for two decades evaded the Inquisition until he was
burned at the stake for heresy. Katherine Vogel in Krakow, Poland also affirmed her
belief in the unity of God instead of believing in the Trinity in the 1520s and was burned
at the stake as a heretic. Even Francis David, the inspiration for King John Sigismund,
who had moved through Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism before being labeled
as Unitarian, was later condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition in 1579 after the king
had died (Buehrens and Church 1998:58-60, 213-214; Scholefield and Sawyer 1993:5961). Heresy is a common theme in contemporary Unitarian Universalist identity.
Unitarian Universalists claim Joseph Priestly, the renowned English scientist and
Unitarian minister, as the founder of American Unitarianism. He came to America after
fleeing mobs who destroyed his laboratory and meeting house due to his views. In 1794,
he delivered a set of lectures to Thomas Jefferson and others, which led to the founding
of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (Ross 2001:6; Scholefield and Sawyer
1993:61). He was followed by other ministers including William Ellery Channing and
Ralph Waldo Emerson. While some of the development of early Unitarianism centered
around Pennsylvania, most was contained in New England, specifically in Boston (Ross
2001:7). One non-Unitarian Universalist novelist coyly wrote that Unitarians believe in
“the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston”
(Buehrens and Church 1998:124). Most of the famous names claimed and repeated in
contemporary Unitarian Universalist storytelling were associated with the elite, educated
Unitarian church. While there is a pride associated with a lineage that includes Louisa
May Alcott, e. e. cummings, John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, T. S. Eliot,
Margaret Fuller, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, William Howard Taft, Millard
Fillmore and Susan B. Anthony, there also is a hereditary issue of elitism that continues
to plague Unitarian Universalist congregations. When the American Unitarian
Association was founded in 1825, it was established by a group consisting largely of
Harvard-trained Unitarian ministers for “the promotion of pure and undefiled religion by
disseminating the knowledge of it” (Ross 2001:7). The name Unitarian was adopted with
some debate since the name itself was derogatory to describe a heresy, and given by
others. Keeping the name and not “shrinking from it” was one of many examples of how
Unitarians have reappropriated words and imbued them with their own meaning.
Universalism came from more humble beginnings. John Murray emerged from
debtors prison after losing his wife and baby in England and sailed to North America in
1770 to start a new life. When his ship ran aground off the coast of New Jersey, he
encountered Thomas Potter who had built a chapel and was waiting for a preacher to
appear and spread the Universalist message. Murray not only preached his Universalist
faith from England, but became a traveling missionary in the mid-Atlantic states. At the
same time, George De Benneville was also preaching the message of universal salvation
in the mid 1700s in the same area. Universalism spread, through the work of many lesserknown ministers than those in the Unitarian faith, and attracted a wide base of selfeducated, less affluent, rural congregants. In 1834 the Universalists organized under the
Universalist General Convention. While it does not have nearly as many prominent
leaders filling United States history books, in 1863 the suffragist pioneer Olympia Brown
was ordained to the ministry. This is considered a proud moment in church history as the
Universalists were the first denomination in the United States to ordain a woman as
minister. By 1888, Universalism was the sixth-largest denomination, however, as the
concept of universalism swept through other denominations, there became less of a
reason for converts to leave mainline religions and their numbers dropped (Cassara
Both faiths overlapped throughout their history before merging in 1961. Joseph
Priestly delivered his series of lectures against the Trinity in a Universalist church before
going on to form the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (Scholefield and Sawyer
1993:61). One of the quotes that appears in introductory texts to explain Unitarian
Universalism to new members—and is frequently retold from the pulpit and in jokes
about the denomination—comes from a prominent nineteenth-century minister, Thomas
Starr King. Having served both Unitarian and Universalist churches, he said “The one
[Universalist] thinks God is too good to damn them forever, and the other [Unitarian]
thinks they are too good to be damned forever” (Buehrens and Church 1998:34; Ross
2001; Scholefield and Sawyer 1993:66). Unitarianism has historically focused on the
potential goodness of persons while stressing free will. Universalists see God as love.
Historically, they understood a benevolent God as loving all his children and therefore
would grant universal salvation. There was a missionary zeal from the self-educated
preachers within Universalism, while Unitarianism put more emphasis on formal
education and intellectual rigor. Knowledge, as the founders of the American Unitarian
Association stated, was the basis of finding a pure religion. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who
left the Unitarian ministry to establish the Transcendental movement, called his previous
group the “icehouse of Unitarianism” (Ross 2001:11) referring to the rational and
intellectual thrust of the group.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Unitarianism, primed with its focus on
intellectualism, reason, and rational thought, shifted its gaze from divinity to humanity.
Following Reverend John Dietrich’s lead in 1916, Unitarianism largely adopted this
“human-centered, scientifically minded, ethically focused” stance (Schulz 2003:44). In
1933 a number of Unitarian Universalist ministers, religious liberals and philosophers
issued “A Humanist Manifesto” which was revised twice in 1973 and 2003. The humanist
vein that runs through the denomination today continues to be strong with forty-six
percent, nearly half, of Unitarian Universalists identifying themselves as theologically
humanist according to a survey conducted by the Unitarian Universalist Association
(1997b). The individual, not an exterior source of divinity, holds ultimate authority.
The Legacy of Heretics
It did not take a shift to humanism to find a privileging of the individual in
Unitarian Universalism. The message of tolerance of Francis David in Transylvania
stemmed from a belief that scripture must be interpreted by the individual and led to a
declaration of the freedom of the pulpit. It was in this individual freedom that the notion
of heresy became so powerful a force in creating a Unitarian Universalist identity.
Unitarian Universalist history is also explained through stories of individuals. As John
Buehrens explains, “Having made this noncreedal tradition my own, I still find that what
I appreciate most within it are the individuals…Their transforming experiences tell us
much about this first source of our liberal faith” (Buehrens and Church 1998:22). As Joel
explained in his “Dangerous Church” sermon, many of the church’s spiritual ancestors
were imprisoned or killed for their independent and often nonconformist beliefs.
“Unitarian Universalists are ‘heretics,’” Richard Gilbert writes in his forward to
the Build Your Own Theology class handbook, “in the best sense of that word. Heresy
derives from the Greek ‘harein’ meaning to choose. We will choose our religious values,
not have them chosen for us,” he concludes (Gilbert 1983:5). In fact, one of the most
popular books explaining the Unitarian Universalist “attitude,” as Robert Fulghum (1998)
labels it, is called A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. For most
in the denomination “born Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, or into a secular or
“mixed” household, when it came time for us to affiliate with a religious institution we
sought one that fit our own thinking, not one that imposed its thinking on us” (Buehrens
and Church 1998:xx).
There are a number of assumptions that make this notion of choice possible.
Those who come to Unitarian Universalism are overwhelmingly liberal, both religiously
and politically (Unitarian Universalist Association 2006). They come to the church using
discourses of human rights, separation of church and state, and see their previous
religious experiences as too constrained or else they had no religious upbringing. They
seek a community of like-minded people where they feel comfortable to explore their
individual thoughts without being told what to believe. The Unitarian Universalist church
provides guidance on how to believe so they can pursue an agenda that already exists.
The discourses they use allow a phrase like “church shopping” to make sense. Church is
turned into a commodity where one can shop around looking for the best deal, the best fit
for a set of beliefs that already exist. Part of the “Unitarian Universalist attitude” is an
individualism that has already been cultivated within the larger society. As members work
to retain visitors and new members as well as the youth who have grown up in the
church, canvass songs and rallies are not only to ask for pledges, but are to continually
sell the church as the best and most reasonable option for spiritual development. At the
denominational level the new Unitarian Universalist Association marketing video, Voices
of a Liberal Faith, opens with a couple saying “we came for our children and we stayed
for ourselves” (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007i). There is an implicit choice to
that statement. They chose to stay in the church because it was fulfilling to them as
individuals for a variety of reasons, not because they felt obligated to stay.
Voices of a Liberal Faith also shows the close affiliation the Unitarian
Universalist attitude has had with liberalism. As the moderator, an elected member who
presides over the national conferences, states, “I think what I want folks in our
congregations to know is that, if there’s a candidate for the great American faith, it is us.
Take a look at who signed the Declaration of Independence, and you see our names there.
Three of the first six American presidents were Unitarian, and I’m pretty proud of the
country that we helped build.” Right after her, a minister explains how liberal theology
contributed to liberal politics. “This faith, the more I learn about it and discover, is
ingrained in the values that the American Constitution was put together with. It’s about
acceptance and tolerance and liberty and freedom to believe, which I think is inherent in
who we are as- as citizens of this country” (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007i).
Because they see their values aligning with the nation-state, and even more importantly
that their ancestors were the creators and shapers of those values, there is an added
authority of the reasonableness of these ideas and a weight to the agenda they pursue.
True diversity of ideas and tolerance are at odds, it seems with this prescriptive liberal
This agenda has helped Unitarian Universalism become a major religious
proponent for gay rights. In Joel’s “Dangerous Church” sermon he continued explaining
the church’s connection with gay rights advocacy. “After the service, we will be heading
to the Empire State Pride Agenda to accept our award. There aren’t many churches who
would even accept it but we are proud and honored. I will speak there about the agenda
we share as religious liberals. Our agenda starts with equality but we want more than
equality. Our ultimate agenda is a loving world. Our agenda is as big as the cosmos and
as small as two old men holding hands on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. We have an
agenda because what we want from our nation is the same consideration that any decent
person wants, simple fairness, a simple justice that serves us all and excludes no one.
Should we be powerful? Of course! Power as in the ability to get things done and shape
the world and our lives in our vision. To have power we must have an agenda and we
must work it. We must marry our spiritual agenda with the political.” Joel’s sermons, as
with most Unitarian Universalist ministers, draw off of current events and speak about
how to act in an ethical manner in the present. Throughout the sermon he references what
he calls the “right-wing religious agenda,” “the religious demagogues in the right-wing
think tanks,” and highlights how the Unitarian Universalist church would be one of the
few willing to accept an award from the Empire State Pride Agenda. He labels himself as
a “Spiritual Progressive” and part of the “Spiritual Left.” His message does more to stress
the church’s liberal identity and enforce certain boundaries of belief for belonging than
the loving world he explains as the ultimate agenda. This love is often referred to as
radical hospitality throughout the denomination and is a concept they struggle with given
their liberal agenda.
The Liberal Agenda
Liberalism, since its modern inception as a political project at the time of the
Enlightenment, has been described as the dominant political ideology in the Western
world and the basis for a secular society (Brink 2000; Talisse 2005). Liberal theology was
heavily influenced by the European Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the eighteenth
century (Rasor 2005) and shared similar underlying premises. Asad (2003) recognizes
Kant as central in formulating the modern concept of the autonomous agent and
influencing modern, secular European orientations to morality, secular public life, and
religion. Kant privileges Christianity as the closest option to the essence of “universal
religion” based on its unity of reason and priority to the human will (Connolly 2006). The
overlap in discourses between the political liberal agenda and Christian—namely
Protestant—thought has had a lasting impact in the United States. While Unitarian
Universalists argue that they are a liberal religious organization, a basic understanding of
normative liberal political theories is critical for understanding how they position
themselves within the wider religious and political landscapes of the United States.
Some of the most fundamental ideals of liberalism are the concepts of freedom,
equality, state neutrality, and the good life. While examining these concepts, Bert Van den
Brink (2000:10) reminds us that these are not empirical realities that exist in liberal
societies but rather should be understood as the core theoretical concepts of how people,
in political community, could and should live together. In this way they are ideals infused
with moral prescriptions, and for much of the history of liberalism, they have been
debated and critiqued.
Freedom is the cornerstone of liberalism. As Brink (2000:10) outlines, there are
two types of freedom. The first is the idea of “personal freedom,” in other words, the
ability for one to decide for oneself how to lead her life (profession or religion). This
reinforces the notion, central to liberalism, of the autonomy and importance of the
individual within the larger understanding of society. The second freedom is the
understanding that to be able to do this, others must also respect one’s decisions on how
to live, which requires the community to decide upon certain social, moral, and legal
norms that set the standards for all participants.
Equality has often focused on the equality of opportunity and is based on the
liberal fundamental right of all citizens to be respected as free and responsible persons
(Brink 2000:13). Therefore, individuals, as reasonable persons, should be able to
participate in the norms, principles, and procedures that govern them, and the society
should offer support to individuals so that they may reach their potential with equal
opportunities for well-being. This does not equate with everyone being treated equally,
but rather acts as a moral code to make accommodations for those who do not have the
minimum conditions with which to effectively use their rights.
The state, in supporting all individuals, should remain neutral toward all
competing conceptions of the good life. No one theological perspective should be
deliberately fostered by the state. This led to the justification for the legal separation of
church and state. In this way, religious groups should not be persecuted for practicing
their religion and living out different conceptions of the good life. The good life, pursued
by reasonable, rational, autonomous individuals is a question of introspection and the
definition of the good life therefore emerges “from the inside” (Brink 2000:11). What
constitutes the good life, is left up to the individual, so long as it does not infringe upon
the ability of others to also pursue their ideas of the good life (Brink 2000:15). Since
there are various conceptions of the good life, the notion of equality states that these
various conceptions are to some extent of equal value and should be welcomed. Liberal
theology, and consequently Unitarian Universalism, arose from these basic tenants of
The 1799 publication of On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers by the
German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher ushered in the modern era
of liberal theology. One of Schleiermacher’s lasting contributions was his conviction that
in creating a public theology—which would be intelligible to those outside the believing
group—“theological claims must be consistent with other areas of human knowledge”
(Rasor 2005:4). American theological interpretations were built from ministers in the
pulpits who emphasized a rational and experiential approach toward religion along with
stressing human goodness and benign benevolence. This approach was different from
orthodox Calvinism and was most prevalent in the liberal wing of New England
Congregationalism of which Unitarianism later seceded (Rasor 2005:5).
American Unitarianism and Universalism were born in the late 1700s during the
revolutionary period of U.S. history. The values of freedom, liberty, and democracy
fueled the growth of both denominations and their direct and ascribed ties to political
figures during early American history are abundant. As Harry Scholefield and Paul
Sawyer write, “suffice it to say that most of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence were what we would today call ‘religious liberals’” (Scholefield and
Sawyer 1993:66). This was followed with four United States presidents, John Adams,
John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft, and a claim to Thomas
Jefferson although he was never an official member of the Unitarian church. Politics, arts
and literature, and humanitarian efforts were all influenced heavily by the work of
Unitarians and many others who were not directly affiliated with any particular
congregation were friends and colleagues of many Unitarians and Universalists. William
James and John Dewey, leaders of American pragmatism, were close friends with
Unitarians and likely influenced each other.
The ebbs and flows of Unitarian Universalism within the last century also mirror
the progression of liberalism. As Rasor notes, liberal religion has embraced the notion
that “theology reflects the influences of its own social context” (Rasor 2005:12-13)
meaning that religious ideas should be adapted, restated, and tested within the values of
contemporary culture. This understanding might explain how humanism became so
prevalent within Unitarianism at the turn of the twentieth century. The Humanist
Manifesto, released in the early 1930s, was also a time when liberalism was flourishing
and inspiring millions of Americans under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (Brinkley
2007:78-79). This belief in economic justice and empowering the “forgotten man” along
with the “freedom from want” and the “freedom from fear” were other ideals that
resonated with the liberal religious agendas of Unitarianism and Universalism. As Joel
explains in his sermons, there is an agenda that goes with the church. Social justice and
action are central missions, and most importantly prescriptive in nature. This produces an
uneasy tension between the ideas of freedom, individualism, and tolerance on the one
hand, and enforcing the same values when they are not displayed in practice. Liberalism
is a project that is to be realized.
Canovan’s (1990:16) metaphor of the continually encroaching jungle helps
illustrate this conflict. She depicts a garden that is constantly threatened by the impending
jungle. Human rights within a liberal agenda must be upheld to protect individuals, she
argues, precisely because they do not naturally exist within the structure of the universe.
The jungle must be managed; the “other” must be defeated or made to conform to these
same ideals. Tolerance and diversity only exist insofar as the “other” maintains the same
general ideals of liberalism. This liberal project of urgent reform is also one of
“universalizing reason itself” (Asad 2003:59).
As Unitarian Universalists craft a liberal identity, they narrate a history of
individuals who are considered heretics because they used reason to arrive at new
interpretations of the scriptures. They align their past with those who were founders of
American democracy and place themselves alongside the agendas of the founding fathers.
They legitimate their agenda as transcending a privatized religious realm through their
connections to influential Americans who created many of the humanitarian institutions
within the country, such as the Red Cross. Heretics are defined as those who choose to
speak out against injustice. The Unitarian Universalist attitude is cultivated around the
notion of heresy as a way to emphasize a process of self-cultivation that requires
individual responsibility and demands a consistent assessment of authenticity between
belief and action. The agenda of the church, therefore, upholds the prescriptive agenda of
liberal discourse. They affirm there are many paths to truth, but in practice there are
certain paths that are privileged within the church and lobbied for at the level of the
nation-state. Throughout the Bush presidency, Unitarian Universalists spoke about
needing a place to be with like-minded people given the politically conservative
environment. They did not distrust the structure of governmental processes, but rather
were concerned about the level of authenticity with which they were carried out. In other
words, they criticized the Bush administration for not abiding by the rules that were set
forth by the governmental structure—a structure their forbearers helped to create.
Those who supported the Bush administration or considered themselves
Republican felt isolated within the congregations I worked with and some eventually left.
As a religious group who builds an identity on its unique diversity of thought and ability
to welcome all that seek to join, its paradoxical understanding of tolerance and even more
of radical hospitality toward others put this group in a precarious spot. Unitarian
Universalist ministers critique their denomination for becoming stymied and speaking
about issues without much resolve (Buehrens and Church 1998). The other outcome I
saw was that they became activists for an agenda that is not as neutral or all-embracing as
Unitarian Universalists might suppose. As Judd Owen writes, “in sum, a doctrine of
religious freedom must be neutral to background beliefs, but background believes are
necessarily already at work in an doctrine of religious freedom” (Owen 2001:7). A liberal
agenda is not neutral nor does it permit unlimited diversity. “A dangerous church,” Joel
concludes at the end of his sermon. “Dangerous because we have come to use our power
for our agenda of freedom.”
I squinted as the late-morning sun reflected off the concrete floor in front of me.
The rich wood-planked ceiling vaulted asymmetrically thirty, perhaps forty feet over my
head and plunged around this circular space to the ten-foot-high glass walls showcasing
the glistening snow outside. The stillness of the snow gave way to each pulsing P and S
on the temperamental sound system as the minister, in his dark suit, finished a sip of
water and continued the sermon. His excitement about Ralph Waldo Emerson amplified
his delivery style of punctuated pauses which now crept between syllables e-nun-ci-a-ting
During this final long pause he looked out over the congregation of roughly one
hundred and fifty people to watch them contemplate his repeated phrase: “the soul of the
holy.” I jotted it down in the notebook on my lap. As the sermon ended, a woman sitting
next to me leaned over with a warm smile and whispered that classes were starting again
the next week. Perhaps I would finally consider a sermon this year?
The first meeting I attended during my fieldwork was in this same space officially
called “the Chapel,” or sanctuary, two years earlier. It was the Preaching for Parishioners
class at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst led by two members of the
congregation. The lights cast a dim starkness over the twelve of us sitting in the hollow,
cold space that mid-March Wednesday night in 2006. I walked in clutching my Internal
Review Board approved introduction materials fully aware that the people I was
introducing myself to could be sitting on IRB committees at any one of the various
colleges and universities where a disproportionately high percentage of the congregants
worked. Research is not a foreign concept here. They are the researchers. And I had come
to research them.
I use the term “researcher” here not only to describe one aspect of many
congregants’ full-time employment. It also refers to a central practice in the Unitarian
Universalist attitude. A researcher is defined as one who searches or investigates
exhaustively. There is a strong discursive theological framework within Unitarian
Universalism where individuals are required to search for and examine their ideas and
actions thoroughly. The Unitarian Universalist attitude demands that congregants be
researchers in their process of self-cultivation. The anthropological researcher gazing at
the Unitarian Universalist seeker produced an uncomfortable tension at first. My
fieldwork was the active space where these two epistemological categories of the
“researcher” were concurrently crafted. Here, I examine my place as anthropologist
within the fieldwork and analyze how power flowed as I introduced my research to the
two congregations in Buffalo.
Flows of Power and the Researchers
Over the last thirty years in anthropology there have been sporadic calls to “study
up” (Marcus 2004b; Nader 1972; Priyadharshini 2003), “study sideways” (Hannerz
1992), or focus specifically on elite culture (Shore and Nugent 2002) in order to better
understand “the processes whereby power and responsibility are exercised at home”
(Priyadharshini 2003:420). George Marcus (2004b) pointed out that studying elites as a
separate focus of study is not nearly as interesting as the need to look at these groups in
the changing field of anthropology where elite groups are part of the larger “world
society” (Hart 2002). While Unitarian Universalists are “elite” in terms of both income
and education, I will not focus on critiquing them as powerful, but rather show how
particular discourses are reinforced with the flow of power.
Power, as Foucault (1990) argues, is not something individuals possess but rather
flows through practices. Individuals are always in the position of undergoing and
exercising power and as such they are the vehicles of power (Foucault 1980). In my case,
being the vehicle that underwent and exercised this power highlighted my own struggle
to both accurately represent my research and position within the church community while
participating as a non-member.8
Some might argue that my position, while not born and raised in Unitarian
Universalism, is that akin to the “native” anthropologist. Since most Unitarian
Universalists find the denomination in adulthood, my process of becoming involved in
committees, classes, and attending Sunday services mirrors the path by which many come
to consider themselves Unitarian Universalists. While it does present its own challenges,
I will focus on my shifting identity rather than on the fixed categories of “native” and
“non-native.” Moreover, I would argue that my location, situated somewhat
uncomfortably between researcher, observer, and participant, highlighted the subtle
“micropractices of persuasion” (Mahmood 2005:106) that mold a Unitarian Universalist
identity. Just as importantly, my own reactions to certain events and situations were a
constant reminder to question the discursive assumptions of my own position. Barbara
To become an official member, a congregant must sign the membership book and make a financial pledge
to the church. Some life-long congregants never feel comfortable signing the book but most do within a
year or two.
Tedlock (1991) labels this the “observation of participation,” in other words, the process
of examining these reactions and the reflexive analysis of one’s own participation in the
In the past, anthropological inquiry was mostly conducted with the “exotic” and
the “foreign other.” Ideas about Otherness remain central to fieldwork (Gupta and
Ferguson 1997:16). Seminal scholars in the field have justified their anthropological
fieldwork by saying that from their own Western perspectives, another culture’s
viewpoints were “odd enough to bring to light some general relationships…that are
hidden from us” (Geertz 1973:360-361). Looking at the debate about the credibility of
“native anthropologists” (Kanaaneh 1997) or whether any anthropologist is detached or
native to any culture of study (Narayan 1993) Matti Bunzl remarks, “Cultural differences
between the ethnographer and her people, it would seem, are still crucial to
anthropological knowledge production, even in this rethought and revitalized form of
fieldwork” (Bunzl 2004:436). Bunzl creates a critical genealogy examining this
hegemonic fieldwork tradition based on cultural alterity. He argues that it “reproduces
itself through the reification of cultural difference but also polices its boundaries by
rejecting as virtual anthropologists those whose difference is in doubt” (Bunzl 2004:440).
Dorinne Kondo provides an example of this when she recognized her reflection as
that of a typical young Japanese housewife. “At its most extreme point, I became ‘the
Other’ in my own mind…In order to reconstitute myself as an American researcher, I felt
I had to extricate myself from the conspiracy to rewrite my identity as Japanese” (Kondo
1990:16-17). Thus, when the researcher is studying in her own culture as a “native
anthropologist,” the underlying premise of cultural alterity as fundamental to
ethnographic fieldwork continues to underscore the research. In my case, the constant
struggle to define my position and to align my position with a specific identity of
researcher upheld the dichotomy of self and other. It was in my practice of negotiating
these positions where I now see how these various epistemologies of a researcher are
Fieldwork highlights how we as researchers shift identities. As Dorinne Kondo
(1990:23) notes, the issue of a negotiated, ambiguous identity of insider/outsider in the
field made this process more acute. Moreover, the move away from “village” research to
examining global flows and urban spaces (Marcus 2004a) makes it methodologically
more difficult to observe everyday practice and interactions where “workplaces are
dispersed and households are relatively inaccessible to the outsider” (Csordas 1997:xvii).
There are only certain spaces in which the researcher can present herself, especially when
introducing herself to others.
The Fashioned Researcher in Fieldwork Relations
I smoothed the now-wrinkled IRB papers on my lap and stood up after the first
Preaching for Parishioners class. I waited for my turn as others rushed in to discuss their
newly conceived sermon topics with the facilitator, Nancy. I began, “I met the president
of the congregation last week. He urged me to attend this class, said it would be helpful
for my research. Could I use a few minutes of the next class to introduce myself and talk
to the rest of the group before we begin? I just want everyone to be aware of my research
and have an opportunity to address any concerns they may have.” She agreed; I smiled
and sighed with relief, then walked out to my car through the snow.
The next meeting began, after some confusion and latecomers, without an
opportunity for me to introduce myself. Instead, Nancy called on me to present the
homework: an abstract of my sermon. I blushed and explained how I needed to be a
researcher and was going to be attending the meetings and observing. She promptly
explained to the group “Oh yeah, she’s an anthropologist and we’re her research
population.” Fifteen minutes later, she presented her own sermon topic “What is a
mother?” and explained the close relationship she developed with her mother-in-law as a
nurturer as opposed to her own mother who was an anthropologist.
At the third meeting a woman sat down next to me who had missed the second
class. Eventually she leaned over and asked why I was taking notes. As I started
explaining, Matt turned around and said, “You’re her rat. You know, the lab rat she is
studying. You know those cultural anthropologists.” I smiled meekly as I saw Nancy lean
over to him, roll her eyes and pronounce “Yeah, my mother was one!”
The initial ambivalence toward my research is in part due to discursive
understandings of “researcher” and “researched.” Of the interviews I conducted, a quarter
of the participants had PhDs and the rest had Master’s degrees.9 Working with a group
that has a high proportion of scientists, academics, and executives, my research
challenged their own position as researchers placing them as subjects of my investigation.
The expert relationships inherent in their various positions of scientist conducting
experiments, psychologist with patients, educator with students, manager with workers,
place them in positions of power with internalized notions of authority. The majority of
congregants listening to sermons on Sunday mornings are near or in retirement. As a
I have omitted the interviews with youth in this calculation.
doctoral candidate in my early thirties, I was often more than fifteen years younger than
those I worked with. While they accepted and welcomed the position of “Unitarian
Universalist student” in the expert relationship with the minister, the minister was not
analyzing and publishing their ideas and was there to morally support and encourage
them. My socio-economic and racial position, similar in that I am from an upper-middle
class background and white, does not challenge this relationship in the same way as age,
gender, stature, and position of researcher do.
The ways in which these perceived unequal power relations are played through
are revealed by the direct solicitation of my sermon abstract. I had told the facilitator after
the first class that I felt uncomfortable presenting a sermon, citing it as a conflict of
interest. Intended or not in the second class, her solicitation acted as a direct
confrontation in front of the group for me to identity myself as either an insider or an
outsider. Additionally,—when my identity was confirmed as a researcher, and thus an
outsider— it served as a segue to present my research to the group. Nancy shaped how
she perceived my role and affirmed her position as facilitator of the group. Instead of
presenting my research and offering class participants the handouts summarizing my
topic, she presented the group’s role as that of the research population. Her stress on this
term underscored her resistance to this unequal situation. She also solicited consensus
from others by making eye contact with the other ten people in the room playing on a
shared knowledge of the nature of being “a research population” by the other
professionals present. This validated their intellectual position, cemented this aspect of
their shared group experience, and cast me as an outsider researching the researchers.
This theme reemerged the following week when Matt, a young professional about
my age who recently had received his PhD. interrupted my research explanation and
referred to a woman loudly as my “rat.” Once again he facetiously defined those in the
room as observed and controlled animals in a position of subordination constructing a
perceived relationship I would have with them. The tone of the remark illustrated his nonsubmission. It also demonstrates how Unitarian Universalists use education to align with
their liberal agenda. Since individuals are responsible for their own quest for truth and
meaning, higher education is valued because it hones the skills to do so. They use
advanced education to lend credibility to their ideas as reasonable and intelligent. Later,
as we were leaving the meeting the woman qualified her education by saying to Matt “I
have multiple degrees but I didn’t understand some of the words you used in your sermon
abstract.” He responded that he had recently received a PhD and gestured with his arm
toward me as he pronounced “PhD.” On the one hand, the reversal of researcher and
researched challenged his position; on the other, he justified his authority and the link he
had to the position of “research.” He drew me into this elitist circle of jargon that we both
understood legitimating his sermon abstract. The woman had also used her education to
defend her ability to follow the Unitarian Universalist process while questioning his
Despite a tense beginning with those who would later be some of my most helpful
consultants and friends, stature, gender, and age connected me to those I worked with,
while situating me in a non-threatening role. Standing five feet tall, the reaction of new
acquaintances often was “My goodness, you don’t look old enough to be working on
your doctoral dissertation!” As Kondo writes “Though my status was in some respects
high in an education-conscious Japan, I was still young, female and a student…I was not
to be feared and obeyed, but protected and helped” (Kondo 1990:15). This has an
advantage of allowing situations to be undefined and permitting others to define them in
culturally appropriate ways.
As a doctoral student, the qualifying PhD was not yet after my name and many of
the participants sympathetically remember their days in graduate school. The statement,
“I remember when I was in graduate school,” on the one hand established a bond of
common experience yet reinforced that this individual had completed graduate school
and had gathered a corpus of additional knowledge working as a professional. When we
met for coffee or a meal, I offered to pay as a way of repaying the time spent doing an
interview, but was frequently unable, receiving statements like “I know what it is like to
be in graduate school, let me get it.” This acknowledged our income differences and
located me in a situation of needing their help, my age being close to many of their own
children. One mother of a teenager invited me to her place for the interview so that she
could “feed me” while I was there. This reinforced the age difference and the role that I
occupied as student. Both the roles of student and child are submissive roles to other
experts and authorities. My role as researcher was offset by these other roles in which I
was cast (or cast myself into by accepting these offers).
The first five volunteers for interviews were all older men near or past retirement.
In the first interview, I was asked a number of questions about my research, how I came
up with the research and my affiliation with the group. In another interview, the
respondent occasionally said, “Oh, that’s a good question.” He explained at the end that
he was saying that so I would know I should ask those particular questions to others.
After the interview ended he suggested other questions I should be asking and explained
how I should modify my methodology and analyze my interviews. Telling me to change
the way I was going about the research was helpful for my research, but it also reinforced
his position as the teacher.
In other interviews, statements like “I am sure you are already aware of…” and “I
am sure you will be reading…” acknowledged my position as scholar but positioned the
participants as scholars as well. “I am sure” could be simultaneously interpreted as a
subtle command or as a shared status between scholars.
As part of the research process, the researcher places herself and is placed by
others within a particular context. In introducing myself to Nancy, she was interested, as
most participants were, in why I was studying identity formation within Unitarian
Universalism and what my affiliation was to the group. Similarly to Priyadharshini who
studied MBA programs in India, “questioners were eager to know on whose side I was”
(Priyadharshini 2003:424). To establish rapport with the group before being well-know
within the congregations, I responded that while I had not been raised a Unitarian
Universalist, my parents now attended a Unitarian Universalist church. Later on, when I
was introduced as a member of the congregation or as the youth advisor, I wondered how
and if I should qualify or correct them. At one point, I found my picture on the front page
of one of the congregations’ websites with another individual’s quote next to my picture:
“It's a liberal religion... so here I am, with pagan, earth-centered beliefs and my partner is
a secular, non-practicing Jew. And we can both come here to participate in services,
coming together with our differing beliefs. It's truly an interfaith experience. And we
were able to have our inter-faith wedding here in this lovely chapel.” My identity was
being crafted for me. Outsider status was gradually perceived as insider.
In the beginning, my carefully chosen words were interpreted in different ways. I
was careful not to say whether I was a member at any church. I also did not immediately
volunteer my affiliation with the choir at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
But for members in that congregation, I did not “sing with the choir” but rather was a
member of the choir, and therefore—by participating—a regular churchgoer. At the time,
I saw my own choir affiliation as a place to sing with a high-level choir and a way to
meet people outside the university. The questions for my dissertation arose directly from
sitting in the choir thinking about what was presented during each Sunday service.
However, if I presented myself as such, it might have indicated a detachment and
skepticism about Unitarian Universalism that I did not want to portray to participants, but
felt compelled to justify to colleagues. However, this placed me in an ambiguous position
because it ascribed me to the group, often in ways that felt uncomfortable.
The risks of close interactive relations with participants, as Kirsch explains
include the potential “for participants to feel that they have been misunderstood or
betrayed, especially in moments when participants’ and researchers’ priorities diverge, as
many times they will” (Kirsch 2005:2163). Interview and research relations need to shift
from a relationship of expected friendship to an idea of friendliness, she argues. However,
while I agree that it might help the researcher situate herself better within the research, it
is difficult to foster a mutual understanding of this.
The Premise, Process, and Pursuit of a Unitarian Universalist Attitude
“This is not just a lecture or a talk, it is a sermon.” Nancy stated at the first
Preaching for Parishioners class. Her eyes lit up and her speech accelerated with the level
of her enthusiasm. “This should be something you are excited about and that is
motivating. Don’t be afraid, we are here to help you!” Her eyes glowed with satisfaction
that this was a well-known program throughout the Unitarian Universalist community in
western New York. The twelve people in the Chapel were there because they had
something to say. Some came with a concrete topic they had been thinking about, others
came with a general theme, but all shared a desire to share their thoughts with other
congregants in a very specific forum – the sermon for a Sunday service.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations follow the academic calendar with a
two-month summer vacation. Committees meet less often or not at all during July and
August, there are end-of-year picnics in June as the school year comes to a close, families
go on vacation, and so do ministers. During summer months, the attendance at the larger
congregations can be a quarter of regular attendance. Smaller fellowships may not even
have weekly services. Some choose to meet every other week, as is the case in
Hamburg.10 Some of the largest congregations in the area, such as the First Unitarian
Church of Rochester with close to one thousand members, have a separate full-time
minister leading summer services. However, most mid-sized congregations rely on layled services or guest-speakers during the summer months. Preaching for Parishioners was
developed at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst in the wake of a
denominational push to define Unitarian Universalism. It was designed by Carl Thitchner
Hamburg is located fifteen miles south of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo and has fifteen
members according to the Unitarian Universalist Association (2009).
in the late 1990s to increase the quality of the summer services since many visitors come
to the church at that time. Each year, this class coaches interested participants to develop
a “blurb” or a short abstract that will be included in the newsletter, and then, as a group,
to develop, present, and critique their sermons. With a mix of new and repeat participants
presenting a second, third, or tenth sermon, they see it as a dynamic and empowering
group-led forum to practice and polish sermon development and public speaking. It also
demonstrates the micropractices of how Unitarian Universalist identity is shaped in
particular ways.
Saba Mahmood’s (2005) concept of the “micropractices of persuasion” is helpful
for understanding this sermon-development class as a critical element for shaping
Unitarian Universalist identity. Mahmood uses this concept to explore how religious
lessons for women in the mosque movement in Cairo shape their understandings of piety.
After relaying a particular exchange between a female leader and her female school-aged
students, Mahmood writes, “What I am suggesting here is that this kind of exchange
presents a situation far more complex than any simple model of ‘religious indoctrination’
would suggest, and requires an analysis of the micropractices of persuasion through
which people are made to incline toward one view versus another” (Mahmood 2005:106).
I will use this approach to examine how the micropractices of persuasion transform
thought along a strong discourse of free choice and unique truth within Unitarian
The Premise: Freedom of the Pulpit and Pew
It is significant that Preaching for Parishioners is seen as empowering and groupled. The group works together to critique each participant’s sermon rather than having
one leader make the decisions. Group participants see this as a democratic process
eliminating the need for a hierarchical structure. Most see this as empowering because
they are given the freedom to develop their own ideas and then the support to refine
them. It is a dialogic process among lay members rather than mediated by a governing
voice within the denomination. As stated on their website, lay-led summer services
uphold their belief in freedom of the pulpit and pew (Unitarian Universalist Church of
Amherst N.d.). However, through a number of micropractices, this freedom of expression
is tempered significantly to uphold a particular Unitarian Universalist attitude.
The freedom of the pulpit and the pew is not unique to Unitarian Universalism; it
originated during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (Keyes 2003). The
earliest record of this concept in Unitarian history was in a decree to stop religious
persecution by the only Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania
in 1568. The king stated “in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the
Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation likes it, well. If
not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be
permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve” (Keyes 2003). In this analysis
of the freedom of the pulpit and the pew, the focus is twofold. The first gives the person
in the pulpit the liberty to express his interpretation of truth.11 Second, the members of
the congregation do not have to agree with the minister’s interpretation which illustrates
the freedom of the pew. This theology in theory allows for a wide range of diverse
perspectives and interpretations that may challenge all those listening. The independence
of each congregation from a central hierarchy and the understanding that both the
Gospel, in this case, comes from the Christian tradition of Unitarianism and is now discussed in most
Unitarian Universalist churches using the terminology of truth, life, belief or a number of other terms that
are not specifically linked to Christian terminology.
preacher and the congregant have the right to disagree and have their own diverse
interpretations is compelling for many members who have come from religious
backgrounds, such as Catholicism, where they did not feel they had this right. No
hierarchical authority has the ability to remove an individual from the pulpit. The
congregation is the ultimate authority to determine who is called to be the minister and to
assess whether that relationship continues to work.
However, precisely by exercising this freedom, is it severely limited. The second
point the interim minister makes, and the central point of his speech, was an emphasis on
congregational polity. The king’s statement stresses the congregation as judge of whether
the minister suits the congregation’s needs, not a hierarchical authority. What Keyes does
not question is what discursive practices are in place that would narrow the range of
diversity coming from the pulpit. There is always the possibility that the congregation can
remove a minister if the members do not feel compelled by his interpretations. This
reinforces the Unitarian Universalist principle upholding the democratic process. Seen as
similar to elected public officials that represent the interests of a group, ministers do not
have any sort of absolute authority over the congregations. He frames the question around
who has authority rather than questioning where the boundaries of this diversity lie and
the power relations that are inherently entwined within the discourse of freedom.
The Preaching for Parishioners class provides a venue to examine how these
freedoms are shaped. This congregation is one of the few to specifically define the
freedom of the pew and pulpit on their website,
To achieve community within religious diversity, Unitarian Universalists
hold two concepts dearly. The first is called the “freedom of the pew.”
That is your right as an individual “in the pew” to hold your own religious
beliefs. “Freedom of the pew” does not mean, however, that your beliefs
will not be challenged. You can expect a challenge, and a hard one, if your
beliefs are discriminatory, hateful or do not affirm the dignity and worth
of another individual. You can believe what you want but that does not
mean that others will want or accept what you believe. For example, a
neo-Nazi is not welcome in Unitarian Universalist congregations.
The second concept which Unitarian Universalists hold dearly is the
“freedom of the pulpit” or the right of the minister to preach whatever
truth he/she holds. This does not mean that those in the “pew” have to
believe it. They only have to allow the minister to state his/her case.
The combination of these concepts creates a kind of “religious boxing
ring” where debate and dialog, learning and mutual respect, can “duke it
out.” From this free exchange or “intercommunication” as Reverend Roy
Phillips calls it, comes dynamic truth, religious truth. (Unitarian
Universalist Church of Amherst N.d.)
The first principal in Unitarian Universalism, to uphold “the inherent worth and
dignity of every individual” underlies the justification for the “freedom of the pew.”
Congregants are extended the right and responsibility to hold their own individual
religious beliefs. In this description, the church outlines the Unitarian Universalist
process of dialogue that is required as part of the individual search for meaning. They
portray a boxing ring as a way to illustrate a discourse of free exchange especially with
lay-leadership and independent, rational thinking. Each participant is seen as contributing
equally which leads them in part to characterize the denomination as a “democratic
grassroots religion” (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007d) situated on the edge of
growth in a postmodern era. Their website offers an overview of Unitarian Universalism
targeting individuals looking for more information about the congregation, or Unitarian
Universalism in general, or who might be new to the church. It is therefore an
opportunity to specify their approach to religion and what holds them together as a
community; what makes them Unitarian Universalists.
There are two interesting aspects of this statement on the freedoms of pulpit and
pew. First, there is a statement defining the boundaries of Unitarian Universalist belief.
Second, it specifies when individual beliefs are to be challenged. By specifying under
what circumstances beliefs will be challenged and phrasing it within negative language, it
implies that Unitarian Universalism is non-discriminatory (inclusive), and not hateful
(loving). I would argue that it also indicates that those that really feel challenged are not
part of the community. This aligns with what is taught in the Preaching for Parishioners
The Process: Shaping the Unitarian Universalist Attitude
The summer lay-led services at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst are
part of this free exchange that provides different views while the minister is on vacation.
In upholding this commitment to a variety of vantage points, one Sunday a month from
September until June a guest speaker also provides the sermon at this church. This is
often a visiting Unitarian Universalist from another congregation, but not always. For the
lay-led block of summer services, the annual eight-week Preaching for Parishioners
course provides a space to screen and shape what ultimately comes from the pulpit.
Nancy’s eyes sparkled. “This program is known for being successful. You might
be asked to present in other places like Hamburg or East Aurora where they don’t have a
full-time minister. We are there for you. We’ll help you with the title and with the topic.
Don’t be afraid. This seems daunting, we know,” she nodded sympathetically at the
eleven of us still sitting with our coats on in the cold, dim sanctuary. “We can help you
exclude or add more. We are serious about helping you,” she exclaimed. “We want you to
have a good experience and have fun.”
Her eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly as her tone became more serious. “This is
not just a lecture or a talk. It is a sermon. It is a serious commitment. You will need
feedback. Try to follow the same sort of liturgy as the rest of the year. It makes people
comfortable. It is important for it to feel like a church because you will have as many as
forty to seventy people on a regular Sunday, maybe more. What this is not: It is not a
therapy session. It is not to complain about something. It is not for brow beating the
congregation. It is also not for personal gratification.”
Her eyes brightened again as she switched to explaining the purpose of a sermon.
“You need to enrich us. You can address the topic but it has to be a Unitarian Universalist
perspective. It shouldn’t be too personal but it has to be kind of personal. We will help
you to shape it. This doesn’t mean you can’t be critical, but it can’t be a vendetta. Oh, and
you need to be a member to do this. We want it done by parishioners.”
In just the first five minutes of this meeting the boundaries of the pulpit were laid
out more explicitly than in any other venue. She explained that a sermon is categorically
differentiated from a talk or a lecture. This is in response to the widely-held view by
many members and non-members who likened Unitarian Universalist church services to
academic lectures. What differentiates it from a lecture, she countered, is that there must
be a personal—as she later described, an emotional—component that connects listeners
with the speaker. It must “feel like a church” by using familiar categories, hymns, and
readings that support the message of the sermon. Comfort is a goal.
To “make people feel comfortable,” it is important to follow a standard formula
for the order of service. At this congregation, they usually sing “Spirit of Life” each week
and close with a specific benediction. While not all summer lay-leaders choose to do both
of these, if they are struggling for ideas, they are encouraged to use them, to look for
readings that support their message in the denominational hymnal or to search through
quotes of famous Unitarian Universalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David
Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, or Susan B. Anthony. Complaining and “brow-beating” are
not acceptable. Because it is not for personal gratification, the experience is more than
exploring a topic that the participant is interested in. The focus must be to enrich the
listeners with a Unitarian Universalist perspective. As such, the requirement of
membership is also intrinsically linked and helps shape what information comes from the
In the second session, Nancy summarized the first class for those who were
unable to attend. “A sermon must focus on what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. I
can’t emphasize that enough,” she stated firmly before adding, “there are many
newcomers to the church in the summer and it is important for newcomers and members
alike to see what Unitarian Universalism is all about.” In other words, sermons are key
tools to explain and maintain Unitarian Universalist identity. She encouraged each
participant to develop his or her topic using the fives stage approach outlined in the class
packet. Participants must follow a formula for the sermon to pass the group critique
A first-time participant interrupted Nancy’s summary and asked if there was any
flexibility with allowing non-members to develop a sermon. She paused and chose her
words carefully. “Let’s just say that some who were not members were a little bit deviant.
But we also have parishioners that have not given good sermons. We need to be able to
say that it is not ready. We want you to do a good topic.”
This explanation would suggest that members are expected to be less “deviant”
and more invested in the group having already adopted the Unitarian Universalist
attitude. She then referenced the concept of group thought and explained the importance
of shared ideas. This presents a paradox in the freedom of the pulpit. The gate-keeping to
the pulpit usually ensures that the ideas that come from it are those shared by listeners,
even though the preacher should independently interpret meaning. There is a filtering
system of allowing only members, preparing the sermon based on the five stage
approach, sharing it in front of a group of seasoned presenters, and having it “pass” or be
told that it is “not ready.” Each of these filters narrow the diversity that the freedom of the
pulpit ostensibly upholds. One veteran class participant told the group, “let us help you
modify your topic. To say you can’t is so un-Unitarian.” Nancy looked at him and
immediately added, “This might be a better way to put it: feedback is priceless.” To hold
a Unitarian Universalist perspective is equated with the ability of the individual to revise
her stance and understand why her presentation needs to be modified based on logical,
rational discussion. Foucault (1995) would view this as one of the deepest forms of
regulation: self-regulation. Through these initial sessions, participants are educated about
what is acceptable and what is not. Many change the topics they brought to the first class.
The process of group critique is posited as the ultimate democratic venue to receive help
in preparing a sermon. It is also one of the more intense sites where Unitarian
Universalist values are internalized and presented to the larger congregation, or multiple
congregations if the presenter is asked to repeat the sermon at other locations. I would
agree with Mahmood (2005) that this is not a case of simple “religious indoctrination”
but rather is a complex field of micropractices of persuasion. It produces polished,
comfortable sermons for the listeners that challenge them only to the extent that they are
not viewing the world around them with a sufficiently Unitarian Universalist perspective.
About fifteen minutes into the first session, Nancy exclaimed, “Freedom of the
pulpit, do you know what that means? It means you can say what you want but there is a
caveat, you cannot leave us beaten down. It has to be uplifting at the end.” The anatomy
of a sermon, as outlined in the handouts for the Preaching for Parishioners class, is
likened to a TV series plot. It reads, “there is tension or trouble because of some
discrepancy or flaw that exists in a given life situation. The sermon then is a progression
of the thought development which gradually reveals the missing key ingredient which
solves the problem by enabling new perspectives on the problem to enter the listener’s
own thought processes.” The first stage of hope should shake a listener’s equilibrium
with a situation that disturbs her. The handout provides an example, “we want to express
love universally, but too often when we extend ourselves in helpfulness, we are scorned
or rejected.” They remind class participants that people come to church carrying their
own problems and should feel accepted, not assaulted. There is a conflicting duality
presented here. For one, the sermon should produce a slight tremor and challenge the
ideas of the listeners. But recognizing that each person is seeking a church community for
a variety of reasons and may have their own personal difficulties in their lives, the tremor
must be accepting. One cannot push too hard or alienate.
Stage two is explaining the threat of the problem and why the problem exists. The
handout provides an example, “bright persons are turned off by conventional religion
because they view it as being based on false premises such as inheriting a corrupt nature
from Adam and Eve.” The sermon should explore possible solutions to satisfy the third
stage of hope. In the class, there is an emphasis that there is no one true way, and that
individuals are urged to find their own meaning of truth. The freedom of the pew also
echoes that sentiment. In likening stage three to a detective story, however, the manual
urges participants to craft the sermon so it tempts listeners to blame the wrong
“suspects.” With clarification, “the answer seems self-evident to everyone” and more
importantly, is not just explained but experienced. The hope is that listeners will be
nodding or smiling, giving feedback that they internalize this point of view. The wellcrafted sermon is a vehicle to shape the discourse of independent thought while also
instilling the Unitarian Universalist attitude in listeners. As the sermon unfolds, the
listeners should arrive at the acceptable solutions just before the speaker reiterates her
position. Listeners feel they have arrived at the answers themselves and are reinforced
that others also feel the same. Moreover, if the speaker has constructed a sermon that
resonates emotionally with listeners, they experience the situation through the sermon
making solutions seem self-evident.
This class is as much a lesson on Unitarian Universalist identity as it is a lesson on
shaping a sermon. The examples given identify the beliefs of the group, their perceived
problems, and the Unitarian Universalist perspective and principles offer the guidance to
overcome these impediments. This ties to stage four where the listeners “can benefit from
the ‘good news’ of our religious perspective. Remember,” the packet states, “sermons
must contain HOPE and BENEFIT.” The answers, it suggests, come from a Unitarian
Universalist religious approach such as “science, education, clear thinking, and unselfish
love.” As the leader stated, “it is great if you can tie it into the seven principles and the
reasons we have all chosen Unitarian Universalism. We are together on this wonderful
journey.” The concluding remarks—stage five—should be memorized and recited
resolutely not only to signal that the message from the pulpit has ended, but also to avoid
any hesitation or uncertainty with the delivery. A firm conclusion leaves less ambiguity
surrounding the Unitarian Universalist perspective. Identity is reinforced without
threatening the discourse of individual thought.
After her summary, Nancy modeled the format of the second class by presenting
her sermon abstract. One by one, participants voluntarily took their turn behind the
podium to present their abstracts. One man struggled deciding between two topics, “I like
the grandmother one because it is personal but I want to work in truth, meaning, and
being liberal into the sermon,” he confessed. Another was told to make her abstract less
tedious and invite the congregation to participate. “Don’t say ‘join me today while I do
this,’ instead tell them how they will think along with you,” Nancy suggested. Abstracts
are published in the newsletter and are a marketing tool to attract an elusive summer
population. Here, not only was Nancy helping a young new member make her abstract
more exciting, she was also conveying the Unitarian Universalist process whereby each
individual is required to think independently along with the preacher. Congregants are
always expected to have an active role in their own self-cultivation.
Linda was next. She had prepared an abstract likening Unitarian Universalism to a
Portuguese Man-O-War. She laughed as she recounted it later “I didn’t know what to talk
about, so I went home and started thinking. Well obviously the first idea was the
Portuguese Man-O-War thing, and I thought that was so cool,” she explained, laughing
again in hindsight. In the second class she had read her abstract, called “the blurb” to
participants. She presented how the church is like the four sets of species that make up
the Man-O-War. They are separate entities all working for a common goal, she stated.
One participant interjected, “if I were to read the blurb over the summer in the newsletter,
I wouldn’t know what this person is trying to do.” She replied, “I want to show how the
church community is diverse and different than others. Here, we work together, but
almost parallel. No one can take that journey with us. We aren’t molded into the same
process,” she said. Her understanding of Unitarian Universalism after experimenting with
the Congregational Church, Judaism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Wicca, and with a
long period of no religious affiliation was that Unitarian Universalism provided a
different approach. She saw it as having a community of similar people exploring their
own individual paths. The search is free and the process is not determined, she
Looking back two years later, she recounted how the other participants reacted. “It
was knocked down. And when you get knocked down it is done firmly, but gently and
politely.” The group responded to her blurb with a number of comments.
“What about that journey? You have been to a lot of different churches, so how
did you get here? Are you saying this is a spiritual oasis?” one person asked.
“Perhaps you could say how Unitarian Universalists are like a symbiotic being.
Most Unitarian Universalists know what a symbiotic being is,” a man added.
“I like the idea of the spiritual oasis,” another concurred.
“Ask them to join you in your spiritual path. People will come if they feel good
about themselves,” a woman added.
Nancy looked at her watch and realized they needed to move on to the next
abstract. “For next week, do it again in written form and we can talk about it more,” she
concluded, but not before one more participant remarked,
“And look up another benign symbiotic being. We don’t want to think about
getting stung with your analogy. Plants are nice and friendly. Think of something less
distressing than a Portuguese Man-O-War.”
Linda laughed again as she sat on her couch with me, “it somehow morphed to
just telling my story.”
In the ten minutes Linda was allotted to present her abstract and receive feedback,
she reified a discourse of individual free-thinking within Unitarian Universalism. In her
abstract and her explanation of it, she emphasized how the Unitarian Universalist
community is diverse in thinking and does not mold members in a process. She found the
church and continues to attend because it allows her to be independent and determine her
own path and provides a vital community with which to share this journey. At the same
time, she was actively participating in a group process of shaping her abstract and her
ideas. Together, they were molding her sermon topic to fit within a particular framework.
Beyond helping her clarify her abstract, the group felt uncomfortable with the negative
connotations of a Man-O-War and relating that to the church. Participants were more
interested in her background as a member of numerous churches over her forty-five year
search. They urged her to explore that topic instead.
The “religious wanderer” theme within Unitarian Universalism is a common
narrative that fascinates and resonates with many members. Most adults in the
congregations grow up within a different religious community and subsequently join
Unitarian Universalism. I would argue that difference becomes central to Unitarian
Universalist identity because so many members experience Unitarian Universalism in
comparison to their previous religious affiliations. In Linda’s case, she had constructed an
abstract that highlighted how Unitarian Universalism functioned differently than the other
faith communities of which she had been a part. But as she explained to me later, it was
easy to switch topics and recount the religious journey that led her to Unitarian
Universalism. In each church, she found aspects of community that she enjoyed yet
theological tenants that ultimately sent her seeking again. As she captured this journey on
paper, she continued to focus on the elements that were unsatisfying, and different from
the Unitarian Universalist attitude. As she switched her topic, she simultaneously upheld
the liberal discourses of diversity and independent thought within Unitarian
Universalism, while shaping her sermon based on the guidance from other class
Six weeks into the Preaching for Parishioners class, Linda stood at the podium
once more with the ten-minute version of her sermon in hand. During the second and
third classes, each participant presented an abstract. Starting with the fourth class, three
participants per night presented a ten-minute version of their sermon to the group. Each
was allotted a half-hour to present and receive feedback, and Nancy was an effective
timekeeper. After this round of feedback, some participants were urged to share another
full draft with Nancy and her husband Robert if they were struggling and needed
assistance. Otherwise, participants were then on their own to expand the short version
into a twenty-minute sermon and choose the other elements for the service.
Before Linda began, Nancy reminded the group, “this is a maiden voyage for
Linda, so let’s give her some extra help.” She was not accustomed to public speaking and
was nervously waiting to read. She began, “When I was in my late teens, I asked my
mother how a person could know which church is right.” She paused as she looked up
and settled into her reading. “She told me that it would be impossible to find a church
whose teachings fit all a person’s beliefs, so the best thing to do was find the one that’s
the closest match, and do your best to support it. I spent the next forty-five years trying to
do just that,” she continued. When she finished her sermon, there was a brief moment of
silence before they started the feedback. The group was notably impressed.
“The writing was exquisite,” one said.
“The content was fantastic. I like how you strung it together,” added another.
Others gave suggestions of how to expand it, where they wanted to hear more.
They wanted more detail about each religion. They asked if she could think of some
language to make it sound more exciting rather than peaceful. They liked how it was not
overwhelming and showed her progression. She was cautioned not to denigrate other
groups but rather examine her language and explain why each religion did not fit. To
uphold a discourse of diversity and acceptance, participants were urged to craft their
comparisons between Unitarian Universalism with other religious groups in terms of
personal preferences. The other groups may work for some, Linda later wrote, but they
did not work for her. Here, individual choice is the mediator between difference and
acceptance. This discourse of individualism is beneficial because it allows Unitarian
Universalists to continue to shape a discourse of difference—both referring to the
diversity within the church but also the characteristics that set Unitarian Universalism
apart from other religious traditions—while upholding an ideal of acceptance. Other
religious beliefs are not labeled as good or bad but rather as fitting or not fitting with an
individual’s understanding of truth.
The last suggestion that Linda received before taking her seat drew on the appeal
of her personal experience at other churches. One member exclaimed, “you really test
drove a lot of options,” and was followed by another suggesting “you could make it cute
and lively if you use a theme of test driving cars.” This is similar to how congregants
refer to their search as “church shopping.” Both of these metaphors reinforce a discursive
understanding where individuals are expected to look inside themselves to find their own
answers, and therefore seek a religious organization that best upholds their ideas.
Linda had received some of the most positive feedback from the group throughout
the class. Her writing style was clear, but more importantly, she had shaped her topic to
appeal to a Unitarian Universalist discourse: that of the narrative of the religious seeker.
She had entered into the class already having incorporated much of a Unitarian
Universalist attitude, and had followed the guidelines of the class carefully. She rattled
off Nancy’s tips on how to construct a sermon and how these guidelines had been helpful
to her as a newcomer to the class. She explained to me how the Preaching for
Parishioners class was a vital component to opening up the pulpit to a variety of speakers.
“Otherwise, I don’t think you’re going to get any new people,” she said, referring to how
intimidating a sermon would have been for her without the class. “If you have people
who are academic people—like a number of ones who already do the sermons—who
know how to prepare class lectures, they would probably be able to do it without that
class guidance,” she explained and then paused to think. “Although everyone needs
guidance. Even the professors and such wind up needing our critique to help them along.”
Guidance was a critical component of the class for all participants, and a vital aspect of
the empowerment she felt. “So if congregations do have lay-led services,” she continued,
“I don’t think that new people would come without a class like this. This class helps get
rid of the ‘overwhelmingness’ of it all. And then when somebody has completed the class,
that will probably lead to them participating in other church activities they hadn’t thought
they could do before.” Linda defended the class as a fundamental tool for enabling a wide
range of voices to be heard from the pulpit. It provided a forum of discussion and
collaboration for participants at all levels of ability and enabled each to shape the
outcome of the entire collection of summer services. Empowerment, for her, signified her
ability and responsibility to contribute to meaning making within the church in a space
that felt equal among all participants. She was able to engage in a process of groupcultivation while learning how to apply these skills to her own self-cultivation. As Nancy
explained, the idea of group thought is the underlying agenda for the class.
Linda remembered that one participant became upset with feedback he received.
“People were saying, ‘if you would approach it from this other way, we would get a lot
more out of it.’ If someone had done that with mine, I would have said ‘Okay, I will do
it.’ So you have to be prepared for the honest criticism and listen to what the group sees
in your sermon that needs to be changed.” Here she models how participants should act
regarding the critique. She admits that participants are not obligated to take the
suggestions of others, but they should be open to those suggestions and incorporate a
number of them to make their sermon better. To not accept reasonable feedback from
others, one participant stated, is “so un-Unitarian.” Throughout the class, the individual is
molded to conform to a Unitarian Universalist attitude of engaging with the ideas of
others and accepting those ideas to conform to the expectations of the task. Together as a
group, they policed the ideas of one another to conform to the specific format of a sermon
that is polished, intriguing, resonates emotionally with listeners, and leaves them feeling
hopeful about themselves and Unitarian Universalism. Over the eight weeks of class,
Linda became skilled at shaping the “right” sermon topic and continued afterwards to
design a summer Sunday service that would support her message of finding a unique
religion in Unitarian Universalism, which provided her with a diverse community to
support her individual pursuit for meaning.
The Pursuit: Narratives of Seeking
It was now July. The lay-led services of the summer were half through as the
humid heat of western New York came into full force. Linda greeted me with a nervous
smile but was ready to start. She was leading her first Sunday service. The main entrance
to the new wing of the building faced out on an expanded half-paved, half-gravel parking
lot bordered by woods. In a thinning area of trees, silent construction vehicles on their
day of rest waited to continue the new housing development next door. The parking lot
filled with a mix of minivans, SUVs, and a fair number of Prius and Lexus logos.
Flowing brightly colored skirts, khaki pants, cargo shorts, polo shirts, t-shirts and jeans
emerged from the cars. Brown, black, red, blonde, and pink hair framed the mostly white
faces that passed through the entrance each Sunday. When the announcements began just
after ten thirty in the morning, many were still standing in the aisles exchanging summer
news of family vacations, backyard events, and plans for future vacations. Slowly, the
remaining congregants took their seats on the honey-colored wooden benches that fanned
out from the pulpit. “Won’t you join us for a coffee hour after the service? Newcomers
are invited to speak with members of the welcoming committee after the service.” The
usual two members of the committee rose to state their names providing visitors with a
friendly face to talk to after the service. “A reminder from the Economic Justice Task
Force that Al Gore will be speaking about global warming at the Chautauqua Institute on
July twenty fourth. Carpools will leave the church at six in the morning. Religious
Education classes still need more volunteers for summer Sundays or there will be no
child-care provided. In August there will be a weeklong Chalice Camp for children to
learn about Unitarian Universalism from eight thirty until noon daily. Contact Judy if you
are interested.” Three weeks later the announcement was that the Chalice Camp had been
cancelled due to “lack of interest.” The plea for volunteers to teach Religious Education
to children during the upcoming school year would be a stable fixture each week from
August into September. Like the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, the
announcements start each service and allow everyone to be settled. They alert the group
to upcoming church activities, events, and community news of interest such as available
theater tickets, local NPR events, Chautauqua Institute events, and social action
opportunities for upcoming talks or to write letters to a congressperson.
At this congregation, the prelude and chalice lighting follow the announcements
and differentiate, as one minister explained, the sacred space of the service from the
secular, everyday business of the church. A different participant lights the chalice each
Sunday, while the rest of the congregation reads from the printed order of service. Each
week, the congregants declare in unison “We gather this hour as people of faith with joys
and sorrows, gifts and needs. We light this beacon of hope, sign of our quest for truth and
meaning, in celebration of the life we share together.” The service had started.
Linda’s service was filled with familiar readings and music. As she recalled, “I
got the sermon in place then sat down with the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook and of
course the Kahlil Gibran which I knew from the past. I knew I wanted the song set to
Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Less Traveled.’ Kathy helped a lot with the other music. Her
suggestion of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘A Place in the World’ (see Appendix 4) was
perfect. But mostly I went through the hymn titles to see if any of them seemed to fit and
the same with the readings. And I looked, and looked, and looked. That did require a
number of hours.”
The Call to Worship, following the chalice lighting was one such reading. It
started, “Look to this day…for yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision;
but today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a
vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day” (Unitarian Universalist Association
1993:419). Unitarian Universalism is involved with beliefs and actions in the here and
now, explained the former historian of one congregation. Individuals may or may not
believe in an afterlife, but the church focuses on guiding them in their current lives as
responsible individuals. This reading reinforces this view, concentrating on living well in
the present. The responsive reading that followed later in the service answered how to
live well. “It matters what we believe,” they read as a group. To live well is to hold
beliefs that are expansive, flexible, uphold sincere differences in a world community, and
are gateways for wide vistas of exploration (see Appendix 5). This reading was a favorite
among the congregations I worked with, providing a guideline for individual seekers but
also employing a discourse of uniqueness of Unitarian Universalism from other religious
Here, Linda took advantage of a reading that was familiar, interactive, and
comfortable for the congregation, to build on her theme of the religious journey.
Throughout her sermon, she explained how she moved from one religious home to
another but the beliefs were always too restrictive. In the responsive reading, the
congregation emphasized how Unitarian Universalism does not have beliefs like blinders
and walled gardens, setting it apart from the unspoken traditions it refers to that comprise
the religious histories of most Unitarian Universalist congregants. Through this reading,
they shared Linda’s journey and made it their own. They reinterpreted their past
experiences through their Unitarian Universalist attitude and affirmed the path they have
The other reading Linda selected by T. S. Eliot foreshadowed a main theme in
her sermon. “What we call a beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a
beginning. The end is where we start from,” she read. “We shall not cease from
exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know
the place for the first time” (Unitarian Universalist Association 1993:685). This reading, I
would argue, is similar to the process of constant reinterpretation required to construct the
self. Linda looked back at her religious journey as a path that led her to Unitarian
Universalism. She reinterpreted these events and determined the relevant components to
her story by being at a current end point gazing back. Her narrative, then, was a
reordering of past events to make her end-point relevant and meaningful. Her journey,
she explained, began with the single step of questioning in search for what was already in
her heart from the start. She began by questioning her mother about what to look for in a
church and then spent the rest of her journey questioning each new religious home. As
she examined her journey, she placed her reading of Kahlil Gibran’s (1952) The Prophet
as central to her search. It took her forty five years to have the capacity to look inward
and discover in words what Gibran said was always known in thought. As she presented
her sermon from the pulpit, she was no longer nervous and her voice was steady. The
speakers echoed her even-toned voice beautifully throughout the large, bright space. “I
needed someone to tell me the words that were already inside me—but so deep inside I
didn’t even know they were there.” She outlined her involvement in the Congregational
Church of her youth, a crisis of faith in college, and subsequent interest in Judaism. She
briefly became involved with a Unitarian Universalist church where she felt anonymous
in the large congregation. “For some reason,” she admits, “I just wasn’t ready to become
a UU. Perhaps I had not yet done enough searching.” She was contacted by Mormons,
became involved, married, and raised a family in that church, but despite the community
she enjoyed, the teachings did not fit. She began the search again. A voice teacher
introduced her to Christian Science where she stayed for a while until she recognized that
her faith in medical science was greater than her faith in the church. As she interpreted
this journey, she was searching for answers from congregational leaders. She was looking
for experts to give her answers but the answers never aligned entirely with her own
experiences and understandings. She already shared a liberal discourse privileging the
individual who should choose a path and look inside the self to verify meaning. In the
end, after twenty years without any religious affiliation and a brief interest in Wicca, she
attended a Unitarian Universalist service again and found that it aligned with her own
belief system. As she read each of the six sources of the living tradition outlined in the
Principles and Purposes (see Appendix 1), she explained how they aligned with her own
experiences and bridged the gaps that had existed for her in previous affiliations.
Linda’s narrative of her religious journey was well received by the congregation
with a number of laughs, nods, and intense interest as they watched her speak. She had
strong themes that resonated with congregants beyond her specific explanation of the six
sources of Unitarian Universalism. There was a commonality that linked each religious
phase in her life and ultimately led her away from it. She interpreted this through the
discourses of inner truth, questioning, authenticity, and a constant characterization of
otherness throughout her narrative.
Linda painted herself as one who constantly questioned throughout her life,
starting with her questions about church to her mother. She was searching for answers but
was unable to find them. Looking back, she interpreted her search as successive attempts
to find a church that fit all her personal beliefs. Her mother’s answer was that there would
be no church that would satisfy that criteria but she urged Linda to find the one with the
closest match. Here, her mother’s advice indicates her mother’s reliance on a liberal
discourse that favors the individual. Personal beliefs, she might have argued, are
developed individually and then assessed against the requirements of a religious group.
Being a member of a Congregational Church, Linda’s mother most likely found that
church to be the best match since Congregational Protestants are also included under the
framework of liberal religion, drawing on many similar discourses as Unitarian
The difference between Linda and her mother, she explained was that “unlike my
mom, I needed to accept all a church’s teachings, or I would feel like a hypocrite.” By
explaining this to the congregation, Linda draws on the notion of authenticity. To comply
with the Unitarian Universalist process, one must be authentic, meaning that beliefs and
actions should match. Actions should be intentional and assessed within this process. One
should not “go through the motions” for fear that these actions become less authentic, and
therefore, Linda’s need for authenticity was never satisfied with previous religious
In each of her examples, she constructed a duality between who she was and what
the church represented. One by one, she illustrated how something was wrong, and she
became the other. Difference emerged in her objection with singular truth. “I realized the
truth and beauty found in the words of all great religious leaders; I just couldn’t accept
the belief that any one of them was teaching me the only path to God, and that an
adherent to one must cast aside the truths taught by all the others,” she explained, looking
out at the congregation. She drew comparisons among religions to validate her decision
to become a Unitarian Universalist.
She is an unusual example of someone who attended a Unitarian Universalist
church for a time and then went on to explore a number of other religious traditions
before returning. When she first attended a Unitarian Universalist church, it was in the
1960s, just after the consolidation of the two denominations. The Unitarian Universalist
Association was recently established, and the thrust toward a more cohesive
denominational identity with the Principles and Purposes and the current hymnal were
two decades away. Her ability to stand in front of the congregation that Sunday morning
she attributed to the Preaching for Parishioners class as well as the “New to UU” class
she had taken earlier that year. Both are venues where Unitarian Universalism is taught
and did not exist the first time she had attended the church forty years before.
As she spoke, I listened to the additions she had incorporated to her sermon based
on the feedback she received from class. In a number of places, she specifically linked
herself with those in the congregation, building a notion of community and actively
inviting them to join her in the process of journeying. But in other places, she had subtly
changed the generic second person “you” to an “I.” As she spoke about the expectations
of congregants in other faiths, she transferred this generic person to a more personal self
where she could claim her experiences as her own and then explain how they did not fit
her beliefs rather than criticizing another group. She walked the fine line between
acceptance and critique, welcoming and othering. By utilizing a personal “I,” she had
heeded the group’s suggestion that she be less dismissive of other groups so as not to put
them down. By shifting her language to personal experience, she could explain her
actions within a discourse of her own free choice and how certain other beliefs did not
align with her own. “Each of these faiths was creed-based and my problem was not with
the values they taught but the creeds they were based on.” Linda emphasized this point
by adding sections about searching for a religion that was not creed-based, but rather
value-based. She also incorporated Unitarian Universalism rhetoric in her revisions to
explain her journey. Drawing from common phrases she had heard, she modeled how her
path should be interpreted from a Unitarian Universalist perspective into a cohesive
search that led her exactly to where she should be. She explains that throughout her
search, “although I couldn’t pinpoint what I believed, I knew what I didn’t believe.” She
then evoked Gibran to demonstrate how she was struggling to find the words to articulate
what she felt in her heart. For her, the classes at the Unitarian Universalist church did
provide the answers she was looking for, but she saw it as giving her the tools to look
inward rather than being forced on her.
Linda concluded her sermon with a reference to the song her daughters had sung
earlier in the service. It now held a special meaning for her. She spoke deliberately
emphasizing certain words, “Many times in my life, I took the road more traveled—the
road of creed-based religion. But finally, after decades of wrong turns, I took the road
less traveled—the road of values-based religion, and that has made all the difference.”
She took a sip of water letting her distinction between Unitarian Universalism and other
religions permeate the thoughts of her listeners.
Although the sermon was over, she remained at the pulpit. She spoke again, “I
was so impressed with the words to the next hymn that I would like to read them before
we sing.” She beckoned the congregation to internalize the words rather than sing them
as part of a weekly ritual. This hymn, set to the familiar Christian tune of Winchester
New, has lyrics that demonstrate a Unitarian Universalist discourse and strongly reflect
the values that Linda upheld in her sermon. She read them with conviction before the
piano player began to rhythmically pound out the chords for the congregation to follow.
As tranquil streams that meet and merge
And flow as one to seek the sea,
Our kindred hearts and minds unite
To build a church that shall be free—
Free from the bonds that bind the mind
To narrow thought and lifeless creed;
Free from a social code that fails
To serve the cause of human need:
A freedom that reveres the past,
But trusts the dawning future more;
And bids the soul, in search of truth,
Adventure boldly and explore.
Prophetic church, the future waits
Your liberating ministry;
Go forward in the power of love,
Proclaim the truth that makes us free (Unitarian Universalist Association
Linda’s service exemplifies many of the liberal discourses that Unitarian
Universalism upholds. She reinforced a strong sense of individualism that remains at the
core of Unitarian Universalism and showed through her participation in the Preaching for
Parishioners class how the Unitarian Universalist process takes place. She allowed the
group to mold her topic into an acceptable choice and then followed the guidelines of
how to craft a sermon so that it would conform to a Unitarian Universalist sensibility.
Utilizing the denominational hymnal, she reinforced her ideas with readings and music
and then asked congregants to self-reflect rather than act as passive recipients. Her
service was an exemplary model of what Preaching for Parishioners hoped to achieve. In
it, we start to explore how belief, truth, authenticity, and empowerment are crafted within
Unitarian Universalism.
“It matters what you believe,” (Unitarian Universalist Association 1993:657)
wrote the often-quoted religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs. “Please turn to reading 657
for the responsive reading.” Tim Ashton, the minister, started the reading on Sunday
morning from the gray hymnal after the low rumble of a congregation rising to its feet
and the last few rustles of flipping pages subsided.
“Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the
feeling of being especially privileged,” he read, landing on the word “exclusiveness” with
a slight emphasis.
“Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies,”
the congregation responded. Those attending the Sunday service continued taking turns
reading the positive beliefs to contrast with each set of undesired beliefs the minister read
to them.
“Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown
“Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.”
“Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from
“Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify
the pattern.”
“Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own
“Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.”
“Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood. They blight the growth of
“Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.”
“Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.”
“Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward
thrust of life,” the congregation concluded (Unitarian Universalist Association 1993:657).
After the service, I chatted with the volunteer at the welcome table. Between her
conversations with new visitors, she remarked how that reading was her favorite and
summed up her understanding of Unitarian Universalism. While some members have
expressed less enthusiasm for the reading, it does resonate with many of the members of
each congregation I visited, especially those who have come from Catholic or Orthodox
traditions. Its repeated recitation at the two congregations I attended attests to its ability
to define Unitarian Universalism for its members. It is clear from the tone of the reading
where Unitarian Universalists position themselves, what types of beliefs are accepted,
and which ones are rejected. This liberal religious group adamantly rejects an imposed
belief system, or creed. Unitarian Universalists position themselves within the landscape
of U.S. religious groups by rejecting a fixed belief system in favor of individually
determined, flexible beliefs. Each member is encouraged to seek his own understanding
of truth and meaning based on individual experience.
Over the last few decades, anthropologists have moved away from essentializing
statements like “the Azande believe…” in part because they questioned the concept of
“belief” as a projected category for many indigenous groups imposed by the researchers
themselves. As the focus shifted toward rituals and practices, belief has been reified as an
inward state within the literature (Kirsch 2004; Rappaport 1999; Ruel 1982). While there
is some inquiry about whether rituals and action inform belief or belief informs action
(Bell 1992), many scholars concede that the two are integrally related and mutually shape
each other (Carlisle 2008). The problematic part of this understanding of belief, Kirsch
(2004) argues, is that it is still posited as a state rather than believing as an action in itself.
There is a correlation between Kirsch’s work and the Unitarian Universalist
population of this study. The high percentage of Unitarian Universalists who have found
the church during their adulthood, and the relatively common narrative of having
multiple religious affiliations before the Unitarian Universalist church marks an
unusually high mobility of religious affiliations within the denomination. Kirsch argues
that there is a particular disposition created within the cultures of southern Zambia to
explore other religious options when they are not receiving the results they expect. This
stems from a shared understanding about the uncertainty of a desired outcome when
healed by practitioners. In the end he argues that these are not conversions where there is
a “profound and systematic change in one’s understanding of the ultimate conditions of
existence” (Kirsch 2004:707) but alterations. As is often the case in Unitarian
Universalist narratives, congregants repeat that the church “fit” their beliefs despite
having numerous past religious affiliations. This suggests a certain permanence of the
core values and meaning that an individual has, since stories of conversions like the ones
described in born-again Christian groups are rarely heard in a Unitarian Universalist
setting. They understand their beliefs as being informed by many discourses and
acknowledge these in the second half of the Principles and Purposes statement as the six
sources they draw from.
In his analysis, Kirsch (2004) looks closely at the discourses already employed
within the culture of study that influence the mobility between religious affiliations and
then connects these with a more permanent discourse about “believing.” When belief is
viewed as action and connected to the discourses that shape it, there are two results. First,
the dichotomy between thought and action is minimized. Second, belief moves from an
inward process to one exteriorly shaped.
Steven Carlisle (2008) links the thought processes of the individual mind with the
discourses in society in his explanation of synchronization. Arguing against the concept
of internalization that he sees as too deterministic, he seeks to bridge individual
experience with socially monitored interpretations of the experience to explain the
persistence of a belief in karma among middle class Thai Buddhists in Bangkok. He
argues that it is a redefined understanding of synchronization that connects the personal
with the social to understand the concept of belief. He explains that “the rules that govern
the projective system are negotiated publicly, and allow people to synchronize their
interpretations of personal experiences, creating the sense of a shared experiential reality”
(Carlisle 2008:194). In other words, it is through the public negotiation of rules that
personal experiences are mapped onto a shared experiential reality. Carlisle (2008) sees
narrative as the vehicle of interpretation for these experiences and through the sharing of
narratives, these explanations of karma are monitored and corrected by others. His
explanation of this process is critical for understanding how Unitarian Universalists
connect experience with their religious identity, and more importantly, it highlights the
micropractices in place that lead to a narrow shared experiential reality within Unitarian
Universalism. By combining this with Kirsch’s view of believing as a process, I examine
how it is that Unitarian Universalists come to similar strong beliefs while maintaining a
conception of diversity.
Before the offertory one week, Joel stood up in front of his congregation with the
microphone. Most Sundays he tells a joke before the collection plates are passed and this
one is a denominational favorite. “A Unitarian Universalist comes to a fork in the road.
The sign pointing right says, ‘To Heaven.’ The sign pointing left says ‘To a discussion
about Heaven,’” he laughed in anticipation. “The Unitarian Universalist will invariably
head left!” Before he had even finished half of the joke, I heard voices around me reciting
it as others began to laugh before the punch line.
They laughed together about the centrality of discussion within Unitarian
Universalism to ascertain meaning, but more importantly, they affirmed a number of
common beliefs that attract members to the church. The church affirms its focus on action
rather than fixed beliefs. A familiar mantra is “deeds, not creeds.” In this understanding, it
is the present, rather than death and a possible afterlife that is of concern. They focus on
living one’s daily life in positive ways rather than on salvation. This comes from the
humanist leaning of Unitarianism throughout the twentieth century and a strong
determination not to follow beliefs blindly. In many ways, this joke defines the
boundaries of the unspoken other: a Christian or Catholic belief system abandoned by
roughly seventy-seven percent of contemporary Unitarian Universalists (UUWorld 2004).
As the woman at the welcome table explained, “I was a Baptist growing up. If not
everyone goes to heaven and others seem so nice, it doesn’t seem like the right attitude. I
don’t like the top-down God idea but rather that God is all around and in everything.
Thinking is hard, though. To have to think for yourself is scary. I wish I could be more
like my Irish Catholic husband who just believes, but I can’t.” She explained her irritation
when he would not engage in conversation. “‘What do you think about…’ I will say, and
he says ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’” In this narrative, she quickly identifies her
religious background and sums up what the defining characteristics were that alienated
her from a Baptist belief system: the hierarchical notion of God that most Unitarian
Universalists reject and the question of salvation. Her response echoes the idea of
universal salvation that universalism historically promoted. She also identifies the
difficulty of individual thought and belief. In a church that rejects an imposed set of rules
and creed, the process of individual discovery and thinking is held in high regard. The
individual is central to belief and therefore each person should look inwardly to come up
with his own beliefs. In fact, this might be considered a rule in itself following Carlisle’s
(2008) description. Unitarian Universalists often explain individual discovery in contrast
to Christian beliefs. Here, she characterizes her husband by labeling him as an Irish
Catholic who simply believes without questioning or subjecting his beliefs to rigorous,
rational thought. She positions him into the “follower” category that Unitarian
Universalists reject. Sometimes they echo her statement of wanting to just believe, but
they are compelled to question. This is also central to many narratives. As she laments,
she is interested in the discussion and conversation about these ideas and is disappointed
in her husband’s unwillingness to engage in the debate.
“I am part of the new members committee,” she stated, standing next to the
welcoming table. Earlier that morning she stood during the announcements before the
Sunday service to identify herself to any visitors present in the congregation. They were
instructed to talk with her after the service to learn more about the church. Next to her at
the welcome table, she had a few pamphlets the congregation purchased from the
Unitarian Universalist Association, copies of the monthly newsletter, a signup sheet
where visitors could leave their contact information to receive further copies of the
newsletter and receive communication from the minister or the new members committee.
She also had a tray of mugs and a separate pot of coffee so that visitors would be more
willing to spend a few extra minutes talking before leaving the building. The regular
coffee hour was always held in the Emerson Room beyond the back of the Chapel. The
welcome table was set up right at the back of the Chapel so that a visitor would have to
walk by before leaving the service.
Visitors come most Sundays to the church, but in small numbers. Many Unitarian
Universalist congregations struggle not with attracting new visitors, but rather connecting
with them sufficiently for the visitors to keep coming back or for new members to
become involved enough to stay in the congregation long term. She continued, “I think
we should all be more inclusive. So many groups are not,” she added, referring to other
religious groups. As she talked to me, another woman stood by silently listening to her
explain how she understood the Bible and Jesus. “The Bible is a good book but I don’t
believe it is ‘the truth,’ you know? And Jesus was probably a prophet but not necessarily
resurrected or the Son of God. I think many have it wrong—what Jesus would do—like
my neighbor. But I wouldn’t stop talking to her even though I don’t believe the Bible
literally like she does. I engage in discussion with her about her beliefs. It matters what
we believe. You know that reading in the hymnal? It sums up my beliefs pretty well.
Here, I have an extra copy.” She handed me a typed version she had printed on her
computer of the reading. Here, she exemplifies what many Unitarian Universalists term
the “loose-leaf Bible.” Most Unitarian Universalists do not dismiss the Bible entirely.
They look to the stories as metaphors that inform their understanding of model behavior.
It is also common for Unitarian Universalists to see Jesus as a historical figure, focusing
on the teachings of his life instead of an actual resurrection. She subtly constructs
boundaries with the reference to “What Would Jesus Do” that many Christians use as a
guide and dismisses their interpretations of Jesus’ intentions. She continues to engage her
neighbor in discussion employing a Unitarian Universalist discourse that dialog is the
best approach to belief. Ending by handing me her typed copy of Sophia Lyons Fahs’s
statement, she positions herself within Unitarian Universalism and uses a written
statement to summarize her belief.
For her, the Unitarian Universalist church is not a place that divides, but rather
unifies while valuing “sincere difference” which adds beauty, and pliable beliefs that are
always growing with the “upper thrust of life.” By contrasting this with beliefs that are
walled, exclusive, fearful, rigid and impotent like the “body of death,” she further
reinforces the boundary between a perceived orthodox or fundamentalist religion which
shuts off “the power to choose one’s own direction” and the positive belief process of
Unitarian Universalism. By sharing her story, she is connecting with those who visit. She
had learned various sharing methods to retain visitors and new members at a recent daylong membership workshop. In addition to offering her story, she asks me early on in the
discussion what brought me to the church. My responses were cues of how she could
connect the Unitarian Universalist attitude to my motivations. It is through these
exchanged narratives that visitors are informed about beliefs held in the church and the
vital role of discussion within the church.
Individualism continues to be central in Unitarian Universalist identity despite
numerous calls for more emphasis on community (Bellah 1998; Rasor 1999). However, it
could be argued that it is this focus on individualism that makes Unitarian Universalism
so appealing to many of its current members. Many of them attribute their main motive
for switching religious affiliations to this freedom of thought.
Tim, the minister at this congregation, recounted Joyce’s religious history during a
Sunday morning sermon, another example of the “liberal religious seeker” narrative. Like
Linda’s narrative, he told how Joyce moved from the Episcopal Church to the Unitarian
Universalist Church as she put it, “because here I have the freedom to be able to think.”
Tim continued to explain how the lack of imposed beliefs drew Joyce to the church. “Her
understanding of the freedom to believe what you want was deepened by two traits in the
Unitarian Universalist congregation. First, we don’t assume what you believe and think
or who you are until you tell us. But we are not bashful and ask. Then second, we want to
talk in a disciplined discussion. We try to get into dialogue, share, and respect. And we
make people human. We listen respectfully and share what we think. This teaches people
how to correctly assert themselves. This is part of our fourth principal.”
This liberal thread not only of the right to but also the responsibility of freedom of
thought is cultivated through the pulpit. The minister used one congregant’s story to
affirm a commonly held belief and reinforce a Unitarian Universalist identity. He offers
the freedom to think as her main motivation for leaving a previous church and her
satisfaction with the Unitarian Universalist Church. He explains that her predisposition to
this liberal ideal was further reinforced within the church. Stating that Unitarian
Universalists don’t assume what a visitor or member believes reinforces the values of
diversity and tolerance that the church affirms.
However, I would argue that members do assume more about a visitor’s or
member’s beliefs than they would like to admit. These assumptions have been the source
of numerous conflicts throughout the church and a number of people at both
congregations have admitted that members sometimes do leave because they do not feel
accepted or welcome. Those who stay and are most satisfied are those who ultimately
hold similar beliefs, or are in accordance with the Unitarian Universalist process of
believing. The freedom of thought is one value held alongside seeking a community
comprised of “like-minded people.” I would agree and would go farther to state that these
two apparently juxtaposing beliefs work together to define a specific Unitarian
Universalist identity but also are one of the main stumbling blocks to growth. First, let
me look at how a notion of inner belief is constructed within Unitarian Universalism.
Belief Within
Unitarian Universalist history is constructed and retold through the stories of
famous Unitarian Universalists and their friends. While they argue that by looking at
individual stories it keeps the focus on action rather than belief, I would suggest that it
also keeps the focus on a strong current of individualism. The intellectuals, the social
service founders, and the poets all are recognized for their unique contributions. But
perhaps it is the stories of heretics that most saliently uphold the model of the free
thinker, willing to die burned at the stake for an uncommon set of beliefs. By labeling
themselves as counter-culture progressive thinkers and referring to themselves as
heretics, they are reinforcing that Unitarian Universalists are free thinkers. As the
Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, given to new members, explains, “For Unitarian
Universalists the individual is the ultimate source of religious authority” (Schulz 1993:2).
It is through personal inward reflection and experience that each individual shapes a
personal faith. Emerson and Thoreau are quoted in sermons and readings for their
emphasis on inward examination. Religious educators explain in meetings with fellow
teachers that “real learning happens when the answers come from within ourselves.”
They urge Sunday school teachers to craft lessons so students think and examine their
own ideas. The goal is not for students to regurgitate answers but rather to internalize an
approach and look inward to come up with their own beliefs. Readings in the hymnal are
chosen because they highlight the need to trust in individual thought. One example is
William Ellery Channing’s statement on the free mind.
I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward
circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse...which
protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower
to human opinion…which resists the bondage of habit, which does not
mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues (Unitarian
Universalist Association 1993:592).
In each of these statements, the mind is called on to critically assess experience,
question assumptions of others, and reject beliefs that are passed down in a hierarchical
fashion. In many ways, Channing, a formative Unitarian minister from the 1800s, was
constructing a division between a liberal Unitarian approach and other religious
institutions of the time. This approach—the need for individual reason and critical
reflection to construct a unique belief system—is thus reaffirmed weekly during Sunday
services through formal avenues. It is also reinforced by referencing the fourth principle:
the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The Seven Principles are likened in jest as the Unitarian Universalist version of
the Christian Ten Commandments. The difference, Ross (2001:100) explains, is that the
Principles and Purposes can be revised and rewritten if or when they are perceived to be
inadequate. In that sense, they are a “living document” which changes to meet the needs
of the people it serves. Unitarian Universalists explain that rather than a creed, the
Principles and Purposes are a covenant that members freely enter into. Despite these two
differences, there is a sense of “creeping creedalism” that many have noted in the way the
Principles and Purposes are used within Unitarian Universalist congregations. In large
part, these principles were developed during a time of institutional struggle to define
Unitarian Universalism. Two different ministers explained to me that there has been a
shift in the demographics of the congregations over the last generations. Many who
joined the church thirty, forty, or more years ago tended to be the humanists and activists
who were looking for a less institutional religious option, especially in the 1960s and
1970s. Now, the younger generations with young families seeking the church often have
no prior religious affiliation. The ministers explain that these new members are not
escaping certain unsatisfying dogmas or creeds, so the Principles and Purposes work well
to explain where the denomination stands on a number of beliefs. They also work well to
help prepare their two-minute “elevator speech.”
Because Unitarian Universalism is difficult for members to concisely explain,
they are challenged by many ministers and other lay leaders to develop an “elevator
speech,” or a brief statement about the duration of an elevator ride. This practiced
response helps them articulate their personal beliefs and situates them within Unitarian
Universalism when others outside the church inquire.
There is some discrepancy between Unitarian Universalists about whether these
principles are actually beliefs at all. One visiting minister sees them as values instead of
beliefs. Joel views them as more ethical rather than spiritual and explains his struggle
with the Principles. They are not poetic enough, as far as he is concerned, but he also
acknowledges that the list of principles was voted upon and was a way to meet the
denomination’s long-term goals. “But we all debate and we see it from different angles…
Asking what Unitarian Universalists believe is like asking a Rabbi’s favorite cut of pork.
It just doesn’t make sense.” Here, he affirms in front of the class of new Unitarian
Universalists that there can be no essential Unitarian Universalist belief list thereby
highlighting the individual journey that each person must take for her spiritual beliefs. He
added, “this is a practice of relationship, how to practice the spiritual journey together. It
is hard work to understand other religions and hard to understand and practice this faith.
If it isn’t right for you, that’s okay. And if it is, great. So why does this institution exist?
Only because it is serving people and our spiritual paths through these meetings.”
The church provides a community where individuals can practice together in
classes, Sunday services, and meetings. The journey of continued exploration is
important and necessary for being part of the group and requires a particular process of
believing. The dialogue in community provides a venue in which congregants share their
beliefs so that they can critically assess their own ideas as well as the ideas of others. Joel
tells the class, “You know what is the challenge to me? That someone believes differently
and I can then think about my own beliefs.” The dialogue and internal assessment of
one’s own beliefs in light of others’ beliefs are how individuals shape personal belief.
This discourse reconciles the primacy of individual belief along with the necessity of a
church community. The community, therefore, is vital to establishing belief and the
growth of the individual. In the next section I examine the micropractices of persuasion
that shape the interpretations of individual experience to a commonly held belief system.
Commonly held beliefs within Unitarian Universalism, I argue, do make sense and are far
more prevalent and narrow in scope than many admit.
Experience Reconciled
“Welcome to the New UU class! There is coffee over on the side table; please
help yourself. You know coffee is the vitamin C of Unitarian Universalists.” The eighteen
visitors and new members laughed at the minister’s joke, one of many that circulate about
the importance of coffee within Unitarian Universalism. Through this joke and the many
that would follow informally during coffee hour, committee meetings, or formally from
the pulpit and religious education classes they take, new congregants slowly build a sense
of what Unitarian Universalists value and how they act. Many soon heard another ending
to the familiar light bulb joke. After this class they would better articulate a discourse of
individualism and diversity found in the joke’s punch line: “We chose not to make a
statement either in favor of or against the light bulb. However, if you have found in your
own journey that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or
compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb and
present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service in which we will explore a
number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three -way, long-life,
and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.” (Pentleton 2008)
A few class participants left the large circle for a cup of coffee as Tim paused. We
all sat in the Emerson Room, a newly renovated room between the Chapel and the
kitchen with vaulted ceilings and numerous round tables pushed to the side for our event.
This was now the main large event room for the congregation. There was a large paper
easel in front of the group, but the minister started with a familiar approach. He looked
around the group and asked, “What drew you to this church?” With this singular question,
the group was asked not only to explain why they were now attending the church, but
what qualities attracted them. This question also allowed plenty of space to contrast a
previous religious affiliation and for each person to state what he rejected as well. This
process of each having a turn to talk is often associated with the fifth principle, the use of
the democratic process where all voices are heard. It also helps Unitarian Universalists
practice the third principle of “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual
growth in our congregations.” The group eagerly shared their stories as we went around
the circle.
“I am new to the University at Buffalo and have been exploring.”
“My New Year’s resolution is to know myself better and move on a path, but I
don’t believe in God.”
“I was brought up by hippies and didn’t want to be something I wasn’t. This is a
good middle ground.”
“You know, it hits you intellectually here as well as religiously.”
“I am devoted to evidence-based practice.”
“I was a six year old with questions from Kansas, went to Catholic schools and
then didn’t go to church at all for thirty years. I need something and this looks
“I found it on the Internet.”
“I moved back to Buffalo because of family and found family at this church.”
“This is like a lecture series every Sunday and I like it.”
“I come from a Catholic background and have been searching for something
“My nephew was missing church and we wanted to give him community as well
as for ourselves.”
Many confessed a lack of depth they felt with a prior religious faith or an interest
in an intellectual, evidence-based process. The services were likened to lectures, which
are often associated with knowledge and intellectual reason and rigor. Others came for
the community and connection where they felt comfortable with others.
Tim lit a small candle in a unique clay chalice in front of the group. The reading
addressed the necessity of community and the process of the class ahead. “At times our
own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause
to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us” (Unitarian
Universalist Association 1993:447). It was another familiar reading for anyone who had
attended services at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. This was the first of a pair of
two-hour classes to explore Unitarian Universalism for those who were new to the
church. At this congregation, they called it “New to UU” while other congregations had
names like “New UUs” or “UU 101.” Of the three area congregations where I attended
these classes, they followed a similar format. They all started with a sharing period, gave
some background information about the history of Unitarianism and Universalism, talked
about the logistics of what would be expected if someone signed the membership book,
explained some of the history about the rituals such as child naming, the chalice, flower
communion, and then left plenty of time to answer questions. There were a number of
long-time members of the church present to give their stories, help answer questions and
make the focus less on the minister who might be leading the session.
In Tim’s chalice reading, the rekindling of a light by others acknowledges the
process of discussion and narrative within community that gives energy and knowledge
to an individual. He then proceeded with another reading, a favorite of religious
educators by William Ellery Channing, “The great end in religious instruction is not to
stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own…not to impose religion upon
them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment”
(Unitarian Universalist Association 1993:652). He looked up letting the words float into
silence. The reading was to prepare the participants to do the work: the process of
creating beliefs that were uniquely theirs, but which held a moral code against which
experience could be evaluated. This class would provide that code, and would teach the
process by which individual experience would be reconciled with this code.
“First, we would like you to take a piece of this paper and write a timeline of your
religious journey or I like to call it the ‘Who am I’ journey. We do this because people
ask, are other people like me? So do this by yourselves. You can use this room, use the
tables, or go to another room.” Individual reflection is the first step to map the
experiences that are most important to each person. Even though we were all working
independently, this exercise made us categorize experiences we saw as religious. Most
participants mapped out affiliations with religious institutions or “spiritual” periods with
no set affiliation. It was used as an exercise to demonstrate the diversity of paths while
affirming the commonalities of all the paths.
We spent fifteen minutes in silence until we had finished our timelines. When we
gathered as a group, Tim said, “Our purpose now is to make acquaintances, see what we
hold in common, and tell stories. We order our stories and see the meaning of our lives by
telling the story.” Following Carlisle’s understanding of synchronism, participants
actively formed projective systems where the rules of these systems are publicly
negotiated. The group took turns for the next hour holding up their timelines and telling
their journeys to each other. In one salient case, there was an exchange between Deborah,
a long-time member, and one young man that shows how these projective systems are
created, thereby also defining a particular discourse within the church used to develop an
institutional identity.
“I was raised Lutheran and was told I would go to hell. Then I got into
transcendental meditation for a while, and then the Nation of Islam for a while and it
didn’t feel quite right.”
Deborah jumped in asking, “Why was it not right?”
He responded, “Well, I wanted to extrapolate from all religions.”
“And they tell you what to believe there,” she interrupted.
“Yes,” he answered.
The “rules” or guides that are formed have to do both with the Unitarian
Universalist church and with other religious institutions. From this conversation in front
of the rest of the group, the Unitarian Universalist church is characterized as inclusive;
individuals are encouraged to look for religious guidance from many sources. It also
suggests that in other religious institutions—the Nation of Islam in this case—
congregants must be followers and are not allowed to use other religious traditions for
inspiration. While it is not clear from this exchange why this man was told he would go
to hell within the Lutheran faith, other narratives within the group explained how they
would question beliefs and their validity within the church and the Bible in their
Congregational, Catholic, and Methodist backgrounds and received reprimands as
Another participant contrasted the Unitarian Universalist environment by saying,
“It’s like a lecture series. I’m not preached to, I’m getting information and it’s thought
provoking. In fact, I took my eleven-year-old son to the church and he said ‘Gee, a
church where they let you think!’” Her narrative focused on the informational quality of
the services that raised questions she could reflect upon individually. Often, children are
quoted in adult conversations as “authentic” insight about how the church operates and its
focus. In this example, she affirms her son’s interest in the church and his apparent
comparison to other churches. She stated a very similar narrative in her introduction. It is
through this repetition across each of the participants, sometimes multiple times
throughout the evening, that they all learn Unitarian Universalist patterns of narrative.
The ability and requirement to think is reiterated repeatedly. The value of finding a
community where they felt their beliefs fit was also stated numerous times.
After sharing their stories for an hour, the last long exercise of the first class was
to collectively contemplate the “commonality of experience.” It is in the last discussion
that the rules are defined, that the identity is solidified, and the experience mapped to a
common grid. Again we went around in a circle providing an opportunity and an
expectation for each person to speak. Each response was subtly evaluated with a nod,
affirmation, or silence, and in turn each response was more and more positive.
“Everyone seems to have found refuge at a UU church.”
“I like that everyone is in line with social work here.”
“When we paired up, we had a lot in common.”
“I can be myself here.”
“We all came from a lot of dabbling and then found a sense of home here where it
is comfortable.”
“People here are interested in learning and looking at things with a different
“I get the sense that everyone came from some other place and had questions.”
“We are such a diverse population with many ages but it is refreshing here where
you can truly be exactly who you are. This is rare in the world.”
Many nodded at this last statement while a few threw in a verbal affirmation. The
minister concluded with, “you are all right. This is a congregation of seekers and we are
The rules were becoming clearer as the process was modeled and practiced
throughout the evening. In this last exercise, they collectively mapped personal
experience to the rules by summing up common themes yet recognized and emphasized
the diverse paths that led each person to the church. The unspoken rules go something
like The Unitarian Universalist church is accepting, unlike other religious institutions.
Each person has a very different path, but they arrive at the same place where they feel
comfortable. The church therefore accepts all different types of people. The people who
are here are similar and are educated and intelligent because it is hard work to come up
with individual beliefs. Even though we come up with the individual beliefs alone, we
must share them with others to test if they make sense. When others affirm our beliefs, we
know they are reasonable and sound.
As they started to wrap up, participants were given a few more rules to guide their
beliefs. Each person was given a copy of the book the Unitarian Universalist Pocket
Guide (Sinkford 2004), a copy of the Unitarian Universalist Association brochure
Unitarian Universalist Origins (Harris 1998), and a wallet sized card (Unitarian
Universalist Association 1995b) with the Principles and Purposes printed on it. They
were instructed to look at other texts produced by the denomination to learn more. One of
those texts is A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (Buehrens and
Church 1998). Robert Fulghum, well-know author and Unitarian Universalist minister,
asks in the forward whether there is dogma within Unitarian Universalism.
Yes and no. We agree that individuals must work out their own religious
conclusions. We agree that we will disagree on those conclusions. We
agree to respect those differences. We agree to learn from one another
through dialogue about our beliefs. We agree on a process and the tools to
be used in the process (Buehrens and Church 1998:xi).
Here the rules are explicit. In the end, it is the process and the tools that are critical to the
action of believing, not necessarily the details.
However, many have been much more vocal about defining a set of beliefs, even
if they are very general, to unite the group. As one middle-aged man told me during an
early interview “The great thing about this church is that you can believe anything you
want!” While there are some people who will claim this, I heard an adamant rebuttal to
this statement more often than hearing the statement itself, from ministers, lay leaders,
workshop and class facilitators, and even from the youth. They refer back to the
Principles and Purposes as the minimum beliefs that one must adopt to be a part of the
group. As we finished up the New to UU class, Deborah summed up how she uses the
wallet version of the Principles and Purposes as an example to the class. With an ironic
twist she stated, “I carry one of these with me at all times and when people ask what I
believe, I whip it out.” In this last statement, she subtly reduces the beliefs to a set that
everyone at the church holds in common. The discourse of diversity is maintained while
the diversity of belief vanishes.
A Sunday morning just a few weeks before at the other congregation, Joel had just
finished his sermon and was leading the prayer and meditation. From the pulpit he
lowered his head and closed his eyes and many of the congregants followed suit. “I love
this moment,” he said. “The atheists will meditate, the theists will pray. What a beautiful,
crazy thing we are doing together, creating among us a way of being one people.” The
diversity of belief is a critical component of a discourse on Unitarian Universalist
identity. There are details that differ from person to person and some consider themselves
Buddhist-Unitarian Universalists, Jewish-Unitarian Universalists, Pagan-Unitarian
Universalists, or Christian-Unitarian Universalists, among others, and may believe in a
concept of God or not. Some, if not most, identify with humanist ideas and if one is to get
past a question of semantics such as using the word “God” or “Love” or “Spirit of Life,”
most of the concepts are understood similarly within Unitarian Universalism. What many
Unitarian Universalists struggle with is a question of semantics and the associations
attached with these words. As one minister responded to a person who commented that he
did not believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are I don’t
believe in him either.” This statement again builds a commonality of belief against a
perceived Judeo-Christian conception of God.
While Unitarian Universalists do not homogenously believe the same details,
there are a few paths that are much more accepted within the group than others.
Buddhism, paganism, and a general awe of nature are prevalent ideas along with
humanism, but there is little acceptance toward those who still consider themselves
Christian, conservative, Republican, or question human rights activism. As long as the
details don’t stray very far from the norm, there is diversity, especially at the
congregational level.
Through these micropractices of sharing and crafting narrative, individuals learn
the styles which receive more support, learn the details that should be included and those
which should be omitted as well as the phrases that resonate with others. It is through
their participation that they best learn the process. The participants construct their stories
in socially favorable forms, which in turn stabilize these common beliefs. Through their
telling and the listening they connect the experience-infused narratives with the doctrine.
This experience, as Carlisle (2008) outlines, makes doctrine into reality connecting it
closely to that which is personal and felt. This connection to feeling is a theme I will
explore in more depth in the following chapter. For now, I would argue that the ease with
which participants’ connect to their felt experience and own thoughts with church beliefs
and values make it a compelling environment for them to stay in. Beyond just matching
how they think, the dimension of how it connects to feeling by way of personal
experience is an important aspect of their continued support of the church.
Carlisle’s analysis of how experience is mediated and reconciled with socially
determined projective systems is an attempt to move beyond a theoretical conception of
internalization that he deems too deterministic. The word internalization, Carlisle (2008)
argues, poorly serves those who use it like Spiro (1997), Turner (1969), Shore (1996) or
Throop (2003) since is suggests a one-way street to the incautious reader. He takes issue
with this choice of words because it does not account for the agency and variation of
experience and interpretations that exists even within the same cultural dimensions. He
admits that most scholars no longer see internalization as a one-way process. It is this
element of performativity, Butler (1997) would argue, that keeps an analysis like
Foucault’s from falling into the category of deterministic where individuals become
homogenized to a point of being exact copies of each other. From their view, it is in this
space of reproduction and performance where there is always the possibility for an
alteration of the discourse.
I would argue that Carlisle’s analysis is helpful to the extent that we recognize the
processes by which individuals interpret and narrate their individual experiences in ways
that are stylized to fit within the acceptable confines of the social discourses of the group
rather than opening up new avenues to give individuals greater agency. It is precisely this
need to temper individual belief against the “wisdom of the ages” that solidifies discourse
and narrows the diversity within the church. Unitarian Universalists rely on experience
instead of revelation as the source of their beliefs (Buehrens and Church 1998:9), and
discussion then becomes the verifying method rather than a text such as the Bible.
Individual freedom of belief exists, then, in dynamic tension with the
insights of our history and the wisdom of our communities. It is this
tension which puts the lie to the oftheard shibboleth that Unitarian
Universalists can believe anything they like. It is true that we set up no
formal religious test for legal membership, that we welcome the devout
atheist as readily as the ardent Christian, but it is not true that one can
subscribe to views at variance with our most basic values. Clearly, one
could never advocate racism or genocide, for example, and still in any
meaningful sense call oneself a Unitarian Universalist (Schulz 1993:4).
However, some anti-Christian rhetoric within the churches or statements that
atheists can become fundamentalists if they think their view is the only right answer keep
most Unitarian Universalists somewhere in the middle. Convictions can be held strongly
and are often stated loudly if they are in the middle and have been accepted by others.
One article in the UUWorld proclaims “Unitarian Universalists are a mainstream, middleclass association far closer to the center of both politics and power than we generally like
to admit” (Eller-Isaacs 2005:15). As Rasor cautions in a lecture given during the 2007
General Assembly addressing over five hundred Unitarian Universalists, liberal religion
today is a product of the Enlightenment’s theological middle ground. It often expresses its
theological doctrines within the context of current knowledge because it seeks to be
credible and relevant. This would seem to be a prophetic voice, Rasor argues, but to
critique, it needs not to be in the mainstream. This cultural adaptation breeds comfort and
less of an ability to critique when standing right in the middle.
As I found, those who fall outside of this middle or do not fit, are more likely to
leave the church. Relying on the same processes and the same tools to interpret
experience and then filtering it through discussion and dialogue gives individuals the idea
that they have diverse beliefs that have been verified by others yet at the same time they
are able to assert their common identity as a group and feel comfortable among “likeminded” friends. The values of diversity, individual belief, and common community are
therefore able to coexist within the construction of a Unitarian Universalist identity.
While members feel empowered to explore their beliefs, it is worth recognizing how
these beliefs are subtly shaped and negotiated in ways that both reinforce a feeling of
individuality and contribute to a much narrower breadth of belief within the scope of an
ever more defined Unitarian Universalist identity. While individual belief is presented as
a liberating gateway, in some ways, in ends up resembling the creeds and blinders that
Unitarian Universalists intently try to avoid.
“There is a seduction in Unitarian Universalism to talk about what you reject,”
Janet began. Fifteen women and five men were sitting in dark brown metal chairs around
the long plastic folding tables in the Alliance Room. With a slight frame and long
charcoal hair, Janet stood barely over five feet tall. But she radiated an intensity much
larger than her stature and a warmth that instantly endeared her to the congregation.
Behind her, framed portraits of the succession of ministers starting in the 1800s and
ending with the current minister, Joel Miller, hung neatly in three rows on the newly
painted slate-blue wall. This congregation until recently had a predominantly male voice
speaking from the pulpit, but this year, a gifted woman writer and speaker was serving as
an intern minister. The first Monday night after New Year’s was cold by her Texas
standards, but a large group had assembled in a cozy upstairs room in the church for an
eight-week course. Interest was so high that a waiting list had formed and she was busy
scheduling another section.
This Build Your Own Theology class started promptly at seven in the evening.
“We will start as we start all things with a chalice lighting and reading,” she began. While
committee meetings do not generally include a chalice lighting and reading, most
education classes and trainings use these symbols to signify a shift in space and mood.
Through these cues, facilitators draw attention to the serious process of spiritual
development and expect full attention and individual growth during these sessions. Our
first instructions reminded us of the individual aspect of our work. We were asked to jot
down ideas and phrases we heard that moved us throughout the eight-week class. As
Janet intoned the opening reading, pens scribbled in notebooks and participants captured
pieces of the reading. I quickly filled my notebook with class observations, analysis, and
personal responses. Janet had invited me to attend the class and at the request of other
class members, I was asked to participate fully in all class activities. Over the next two
months, we learned how to build personal theology, find individual truth, and assess our
own authenticity.
The class continued with independent reflection. On the four corners of a handout,
we each recorded a belief we cherished, a belief we’ve rejected, the denomination in
which we were raised, and the religious issues we wished to explore. In the center of the
paper, we placed our name and developed a title for the spiritual autobiography we would
complete as homework. Almost half of the participants were raised Catholic, while some
grew up in the Church of the Brethren, Methodist, United Church of Christ, African
Methodist, or Presbyterian, and a handful lacked any church upbringing. Of the twentytwo people in the room that evening, only one young man in his early thirties was raised
as a Unitarian Universalist. After we each shared this information, Janet summed up our
responses and connected them with the purpose of the class.
“Our spiritual journey comes from our background. We have rejected original sin,
salvation through Jesus, God in the sky with a beard, that a select few are saved, even evil
in some cases. What brings us together is the common core we see in what we rejected.
When someone asks ‘What do you believe’ we often stammer and say there are principles
and a chalice and a hymnbook, but our church is structured to skirt around it a bit. This
class will be the seed, a mini-sermon. You have to do the work.” Another woman quietly
shut the door behind her, the swishing of her down coat rustling as she opened another
chair, and sat behind the group. We made room for her in the circle, a configuration that
was central to the class throughout the eight weeks.
“Liberal religion is the gateway from Methodism to golf,” as the joke goes. Build
Your Own Theology was a toolkit developed in the late 1970s to address this concern that
many people coming from other faith communities enter Unitarian Universalism by the
front door only to make their way down the aisle and out the back door. As Richard S.
Gilbert, creator of the course, wrote in his 1978 preface to the book,
It is my suspicion that one of the reasons for this…is that our churches and
fellowships provide little in the way of help for people who wish to build a
new theology. This course is designed to provide a systematic and
disciplined approach to the process of building a new theology on the
wreckage of the old…I believe that we must do more than tell our people
they have to think for themselves. We must provide some handles, a kit of
tools, if you will, to help them build (Gilbert 1983:2).
It is worth noting that this structured approach to building theology transpired just
before the Principles and Purposes were voted into existence in the early 1980s and
disseminated throughout Unitarian Universalism.
“As Unitarian Universalists, it is up to you,” Janet explained. “The theologian
Tillich explained that theology means those things that deal with ultimate concern.” She
wrote this on the easel and continued. “What do we mean by ‘ultimate concern’? This has
to do with matters of life and death, those things that matter most. Unitarian Universalists
are unique because our theology has no creed. It points you in a direction and gives you
questions for peace and solace, but it does not answer the questions. Theology is a
personal matter.” As Janet wrote on the easel, she provided a vocabulary by which
participants could articulate their beliefs within a Unitarian Universalist attitude.
Unitarian Universalism, she emphasized, has no formal set of collective beliefs, or a
creed. Responsibility for belief is grounded in the individual, yet Unitarian Universalism
points individuals in a certain direction; thus, theology is personal, yet guided. This class
provided the tools for shaping how participants understood their religion. Each person
was encouraged to find her own truths and differentiate Unitarian Universalism from the
dogma of a singular “Biblical Truth” found in other religions. This Truth was the main
belief they rejected in the introductions that night.
Building Theology
In keeping with the goal of personal spiritual exploration, each congregation
offered adult education curricula based on their interests. When Janet arrived as the intern
minister, part of her service to the church was to organize and facilitate a class. The
advertisement was printed in the weekly order of service handed out to all congregants on
Sunday mornings. As I read through the four pages of small typeface announcements on a
December morning, I was intrigued by the description of her class and how it reflected
the Unitarian Universalist approach to theology.
“As Unitarian Universalists, our theology is based on human experience; thus, our
beliefs spring from our unique biographies. That is, the stories of our lives inform what it
is we believe. In this eight-week course we will discern and articulate our personal belief
systems. Learning to ‘speak your faith’ is a profoundly liberating act of witness and
empowerment. Come and enjoy the challenge of the theological engagement with the
Intern Minister. This weekly class begins Monday, January 8, at 7:00 in the Alliance
Room. Textbooks are available for purchase or borrowing.”
This description reveals that not only is theology individual, it is shaped by
experience; if biographies are unique, then theology should also be unique. Narrative is
central to understanding and interpreting individual theology. The goal of the course is to
determine a personal belief system, make it more understandable to the self, and only
then share it with others. Participants are expected to write a credo by the end of the
eight-week class and present it to the group. This credo is differentiated from an
institutional creed. As the handbook explains “credo, is the Latin word for ‘I believe’ and
is a personal creation done in community” (Gilbert 1983:5). The process is focused on
articulating one’s faith by looking inward then creating a unique set of beliefs and making
them explicit. This process of defining beliefs is framed as liberating, both to the speaker
and to the listener, through the act of speaking.
Since the first class was so popular, with twenty-two participants and a long
waiting list, Janet opened a second section. Those who could attend a mid-day class were
invited to shift to this time while the evening class consisted of people who worked
“Your homework for next class is to get a journal, personalize it so it is
identifiable as uniquely yours. Write down any sentences that grab you, good or bad, and
then begin writing your spiritual autobiography. You should formalize this as a way to
present your spiritual journey to the class. You only will have four minutes, keep that in
mind. Remember, you are explaining to yourself. And then you will share.”
Theology is posed as a personal matter, arising in stories and personal
experiences. To explore one’s theology, independent work is expected, in this case with
an individual journal. As with the “New to UU” class, the first step of defining one’s
beliefs for this class was to reflect on one’s spiritual background and write about the
journey. In this discourse, inner belief rests on truth, and truth begins with narrative.
Searching for Truth
Paul Rasor, in Faith Without Certainty (2005), outlines the trajectory of liberal
religion and the challenges posed by it in our postmodern era. The idea of “truth” is one
area where he sees liberal religion excelling. Within the liberal religious mindset, there is
a fluid understanding of religious truth, he argues. Since liberals approach the world
looking toward change and growth, “this has had an effect on their understanding of truth
and meaning. For example, liberal theologians today are likely to say that meaning is
constructed rather than given” (Rasor 2005:21). Humans create structures of meaning that
are constantly changing. As religious liberals experience it, meaning is open to criticism
and continually recreated and thus they are “well-positioned for the postmodern world,”
as one minister in his late-thirties told me. “Our generation obviously didn’t come up
with postmodernism, but we were the first ones to really have it taught to us. It was really
mainstream when we were in college. It’s mainstream. It wasn’t being developed. There
were whole classes on it. Every class had a component on it. I mean you couldn’t run
away from postmodern thinking in anything you did. So we’ve really been raised on that
idea. Truth is created truth or different truths, more than one truth. It’s stuff we were told
there was no use to fight over. I mean God can mean a hundred different things to a
hundred different people” he concluded.
This young minister echoes Rasor’s affirmation that a Unitarian Universalist
attitude has been influenced and adapted to a postmodern sensibility. Since meaning and
truth is created, the process by which individuals discover them is by assessing their own
interpretations, or narratives, of events. He combines a critique of absolute truth with a
Unitarian Universalist emphasis on individualism stating that by focusing on the
individual and the multiple truths individuals create, the church can continue to value the
diversity of ideas. He aligns the church with the current liberal framework of higher
education. While he sees a postmodern perspective as an easy fit within Unitarian
Universalism, he allows space to argue that some truths carry more weight than others.
“Truth is relative,” he states. “Not relative in the sense that everything is equal but
relative in that it needs to be related to the individual. It needs to be shaped, tailored,
relative in the sense that it’s tailored to you to make it fit. Religion’s made to fit the
individual not the other way around.” Here truth must be tested against experience and
adjusted to make sense for the individual. Not all truth judgments are equal, which is the
power of the Unitarian Universalist attitude. Using Foucault’s notion of “regimes of
truth” (Foucault 1980:131) we can take a deeper look at how truth may be constructed in
this context.
Foucault would agree with the idea that there are multiple truths and that truth is
constructed. Truth is intimately linked with the concept of knowledge. When something
is known, it is understood as true. While that assessment may change given new
information, there are particular discourses that inform the process by which truth is
found. Foucault calls these “regimes of truth.” A regime of truth should be understood as
governing statements and procedures to determine what is true or false. It is a truth-
finding process rather than that which is considered to be true and what is false. A regime
of truth does not change when one corrects errors or comes to new conclusions based on
new facts and findings. In this case, the mechanisms by which one can distinguish
between true and false do not change. Every society or group constructs regimes of truth.
Foucault would argue, the regime of truth is a “thing of this world” (Foucault 1980:131)
and as such is not located outside of power. On the contrary, “truth induces regular effects
of power” (Foucault 1980:131). In other words, it is through the constitution of particular
forms of truth that power differentials are expressed.
If we use this understanding of a regime of truth, we could argue that there is a
very particular regime of truth in place for Unitarian Universalism, starting with the
fourth principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It allows for the
possibility of multiple truths, while prescribing a process of how to arrive at truth. Each
individual must search for truth and do so responsibly. This process is the regime of truth.
This search becomes responsible when beliefs are tested against the truths others hold
through discussion and dialogue. It is through community that beliefs become
responsible. Being responsible also means acting authentically. Truth must affirm the
inherent worth and dignity of every individual, it must be arrived at using the democratic
process, should show justice, equity, and compassion, and should affirm world
community and the interdependent web of all existence. I would also add that
“responsible” refers to disciplined self-reflection.
As many members of this class admit, it is difficult to do this well. It is much
harder than following predetermined beliefs when one must search and create one’s own
belief system. Many were attending the class to receive some guidance in approaching
these questions of ultimate concern.
The rules were clear. “Your speech should be useful, truthful, kindly, and timely.
That’s from Buddhism. Here we need to practice right speech and right listening. This
will be structured so that the whole group has a chance to talk, but you can always pass.
You don’t have to explain why either. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s good, but if you
don’t want to share, that’s okay,” Janet explained. “I know this is hard, but in discussions,
don’t give advice.” There was hearty laughter throughout the group. “Advice is not
helpful. As Unitarian Universalists it is up to you. You will explore your own stories,
your religious experiences, articulate those things and find a path. I have no authority
We ended the first class finishing the statement “My religion is…”
“To make this life count.”
“A loose conglomerate of beliefs that leave me with questions.”
“Accepting of diversity and paths.”
“This is corny, but the beauty of the world around me.”
Janet immediately replied, “Nothing is corny.” The group nodded in agreement.
“A gift I received from others’ faith and beliefs.”
“Always changing.”
“Unitarian Universalism.”
“Beloved community.”
“A process of understanding.”
Janet looked around the room, held her palms up gesturing toward the group.
“You are all theologians. Congratulate yourselves.” Our clapping soon changed to the
rustling of jackets, hats, scarves and laughter as people reconnected with others they did
not often see. One by one we slipped out into the brisk, dark night.
One of the main premises is understanding that theology is a personal matter to be
discovered individually. For that reason, a journal was the first homework assignment.
We were asked to find a journal and make it uniquely ours. Some had journals that were
special gifts from a spouse or sibling while others bought and decorated a journal with
pictures or quotes that were meaningful to them. In each case, the journal was attributed
meaning and significance as individual, connected to positive ideas or people, and then
kept in a special space. As with the chalice lighting, a place to keep and write in the
journal was framed as sacred, endowing meaning and purpose to the writing. Just as
Richard Gilbert, the author of the Build Your Own Theology textbook, explains, everyone
is a theologian. This class is not only about developing a personal theology but also about
gaining a deeper insight about Unitarian Universalism. With only one exception,
everyone in the class had a background in another church, predominately Roman
Catholic or Protestant. While most of the participants were not new to the Unitarian
Universalist church (all had attended a few years and most had been there much longer),
many still struggled to explain what they believed, especially to others outside the
As Janet stated in the opening, there is a seduction for Unitarian Universalists to
talk about what they reject. One might argue that this creates a negative subjectivity in
the Foucautian sense of “not present.” Members talk about which elements are not
present within the church to constrain them, often in direct contrast to the religious
tradition of their upbringing. There has historically been far more emphasis on building
this negative subjectivity recognizing what is not present to confine them. But over the
last twenty-five years, there has been an emphasis on positive subjectivity, that which
contributes to a unifying discourse. Janet noted that it is much more difficult to articulate
one’s beliefs than talk about what one rejects. The guided process encourages the
exploration of negative subjectivity as a point of departure. There is an emphasis on
sharing both the good and the troubling ideas of one’s religious history that is central for
developing one’s own theology. What brings participants together is the beliefs they have
rejected. Recognizing these rejected beliefs, articulating them to others, validating others’
rejected beliefs, and finding commonalities among them is a vital part of establishing a
Unitarian Universalist identity. From there, participants are asked to transform these ideas
into positive statements of what they have found. Each person is given a voice to
articulate what she found but these words are built in dichotomy with statements that are
rejected. The positive affirmations of a religion that is evolving, boundless, inclusive, and
changing is in direct opposition to the static dogma of one single Truth, one God, they
objected to in their prior religious affiliations. Individuals articulate these ideas
differently, yet the themes remain consistent.
One of the overarching themes of the first class is the independent nature of
theology. Janet repeatedly reinforced the notion that it is up to the individual to do the
work, and each person’s theology comes from reflecting on her own personal
experiences. “I am not the authority here,” she stated, despite her placement at the front
of the room guiding the participants through a particular path of self-discovery. She
utilized discourses of equality and empowerment. While many classmates were
professionals—college professors, social workers, and ministers—who gave advice in
their jobs, they were advised not to do so in this setting, an admonition that elicited a roar
of laughter. Here they were affirming their roles as problem solvers, and at the same time,
defining the space of the class as unique where the work would be independent, shared,
not imposed on others. This had two outcomes. The class was constructed to privilege the
individuality of belief and truth, yet it provided the environment of discussion necessary
to validate individual belief and convert it to truth. Self-reflection and self-monitoring
were the goals. Individuals were not explicitly told what to think and feel. Janet
encouraged them to arrive at their own unique beliefs, while sharing and building on
ideas that “resonated.” At the end of the class, everyone was congratulated on their status
as individual theologians. At the same time, this process subtly shaped their
understanding of Unitarian Universalism, their affiliation with the group, and their own
“inner beliefs.”
Discussion is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism and part of what makes the
church compelling. After introspection, participants were invited to share their stories in
order to find commonalities between them. Through the process of sharing, everyone
practiced the skills of “right listening,” and “right speech.” In other words, there were
particular modes of listening and of presenting and responding that were deemed
Some sighed or laughed, while others rolled their eyes, and the room started to
hum with talk about the experience of writing one’s own spiritual autobiography. Most
participants had dutifully completed this task, and members of the group were eager to
share not only their four-minute speeches, but also the process of how they had arrived at
the content. “Let’s start with an opening reading,” Janet said as she lit a small candle in
front of her. “So long as human beings change and make history, so long as children are
born and old people die, there will be tales to explain why sorrow darkens the day and
stars fill the night. We invent stories about the origin and conclusion of life because we
are exiles in the middle of time. The void surrounds us. We live within a parenthesis
surrounded by question marks. Our stories and myths don’t dispel ignorance, but they
help us find our way, or place at the heart of the mystery. In the end, as in the beginning,
there will be a vast silence, broken by the sound of one person telling a story to another”
(Keen and Fox 1973). She read this quote that had been included in the Build Your Own
Theology manual highlighting the importance of telling stories to frame the evening of
sharing our spiritual autobiographies.
“I did it twice, once linearly by time, and then marked by the spiritual aspects.”
“Me too,” exclaimed another.
“It was agonizing.”
“Well, I was raised UU and that is very difficult when I am not writing a rejection
of a previous identity.”
“I liked doing it; it was liberating to be able to change your mind, to be able to
examine your story with the permanence of writing it down but it is not like chiseling it
in stone.”
“I figure out what I think through my writing.”
These six participants were eager to talk about the process of writing before we
began sharing our spiritual autobiographies. We wouldn’t finish that evening, but we
would listen for the next ninety minutes to thirteen of them.
I took my introduction in the first class as a moment to explain my research and
asked for questions or concerns. There were a few shrugs, a few smiles, and then one
woman decided to speak. “It you are coming only to observe us, that makes me
uncomfortable. If you are here to participate and are planning to use the class in your
research, that is fine with me.” At that moment, I recalled the rocky introduction to my
research at the other congregation almost a year before. While there was no mention of
lab rats, there was a hesitation with being the object of study. What I didn’t recognize at
the time was the importance of the notion of authenticity linked with truth and how that is
used through narrative to reinforce this regime of truth.
As Janet stated in the rules, “speech should be useful, truthful, kindly, and timely.”
Not only should each participant self-censure the time spent speaking so that others could
have a turn to share, the speech should be kind, upholding the dignity of each person and
allowing that person to have the chance to voice an interpretation. “Useful” in this
context could be interpreted as that which helps one’s own individual search while also
contributing to the group’s understanding of Unitarian Universalism. Interestingly, being
“truthful” is the other command. While an evaluation of truth is left up to the individual,
the group is called to speak truthfully, or “authentically,” about what they find.
Authenticity, or being true to oneself, is a value within the church. The authentic being is
one who makes independent choices about a set of beliefs that are individually honed.
Being true to oneself requires one to look inward and creates a conception of the self that
borders almost on static: an “inner self” that can be listened to and one with which
external statements must be compared. The group assumes that what is being said should
be coming unmediated from the person’s inner self. As with my research, as long as I was
participating within the group, being truthful with my own self-exploration, they were
happy to share the data with me. If I was not divulging an authentic exploration during
group discussion, my presence would be seen as invasive, gazing in on these privately
shared matters of belief.
Many anthropologists and other academics have shared this understanding of truth
as partial and multiple. They critique claims to objectivity and master narratives that were
hallmarks of modernity (Giddens 1990; Harvey 1989) while focusing on how these
regimes of truth have been constructed within the framework of historical Christianity,
the Enlightenment, and through modernity (Asad 1993; Asad 2003; Cannell 2006;
Faubion 1995; Foucault, Rabinow, and Rose 2003; Mahmood 2005; Rasor 1999). The
anthropologist Susan Blum (2000) explained the trajectory of the social theory of truth as
one that focuses on understanding the relations of power as they relate to control over
knowledge and claims to possess truth.
In the initial introductions during the first class, it became clear that participants
strongly rejected the notion of “the one true path” from their prior religious backgrounds.
While some mentioned this specifically, many others rejected being told what to believe,
labeling it as dogma. Here they separated themselves from the discourse of a singular
“Biblical Truth.” While this view is common enough among Unitarian Universalists, I
was impressed by the gendered nature of the discourse related to truth claims and power.
Gendered Truth
By the third class, our smaller Monday night group was largely comprised of
women in their forties, fifties, and sixties. For most sessions, the lone male voice was
from the husband of a woman in the class. A few were college professors, all were
professionals employed full-time, and most had children. They often mentioned gender
inequality as part of their decision to switch religious affiliations. One considered herself
a good Catholic girl until the grief caused by her mother’s death when she was eleven left
her with questions. She ultimately left the Catholic Church because she questioned
everything and felt that women were not given a role in the church. Another woman
echoed this idea saying that as a child growing up in Catholic schools she participated in
everything they let women do, but she did not like the difference between the genders.
Studying feminism, she recalled, led her away from God. After spending some time
looking into Buddhism and Hinduism, which she felt were more equal, she now identifies
as a Wiccan spiritualist lesbian.
In other conversations during my research, both men and women explained that
they felt comfortable in the church “to be who they were” referring to the welcoming
status of the congregation toward the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered
community. At least a third of the smaller Monday night group talked openly about their
partners or their identification as lesbian as part of their religious journey. Because of the
church’s stance on this issue, some of the most visible participants in the community
were openly gay or lesbian. While some churchgoers confided to me that transgender
issues were less readily embraced by the entire congregation, there were a number of
active participants in the church who had changed their appearance to match their
gendered inner identity.
For others, it was having or adopting biracial children that drew them to the
church. “My friends gathered in this church,” one woman stated. “This is where they
accepted me. I wanted a spiritual congregation.” Her adopted biracial children have a
place in the church. I listened to their children talking in youth group about issues of
“being brown,” of feeling accepted, and I watched them confidently talk with their peers
about what their own experiences were both inside and out of the church. In some cases,
they were among the most active youth organizers. This liberal environment lends itself
to sympathizers for same-sex marriage, and just as they proclaim the multiple truths held
by congregants, the multiple ways of understanding what constitutes family is another
key factor. One of the bumper stickers that sold out during coffee hour proclaims, “We
are all family & We all have value.”
Most women came to the Unitarian Universalist church by way of a long winding
path through various religious affiliations. While one of the men was the only participant
who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, the other four men who spoke during the second
class meeting, told stories of skepticism and questioning. All came from Catholic or
liberal Protestant groups and expressed the most marked humanistic views. While the
women had explored Eastern traditions or earth-centered traditions such as Wicca or
Paganism, the men held scientific beliefs. None of them described themselves as spiritual
in their original statements whereas the women frequently did.
During the fourth class as we discussed the concepts of Mind, Body, and Soul, the
first response was from Diane. “Definitions are intellectual and up here,” she said
gesturing toward her head. “And what was missing was experience, down here,” she said,
patting her chest with her open palm, “and I need to start there.” The group nodded and
looked at each other smiling. She continued, “Women tend to start from experience and
men tend to start intellectually. Mother Earth is down here.” She waved her hand back
and forth low to the table grounding her experience with Mother Earth and distinguishing
it from her perception of theory and disembodied intellect. She recommended the book
Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky 1997) as a resource to the class about how women
construct knowledge and then continued with her explanation. “In Catholicism,
experience doesn’t matter. It has to match or fit to Catholicism,” she stated, creating a
division between Unitarian Universalists and the other. Here the understanding is that the
interpretation of experience is especially important for women.
In either case, Catholic or Unitarian Universalist, the process of reconciling
experience within a set of discourses takes place. The difference lies in the resonance of
Unitarian Universalist discourses with non-religious discourses that stress liberal values,
reason, and thought together with a strong current of earth-centered and Eastern religious
movements. The increasing presence of yoga studios and other Eastern boutiques in the
Buffalo neighborhood where this congregation is located suggests an affinity within the
particular socio-economic and class divisions of these professional women. As Diane
implies, it is a shared understanding that direct experience should inform their definitions.
Experience, then, is the litmus test for religious truth. But their presentations showed
through their maps, mobiles, drawings, and poems that knowledge and environmental
conditions also affect experience.
Diane continued with her explanation of why the class textbook was not as
compelling. “It’s not that Gilbert’s privileged and white but the fact that he is a guy.”
Janet explained that for her, the bias of his privileged white male perspective is a
limitation of the textbook, but she suggested to Diane, “Reinterpret the assignments to be
helpful for you and find out how your experience fits. Maybe your experience tells you
the definition is not true.” Diane then presented her mobile to the class where toothpicks
moved with each puff of air, a metaphor for how people move and change due to
experience and environmental conditions. She had wanted to add a mirror to the
toothpicks because, she concluded, “humans have the capacity to auto-reflect.”
Experience may be especially important to these women as they feel the effects of
power in their careers, family, and relationships and could not reconcile these with the
discourses of their previous religious affiliations. Many came of age during the second
wave of feminism in the 1970s or followed in its wake reading the goddess and feminist
literature. In the sixth class, we each listed three to five of the most influential books we
had read. Few were “religious” texts but that was “very UU” of us, Janet added, to list
texts, privileging scholarly and academic work for constructing meaning. For many of the
women, feminist books and literary works topped their lists. The Universalist claim of
ordaining the first female minister in the United States is a story that sticks with many of
these women. However, the majority of readings in the class textbook were written by
men. Janet added that while Unitarian Universalist women seminarians now outnumber
men, at a rate of fifty five percent, the majority of their educators are still men at Starr
King Theological School, and the majority of settled ministers with a congregation
continue to be men. In the experience of otherness, even within the Unitarian Universalist
church, truth seems most easily maintained by women as multiple. Yet while multiple
truths may be recognized, it is the responsibility of all congregants to reflect on these
changing truths, to articulate them, but most importantly, to act authentically.
Authenticity is a term often used within the Unitarian Universalist church to
denote being true to oneself, or connecting inner belief with outward action. As Bert Van
den Brink (2000:11) notes, authenticity aligns with the liberal pursuit of the good life in
that it defines the structure by which the good life should be pursued. As the exchange
between Diane and Janet demonstrates above, both personal autonomy and authenticity
are ideals that structure how congregants are expected to arrive at and act upon the notion
of truth. To pursue the good life is to arrive at individual understandings of truth. This
presupposes a unique self-determining authority at the individual level that extends to the
formation, revision, and pursuit of this conception of the good life. Although Brink
(2000) argued that the ideal of authenticity provides the structure, he states that it does
not prescribe the contents, or the particular beliefs or truths that equate to one’s individual
conception of the good life. In this sense, it outlines a process where a person is free to
determine these beliefs and truths “by being true to oneself,” “by doing your own thing,”
or “by finding your own fulfillment” (Brink 2000:11). Especially in “being true to
oneself,” individuals are expected to act in accordance with their inner truths so that
others may also know those truths. Throughout the Build Your Own Theology class, not
only were the participants working independently to discover their beliefs, they were also
cultivating a particular type of self-governance where authenticity played a central role.
For anthropologists the study of belief is difficult because it is seen as interior
(Kirsch 2004; Needham 1972; Rappaport 1999), and therefore unable to be studied with
accuracy. As a result, many have moved away from the study of belief in favor of ritual,
identity politics, or practices. It is this inability to look at belief empirically and its
indirect correspondence with action that makes it problematic for social scientists
(Needham 1972). The assumption of interior belief and truth is what also leads Unitarian
Universalists to stress a need for authenticity. Lacking a common conception within
Christianity of an all-knowing God who holds ultimate authority, authority of belief and
truth comes from testing these inner ideas against the ideas of others through discussion.
To test these ideas, an individual is required to be authentic in his or her actions and
statements. By participating in this class, individuals are attaining their authenticity.
Saba Mahmood’s (2005) fieldwork among Muslim women in Cairo in Politics of
Piety provides a useful framework for understanding how Unitarian Universalists
cultivate a particular attitude around the desire to be authentic. She explains how women
in the mosque movement hold classes to instruct one another in how to cultivate piety as
a conscious set of acts. She argues that Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) conception of “habitus”
as necessarily taking place below the level of consciousness differs markedly from an
Aristotelian understanding of “habitus” as consciously constructed (Mahmood 2005:136139). She then draws from an Aristotelian conception where habitus is a conscious effort
that is actively formed and shows how Egyptian women use a sophisticated
understanding of Islamic moral discipline to cultivate a conscious attitude surrounding
their desire to pray. Desire, which is not the cause of moral action but rather its product,
is produced by understanding mundane activities as rituals and blurring the lines between
interiority and exteriority.
The pedagogical program engaged in by mosque participants was geared toward
making prescribed behavior natural to one’s disposition. Participants’ virtuosity lay in
being able to spontaneously enact its most conventional aspects in a ritual context as
much as in ordinary life. This resulted in making an a priori separation between
individual feelings and socially prescribed behavior impossible.
Ritual worship, for the women I worked with, was both enacted through, and
productive of intentionality resulting in volitional behavior and sentiments—precisely
those elements that a number of anthropologists assumed to be dissociated from the
performance of ritual. A cultivated authenticity in daily life bridges the interiority of truth
and exteriority of action despite an ongoing rhetoric of binary division. Unitarian
Universalists cultivate a particular attitude, not around the desire to pray but around the
desire to be authentic.
“Your speech should be kindly, timely, useful, and truthful,” Janet stated at the
opening of each class. The reminder to be truthful, in other words to express your beliefs
clearly, is part of the narrative. We discussed the ideas of transcendence, salvation, human
nature, good and evil, the role of rules, commandments, and guidelines in religious
institutions, and reconciled the ideas of reason, emotion, and experience. Each week’s
exercise explored these topics in preparation for the last assignment: writing a hundred
word credo. This assignment was given as the ultimate destination of the class and a way
to specify beliefs to provide a path for acting. As Janet said at the close of the first class,
“discerning human nature, defining one’s place in the historical process, defining an
ethical stance, these all create a meaning that provides purpose. We are all on a journey
and this will give you an idea of where you were, are, and where you are going.”
The class is a conscious act of cultivating authenticity by not only giving
participants the opportunity to articulate beliefs but to use them to provide purpose in
their lives. Credos are not meant to be static once written but they are a way to master
ongoing authenticity during one’s life. Because action is highly valued in Unitarian
Universalism, and each individual is expected to live authentically with his own beliefs,
one is implicitly required to always “know oneself.” The more authentically an individual
lives, the more realized she is. Authenticity of action and belief is therefore a central
value within the community and can only be achieved by contemplating and articulating
one’s own beliefs.
This class provided a venue not only to engage in this process, but also to practice
authentic living. “I liked doing this,” one participant remarked after writing his spiritual
autobiography. “It’s liberating to be able to change your mind. That way you can examine
what you wrote. There is also a permanence of writing it down, but it’s not that chiseled
in stone.” While there is a constant reminder that beliefs change over time, participants
are also compelled to write their beliefs down, to articulate them, define them, share
them, and live by them.
Laughter filled the room after one woman exclaimed during the last class, “I have
never shared so much since I came to the church.” Janet responded that there was a
hunger in the congregation to engage emotionally and bridge between intellectual
theorizing and experience. The popularity of the class echoed the remarks of one man
who took the class to become “unstuck.” He admitted that he felt he was not thinking
enough about these issues on his own and needed guidance. Others acknowledged that
they were not doing enough on their own and thought that the class might help.
This was similar to the classes Muslim women in Cairo attended in that it gave
participants tools to search for truth and meaning responsibly in a group setting. In
Unitarian Universalism, responsibility is also part of the quest for authenticity expected
of all participants, including me. I was required to become a participant rather than an
observer and to cultivate my own authenticity in my role as researcher. Through
participation each individual expressed herself in a way that demonstrated critical selfreflection and connected interior belief with outer statements and actions. Authenticity
therefore assumes an accurate translation of emotional inner-felt experience into words so
other participants may also assess how well the individual’s statements match her actions.
Others in the class are provided an opportunity to act as judges of authenticity.
Responsibility adds the dimension of prescriptive action to authenticity. It is not enough
to formulate beliefs and act according to them, it also requires one to continually monitor
oneself as well as question others in this quest. Responsibility, therefore, goes back to
aligning one’s truths and actions to age-old wisdom and social conventions while seeing
these as unique and holding “true” to the inner self.
Mahmood argues that for the women of the mosque movement, the process of
Aristotelian habitus fits their actions as they consciously mold their behavior to become
spontaneous through careful repetition. Here, Unitarian Universalists are molding their
behavior consciously to attain authenticity by connecting and demonstrating their inner
truths with outward action yet the results are not always consciously achieved. This class
is an opportunity to cultivate the fourth principle, a free and responsible search for truth
and meaning. It focuses on the primacy of inner belief and the individual and deeply
personal experiences that each participant has felt. Members grapple with the tension
they see between individuality and community; with most focusing on the community
and acceptance they feel within the church as a prime motivator to continue participating
in the church community. They stress community over individuality, and in their credos
write about the interdependence of beings, “the interplay between humans that allow us
to truly know and understand the sacred,” “the all-encompassing infinite energy and
interconnectedness” of humanity, and a belief that “spiritual connection is of utmost
value. I believe this is manifest in the nameless one of many names which is a global and
universal creative force” (Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo 2007).
Of interest is how the discourse of community runs over a continued strong
current of individuality. In the final credos, there are more references to self-actuality that
uphold the notion of an interiority of belief. They write,
“I will strive to become fully myself.”
“My every action and choice contributes to this greater good.”
“I am motivated to be the best ‘me’ possible.”
“It’s up to me to make sense.”
“Sorting out truth from delusion is an unending quest, results tentative, but one to
which I am committed.”
To be fully oneself is to look inward and match action with the certain “essence of
me” that another woman talks about. This interiority of belief enables a discourse of
choice and independent action often removed from the very community it wishes to
serve. The notion of the greater good, a large-scale understanding for humanity and the
world as a whole, is seen as fueled by the choices of individuals, ones that can discern
what form this good must take. Not only is this an alignment of being the best “me”
possible by acting authentically, but also assuming an understanding of what constitutes
“good” and acting toward it. Even though Unitarian Universalists struggle with the
concept of evil—at its most benign this is seen as turning continually away from the
good,—by labeling something as evil, there is a call to action to eliminate it. The
universal notion of good, tied to authenticity and responsibility is a direct call to action to
move forward a particular and not very diverse notion of the good. As with the first
principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, this is a liberal prescriptive call
to action that restricts diversity. This class specifically acknowledges the conscious
cultivation of an articulated belief system as a means to create authentic purpose for life.
What it does not readily acknowledge is how the responsible sharing of narratives and
explaining of one’s beliefs results in many similar credos and a reinforced sense of
commonality within the group.
The final class meeting consisted of a closing ceremony. After explaining that the
one-hundred-word credo was inspired by the National Public Radio series, “This I
believe,” Janet read “It Matters What We Believe” (see Appendix 5) and then asked us to
split in half and reread it responsively. Not only should our actions align with our beliefs,
but the political implications were clear. It matters what we believe. Not all beliefs are
“good,” not all beliefs should be valued the same since some are more restrictive and
instill fear and act as blinders. “Stories inform what we believe and belief is highly
individual. If we articulate our beliefs it makes us more welcoming and ambassadors of
our faith. It is not about changing minds but of sharing hearts. The prophetic liberal
church is where all members attempt to see consequences of human behavior and do
something positive. I encourage you to stand behind the altar we have created at the
pulpit and share your credo. This way you are standing for your beliefs,” she concluded.
The next hour, when we stood in front of the group and shared our personal
credos, one woman chose not to use the words “I believe,” and another omitted “liberal,”
substituting instead “progressive.” Others commented on how it was nice to be proactive
and create something new rather than reactively critiquing ideas. Finally, Janet asked us
to email her our credos so she could compile them in a booklet for participants, which
could also be given to visitors to help them understand the diversity of our beliefs. By
articulating our beliefs, we were becoming welcoming by authentically sharing,
demonstrating our diversity, and revealing our process for finding the good. These were
calls to action within the boundaries we had created for ourselves.
The six sofas were in a circle all facing out. “Henry,” shouted a group of girls as
they ran over to hug him. I walked through the door after him and flipped on the light
switch. “Lori!” The youth group greeted me enthusiastically and then explained that they
were not turning on the lights that morning. “All right,” I said, turning the lights off and
took a seat on a 1970s brown, beige, and mustard-colored sofa that looked like a donation
from a parent who had upgraded. The new configuration of the outward facing sofas left
me staring at the bright lime green wall two feet from my toes. As light filtered dimly
through the glass-block windows in the basement youth room, it felt chilly and damp. But
the bright paint—lime green, royal blue, canary yellow, and purple—brightened the space
and distracted the eye from the brown water stains on the ceiling panels.
During the 2007-2008 academic year, I spent most weekends with the two western
New York youth groups exploring how a Unitarian Universalist identity is crafted within
the context of high-school youth programming. As with adult-education classes, I was
asked to participate as an advisor in order to do my research.
Another adult advisor came in and flipped on the lights. The teens cried out in
protest, and as she turned the lights off, chatter filled the room. Most sofas were full as
girls thumbed text messages on their cellular phones, told stories of outings and
sleepovers, or whispered to each other, then looked amazed and giggled. The boys
watched the girls. All were packed on the sofas, some lying on each other’s laps. It was
just after eleven in the morning and we had not officially begun the session that ran
simultaneously with the Sunday church service upstairs in the sanctuary.
When the main youth advisor walked in, instead of turning on the lights, he asked
“is this a ‘no lights’ morning? What happened to the sofas? Don’t you think we should
turn them around to face each other? No? All right then. Is someone going to start the
chalice lighting?” After working with the youth group for over a decade, David
effortlessly modeled the type of youth empowerment we were learning as new advisors.
“It’s like herding cats,” said an adult youth advisor. While youth empowerment is
the cornerstone of programming, it is an ideal that many advisors struggle with. For those
who are new to advisement, the meetings often seem unproductive with adults in a
“hands-off” position.
Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) was designed as the umbrella
service organization that encompasses denominational programming for youth age
fourteen through twenty within Unitarian Universalism. As an acronym, “Y-R-U-U” is
commonly used not to refer to the organization but as an identity label for youth at the
congregational level. Young Religious Unitarian Universalists was one of the sponsored
organizations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, made up of twenty-five youth
representing each U.S. district and Canadian region, seven at-large adults, and four atlarge youth. They selected the three paid program specialists that work for the Youth
Office at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters. This was set up as a
democratic process that gave youth the ability to take responsibility for their own
programming and develop leadership. While the Young Religious Unitarian Universalists
along with the staff in the Youth Office did not govern what each congregation did with
youth programming at a local level, they did offer resources for congregational youth
programs, provide curriculum and trainers for a wide variety of weekend training
programs, assist with district and continental events, and have annual meetings each
summer. Much of their focus since 1999 has been with anti-racism and anti-oppression
When my research began in 2006, the Young Religious Unitarian Universalists
were focused on continent-wide meetings for small groups of delegates from North
America. A year later, the denomination terminated Young Religious Unitarian
Universalist activities at the continental level, restructuring it to better serve youth within
the context of intergenerational learning. The group had been created in 1983 to replace
the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) who were established in 1953 when Unitarians and
Universalists merged.
In 1969 youth protests at the General Assembly national meeting in support of the
Black Affairs Council along with accounts of drug use and sexual promiscuity at Liberal
Religious Youth events led many parents to pull their children out of youth programming.
Then in 1976 the Unitarian Universalist Association worked to create more effective
programming when the Special Committee on Youth Programs found Liberal Religious
Youth programming to be inadequate and ineffective (Tain 2003:4). Young Religious
Unitarian Universalists was the result, concentrating on overcoming the negative
stereotypes of youth programming and rebuilding the youth leadership. (Ross 2001:142144; Tain 2003:4).
Twenty years later most of the youth I worked with were not familiar with this
history, but many adults were. Today, an example of a denominational recruiting letter for
adult youth advisors reads
Youth empowerment is the foundation upon which we as Unitarian
Universalists have built our philosophy of youth ministry, and critical
components for our groups are community building, worship, learning,
social action, leadership, and good youth-adult relations. As the
foundation, youth empowerment must be an intentional goal, and in order
for youth empowerment to become realized we must have active adults
working with youth ministry. Without adult participation there is no youth
empowerment. Youth empowerment does not equal adult abandonment, as
happened with the Liberal Religious Youth movement in the late 1960s
and 1970s. Youth empowerment is a living partnership between youth and
adults, one in which power is shared and in which adults recognize the
power they bring into the relationship (Little 2004).
This passage, aimed primarily at adults, equates the Liberal Religious Youth’s
request for autonomy with abandonment. The purpose of the letter is to persuade more
adults to help with the youth group by explaining their role in youth programming. It
specifies their proper role in youth empowerment and differentiates this from a passive,
“hands-off” approach by using the emotionally charged word “abandonment.” The letter
also intends to dispel any misconceptions about how the youth group is now run
compared to any events the adults may remember. It evokes a sense of failure in the
1960s and juxtaposes this to the current partnership of youth and adults, which an advisor
described as a healthier “controlled chaos.” It is important to note that Young Religious
Unitarian Universalists was designed during the late 1970s and early 1980s at the time
that the Principles and Purposes were drafted, debated, and accepted by the
“Y-R-U-U” as it is pronounced, has elicited commentary by youth and adults
about the second meaning surrounding religious identity. This intentional acronym was
voted on and adopted during the Youth Assembly in 1982. The consultant on youth affairs
in the early 1980s, Wayne Arnason, explains that the acronym was designed to have
numerous meanings “Why are you you? This is the question that young people ask
themselves as they enter that period of their lives most involved with seeking a personal
identity.” (Ross 2001:145) “Why are you Unitarian Universalist?” Both speak to the
denominational effort to distinguish a unifying identity. As Ross (2001:145) adds, the
need to make their religious identity explicit guided their choice of the acronym and the
organization it stood for. Since the high school age period is seemingly much less
structured in curricula than younger age groups within the religious education program,
the values within Unitarian Universalism of questioning and “healthy skepticism” are
most acute at this age.
“Why are you, you?” acknowledges the identity shaping aspect of community and
asks teens to reflect on who has contributed to their moral outlook. “Why are you
Unitarian Universalist?” asks them to articulate why they are a part of the church as a
way of solidifying their affiliation. This acronym and the Principles and Purposes have
become deeply embedded in the way youth understand themselves today. As the district
youth coordinator puts it, “To me, Young Religious Unitarian Universalists is what we
are. It’s a descriptive term rather than an organization.” The Young Religious Unitarian
Universalists formal organization has become less important over time while the label
that commonly connects youth across congregations and districts solidifies an identity.
When I asked five members what “YRUU” meant to them, they all responded
independently about the positive aspects of youth group. They used “YRUU”
interchangeably as a name for the youth group at the congregational level while
providing a sense of connection with the larger movement.
“I haven’t worked with youth before and I don’t want to let them down,” said
Kathy as she lit a tea light from the center chalice and place it among the others on the
tabletop. She stepped back into the circle and the room was silent except for the faint
hum of a refrigerator in the next room. “I am new to Unitarian Universalism and I don’t
understand it very well. I am not sure if I can teach them anything or be able to answer
their questions.” Another tea candle, another pause.
Twenty one of us sat in the dark in a circle on the hardwood floor around the
candles. “I have been a youth advisor for a few years but I still struggle with giving up
control.” We were putting into practice the concept of “deeper sharing” we had learned
during our weekend of youth advisor training. Nineteen of us, along with an adult trainer
and a teen trainer both from the West Coast gathered at a church in Ohio for this weekend
lock-in intensive course. It was nearly midnight on the second night of our training and
we were admitting to each other and to ourselves the concerns we had about being youth
advisors. The candles were almost all lit. “I worry about my ability to be the type of
youth advisor the youth need while also being a researcher,” I said and stepped back. “We
collectively hold these concerns together, we feel their weight and acknowledge them.
But we also feel the support of those around us, we feel hope, and we feel the
commitment that we share to support the youth of our community,” I concluded ending
the closing worship I had been assigned to design as a workshop participant.
Later, many of the other participants commended my ability to design a
meaningful worship that resonated with them as Unitarian Universalists. I was given a
chance to replicate the formula I had been studying for two years. I started with a reading
and chalice lighting, gave individuals a chance to reflect on their inner-most feelings, and
voice them to the group one by one. Each candle allowed us to honor the individuality
and diversity of the concerns while also symbolizing the light of community and support.
My last statement was carefully crafted to end on hope highlighting the action we had
already taken in committing to be youth advisors. At the end, I allowed for silent
meditation so participants could continue to reflect on the elements of empowerment they
had learned and how to act authentically as youth advisors. We stood in silence weighing
our concerns with the hope and dedication we demonstrated to each other by spending the
weekend learning specifically how to approach youth empowerment as adults.
Power and Empowerment
Youth empowerment is at the heart of youth programming. After an introduction
to the concept of “youth empowerment” on the first morning of the workshop, the
facilitator asked us to do some self-reflection. “Are we doing ministry to youth, or
ministry with youth?” The statement hung in the air surrounded in silence as we recalled
examples of our interactions with the youth and assessed our performance. We sat for
almost a minute and the facilitator looked intently, yet kindly, at each one of us. The
furrowed eyebrows, upward glances, and somber stares formed partitions between us as
we carefully demonstrated our engagement with the activity of introspection. In the
training handouts we received—full of scenarios for role playing about legal issues,
youth bonding games, self-evaluations and codes of ethics—there is one sheet in large
print with just this one statement surrounded by white:
At its core, the Unitarian Universalist youth programming philosophy
advocates the empowerment through leadership opportunities. This goal
necessitates a delicate balance between youth and adult power that seeks
to give youth as much responsibility as possible for creating and carrying
out programs while also expecting adults to ensure a safe environment for
the youth and protect them from large-scale failures (Unitarian
Universalist Association 2007k).
Later that evening, the facilitator summed up the day’s activities, “Power shared is
power multiplied. Let me repeat that again. Power shared,” he paused and looked around,
“is power multiplied.” He stated these last three words deliberately, and it was clear that
he saw this statement as the overarching theme for the weekend. To understand the
mechanisms by which youth empowerment is internalized, we must first look carefully at
the concept of power.
The advisor packet urges adults to be aware of the power they have in the role of
youth advisor. Ideally this power is delicately balanced between youth and advisors so
that youth can have opportunities for leadership and responsibility—such as taking
control of event planning, following through with plans, and determining what activities
they would like to do. The adults would have enough control to maintain a safe space for
the youth to grow and experiment in. Interpreted this way, much care has gone into
creating an environment that is collaborative and safe. Power differentials are recognized
and ideally managed to be as balanced as possible, and adults are urged to be allies for
the youth within the larger congregation. This is reflected in how youth view the group.
“Youth group is a place where you can go to drop all the pretenses you hold when you're
around all your other friends. It’s a place where everyone is respectful and fun not
because they have to be, but because that's who they are.” Others echoed this sentiment
of a place that they enjoy where they feel accepted and can be with other like-minded
people. In that way, the balance and awareness of power, coupled with anti-oppression,
anti-racism training for advisors, is producing the type of environment that adults seek to
foster. By recognizing the power differentials as well as the often obscured privileges of
class, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion that situate each individual
differently in relation to the dominant culture, the training workshop fosters dialogue
about the interactions that produce these power differentials.
There is another concept of power that challenges us to think differently. It may
not be a system of domination where one group exerts power over another, or a top down
approach of “rules” or “sovereignty”. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault stated,
Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as
something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never
localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a
commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a
net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its
threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and
exercising this power….in other words, individuals are the vehicles of
power, not its point of application (Foucault 1980:98).
Judith Butler (1997) suggested that power is performative, it flows through our
actions and therefore is not always reproduced in exactly the same way. Foucault also
noted “that where there is power, there is resistance” (Foucault 1990:95). Both allude to a
fluid and unstable flow of power where there are many points of cleavage and rupture,
yet no one is outside these power relations. We are the vehicles through which power is
expressed and therefore we cannot seize, acquire, hold or share power as though it were
an object controlled by an individual.
To understand the force relations that constitute power, we must look at the
periphery, at small interactions, the ones Mahmood (2005:106) calls “micropractices of
persuasion,” at the level of interchanges during training courses, conversations between
youth, actions within youth groups, and between advisors help us to understand how
youth empowerment is built. There is an intentional, ideal, coherent system for
understanding power in Unitarian Universalism. The way in which it is played out is the
important point here. Revisiting the statement, “power shared is power multiplied”
indicates an assumption that power can be held, given, or shared. Foucault would argue
that power cannot be shared. I would argue that by situating power as an object that can
be controlled, managed, given, or shared, this statement subtly centers the individual as a
free-choosing rational being within Unitarian Universalism. While there is an extensive
amount of time during advisor training placed on recognizing the power differentials that
are in place in our society, the ultimate aim of guiding and teaching empowerment to the
youth gives the illusion of “sharing power,” but it actually solidifies and inculcates adult
Unitarian Universalist values so that youth will “choose” to act in appropriate ways.
“Sharing” power is equated with teaching youth to act correctly. Trainers model exercises
adults conduct with their youth groups that foster internalizing specific modes of
discourse. During the opening of the training the adults came together to produce a
covenant. Each member was invited to add a suggestion on how to act in a group.
“Listen to one another.”
“Respect confidentiality when needed.”
“Support one another.”
“Show courtesy.”
“Speak one at a time.”
“Be on time.”
“Set agreed upon bedtime and wake time for each room.”
“Silence cell phones.”
“Encourage everyone to participate.”
“Feel comfortable to voice concerns and take criticism and suggestions.”
“Step up, step back.” This last suggestion was added at each of the five training
weekends I attended during my research. Group members who recognize themselves as
“talkers” should reflect on how often they speak and hold back more than they would like
to in order to give others the opportunity to speak. Those who are more comfortable not
speaking should challenge themselves to speak more often than they might be used to.
This way, all members contribute more equally and the discussion should be more
diverse. This relates back to the fifth principle “the right of conscience and the use of the
democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
“Does everyone like the covenant? Any additions or problems? Good. Let’s move
on.” The covenant was built as a set of mutually decided rules through the process of
brainstorming. This modeled the brainstorming activities that would dominate the
following sessions with the expressed intent of being democratic, giving each person a
voice and fostering collaboration. Collaboration is one of the key actions by which adults
are taught to share power and one of the hallmarks of the Unitarian Universalist approach
to understanding religion.
During the youth advisor training, adults were asked to compare their prior
religious affiliations with a Unitarian Universalist approach to youth empowerment.
Many adults equated their religious education classes from their childhood, most from
Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant traditions, as being rule-oriented where they felt alienated.
They viewed the rules as being imposed upon them and admitted to being less likely to
follow them. As they learned about youth empowerment within Unitarian Universalism,
they expressed how it is democratic, giving an equal voice to everyone in the group, and
very different than their prior religious backgrounds. They concentrated on having more
representation of voices and consensus of topics within a liberal, rational mindset, but
interestingly, there was no discussion about what voices may have been missing, and
what shaped the voices that spoke.
For teenagers, even in a setting where they feel safe, there are constant
conversations that monitor and evaluate behavior. Many youth talked extensively about
others at school, or about each other evaluating what they said, did, how they acted,
defining who is “cool,” or an insider, and who is awkward, inappropriate, “not cool,” and
why certain people are not popular. Advisors often monitor youth conversations asking
them to rephrase or stop negative comments toward others, but the pervasiveness of these
kinds of corrections leads me to suggest that brainstorming activities in youth groups are
more about stating expected community values under the veil of democratically giving
each individual the chance to voice her own “authentic” voice.
Brainstorming is a mechanism of self-governance rather than of equal voices.
Power is “handed” to youth as they demonstrate their ability to manage it and act in ways
deemed appropriate by the adults. As effective youth leaders emerge and take over the
roles of adult facilitators in the youth groups, control is transferred to these youth as long
as they continue to make decisions that are in line with adult expectations. Adults are
always present, however, to monitor tasks and interactions, stepping in when necessary to
question the youth. The process is understood as empowerment, and is differentiated
from a top-down approach where youth are told what to believe and what to do.
I am in agreement; it is not a top-down approach of power or control being
exerted by a dominant group on another group. As Foucault would remind us, power is
generative, flowing through us from all directions. However, the mechanisms that
function here do inform youth about what to believe and how to act just as strongly, if not
more, than a set of rules and dogma that Unitarian Universalists vehemently wish to
avoid. The ideas are expected to be self-generating and internalized, rather than followed.
Even in the case of the adults, the acceptance of the covenant was telling. Without a
pause after asking our confirmation, there was an assumption that no one would disagree
with the list put forth, and a few nods were interpreted as consensus. In practice, this did
not reflect the democratic process. Furthermore, by including a guideline for each
individual to feel comfortable to voice concerns, it leaves critique up to the initiative of
the individual. If there are no concerns heard, one could “reasonably” assume there were
no concerns, and consensus was reached. It absolves the group of questioning what
voices may be missing and how some individuals may not feel in a position to critique or
to question. As one advisor admitted, “I am here to learn.”
In the case of the youth, there was a striking visual that one advisor brought up of
the role of advisors. It was framed in the context of keeping youth in a safe environment
while they learn and have fun, but it dually explains the role advisors have in defining the
“choices” and shaping Unitarian Universalist values within the context of youth group.
“Did you read Jacob’s Youth Adult Committee application? He was describing the
role of youth advisors, on his application, and he said, ‘We are like a bowling ally. The
teens are the balls and the youth advisors are the gutters.’” The other youth advisors in
the meeting all exploded in laughter. Carolyn continued, “And I was like ‘what?’ but the
more I think about it, I’ve used it over and over again. You are there to make sure that
they’ve got all this cool shellacked floor to roll down and have a great time and do
whatever they want, but you make sure that they don’t go beyond certain…” she trailed
off and tried to clarify. “They can even dip into the gutter but they’re not going to go
flying into the next lane because you’re there. And while you don’t want to get your
major needs met in the youth group because that can be really dangerous and can be
counterproductive, still you are there and you are getting the vibes, so there is some
inclusiveness. It is in some ways a community. You’re not in the middle of the lane, but
you’re there.”
“Watching the ball go by,” another advisor added.
“Yeah, and that can be fun too! You don’t go rolling down. Rolling down is
exciting but you can sort of be on the periphery. That’s the word: the periphery. And to
me, getting back to your original question about what makes a good youth advisor, it’s
really more than anything that anybody does. It’s really just someone that can relate and
connect to the teens in a positive way, who can listen to them more. Like you were
saying, their needs are a priority so you can listen more than you feel the need to speak,
so that you can communicate in a way that is not exactly equal—because we are not
equals—but in a way that’s meaningful. For me, if you couldn’t use the word advisor,
mentor would be more close to it because with some kids you are just a person they know
at the church so that when they come here they feel comfortable or saying ‘hi,’ because
they know you, but for other kids you are someone they’ll call up or email when they
have a problem. Or maybe they won’t reach out to you outside of this building, but if
you’re here and they’re here they may come to you. We are role models. They watch
what we do and the choices that we make and the way we behave, so there is some sort of
This exchange materialized in response to advisors having to sit on the sidelines
in order for the youth to have their needs met with other youth. Advisors are strongly
discouraged from participating fully in youth group as a youth would. They are expected
to model behavior that will influence youth, to open up, and be “authentic” with youth,
but not lean on youth with their own problems. By listening and asking questions,
advisors give youth the chance to vocalize their problems and concerns and sort through
them using the values they have been taught in the church. Listening and following up
with questions acts as a boundary, a bumper, where youth self-reflect. By having youth
brainstorm their “choices” and think through the consequences to each line of action, the
lane becomes smaller and the list of choices becomes shorter. Advisors are the bumpers
on the lane to teach the youth how to self-reflect and self-monitor. The desired outcome is
not a fear of the gutter but rather of a certainty of the center path that is the “best path,” a
reified subjectivity in its deepest form.
This process takes time, however. For youth to internalize these values, they are
also given the space to experiment within the lane. The balls rarely role down the lane as
fast as advisors would like and often need to be nudged in the right direction. Advisors
sometimes struggle with their role coming from a “teaching” position, where they are
much more overtly directive. As advisors watch youth group sessions unfold, model
advisors understand their peripheral role and sometimes doubt their effectiveness.
At a year-end advisor meeting, Chris reflected on his first year of experience,
“I have found it to be a very difficult year. A lot of Sundays it is a really long
hour,” he said and we all laughed. “I find that a lot of times I’m sitting here consciously
just being here, but consciously not contributing too, which is a difficult thing to do.
There have been times when I have thought ‘Why am I here?’ I look at some of you guys
who have had time to develop a relationship with these kids and I just haven’t been here
long enough to do that. It’s kind of like trying to,” he paused, searching for the words.
“It’s kind of like trying to attract squirrels.” We laughed. “It’s like I’ve just gone to the
park bench and I’ll throw some seed down, and if they come that’s great and if they
don’t,” our laughter grew louder and he stopped. “No, I’m serious though, because I
know that trying too hard will backfire, and I don’t want to be that guy. But by showing
up, I am showing that I care. If that’s enough, that’s great. I mean, in the end of it all I am
happy that I got the chance to participate as an advisor but it certainly hasn’t been easy.
The fact that you are here- I mean, if I didn’t like you people, then I wouldn’t be coming
back. Being together, I feel a sense of community with you makes it worthwhile.”
Chris comments about establishing boundaries between adults and youth then
talks about the speed of the process where youth come to internalize certain values
without much adult intervention. This group of about thirty youth who regularly gather
on Sunday mornings became so large that after lighting the chalice, most of the hour was
spent doing “check-in” where each person shared what he had been up to since the last
meeting. For adults, when youth describe parties at length or are consistently textmessaging others outside of youth group, or across the room, it feels as though they are
not “doing anything.”
Emily explained her transition from teaching the Unitarian Universalist junior
high sexuality education course Our Whole Lives (OWL) to becoming a youth advisor.
“My first year was very, very hard. I came from teaching OWL, which is very structured.
We have a curriculum and only so much time to get through it. My first year I even told
the youth a couple times, ‘I’m having a hard time just sitting back and having you guys
do anything.’ I was thinking herding cats instead of attracting squirrels. It’s very
frustrating, and I don’t always see my purpose here.”
In both cases, there is doubt that the youth are learning what the advisors are
modeling since it is a much more covert form of learning. On the one hand, advisors state
that they do not want to limit the youth or direct them how they should act, yet in the next
breath, they discuss their intentions about how to shape the group. Because there is a
specific purpose, advisors regularly discuss and analyze how the group is progressing.
Over the last two decades, this focus has become clearer, but still not as effective
as many advisors and parents would wish. They would like to see the youth more active
in social justice work. One of the favorite questions asked by one advisor is “are you a
youth group or a group of youth?” In this way he challenges the participants to reflect on
the purpose of the group.
“I guess the youth group is a group of youth that does have a lot of unifying
qualities like we’re all really liberal. We’re all…” she paused. “I don’t want to say
majorly accepting of everything, but I think we are accepting of things like sexual
orientation for starters, and I can’t think of anything else right now”
“Race,” added another teen who defined herself as “mixed.”
“Yeah, definitely,” they exclaimed together.
Some of the teenage leaders echo this purpose. “Most of us go to church and
youth group for a reason. Sure it’s to see our friends we don’t get to see a lot or hang out
afterwards, but we still want to get stuff done. Most of us who have been there for a
really long time are there for a reason. The people that haven’t been there for a long time
are the ones who just go to hang out, but that’s not the point of it. There actually is a
purpose of going there. We have obligations that we want to take care of.”
“So what is the purpose?” I asked.
“So like Rachel said earlier, we want to get community service stuff done,” Gia
“We want to be productive and helpful to the community and the environment.”
“And the church.”
“And the world.”
Rachel concluded, “Yeah, exactly. I think it is a nice opportunity to show people
that yeah, we may not have a set of beliefs or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that we’re
just a bunch of people who are just crazy and reckless and everything like that. We’re
good people who want to do good for everyone.”
Interestingly, Rachel, who at the end stated that Unitarian Universalists “may not
have a set of beliefs or whatever,” was the one who talked about the unifying liberal view.
She struggled to articulate that discourse concretely, but she understood that the group is
welcoming to diverse sexual orientations, and has a strong current of social action.
Rachel also explained that the church did not accept all views. On other occasions these
young women have talked during youth group about how everyone is a democrat and that
they enjoy being in a liberal setting where they are free to express their own ideas. The
more they ascribe to the liberal identity, the more comfortable they feel at church. The
process of accepting these values within the church environment has had its effect over
time since Gia makes a sharp distinction between those who have been in the church a
“really long time” understanding the purpose of youth group, in contrast to those who
haven’t been there as long who “just go to hang out.” These young women have
internalized the strong current of social responsibility and service that are central to the
“deeds” in Unitarian Universalism. They refer to social justice projects as obligations,
which demonstrate to outsiders that they are good people doing good for everyone, thus
legitimizing the church and its actions.
In many ways, advisors recognize the impact they will have on the youth and are
often unsure about their own abilities “to teach” their religion being new to it themselves.
As one adult in the training program said, “I need advising myself, I am new to Unitarian
Universalism.” Another added, “I don’t ascribe a label to my own values. I go to a
Unitarian Universalist church, but I don’t see myself as a Unitarian Universalist. The kids
have been in it all their lives but the adults haven’t.” They acknowledged the fact that the
youth who grew up in the church have been through many structured years of curricula
and may therefore articulate their faith, or ask questions in ways that the advisors cannot.
One could argue, though, that this viewpoint is still within the struggle of power relations
that adults grapple with. This assumes a teacher-student relationship where they feel
threatened that they cannot answer questions the youth may have. It comes from a
position of still being a teacher. I would argue that they are interpreting their role as
advisors correctly.
Youth empowerment is not about “sharing power” but rather creating an
environment where youth reproduce the values that they have been taught while
attributing it to their own choice. In the training workshop, the one quiz advisors do is a
self-evaluation of how they work with youth (see Appendix 6). Not only does it teach
them about what the qualities of an effective youth advisor are, it gives them the
opportunity to examine themselves so that they will further improve these skills and
better understand their role as mentors.
One of the evaluative categories is the “prophetic voice,” where advisors are
asked to rate how they “speak the liberal religious values grounding [their] ministry”
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2007k:138). This is an area where adults new to
Unitarian Universalism rank themselves lower. As youth advisors and mentors, they are
not expected to tell youth what to think but must be prepared to share their individual
understandings of their religion with youth. This encourages adults to engage in the
process of self-examination strengthening their own convictions about Unitarian
Universalism and seeking more adult education classes to help guide them.
Working with youth is considered a ministry on this quiz. By labeling this work
ministry, adults recognize an additional responsibility they have besides maintaining a
safe environment for youth. There is a religious component that adults must provide
along with fostering teen skills in critical thinking. Subtly, they are being called into the
role of a religious teacher.
The second edition of the Youth Advisors Handbook echoes the dilemma of
“shared power” by acknowledging the need to relinquish control of the group diminishing
an advisor’s ability to control the outcome, but also understands that “parents and other
adults in the congregation regard you as ultimately responsible for the group’s actions—
especially when things go badly” (Tain 2003:12). These challenges are central to the
discussions of youth advisor training.
The Model Youth Advisor: Diversity, Homogeneity, and Frustration
“So what are the characteristics of a good youth advisor? You already know some
of the characteristics, but let’s write them down as a group to expand our individual
ideas” said the facilitator at a youth advisor training workshop. There was an easel in
front of us for this brainstorming activity. The marker started squeaking in quick spurts as
we called out responses, pausing briefly to check the spelling.
“Always available.”
“No, not always available, just available. We need to show them our own healthy
boundaries so that we also take care of ourselves.”
There was nodding and side conversations as the facilitator crossed through the
“always.” The permanent marker vapors filled the room as we continued.
“Willing to let go of control.”
“Willing to sleep on the floor.”
“No shower.”
“Well organized.”
“Willing to be publicly spiritual.”
“Good judgment.”
“Can see the big picture.”
“Always enough sleep.”
“Good support.”
“Creative.” The scribe stood back capping the marker.
“Not everyone can do this, that’s why there are more than one,” the facilitator
summarized. Participants nodded, pleased with the different strengths they brought to
youth advising before heading off to lunch. We had practiced what we would go back to
our youth groups to do. Brainstorming is a central part of youth advisor training. This
models what we were expected to do with our own youth groups. More fundamentally, it
starts with the assumption that we each hold answers within us. As the facilitator stated in
the beginning, we already knew these characteristics, and through the group sharing
process, we found new terms to express them.
Discussion is a core method of learning within Unitarian Universalism. There is a
perception of equity in sharing, all voices are theoretically heard, and it permits for a
rational and reasonable process to work through ideas, in this case to change the “always
available” to “available.” It also fosters peer reinforcement. The nods, laughter, and
occasional comment—I was already going to say flexible/accepting/patient—helps the
group internalize these specific answers.
Most importantly, the last statement was the main point the training curriculum
emphasized. Not everyone can do this, so they require having multiple advisors to meet
the needs of youth. In other words, a particular advisor may not be able to excel at each
of these characteristics. This is equated to diversity; as one youth advisor said, “I think a
mixture of strengths and weaknesses is good. Not just one person can really do it. I think
we have to have a group—whether it’s two, three or five people—who have different
strengths that can step in because otherwise people might get worn out. Everyone has
different strengths that the teens will go to and play on and be enhanced by. Not being too
authoritarian is the overriding factor. Letting things flow when they should.” A diversity
of strengths is important as advisors talk about their role. But just how diverse are youth
advisors in their styles?
The facilitator had already stated at the beginning of the workshop that it was
important to focus on the positive rather than the negative. This echoes the shift in
Unitarian Universalism over the last few decades toward more specific programming and
a positive affirmation of their identity. “Let’s define ourselves by what we are instead of
what we aren’t.” There was no explicit mention of what makes a bad youth advisor in our
training, but throughout the workshop it was implicit. The list of positive characteristics
may be implemented stylistically in varying ways, but it still is a list of ideals that
advisors strive for. In informal conversations, advisors describe negative characteristics
through stories or by giving examples of how advisors have not lived up to these ideals.
One advisor reflected on his experience, “So, I guess, for me, one of the hardest
things to learn was to try to be a little bit flexible with the youth and not to be
overbearing. That was one of the reasons why I needed to take a two-year hiatus because
my daughter was in the youth group and I tried to treat her just like a regular youth but
some father-daughter relationship things started cropping up. She saw it, and I started
seeing it, so she asked me to step back. I was proud of her for asking me. She knew she
needed the space and I was happy to oblige. It gave me a chance to recharge. I think
that’s important too.” For this youth advisor, his story highlights his difficulty
maintaining both roles, of parent and youth advisor, at the same time. However, while
this story is a narrative of how he fell short of an ideal youth advisor, he also underscores
another important characteristic: self-regulation. Advisors are expected to adhere to these
characteristics, make improvements, or at least, be able to self-reflect on their actions and
make the decision to step out of that role. Being “overbearing” or “controlling” are not
qualities that are accepted, as the following exchange between advisors illustrates.
Carolyn said, “You know, I really think that the very worst youth advisor is the
one who tries to be too authoritative and set too many boundaries. With teens, if you
always start from a fear of authority, then what that creates is a mental thing. You are
building a wall not only between you and them but a wall for them to butt up against. So
the most counterproductive thing to do with teenagers is to be too authoritative, too strict.
Or too much of a naysayer or too controlling. Because I think it’s just a fact that that’s the
kind of thing that really, really pushes their button of rebellion and misbehavior. If you
want kids to break the rules, the best way to do it is to be mean and firm and too ruleoriented.”
“Do you think, then that we really have a variety of personalities or do you think
we are selective?” Chris asked Carolyn.
“I think we have a varie- it’s obvious that we’re all different,” she replied.
“Oh, but the authoritarian rule, he means that that’s not there?” Emily asked
“But none of us are like that. I was describing it as the worst trait. I think if we
had someone like that, and I think we have, then I think that’s something that probably is
not going to work.”
“I mean-” Chris tried to get a word in between Carolyn and Emily.
“Or they choose not to work with teens because-” Carolyn finished Emily’s
“It’s too frustrating. It’s too frustrating and the teens are going to resist and with
the youth advisor that we had at the beginning of the year they did resist. They
“They stopped me on the street and complained,” Emily added.
“Right. They showed in various ways their displeasure with phone calls, emails,
stopping on the street, body language, words.”
“That wasn’t universal, though, right?” Chris asked.
“No, it wasn’t universal but it was-”
Chris interrupted Carolyn and said, “Because some kids-”
“But it was the majority, it was overwhelmingly-” Carolyn responded before
David stepped into the conversation.
“I got the sense it was some of the older ones. For some of the younger ones, this
was their first year in youth group.”
“They didn’t know what to expect,” Emily added.
“They didn’t know what to expect and that may have been what they were more
used to,” David suggested.
I included this entire interchange to highlight a number of points. First, to
illustrate how the discursive framework of the “good youth advisor” is constructed, how
negative traits are portrayed, and how an implicit “othering” takes place.
This part of the conversation started when Carolyn not only explained what a
youth advisor should not do, but framed it as the worst trait an advisor could have.
Juxtaposing the goal of youth empowerment, she stated that the worst trait was to be
authoritarian and rule oriented. She felt that a youth advisor acting as a teacher in a
position of authority was against the main objectives of youth advisement. As Chris
questioned the amount of diversity in advisement styles, the responses from the other
advisors countered his question and affirmed the diversity of the group. However, the
question highlighted the process of self regulation and self-selection that youth advisors
subject themselves to. There is a particular type of advisor that is preferred, and we had
learned what our role should be and how to act, despite the frustrations that we admitted
to one another.
Crafting Empowerment at Youth Conferences
The chanting became increasingly louder behind the thick wooden doors. I had
been forewarned about “cons.”
“Don’t be surprised when you see the ‘cuddle puddles’ and the game ‘wink.’ This
is just what they do at cons,” one mother and former youth advisor had told me.
“Cons? What are cons?” I asked, thinking this was yet another acronym I had to
“Youth Conferences.” She explained that a youth group at a particular
congregation in the district usually hosts them from Friday evening until Sunday
morning. The youth advisors drive the youth there and stay with them for the weekend
doing workshops, a coffee house, and worship in the evenings. There is usually some free
time on Saturday afternoon when youth can sign up in groups to leave the church with
any advisor to a number of predetermined destinations. For the rest of the weekend it is a
lockdown where the youth and adults stay entirely within the church making friends and
connections with other youth and adults from the district. “It is a really amazing
experience for the youth, transformative,” she exclaimed.
The chanting broke into clapping and commotion on the other side of the door.
“Do you have any questions about what you should be doing as youth advisors here?” the
district youth coordinator asked. It was about ten thirty on Friday night and over one
hundred youth and advisors were arriving in sporadic caravans from all over New York
State and adjacent Canadian congregations. We had all met in the large square sanctuary
at ten that evening to kick off the weekend with rules and expectations. After a few
minutes, we broke into three groups. Those staying in the sanctuary were the youth who
had already attended other conferences. The “con virgins” met in a separate room to learn
what to expect from this experience, and the advisors were in the library discussing their
roles for the weekend.
I was apprehensive about my advisor role being a “con virgin” myself. What was I
supposed to do? Was I supposed to enforce the rules, walk around and monitor,
participate with the youth, or stand to the side observing? I was one of the youngest
advisors there and had just started working with these youth a few weeks earlier. This
was not the teaching role I was used to. I admit I wanted answers, not only for my
research, but to help me understand the apprentice advisor role that I had been asked to
undertake for the year. The orientation began with a show of hands of who was new to
conferences (roughly five of the twenty adults there) and then asked if we had any
questions. This struck me initially as much more “hands-off” in practice than youth-
advisor training would suggest. For a moment we all sat in silence. Then one adult started
explaining what to expect for the weekend, our role, and general guidelines.
“We are here to be supportive of the youth, to participate with them, but to let
them have their own time to bond as youth. Every conference is different but the general
rule of thumb is: if something makes you feel uncomfortable, tell them you are
uncomfortable. We are not here to be police, but we are here primarily to help provide a
safe environment where they can build connections with others. As you know, two of the
important rules that they agree to are no exclusive relationships and no shared bedding.”
I looked down at the Code of Ethics that all youth, parents, and advisors sign.
While there are specific guidelines of no drugs, weapons, or alcohol, the majority of the
form deals with questions of sexuality between youth as well as youth-adult relationships.
Sexuality is a healthy and important part of young people’s lives.
Conferences are an opportunity for youth to express themselves in healthy
ways. Exclusive relationships detract from the community. All members
of the community must respect each other’s physical boundaries.
Inappropriate behavior (sexual intercourse or sexual harassment) is not
permitted. Parents/guardians are invited to discuss this policy with
youth…There are no more important areas of growth than those of selfworth and the development of a healthy identity as a sexual being. Adults
play a key role in assisting youth in these areas of growth (Unitarian
Universalist Association 2007k:129).
It goes on to state the damaging effect of leaders becoming sexually involved with
youth or relating with them through any form of erotic or abusive behavior. This is an
important point, as parents and adults see it, which differs from many of the other
religious traditions they came from. There is strong liberal agenda of educating youth
about their sexuality in Unitarian Universalism so that youth can make informed and
rational choices about their behavior.
One of the structured curricula that many Unitarian Universalist churches offer for
their junior high youth is called Our Whole Lives (OWL) and has been so successful it
has expanded with age-appropriate information for six different age groups spanning
kindergarten through adults aged thirty-five. As echoed in the code of ethics, sexuality is
seen as positive and healthy, and therefore navigating this topic takes most of the page.
Drugs, weapons and alcohol are all illegal and thus do not receive extensive discussion in
the guidelines.
Interestingly, the word “rule” is consciously avoided. Instead the word
“guidelines” is used even though most statements are not negotiable. If a youth, or an
adult, has not followed the code of ethics, the Committee of Rules and Consequences
holds a meeting and the offender may be asked to leave the conference along with all the
other members of his carpool. Crafting this code of ethics as guidelines is a subtle way of
teaching youth how they should self-regulate while presenting it as their choice, even
when the consequences are firm.
Sexuality is discussed at length on these forms affirming its centrality as part of a
healthy person’s life. It gives youth the ability to experiment with growing close to others
physically and emotionally in a safe environment where individual boundaries are
respected. While sex is an individual choice, the rationale behind prohibiting it at youth
conferences is that they are intended for community building. Youth are encouraged to
participate, meet new people, and socialize in groups. “Exclusive relationships,” such as
one-on-one extensive socializing, and sexual relationships are discouraged.
The emphasis placed on community is one that youth readily identify with and by
extension this makes for easy understanding about why sexual relations would not be
permitted. The release form invites parents to discuss this policy with their children so
that they will self-regulate, not because certain activities are prohibited, but because they
internalize these guidelines as the best way to live. Youth easily adopt this attitude and
some of their comments reflect how they feel when they are allowed more freedom to
experiment with physical closeness in a group without the complexity of navigating a
sexual relationship in that environment.
“I think that the first con I went to I didn’t really talk to anybody until the last
night when we had all this free time and I met all these really cool people. It was nice
how people are so open because in cons you are just like ‘Hey, I don’t know you but you
can sit on my lap, I don’t care.’” The youth group erupted in laughter at her
characterization of youth conferences, then she finished her thought. “People are more
open to talking.”
Laughter is a strong reinforcer for the group that physical closeness is a
characteristic of youth conferences. It is a liminal space lasting thirty-six hours, Victor
Turner (1967) might argue, where the youth interact in ways that are closer than during
Sunday morning youth group. One could also argue that it is the discourse that is built up
around conferences that encourages this self-regulation. When I asked three girls in an
informal interview about their youth group experiences, attending conferences was
unequivocally the highlight.
“You get to meet and bond with all these different people or people you only met
a year ago. I met one of my best friends at a con and he lives in Montreal. Cons are the
only way I can see him, so Albany next weekend, I have to go.”
One of the youth burst through the doors of the library interrupting the meeting.
He asked if we were ready yet, worried that we would miss the next activity. As we
walked through the doors, a flood of high school freshman, with some sophomores and a
few older teens, walked by with large Vs for “con virgin” written in thick marker on their
foreheads, cheeks, and hands. Some of the girls also wore low-cut shirts or halter tops,
with Vs on their upper chests. They were smiling, talking, and skipping back to the
sanctuary. Touch groups would be next, they announced from the unadorned wood pulpit.
As they gathered into groups of seven to twelve participants, the adults hung back. The
adults I stood with were eager to meet new Unitarian Universalists adults but commented
that they would have liked to have been invited into the touch groups so that they could
meet more young people. Since my youth group was hosting a conference in three
months, one of the advisors scribbled a quick note to ask our youth how they felt about
that. She later explained how the adults felt excluded and ask them how they wanted to
handle touch groups. They decided that being exclusive of the adults in this case would
detract from the community and was not what conferences were about.
Youth worship is recognized by the denomination as being different from adult
worship. Sunday morning services are more passive with congregants listening to a
minister or lay leader and resemble many Protestant services. Youth services take place
most often in a circle, at night in the dark, and have an element of spontaneity (Ross
2001:147). At midnight, we entered the sanctuary through a cloud of burning sage. The
host youth marched into the sanctuary to the beat of drums chanting a Native American
prayer. The chairs inside were placed in concentric circles where we now sat, joining
them in the chanting. The focus was on dreams and nature. They lit candles as they
addressed the four cardinal directions. After another chant and a few words, we recessed
out of the sanctuary through the smell of burning sage.
As youth advisors it was our job to encourage our groups to spend time with
others. Two of the girls in my group, who were best friends, spent most of the weekend
hanging out alone. A few adults asked them if they could introduce them to others, or if
they wouldn’t like to spend time with the group playing cards, or drumming, or with
those talking in the next room. They acknowledged to me that they shouldn’t be hanging
out with each other and should be making new friends, but admitted they were shy and
not as interested in the hugs the youth were giving each other.
On Saturday night, they came running up to me with bright faces reporting that
they had been hanging out with another group. My approval that they were doing the
right thing was expected but more importantly, sought. I laughed and told them I was
proud of them, and as they bounded off to reconnect with their group, I reflected on the
ease with which I could help them internalize these values. I had grown up in a liberal
family surrounded by the same values my whole life as well. How these discourses are
reproduced has been far more difficult for me to see compared with my Mexican
fieldwork. I wonder if this is why there is so little research focusing on liberal religion by
liberal anthropologists.
In other conversations with advisors, I reflected on the fact that since the adults
feel responsible for the building and the safety of the youth, some of them have a policy
of walking around and sticking their heads into various rooms every hour or so. Others
are happier talking with other youth advisors. At each conference it is a general policy to
have additional adult chaperones from the host congregation sign up for night shifts.
Shifts were from midnight to four in the morning, and from four to eight in the
morning. At least two adults were awake throughout the night giving the youth advisors
time to sleep. The training manual states “at overnights and conferences, it is not the
adults’ job to be police, patrolling from room to room, and sleeping bag to sleeping bag,
to make sure that no rule-breaking is taking place” (Unitarian Universalist Association
2007k:188). But in practice, adult volunteers are there to do just that. Many feel a need to
monitor the youth, especially on the second night of a conference, when many youth have
not slept in thirty-six hours. In fact, the very next night some youth were scaling the walls
in the narrow corridor of the church and a large custom-made glass light fixture shattered
on the floor beneath them. As a group of advisors later reflect on their role during cons,
they said,
“I always find it easier to go to conferences as opposed to having our own, but
that’s just because, when it’s here in our church, I feel a greater responsibility to the rest
of the congregation that the place is presentable and that nothing bad happens. And so I
have this-”
“I have this tension of conflicting things: ‘let the youth be the youth’ and ‘let’s
make sure we have respect for the place.’ Not that the youth disrespect the place. They
can, but put a group of them in there and-”
“Someone ends up duct-taped to the wall.”
“Or to a chair, or an elevator, or hanging from a light fixture.” We all laughed
recalling recent incidents.
“There are other activities that are not supposed to take place either.”
Carolyn switched the topic. “Conferences are so much fun, I love going to
conferences. I don’t ever mind going, except for those long drives.”
“It’s the sleeping on the floor that gets me.”
“I’ve learned two important things I need to bring to each conference: an air
mattress and earplugs.” We all laughed again.
“I know you do. But I always like conference because I like getting to hang with
you guys, whoever I go with. This last time David and I spent about two inches apart, but
that was fun because we had some talking before we went to sleep and in the morning. It
was kind of nice. I just think it’s just really cool for us all to just be able to be there for an
extended period of time. I guess as adults we get Sunday mornings and coffee hour, but
you can’t really talk to anybody because there are too many people.”
“That’s true.”
“You know it’s so superficial, so at con we all get to get beyond the superficial.”
And when you travel with a group of people you get to know them. I love it when
at the last con I went to every now and then the youth would check in with me-” Emily
“I love that part.”
“Or they would ask a question like ‘Can we all go with you?’” Emily said,
recalling her delight when the teens from her group wanted to spend time with her at a
conference. “We’re there to let them be them and be there to chaperone them to whatever
free time activity and touch base, you know?”
“Yeah. Cons are for me, one of the highlights,” Carolyn commented, referring to
her involvement with the teens.
“It was really interesting to know the other youth leaders too. After a couple of
cons you get to know the ones who have been there a while and you build a relationship
with them. Unitarians are always interesting so you get great conversation and it’s just a
lot of fun,” Emily added.
“I have to admit, not only are the adult conversations at conferences good but I’ve
had really good conversations with youth at conferences. And I think that’s one of the
rewards of being a youth advisor.”
This excerpt from a group interview highlights some of the struggles advisors
have with giving up control to support youth empowerment but also the connection they
feel with the youth and other advisors. As one youth states about her experience with
cons, “Yeah, I like going to new places and meeting new people and seeing their
perspective on Unitarian Universalism because what I think it is, is not what somebody
else thinks it is.”
One of the highlights that both youth and adults refer to is the opportunity to be
with others who are “like-minded” yet for this young woman, conferences are also an
opportunity to reflect with others about differing interpretations of Unitarian
Universalism. Some youth do spend long hours discussing the importance of their
religion with others. They privilege the forum of discussion where their independent
ideas are validated and possibly challenged. Through these conversations, they learn to
articulate their beliefs and the acceptable boundaries of those beliefs so that they continue
to fit in with their peers. Most of the teens I worked with would do anything to protect the
institution of youth conferences, since they are so central to their Unitarian Universalist
After the light fixture broke at the first conference I attended, we held a meeting
to figure out what had happened, and how the group should address the problem. We
spent most of our time trying to figure out how to raise the five-hundred dollars it would
cost to replace the custom-made glass fixture. Should we ask for donations? Could
everyone just put a few dollars in a big jar by tomorrow? It wasn’t our fault, why should
we have to pay? No one has admitted to breaking it, so we don’t have a choice. Why
shouldn’t the host youth group pay for it as a group since people are saying it is someone
from their group who did it? We don’t have enough money in our account. Look, if we
don’t resolve this, we may not be able to host another con.
The session then turned into a sharing discussion about what conferences meant to
participants. A number of girls admitted, holding back tears, Cons are what I look
forward to the most. My friends are here. These are the people who accept me. If we
couldn’t have cons or started having less it would be terrible.
For the advisors, this was a learning moment. They did not step in until one youth
leader looked over expectantly. First I would like to say that I am proud of you for
identifying the problem, sharing how you feel about it and coming up with some possible
solutions. I think right now it might be best to decide how you do want to deal with the
problem and then end the meeting. We are glad to hear you care so deeply about the cons,
and it is good that you recognize how the adults of the congregation will feel and might
react if the light is not fixed or if they need to solve this problem. As you know, we may
not be able to host another con for a while here, if that happens. So as a community, we
need to come together to figure out a solution.
In advisor training this is known as “What? So what? Now what?” We were
taught to ask these three questions to help facilitate problem solving. Adults are urged to
resist solving problems for the youth and use these moments to help youth reflect on the
issue by having them state the problem clearly (what), why it matters or how they feel
about it (so what), and coming up with possible solutions of how they can act (now
what). The process is meant to empower youth, but it also is a direct method of
encouraging self-reflection and evaluating behavior so that youth internalize the moral
values of the group.
By encouraging discussion youth learn from their peers how they should respond
to these situations. Occasionally I saw advisors link the problem solving back to the
seven Unitarian Universalist Principles to see why this may be a problem. In this case,
the adult reiterated, in concrete terms, what the youth had accomplished and redirected
the sharing session toward solving the problem. A few of the youth later shared that they
appreciated how the adults let them come up with a solution instead of telling them what
they had to do. In the same breath they also wished the adults would have facilitated the
meeting more since certain youth had wasted far too much of the group’s time talking
about what conferences meant to them. Adults are often requested to step in. Youth want
guidance, but presented in a way so that they feel they have come up with the conclusions
“What’s next on our agenda?” Kyle asked. “Okay, what about the cluster con?”
As the group of six youth lounged on the sofas in the main living room of the old
converted house, the oldest young man—grandson of one of the founders of this
congregation—was moving though the list on the easel in front of us. The other advisor
and I glanced over at one another and stifled broad smiles. We had been deliberate about
our role as advisors throughout the year, especially Kim. I had listened to many
conversations between the two other advisors about how to craft a group experience that
would embody youth empowerment as we had understood it. We smiled because we were
aware of how far the group had come in a single year. What we saw before us was largely
due to our efforts.
At the end of the prior academic year when I first visited this group, I sat in
amazement as they talked all at once and threw spitballs, then pillows, across the room at
each other. Another Sunday morning they spent playing with the wax around the chalice
not wanting to “do anything.” A year later, they were planning a youth service for the
following month and an overnight cluster conference for the five congregations in the
immediate area. They lit the chalice, said a chalice reading, and worked for three hours as
we watched. They had even coordinated buying and ordering pizzas. When they realized
that it was nearing midnight, they whined that they wanted a break. We urged them to
finish the current topic on the agenda. They agreed that they should finish and ended with
satisfaction as we all attributed such hard work to their own planning and success.
Free time was a welcome relief for all of them, and as I sat sleepily on the sofa
overhearing their conversation, they continued to reinforce their liberal values.
“I want Hillary to win.”
“I like Hillary too.”
“I kind of like Obama.”
“I am just pissed at people who will vote McCain.”
“Did you see Meet the Press on Sunday morning?”
“I like the Colbert Report.”
“I like socialists, but don’t like government spy cameras.”
“McCain is ‘Bush 2.0’”
They start talking about the church and then slipped into Seinfeld mode with the
Soup Nazi sketch they liked on television.
“There are like two Republicans in this church- No coffee hour for you!”
“You don’t believe in socialized medicine? No socialize time for you!”
They all laughed as someone said, “I am pretty sure Bush is worse than Hitler.
Hitler at least got some medals!”
They snickered in solid contempt for the current Republican administration by
placing it below the quintessential villain of the twentieth century. Only two of them
would be able to vote for a new president in the fall, but all closely followed current
events and were outspoken about their liberal political views. They told me the next
morning that they were Unitarian Universalists, and didn’t just attend the Unitarian
Universalist church. Most go to school in the suburbs where they see the church as a
haven. Kyle explained, “Everybody else in my life says, ‘you’re really, really far into left
field,’ and they’re all like flaming conservatives. It is important that we all have similar
beliefs at the church, perhaps not religiously, but politically.” Here he emphasizes the
similarity of their liberal views yet maintains the discourse of diversity and individual
choice within the church as it pertains to religious beliefs.
The youth director of the district referenced a famous quote from William Ellery
Channing, the formative nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, outlining how religious
education is viewed in Unitarian Universalism.
“It’s in the hymnal. Basically it says it’s not our job to stamp our minds upon the
young but help them find their own way, but you have to do that in a developmental way.
When they are really little, they’re concrete so you got to give them stuff and you are
hoping that as they mature intellectually and emotionally that they are able to handle
more abstract ways of thinking. I think if anything, one of the failings of Unitarian
Universalist religious education is that we teach them so much. Well of course the world
is so vast, so infinite the ideas and the spirituality, and we teach them so much about what
other people believe and what their options are, but sometimes we neglect to give them a
little bit of structure about some of the choices that the people around them they love are
making. So while we don’t want to stamp our ideas upon their minds, it’s okay to say ‘but
this is what I believe, this is what your mom believes, this is what your youth advisor
believes, these are some of the common beliefs in this faith community, and we invite
you to accept them as your own.’ We forget that part. Not you have to, but we invite you.”
Ross echoes this in his history of Unitarian Universalism:
The fault may lie with the ambivalence Unitarian Universalists so often
feel not about their faith but about the structure that supports it. Extension
is okay; evangelism is not. Adequate funds for programs are wonderful;
asking for them is embarrassing. So it is with the way we raise our
children. Education is good; indoctrination is bad. Unfortunately, in
drawing the line between these extremes, we have all too often leaned
over backwards not to impart to the next generation the need to undergird
ideals with structure, with the result that our children may share our ideals
in the abstract, but feel no loyalty to the institution that gives them
viability (Ross 2001:137-138).
In both cases, there is a call for an increased link between the values they believe
and Unitarian Universalism. They are careful to distinguish this from indoctrination by
using first-person statements wherever an advisor or parent or other Unitarian
Universalist tells a child or teen “I believe…” By doing this, they are giving youth
options and models to choose from. At the same time, they admit the need to share this
information with youth precisely so that the youth will hear, understand, and ultimately
incorporate the beliefs. As parents express in parent-advisor meetings, “it is my dream to
have my kids want to stay here.” Parents, who have most often left another religious
background, feel they have found something important in Unitarian Universalism and
want their children to feel as strongly as they do.
One parent was thrilled to provide an update after my fieldwork was over. Her
daughter had started attending campus ministry events regularly at college and her
mother exclaimed, “Last year you certainly were doing a lot of things right in youth
group.” The approach Unitarian Universalists use to foster a particular subjectivity has
become much more deliberate over time, and for the youth, as the curriculums and
training sessions have become even more focused, the programs may prove to be far
more effective at retaining them than “herding cats” would suggest.
“Let the congregation say Hallelujah!” the young guest minister , Josh Pawelek,
emphatically proclaimed over the sound system. A resounding “Hallelujah!” came back
from over five-thousand participants filling row upon row of folding chairs and bleachers
around the main hall of the Portland Convention Center. Their response lit his face with a
smile over the large screen projections on either side of him. The crowd had just sung
“Shall We Gather By the River” swaying back and forth, some holding hands, following
along with the words on the screens.
“We are claiming and reclaiming our identity,” Hope Johnson, a fellow minister,
explained in her prayer. “We call out to our ancestors. We carry them in our heart to the
river for consecration, and we fall symbolically on our knees thankful for our history, a
history of authenticity, truth, tragedy, triumph, complicity and resistance,” she affirmed,
leading into Rev Pawelek’s sermon “On Becoming an Ancestor.”
He continued with his sermon. “We are reclaiming and proclaiming the ancestral
word hallelujah, the ancient Hebrew shout of gratitude, praise, and joy. If during this
General Assembly you have had an experience for which you are thankful, say
hallelujah,” he instructed.
“If during this General Assembly you have had an experience for which you
would like to offer praise, say hallelujah,” he continued, his voice rising.
“Or if during this General Assembly you have had an experience that has brought
you joy, say hallelujah,” he finished.
“Hallelujah” came back again from the crowd.
I was sitting among thousands of participants at the closing worship service for
the forty-sixth annual General Assembly (GA). This Sunday afternoon, which was open
to the public was the culmination of the event. The energy was high and felt oddly like a
revival meeting in the sense that, for a few days, handfuls of members from over sixty
percent of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States came together
for spiritual and intellectual renewal and invited the general public for a number of open
worship services in the hopes of attracting new members. The shouts of Hallelujah filling
the hall and the gospel-influence of the hymns echoed Christian revival meetings, yet the
focus was not on salvation but on social justice and proclaiming the message of Unitarian
“What must I do to become an ancestor?” Rev. Pawelek asked the crowd. “We
have also become ancestors by engaging in justice struggles today. With this anniversary
of our anti-racism, anti-oppression institution it calls on us to look deeply at ourselves
and challenges us to transform. It issues a challenge to us to dismantle racism. Though
we may make mistakes, and they will be many,” his voice rose, “failure is not possible.”
“Hallelujah,” shouted one man and the hall filled with applause. This “revival”
was centered around anti-racism, understanding the dynamics of power, and coming into
right relations with one another and the larger global community. Now was the time for
action, now was the time to spread the message of Unitarian Universalism.
Evangelism, for Unitarian Universalists is the active reaching out to non-members
and sharing with them the potential of Unitarian Universalism. While the standard
definition of evangelism is the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ, this
has been altered to extend beyond Christianity when Unitarian Universalists reclaimed
the word. Many Unitarian Universalists hesitate to be called evangelists, not wishing to
push their ideas on others, but over the last few years their attitude has started to change.
General Assembly is the largest gathering each year of the denomination and a
chance to share ideas, build an affiliation and relationship with the larger Unitarian
Universalist community, and participate in the business of the association. Many of the
congregants I worked with in western New York had never been to General Assembly, yet
both those who had gone and those who had only vicariously enjoyed the experience
almost always said, “Can you imagine worshiping with over five-thousand other
Unitarian Universalists in one space? Can you imagine hearing that many people singing
the same hymns and voting on the same social justice issues?”
On the first afternoon, a steady trickle of participants flowed to the convention
center casually dressed in jeans, khaki pants, sneakers and backpacks. Registration tables
were broken up by last name with clearly marked professional signs. As I was handed my
plastic name badge with elastic silver neck band, program guide, and plenary agenda, I
felt like I was at an American Anthropological Association annual conference, until the
volunteer checked my form and explained that I had two coupons to redeem my ribbons.
“Ribbons?” I asked. She explained that I should follow the directions on the
coupons and collect my ribbons immediately. I walked to the Stewardship and
Development table located near the Exhibit Hall and traded my coupon for a light blue
ribbon stating “UUA Association Sunday, Growing our Faith” and a purple ribbon which
read “ UUA Annual Program Fund, Honor Congregation.” Then I searched for the
Leadership table in the Exhibit Hall and received a slightly larger bright lime-green
ribbon stating “Fair Compensation Congregation.” I asked the young woman at the
Leadership table what the ribbons were for and what I should do with them. She replied
that I should stick them so they would visibly hang from the bottom of my nametag. She
helped me attach them and added with a smile that I should feel special because not
everyone receives a ribbon.
As I walked over to the orientation session I began noticing the ribbons others
were wearing. The most prominent one was a large royal blue ribbon marked
“DELEGATE” that almost half the participants wore. Some people only had one, and
some had as many as four. With the exception of the delegate ribbon, the other ribbons
were dependant on congregational rather than individual participation. In my case, I had
registered for General Assembly through the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
Each ribbon was a way for individuals to feel vested in their congregations and to be
recognized for the congregational initiatives that they, as pledging supporters, were a part
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo Board of Trustees had completed
the Fair Compensation Congregation Self-Assessment Program. For congregations to
earn the green ribbon at General Assembly all salaried employees including the minister,
religious education professionals, administrators, musicians, custodians, and other paid
staff met the compensation guidelines set forth by the Unitarian Universalist Association
ensuring a living wage. The guidelines also indicate appropriate benefits for salaried
religious professionals, generous vacation, sabbatical, an overtime adjustment to salary
calculations, as well as the cost of living for the region where the congregation is located.
They require retirement benefits, disability and group insurance, and aid in social security
tax payments since religious professionals are considered self-employed under the law.
When these guidelines are met, a congregation is considered to be a practicing
congregation (Unitarian Universalist Association 1995a). If these standards are not met,
the congregation may be considered a committed congregation with a five-year plan to
meet these goals. The green ribbon I wore reflected the Unitarian Universalist Church of
Buffalo’s commitment to fair compensation as a practicing congregation. The status of
fair compensation is one tangible marker toward living out their second principle,
“Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” (Unitarian Universalist Association
The purple ribbon indicated that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo paid
the requested minimum amount to the Unitarian Universalist Association Annual
Program Fund for the 2006-2007 fiscal year. While a policy of congregational polity
gives the congregation the highest authority in decision-making for its members,
congregations usually choose to be pledging bodies of the Unitarian Universalist
Association to collectively develop educational material, provide training and support to
all congregations, and be affiliated with a larger collective voice. The total Annual
Program Fund contributions for 2006-2007 from all congregations affiliated with the
Unitarian Universalist Association were over 6.7 million dollars and most congregations
were designated as “Honor congregations,” or those who paid their fair share based
proportionately on their number of registered members (Unitarian Universalist
Association 2007a). Some also had the designation as having been honor congregations
for ten consecutive years or merit congregations who had increased their contribution by
twenty percent more than the previous year. The other distinction was as a leadership
congregation for the top fifty contributing congregations throughout the denomination.
These were often the largest congregations with a higher share to contribute due to
membership numbers.
The light blue ribbon was a new addition for 2007. As part of the Now Is The
Time capital campaign, Association Sunday was started in 2007 as a designated October
Sunday where all participating congregations would hold a Sunday service at their home
congregations around a central theme to raise money and awareness for the national work
of the Association. For 2007, that theme was congregational growth. The 1.4 million
dollars that was raised between 623 participating congregations later that October went to
funding separate growth initiatives for each district, hiring additional support staff for
smaller congregations, regional ad campaigns, printed resources for outreach and
multimedia initiatives as well as funding the larger Unitarian Universalist Association
marketing plan for 2007. Association Sunday is now an annual event to support the
capital campaign.
As I looked through my registration materials, I also found a note from a
congregant from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo. She wrote, “Lori, I have
your delegate card. Call me. We’ll meet.” The delegate ribbons are the only ribbons that
recognize an individual status as opposed to a congregational status. Each congregation is
allowed a certain number of delegates to attend General Assembly with full voting
privileges. For a congregation like the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo with
roughly 550 members, our group was allotted seven voting delegates. With General
Assembly being held on the West Coast in 2007, there were only seven of us from the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo attending, so I was given a delegate ribbon and
bright yellow voting card about the size of a vertical half sheet of paper printed on
cardstock. As I affixed my last ribbon on my nametag, barely visible behind the others
(see Appendix 7), I was instructed by other members to guard the card with my life
because in the highly democratic environment of voting “they will draw blood for that.” I
smiled, nodded, and tucked the card carefully inside my plenary agenda booklet.
Each year General Assembly is a mix of workshops, lectures, worship services
and plenary meetings. The plenary meetings are held in the main hall to accommodate all
participants who would like to attend, but only those with delegate cards may vote. The
eight plenary sessions throughout the five days included the presentation of special
awards to individuals and congregations, annual reports from subdivisions of the
Unitarian Universalist Association, and voting on a Statement of Conscience, Acts of
Immediate Witness, and any bylaw amendments. The Statement of Conscience is a
statement on the position of the Unitarian Universalist Association and other affiliated
congregations about a particular topic. It is drafted by the Unitarian Universalist
Association with congregational input during a four-year process of study and action. For
2007, the Statement of Conscience was titled “Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society”
which included the freedom to marry (see Appendix 8). With a sea of yellow delegate
cards held high in the air throughout the main hall, the document easily passed with the
needed two-thirds vote to be adopted.
The Acts of Immediate Witness are those created, drafted, debated, and voted
upon during the five days of General Assembly. In 2007 they included a call to stop U.S.
sponsored torture, strengthening comprehensive sexuality training legislation, and
protecting transgendered individuals from employment discrimination (see Appendix 9).
“We will have twenty minutes of debate to hear pros and cons surrounding this topic.
Let’s first hear from the pro side.”
“Thank you, Madam Moderator,” the man at the pro microphone responded. After
long and sometimes heated debates up at the microphones in the front, delegates were
asked to raise their cards high for a vote. At one point during an especially heated debate
about repealing the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy in the military, the elected moderator,
Gini Courter, requested a time for prayer. “There should always be time for prayer,” she
announced. “There is always enough love to go around, but we need to be sensitive and
be centered and caring and forgiving. One of my most favorite forms of prayer is to look
around this hall,” she said with a smile and long pause. She had the ability to sooth the
rifts between viewpoints, listen with concern and impartiality, and speak with empathy,
care, and a heavy dose of humor while maintaining an agenda. Despite tense debates, all
motions were passed easily and one man then stepped up to the third microphone
designated for comments about plenary procedure.
“Madam Moderator,” he said, “You are running these procedures superbly, and I
want to thank you.” With that, the crowd rose to their feet filling the hall with a
resounding standing ovation. Throughout this process, the moderator modeled selfreflection and taught the group how to preserve a democratic environment while
maintaining a conscious awareness of “right relations” with others.
Right Relations
“Transformation comes from holding ourselves accountable,” Unitarian
Universalist Association President William Sinkford announced to the crowd gathered for
the opening worship service Wednesday evening. He spoke about the strides the
denomination has made since the 1970s becoming anti-sexist, integrating people with
special needs, and welcoming and embracing the GLTB community, but repeated in a
litany of “so much more is needed” explained examples of shortcomings. Especially with
resolutions on race and the denominational commitment to address institutional racism,
“so much more is needed.”
This was the first year of the Right Relations Committee, a thirteen-person team.
Its function was two-fold. First, the committee addressed any issues during General
Assembly and praised positive behavior that reinforced the broad rules of the gathering.
Secondly, they offered a guided path for self-regulation so participants would be more
diligent in assessing and correcting their own actions and provide witness for those
around them. Sophia, a young adult member of the committee who had been working at
the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters explained, “This is a new team
started this year to help at General Assembly. Right relations inspire us to be authentic, to
live Unitarian Universalism right and by our principles. This really should be the Respect
Committee,” she added as the group gathered around her chuckled. “Looking at how we
respect each other here leads to how we become fundamentally respectful of all beyond
these walls.”
While there are many instances when their goals toward right relations fall short,
there is nonetheless an extraordinary effort put forth by Unitarian Universalists to address
systemic oppression. Each year the General Assembly planning committee spends extra
time dealing with logistical considerations that many other non-Unitarian Universalist
groups may not address and publicizes the options that are available to participants in an
effort to be as transparent and inclusive as possible. For example, for those who could not
attend, most General Assembly sessions were recorded and available for purchase. Over
twenty hours of online streaming video were available for free on the web. For those who
needed mobility assistance, scooters were available in the conference center. The
committee joked that every scooter for rent in the greater Portland area was at the
convention center that week. Participants were asked to leave the elevators for scooters
and others who could not use the stairs, and there were designated sections throughout
the conference rooms for scooters and wheelchairs. Microphones were provided in each
room as well as extra cordless ones for questions and comments for those who were
hearing impaired as well as to facilitate recording. In the largest gathering hall, two large
screens made speakers and performers easier to view and included closed captioning.
There was also an American Sign Language interpreter available to anyone who needed
the assistance. For those who were allergic to perfumes, there were designated fragrancefree zones in the presentation halls. There were chaplains on duty for anyone who was
lonely, overwhelmed, or needed someone to talk to. They provided day camps for older
children and child-care for younger ones. Twelve-step programs were offered each day
and the convention center was requested to provide recycling and composting for the
event along with food options that would cater to vegetarians, vegans, and those needing
gluten-free meals.
The establishment of the Right Relations Committee was part of an ongoing effort
for the denomination to “do no harm,” as one of the local congregants I knew put it. She
continued, “It’s an intentional way of being good.” The Right Relations Committee
gently reminded and encouraged participants to be conscious of their values and act
deliberately to promote them in a self-reflexive manner. As the committee would later
add, “We are often our own worst enemies. Can we live our principles at GA?” They
were greeted with a resounding applause from the participants. The committee was
formed as a way to spread awareness among the group and practice their principles.
Twice each day during plenary sessions, and prefacing some large worship services, the
committee presented reports of the day’s events to “update people about the great things
we have seen with welcoming and when things are not working out well to engage with
those ideas.” Policing, in this sense, used social pressure as the main consequence to
undesired actions. Through updates at the largest events each day, participants learned
that mobile chairs should not be used as armrests, to let them go first on public
transportation, and to let them exit first when sessions concluded.
Another area of difficulty surrounded the youth and young adults. A younger
member of the Right Relations Committee spoke about the disillusionment of the youth
during General Assembly when so many participants left after the plenary Friday night
before the Bridging Ceremony at nine in the evening, which honored and gave voice to
youth who were crossing over into adulthood. She added that it was disrespectful to say
that the youth are the future when many of them were currently holding leadership
positions within their congregations and at the national level within the Unitarian
Universalist Association. “They are part of the present,” she concluded. Later, the
minutes from the General Assembly Planning Committee meeting in September of 2007
reported that overall the feedback on the Right Relations Committee was positive except
that the “reprimand regarding non-attendance at the Bridging Ceremony was not
universally well received” (Bluestein 2007). In trying to make others aware of possible
shortcomings of the participants so that those errors could be corrected, the Committee
was also vulnerable to the same criticism.
Policing through public announcements was also countered by presenting
examples of kindness toward others as models for behavior. They stressed forgiveness.
As one person noted, “Unsurprisingly, most of the issues have to do with word choice.” A
new phrase that was adopted and well-received by participants was the call to “rise in
body or spirit” for those times in the service when participants were historically asked to
stand. This was seen as exclusive language for many who were unable to fully participate
in this way. Rising in body or spirit became a way to encourage a welcoming space and
embrace all who sought this path. They concluded, “We will make mistakes but we are on
the right path.” As the committee called for a litany of forgiveness, the congregation sang
the refrain from the hymnal “We forgive ourselves and each other and we begin again in
Unitarian Universalists are examining the micropractices of oppression and
transforming methods of policing into teaching moments. Reviewing the general
guidelines numerous times held those participating accountable and tried to avoid the
pitfall of ignorance as justification. By conducting two daily updates during General
Assembly, these values and goals remained visible and asked participants to be mindful
of their actions until it becomes self-promoted. Since the consequences are not linked to a
punishment in the afterlife or dictated by a higher power, individual assessment became
the medium of self-regulation. As the Right Relations Committee encouraged participants
to internalize these goals and practice them daily while at General Assembly, the program
guidelines also asked participants to be vigilant and confront other individuals directly if
they heard them using sexist, racist, or other discriminatory language “to increase
individual awareness.” In Unitarian Universalism, each individual is responsible and
accountable for his own actions and also for regulating the actions of others who many
not have achieved an acceptable level of self-awareness.
Because there is no higher authority that individuals are accountable to or fear
repercussions from, the emphasis remains on individual realization of a set of group
moral values. The process of self-cultivation toward the individual’s attainment of “the
good” is linked to the cultivation of the seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. If
one is to be authentic and follow the Principles, then the observable signs that this is
occurring manifest in the actions of right relations. This shift from rule-following to
avoid punishment to internalization through a process of self-cultivation transfers the
responsibility to the individual to not only memorize scripts that are the rules for
interactions with others but rather suggests an ongoing reflection about one’s actions with
an emphasis on deliberate choices to “do good.” This reflection requires the individual to
continuously assess new situations and foresee potential situations in a constant attempt
to recognize and fight against oppression starting with the level of micropractices.
Through the guided practice of right relations during General Assembly by way of
constant updates, visibility, and encouragement, the Right Relations Committee showed
participants the method by which they could foster self-awareness. They challenged
participants to think beyond specific violations that were easier to discern by including
cautionary examples to keep in mind. For example, the committee explained that a few
black participants were approached by police outside the convention center and asked if
they needed help. There was the caution that Unitarian Universalists of color might need
more support than others attending General Assembly to be sure that they were not a
target of racial profiling or unjust assumptions.
This method of fostering self-awareness consciously permeated many areas of
General Assembly outside of the Right Relations Committee updates. The committee set
up a right relations covenant that all participants were asked to sign on a long table by the
wall of the largest meeting hall. Each participant had the choice and the duty to
consciously sign and hold herself accountable for individual actions. During worship
services ministers confronted the dilemma of a denomination that professed anti-racism
but was almost entirely white. Prayers reflected on the shortcomings and determination to
change for the better. Hope Johnson’s prayer called out to the assembly of over five
thousand participants with the words:
“Spirit of life, spirit of love, dear, dear, God, we give thanks for the community
shared in this assembly. We give thanks for the legacy we have inherited from those who
have gathered in summers past. We give thanks for transformation that changes
indifference and hatred into love. We are called to struggle, oh yes we are, through
internalized superiority, oppression, unearned privilege, othering, objectifying, denying
and missing the mark yet with this comes the joy of knowing and owning our truth so that
we can ask for and receive forgiveness, reconciliation and the healing that has already
begun. We are called to struggle through internalized inferiority, disempowerment,
illness, pain, suicide, dysfunction, and anger yet with all this comes the joy of claiming
and reclaiming our identity, loving self, giving voice, building community, and living life.
Despite the sorrow, despite the pain, there is joy in the commitment to staying
bodaciously in the struggle for wholeness.”
In the following minute of silent meditation, individuals were given time to reflect
on these words, to personalize them and adopt them as their own. In the space of five
days, participants practiced thinking, reflecting, meditating, and acting with right
relations in mind, and at the end, not only did the new Right Relations Committee receive
overwhelmingly positive feedback and five-thousand dollars of additional funding for the
2008 General Assembly, but they were asked to lead a workshop session so that
individual congregations could develop their own local Right Relations committees
(Bluestein 2007). In the careful teaching of method, this committee has been highly
successful in starting an internalized sensitivity toward anti-oppression. As the moderator
concluded at the end of General Assembly in her annual report, this prescriptive work is
not done, though. “We need to take right relationships home and correct each other in
respectful ways.” The work continues and is seen as a particular asset and identifying
characteristic of Unitarian Universalism as dissenters and heretics. But how is a voice of
dissent reconciled with a welcoming anti-oppressive environment?
Theological Identity
Shortly before the lecture began. those walking in were squeezing by others in the
thin rows of red upholstered and brass-plated conference chairs to find the last empty
spots in a hall reaching its seven-hundred person capacity. This was the John Murray
distinguished lecture and the guest speaker was the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, an ordained
Unitarian Universalist minister who was the director of the Center for the Study of
Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College. While his focus was on Universalism
and the sectarian element in liberal religion, he expertly reconciled the particular with the
universal to craft a strong inclusive identity that he posited to be on the threshold of a
growing movement.
“The earliest Universalists were treated as sects and this continues to be expressed
today. I don’t mean sect with the negative or condescending connotation it often has.
When I use sect I mean the Webster dictionary definition of a ‘dissenting or schismatic
religious body especially one seen as extreme or heretical.’ Now we’re getting
somewhere,” he added with a light chuckle. “Sectarianism is not uncommon for
Protestantism. There were often groups breaking away who didn’t see themselves as
benefitting from the dominant current. These groups always implied a threat to the
establishment.” He went on to explain some of the other characteristics of a spirit-driven
sect and connected historical Universalism with those patterns. “However, the cultural
orientation of liberal religion today is not of alienation but rather the adoption of modern
culture. We are part of the theological middle ground because we often express
theological doctrines with current knowledge since we seek to be credible and relevant.
This would seem to be a prophetic voice, but it needs to be off center a bit to be able to
critique. Cultural adaptation breeds comfort, but our religious identity becomes watered
down. The sectarian impulses might help us out here.” The room was quiet as we waited
for his suggestions. “We can use our theological identity to dissent. We can move deeper
because we favor the self as the bearer of religious ideas. The particulars are what make
us unique. We have descriptions and stories so rich they come alive. Our uniqueness
helps us connect even if it is not our own story. But in trying not to offend each other we
don’t always know each other,” he said with a pause. “We tend to remove the particulars
to be inclusive, but the most particular is the most universal.” He repeated that once more
so everyone could hear it, “The most particular is the most universal. It is with the
sharing of these descriptions that we truly connect. We claim to be comfortable with
particularity but not really. We accept internal particularity but…” he trailed off, referring
to the wider community outside of Unitarian Universalists. “Particularity is not
exclusivity. The universal is in the particular and accepting it; connecting with it in some
way,” he concluded.
To reconcile the dilemma of exclusivity that often surfaces through Unitarian
Universalist comments, he proposed deeper engagement and embracing the particularity
of individuals and of Unitarian Universalism. The particular history of Unitarian
Universalism is a part of that. He explained that a wholesale rejection of the past, as some
Unitarian Universalists often do when coming from a Christian tradition, was not helpful.
“While we may be post-Christian, it matters that we are Christian and that we are post,”
he said with a smile. The room echoed with dispersed laughter. A defined theological
identity, especially one that questions the dominant culture while still engaging with it, is
what will make Unitarian Universalism so powerful for the generations ahead, he
explained. “There is a liberal element that if everyone all thought the same, the world
would be better,” he remarked, critiquing the prescriptive set of values that encourage a
particular liberal mindset and the proselytizing aspect that those entail. “The more
particular we are about our identity, the more we can go deeper and see others.” In other
words, it is the process of self-reflection, self-cultivation, and group-reflection that leads
to a more confident collective self and the ability to engage deeply with others, to see
where their stories resonate and where they differ.
As a way of trying to figure out a collective set of ideas, congregants often refer to
the Principles as the “lowest common denominator” of ideas that everyone can agree
upon that loosely bind the group together. One woman referred to this idea in a tone
somewhere between a statement and a question, “this might be our particularity?” Rasor
answered after a moment, “It is useful when we have common things we believe,” he
continued. “But we are not done. When we speak in public on public issues there is
something that makes us back away from speaking as a religious group. To speak
publicly and religiously is to be conservative, it seems. We then speak on other terms,
incorporating larger dominant cultural patterns and this doesn’t always serve us well.” As
he sees it, Unitarian Universalists are positioned to emerge in the postmodern era as a
theologically grounded and powerful group if they continue to hone their own theological
identity and feel confident to speak out about it. By strengthening their particularity and
becoming more vocal about it, not only will Unitarian Universalists be able to engage
more deeply with others, but they will also be able to attract new members. As the
General Assembly title of “Choices That Matter” suggested, this choice to delve deeper
into a theological identity is one aspect of positioning themselves for a major fundraising
campaign to strengthen and grow Unitarian Universalism.
Now Is The Time
“We continue to grow by one percent each year. Is the glass half full or half
empty?” Rev. William Sinkford, the first elected black president of the Unitarian
Universalist Association, called out to the crowd on the second morning of General
Assembly. “The glass is not full enough,” he exclaimed. “There are many out there that
yearn for what we have in our sanctuaries. This is not about us but about them. We have
to open our doors to them, to those in the valley trying to get home,” he paused. “The
question is not whether we can grow, because we know we can. The question we face is
whether we choose to grow and now is the time to answer with a resounding yes,” he
stated firmly. He looked out on the crowd and waited. A rolling “yes” came from the
crowd accompanied with pockets of cheering and clapping.
“Today I am thrilled to announce the launch of our new comprehensive
fundraising campaign called Now Is The Time. This is our largest, most ambitious
campaign ever to raise twenty million in cash and thirty million in planned giving for
what you see worthy of funding. Unitarian Universalists feel urgency around growth. You
are telling me that now is the time to strengthen our faith, now is the time to make our
dreams come true. I am announcing this campaign publicly with more than two thirds of
the funds already raised,” he echoed to the immediate applause of the crowd.
“Major donors are contributing but this time I want each Unitarian Universalist to
understand what we are doing and act as a community of support. We are generous
people. We have the will and we have the vision. All we have to do is ask clearly. So I am
asking each of you, friends, to give generously. I am so convinced that now is the time.
Now is the time. Now is the time to hold a vision for what this faith can become. Our best
days can be ahead of us not behind us. Now is the time to raise our voices on the side of
justice. And now is the time to share the faith that sustains and inspires us. Now is the
time,” he stated, his voice rising “to open our hearts to others. Our vision can lead us.
Now is the time” he exclaimed as he ended his speech to a standing ovation and
resounding applause. Matt had asked me during an interview, could there be a Unitarian
Universalist evangelism? The energy rolling through the auditorium that morning had me
convinced that there could be.
As Sinkford explained, this fifty-million dollar capital campaign, focused
primarily on avenues of growth, was the largest one that Unitarian Universalists had ever
organized. Examples of Kansas City and Houston congregations growing from two to
eight percent over three years highlighted the growth potential of many Unitarian
Universalist congregations throughout the United States. During the General Assembly
2007 meeting, twenty-five different workshop sessions were dedicated to congregational
growth, only surpassed in numbers by the thirty-five workshops dedicated for youth and
fifty-three workshops targeting social justice (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007h).
Growth is clearly a major concern within the denomination. The resources available to
leadership continue to expand, both at the denominational and district levels. Workshops
are tailored to address the specific needs and obstacles of small (less than 150 members),
mid-size (150-549 members) and large congregations (550 or more members) which all
have different dynamics.
According to one of these growth workshops titled “Why Liberal Churches are
Growing,” not only is Unitarian Universalism one of the only liberal religions to be
growing, but forty-two percent of Unitarian Universalist congregations grew by ten
percent or more between 1995 and 2000. However, Unitarian Universalist overall
membership is lower than it was in the late 1960s and at 218,000 members in 2004, “it is
just a drop in the bucket” compared to the overall population within the United States.
Compared to Presbyterians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ who all have
lost between fifty and sixty percent of their aggregate membership between 1975 to 2000,
Unitarian Universalists are faring much better, but have a significant amount of work to
do before their growth reaches the levels of some evangelical churches who have
increased their sizes by over fifty percent. Only one and one half percent of Unitarian
Universalist congregations account for twenty-four percent of the growth within the
denomination, and the focus, therefore, is highlighting the “best practices” which
encourage congregational growth within these congregations (Cooley 2007).
On a national level, the Now Is The Time campaign sought to use best practices
that were conducted at a local or regional level to publicize an often unrecognized
denomination. To attract those who yearn for the community and services found in
Unitarian Universalist congregations, Rev. Sinkford announced the first stage of
marketing would focus on national name recognition. “It grew out of my belief that so
few people knew about Unitarian Universalism,” and built on his background in
marketing before working with the Unitarian Universalist Association (Skinner 2007).
Time Magazine was chosen because of its wide readership base and because of the
profile of its readers as “influencers” or “thought leaders” suspected to have a high
percentage of those who would either be sympathetic or interested in Unitarian
Universalism (Unitarian Universalist Association 2008d). Over the 2007-2008 academic
year, Unitarian Universalists advertised in Time Magazine with four separate one-page
advertisements as well as two, two-page “advertorials” in the fall (see Appendices 10-14).
Donning the logo, “Find us and ye shall seek,” the first advertorial which ran in
the November 5, 2007 publication combined a vertical ad explaining Unitarian
Universalism on the far left-hand third of the page next to an article debating the impact
of outing the gay character Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2007b:72-73). On the opposite page the right-hand
two thirds of the page showcased a collection of archived Time articles on religion and
spirituality that were chosen by Unitarian Universalists because of their similarity with
Unitarian Universalist thinking. Titles included “Einstein and Faith” discussing how a
mix of awe and rebellion fueled his faith and scientific quest, “How the Democrats Got
Religion,” “Mother Theresa’s Crisis of Faith” asking how her crisis might be similar to
the crises of faith many readers have had, and “The Evolution Wars” discussing the
encroachment of intelligent design on the theory of evolution.
This was followed shortly by another in the December 31, 2007 “Person of the
Year” Time issue which is one of the largest newsstand best-sellers. A bold statement,
“My God is Better than Your God” followed by the rhetorical question “Is this any way to
talk about religion?” (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007f:164-165) frames the left
side of a multi-page tribute to the influential people who had died that year. These pages
featured Anna Nicole Smith, Max Roach, Marcel Marceau and Kurt Vonnegut—
Unitarian Universalist (Johnson Lewis 2006) and the invited Ware Lecturer for the 1986
General Assembly in Rochester, NY (Unitarian Universalist Association 2008a). On the
right, “Understanding builds Respect” in purple and black capital letters heads another
list of Time Magazine articles such as “God of Our Fathers,” exploring the role that
religion should play on our civic life and the intentions of those who wrote the
Declaration of Independence, “Gay Family Values,” and “The Challenges We Face”
advocating a “green century” of sustainable development. These articles project a clear
liberal stance toward a number of controversial topics such as gay rights, evolution,
division of church and state, the role of science and religion, and ecological sustainability.
Each reinforced the agenda of Unitarian Universalism. They direct the reader to visit for links to these articles as well as more information
about Unitarian Universalism prominently displayed in the center column. To
complement articles outlining Unitarian Universalist perspectives, there are numerous
links to web pages within the Unitarian Universalist Association, Wikipedia, and other
sites such as the Pew Research Center Reports on Religion ( 2007).
In addition to the advertorials, a full-page ad appeared in Time Magazine to
launch this advertising campaign in the October 15, 2007 Time Magazine issue
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2008f). Below the top slogan: “Nurture your spirit.
Help heal our world,” one bold statement in an otherwise blank top half of the page read:
Following it in much smaller typeface the ad engages the reader to reflect:
Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the idea of God — or at least someone
else’s idea of God. Yet maybe you yearn for a loving, spiritual community
where you can be inspired and encouraged as you search for your own
truth and meaning. This is a church, you ask? Welcome to Unitarian
Universalism (Unitarian Universalist Association 2007c:62).
The Unitarian Universalist Association logo follows with a web address and
beckons the reader to join them at one of over a thousand congregations. The ad was
repeated again on December 3, 2007. For the fall Time Magazine campaign alone, the
cost was estimated at $425,000 (Skinner 2007).
After an almost four month gap, the third full-page ad ran in the April 14, 2008
issue in the same format as the last ad, but with the statement,
The ad includes an offer for a free copy of the twelve minute “Voices of a Liberal
Faith” promotional DVD. The campaign later announced that traffic to the Unitarian
Universalist Association website increased significantly during the 2007-2008 campaign
over the previous year with over eighteen thousand people directly requesting the main
Unitarian Universalist Association website. This was attributed in part to the increased
visibility of Unitarian Universalism through the ads. Also, over seven hundred DVDs
were requested as a result of the campaign (Skinner 2008a) and the YouTube version
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2007i) of the video received roughly twenty five
thousand views between September 2007 when it was launched and July 1, 2008 (Skinner
In the May 12, 2008 “100 People Who Shape Our World” issue of Time
Magazine, the final ad ran as a full-page version of the “My God is Better than Your
God” advertorial. Along with advertising a free copy of the promotional DVD, the text
Is this any way to talk about religion? Maybe you yearn for an openminded, spiritual community where people respect each other’s beliefs and
worship together as one faith. Where no one’s idea of God is better than
another’s. Welcome to Unitarian Universalism (Unitarian Universalist
Association 2008b:48).
Voice of Liberal Religion
“If people do not know us, how will they find us when they need us? We want to
be seen as the liberal voice in the religious debates of our times,” (Unitarian Universalist
Association 2008c) explains the Unitarian Universalist Association website. The print
media component of this advertising campaign not only serves to foster name recognition
for Unitarian Universalism, but also to revitalize the sense of identity existing members
feel toward their congregations and the denomination. “Locating ourselves in Time puts
us in the center of religious discourse rather than on the margins,” (Skinner 2007)
Sinkford explains. Advertising to over twenty one million readers, especially in the two
annual issues that highlight exceptional and influential individuals, he sees as particularly
This advertising campaign is also unique in that it is a new partnership both for
the Unitarian Universalist Association and for Time, explains Rev. Tracey RobinsonHarris, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director of Congregational Services and a
coordinator of the national ad campaign (Skinner 2007). The concept of the advertorial,
in this case, allows Unitarian Universalism to align itself alongside religious and secular
debates as a leading liberal voice. Unitarian Universalism becomes the sponsoring
product and shapes its identity, through a selected group of archived Time Magazine
articles. In partnering with Time, the Unitarian Universalist Association shows it is
relevant to the readers of mainstream political and scientific articles. This lends
credibility not only to Unitarian Universalists, but also connects a liberal religious voice
to Time Magazine. Short articles like “Religion and American Democracy” and
“Religion, Morality, and Sexuality” direct readers on the similarity between a Unitarian
Universalist’s understanding and Time Magazine articles. However, even without leaving
the printed page to explore the online content, the advertisement explains Unitarian
Universalism in a pithy statement on the left. The collection of article titles with a two
sentence description on the right allow the reader to form a cursory opinion about
Unitarian Universalist beliefs and place Unitarian Universalism within the broader
spectrum of popular debates. Pro-gay rights. Pro-evolution. Pro-democracy. Separation of
church and state. Searching. Questioning. Open-minded. Relevant. This link using Time
articles within a sponsored section uniquely joins the content of both organizations. It
overlaps and legitimizes a carefully selected liberal stance shaping perceptions about the
connection between Time and Unitarian Universalism.
Unitarian Universalists and the Other
Using fewer words than the typical two-minute elevator speech, one of the main
vehicles of these advertisements is the process of othering. Targeting an audience
disillusioned with the monotheistic major religions, it ponders whether the concept of
God is troubling. A singular concept of God is rejected in the advertisement and by
engaging in an informal dialogue of “This is a church, you ask?” it sets Unitarian
Universalism apart from conventional ideas of organized religion.
“Find Us and Ye Shall Seek” reverses the popular New Testament passages from
Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:9. By reversing the phrase “seek and ye shall find,” Unitarian
Universalists differentiate their position automatically from a mainstream Christian
position. This short phrase emphasizes their search for multiple truth over a given
absolute truth and the ability to explore questions rather than find answers. Playing off
the New Testament creates an opposition with Christian groups rather than Jewish or
other faiths. However, privileging the search marks a differentiation from any religious
group that claims answers over questions.
Perhaps the third advertisement most directly positions Unitarian Universalists
away from a perceived conservative or fundamentalist standpoint but also may be the
most paradoxical. “My God is better than your God” poses the example of exclusivity of
absolute truth. It capitalizes on the perception of other dogmatic groups that profess to lay
claim to Truth. By setting itself apart in the next sentence, “Is this any way to talk about
religion?” it not only differentiates Unitarian Universalism but simultaneously rejects this
statement as a valid religious undertaking. While trying to show inclusivity and respect of
ways to understand God, the Unitarian Universalist process of understanding God comes
dangerously close to the self-righteous initial statement they reject.
The final advertisement tempers the others by locating Unitarian Universalism
closer to its historical Christian roots. It states, “When in Doubt, Pray. When in Prayer,
Doubt.” While setting Unitarian Universalism within a familiar framework of prayer, the
creators of the ad problematize prayer and emphasize the importance of constant
questioning. Skepticism is perceived as healthy and allows for the subtle critiques Rasor
advocates. This advertisement is the only one that specifically aligns itself with common
aspects of Christianity and mirrors the shift within Unitarian Universalism from a mainly
humanist movement in previous decades to the more spiritual flavor it has recently
Some congregants and ministers explained to me that the demographics are
changing. Many younger members did not grow up in an organized religion and search
for the “church feel” without the imposed restrictions on what they must believe. Prayer,
also referred to as meditation or quiet reflection in many congregations, is a powerful and
essential part of religious practice. It is the label of prayer that is more widely disputed
within Unitarian Universalism rather than the form it takes. In this advertisement, the
group reaches out to those who do not entirely reject their religious background yet
search for more religious freedom of belief. The statement that follows carries the
implicit assumption that Unitarian Universalism is unique and that those individuals to
whom it would appeal have not found another religious community that is open-minded.
It states,
If you have more questions than answers when it comes to faith, you’re
not alone. Many of us yearn for a loving, open-minded spiritual
community that is guided not by a set creed or dogma but by a free and
responsible quest for truth and meaning in our lives. There is a religion
that welcomes your search. Welcome to Unitarian Universalism
(Unitarian Universalist Association 2007j:58).
Unitarian Universalism is portrayed as the only option for searching by italicizing the
word “is,” almost a well-kept secret the reader is finally able to share. Through short
statements that challenge conventional phrases, this ad campaign effectively projects an
image of Unitarian Universalism that parallels the main point of the previous large
campaign titled “The Uncommon Denomination.” The catch phrases are different, but
Unitarian Universalist identity is still strongly rooted in the borderlands of what
differentiates it from others.
In addition to the print ad component of the national advertising campaign,
Google AdWords also played a large role in visibly connecting Unitarian Universalism
with current debates and using more interactive means to do so. Google AdWords are
small advertising blocks on the margins of a Google search engine result list and are also
used on many other websites. Prior to the vote on Proposition 8 in California in the fall of
2008 the Unitarian Universalist Association had an ad reading “Marriage equality and
faith: a church dedicated to gay rights, get the UU view” that linked back to pages on the
Unitarian Universalist Association website. That ad may have appeared when people
searched for links related to the terms “gay marriage” or “marriage equality” or
“Proposition 8.” Similarly, right after the Republican Convention initiated a discussion in
the permissibility of comprehensive sexuality education, the Unitarian Universalist
Association had an ad that appeared when that phrase was entered into a Google search.
That particular ad resulted in five thousand click-throughs, or visits, to the Unitarian
Universalist Association website (Skinner 2008a). Other ads have run in conjunction with
a well-known Unitarian Universalist minister’s (Forrest Church) appearance on National
Public Radio’s show Fresh Air. Throughout 2009 this continued to be the main venue of
advertising for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
This method allows the Unitarian Universalist Association to determine which
news stories or upcoming debates and events are relevant to their liberal voice. They have
been an outspoken religious voice for gay rights and are perhaps best known for their
advocacy in this domain. These ads allow them to control the exact search phrases where
their ads will appear. By having their group appear alongside current debates regardless
of whether the user clicks on the ad or not continues to link their name with relevant
social issues. During the November 21 to December 31, 2007 time period, their name
appeared alongside a series of relevant search results almost twenty one million times
(Holton 2008). The Unitarian Universalist Association can target a specific audience that
may be sympathetic, such as those who search for “liberal religion” with two of the three
ads to the right of the search list affiliated with Unitarian Universalism, or they may
broaden their search terms to be a bold face of opposition as with their fight to repeal
Proposition 8, the California ban on same-sex marriages. And with a much lower cost,
ranging from twenty two to seventy eight cents when a person clicks on their ad, the
Unitarian Universalist Association only spent roughly ten thousand dollars on these ads
from July to November of 2008 (Skinner 2008a), a fraction of the print ads in Time
Over the last two years, these Internet ads drew close to the same number of visits
to the Unitarian Universalist Association website as the print ads did, and perhaps more
importantly, they associated Unitarian Universalism with specific topics on millions of
Google searches. The national campaign continues in conjunction with multiple regional
and local advertising campaigns that include billboards, radio spots, and banners. To
attract the young adults that often comprise a small demographic of most congregations,
they also target these groups by sending direct mailings, advertising in parenting
magazines and television ads during The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with John
Stewart, both on the cable channel Comedy Central (Skinner 2007). As more and more
people visit local and national websites and come through the doors, the other part of a
growth campaign is to energize current members and welcome these new visitors.
Welcoming the Visitors
“Exhilarating,” described one man from San Francisco when he first saw ads
running during The Daily Show with John Stewart (Skinner 2007). These campaigns
have helped inspire members and revitalize their connection to a Unitarian Universalist
identity. They feel part of a larger movement and more readily recognized as a group by
others. This, in turn, mobilizes congregations to better prepare for new members and to
critically look at how they have welcomed visitors in the past. The wave of evangelism is
taking over many people’s discomfort about “forcing ideas on others.” But this does not
mean that everyone is wholeheartedly behind a large media campaign. Joel explained his
fears as we talked about the media campaign plans the other four churches in the larger
western New York area were designing. “I am not against advertising, but I am concerned
that we are not prepared to handle the visitors that walk through the door. We already
have new visitors who walk through the door each week and we have a hard enough time
keeping them and even some of our new members. We need to focus on these issues
before we bring additional visitors in.” In the General Assembly workshops, many of the
best practices for growth focus on that problem: becoming more welcoming communities
to visitors and examining the process by which they create insular communities within
their congregations.
“Now we pride ourselves on being open, but help those who change things around
on the altar or rearrange the structure of the Sunday service” stated the presenter of one
growth workshop at General Assembly to the laughter of the large presentation room. Her
point was to highlight the resistance to change that exists in many congregations where
identity is linked to particular rituals and continuity of process with congregational
“Or think about this,” she continued. “When I first started going to the UU church
in Hartford, they didn’t have summer services. They had them instead at the West
Hartford church. They also changed the time of the service but didn’t advertise that the
time was changed,” she explained, above some chuckles from the crowd. “So a visitor
would arrive at the church and go up to the church door and would find out on the door
that half an hour ago the service started over in West Hartford two miles down the road.
So I raised that to their attention and they exclaimed ‘Oh, but we know what time it is’.”
She paused for the roar of laughter before she continued, “So it is this sort of insider
knowledge we need to get away from. We have to think about this as though we are
outsiders.” You can have those “pretty little nametags” or those “nice little color-coated
mugs” she explained, referring to common practices that congregations use to identify
visitors with bright peel-and-stick visitor nametags and color-coated coffee mugs during
the coffee hour, but it is not until these visitors feel more connected and more noticed that
congregations grow. This workshop focused on the more difficult task of retaining
visitors rather than attracting them in the first place.
Local Growth
“‘Is there something that brings you here today?’ Now that’s a good question to
ask a visitor. So often we start talking about ourselves and our church that we forget to
ask what the needs and expectations of the guest are,” Sharon explained to a mix of
members from the surrounding congregations on a bright Saturday morning in May. The
western New York congregations hosted two district workshops in late 2006 and early
2008 to address how they could become more welcoming to visitors. Sharon explained
her own experience as a Unitarian Universalist who visits local churches while on
vacation with her husband. “It’s often a rocky start as a visitor for us. Sometimes there
are no signs or the building is difficult to find. In one congregation we were not even
greeted and had to make the effort ourselves, but after all of that, the coffee hour was
extremely rewarding. But how many visitors would stay until coffee hour after those
experiences?” she asked the group.
I thought to myself of my own introductions to each congregation at a regular
Sunday service. At one I talked briefly with the woman at the welcome table, a
personable and engaging woman but then spent the next half hour trying to make eye
contact or talk with someone else with little success. At the other congregation, the
woman at the welcome table asked me what my interests were, and when I stated that I
enjoyed singing, she grabbed me by the hand weaving through groups chatting during
coffee hour, up a set of stairs, through the sanctuary and up another back staircase to the
choir loft where she introduced me to the choir director. After talking for a few minutes, I
left smiling and looking forward to my first choir practice that Thursday night.
“You must ask ‘What do you need?’ and link that new visitor with activities the
congregation is doing. This does not mean you immediately sign someone up to serve on
a committee,” Sharon added to the laughter of the group. The group understood that
while serving on one of the many committees within the church is necessary to keep the
congregation running smoothly, it may not be one of the first things a newcomer would
like to participate in. “Give them options of social events and other one-time duties such
as making coffee for coffee hour or changing the pulpit announcements to meet someone
else and learn how the church works. To invite is to affirm, this is fundamental to our
principles. This is key,” she concluded. We jotted down notes on our handouts thinking
about our own first experiences with the congregations. As we compared notes, some
were invited to walk with a group, invited to participate in a small group, asked
specifically for a particular job because of a particular skill set, or invited to help with a
general job. In most cases, we were invited to join with a smaller group to accomplish a
goal. As I prepared my research, the first people I knew well at the congregation were
those that I sang with. They were the first to volunteer to do interviews and introduced
me to other committees, classes, and key individuals who would help me understand how
Unitarian Universalists constructed an understanding of themselves. They were also the
ones who asked how the research was progressing.
Evangelism and the Liberal Agenda
The national advertising campaign has challenged congregations to reevaluate
themselves and their ability to be open and welcoming. This is the key, believes Rev.
Peter Morales, minister of a large congregation in Colorado. “As a movement our issue is
not that we don’t have people coming to us looking for a religious home. The reason we
have not grown significantly is that we haven’t done a good enough job of making these
people feel this is their home” (Skinner 2007). By focusing on welcoming, congregations
are slowly moving toward their goals of inclusiveness. Just as the Right Relations
Committee at General Assembly has a structured plan for teaching participants how to
live in right relations, the Unitarian Universalist Association in conjunction with district
offices is providing conference-call opportunities, print materials, seminars, workshops,
and additional support to local congregations to help foster this change. Congregants are
taught concrete ways in which they can engage with visitors, and leaders remind them
that this connects directly to the Unitarian Universalist Principles. To invite is to affirm.
Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.
Therefore, they must invite and affirm visitors to be authentic to their values.
Through an ongoing dialogue between members and by internal assessments,
Unitarian Universalists consciously cultivate welcoming practices and interpersonal
relationships. Congregants learn they must greet visitors within the first five minutes they
walk in the door, to engage in direct eye contact despite other distractions going on
around them, and ask the visitor questions to see how she can connect to this new group
rather than trying to fit the visitor to the mold of the group. All of these points are ways to
practice authenticity. The congregant must be engaged in the conversation and through
eye contact and questions show an authentic ability to listen to the needs of the visitor,
thereby verifying the visitor’s self-worth. As the workshop agenda clearly states, the
purpose is “to empower us to be authentically welcoming, inviting others to join us as we
share the inspiring and healing message of Unitarian Universalism.” I see congregational
growth as an intentional practice of member self-cultivation. By practicing these steps
each Sunday and throughout the week, these actions become habits that lead to a more
authentic self—the self that is most pure in a Unitarian Universalist perspective.
This closely parallels Mahmood’s (2005) observation of women’s acts of piety
within the Islamic mosque movement. Leaders discuss situations and suggest practices
other women can consciously perform. Through this the women adopt practices and
internalize them as habits. They create their habits through this detailed process of selfcultivation.
The paradox that Unitarian Universalists experience with congregational growth
and evangelism is a hesitation to impose a particular view on others who may be church
shopping. Based on her prior experiences in a small fellowship of a few dozen members,
Betty admits to the leader in the first membership workshop, “We seem to pounce on
people and they don’t come back.” While there is a need, especially in small fellowships,
to find new members to do the work the church requires, congregations usually default to
a stance of not pushing rather than pouncing. As Rasor mentioned in his address at
General Assembly, liberals often back away from speaking as a religious group, “We
speak on other terms. There is something there in our reluctance to speak.” Congregants
admit they do not want to push those who are exploring other options. They do not want
to push the youth to think in a particular way. They want each visitor and congregant to
have an independent and free search for truth. In their interpretation of this fourth
principle, they are not engaging with others on a deeper level, as Rasor puts it, so as not
to offend. At the local growth workshop in Amherst, Harold’s immediate response to
Betty mirrors that view.
“When people don’t stay, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just not
clicking. If it’s not spiritually or theologically right, they won’t come back. It’s not about
how you look, it’s just that a certain percent will walk out.”
“Because it’s not about hell and damnation,” Sandra, the facilitator, responded,
“it’s easier to say ‘it’s not about us.’ But some churches are very insular.”
Harold argued his point while the rest of us listened to both sides. “But you need
that bell curve. Some will adopt you if you throw darts at them and there are others that
won’t if you bake them a cake every day. Small churches look like a lot of work for some
people.” He added. We could not help smiling at his analogy. He did have a point. Not
every visitor would stay and some needed no additional greeting to know they had found
their spiritual home. However, for many in the middle, they do not experience enough
connection with others to continue coming. In following an authentic representation of
the seven Principles, the concept of radical hospitality has found its way into popular
usage among Unitarian Universalists. Radical hospitality is a sincere greeting and
engagement with newcomers; in other words, showing an authentic self toward the other.
Evangelism has been equated to a radical hospitality that extends within the
church and beyond its walls. “My call is to evangelism,” exclaimed one minister from a
panel at General Assembly. The panel was discussing how they lived out their calling as
ministers. “There are more UUs out there who want a church and don’t know we exist,
but people don’t come because we’re not living our faith. We’re in the satisfaction
business,” he adds. “We are worried what people think. How can we satisfy youth
callings if we don’t teach them authentically who we were and are? Let’s work at living
our faith so we can satisfy our UU ancestors by living our UU faith authentically,” he
ended, passionately. By trying to please others, he argued, Unitarian Universalists move
away from authenticity and their principles. This minister rejected the type of welcoming
that tries to please and advocated for a deep connection with Unitarian Universalist
values and principles. When congregants can engage deeply and live their values, they
will become more appealing for visitors, he claimed.
Furthermore, Rasor challenges Unitarian Universalists to engage with others on a
religious level, to speak about Unitarian Universalism and its relevance to current
debates. When Unitarian Universalists are asked by coworkers what they will do over the
weekend, workshop facilitators urge them to talk about the church events they will attend
and invite coworkers and others to come if they show interest. Self-cultivation, therefore,
also involves an ownership of one’s participation with the church, to practice speaking
freely about personal involvement in the church with others, and to feel confident to
engage with them in theological debate. General Assembly at the national level and Build
Your Own Theology classes at local levels are just two examples, among many, that give
congregants the tools to speak articulately about their beliefs and the space to practice
vocalizing them in a non-threatening environment. Each space offers a place to practice
and therefore obtain a vision of a more authentic self. The authentic self is seen as a
confident self. The authentic self is an evangelist for Unitarian Universalism. Now is the
time and the crowd responded “Hallelujah!”
“Liberal theology is not for the faint of heart. It points us in a general
direction without telling us the specific destination. It refuses to make our
commitments for us, but holds us accountable for the commitments we
make. It invites us to live with ambiguity…It asks us to pay attention. It is
an eyes-wide-open faith, a faith without certainty” (Rasor 2005:185).
During my fieldwork, I explored how Unitarian Universalists discuss truth, faith,
commitment, belief, authenticity, and power. How they use these ideas within larger
narratives shape their social boundaries and create their identity. Since Unitarian
Universalists are striving to increase their recognition as the voice for liberal religion, this
is an excellent time to examine how they have crafted and taught their social identity.
Their process of self-cultivation requires individuals to internalize liberal theology and
reinterpret their thoughts, motivations, and actions through group discussion.
Ministers create thought-provoking sermons to encourage adult congregants to
form reasonable judgments and contemplate new scenarios within Unitarian Universalist
values. Class discussions facilitate the collective shaping and correction of thoughts. This
process is important because Unitarian Universalist discourse transfers responsibility
from the church to individual members, thereby relieving the group of the labor-intensive
job of punishment. Each person is expected to control her actions, and thus accountability
shifts away from the institution of Unitarian Universalism. The organization provides the
spaces for continuous assessment, but the individual internalizes and mobilizes the need
to consistently reflect by means of self-cultivation.
To encourage children and teenagers to participate in self-cultivation the
denomination designed youth programming. During their social and religious activities
adults provide the youth with tools to perceive themselves as empowered, autonomous
selves accountable for their own actions. Youth, rather than parents and other adults, are
the locus of control and undertake their own assessments in order to attain authenticity.
Because of the prescriptive quality of the liberal agenda, especially as it concerns
social justice and human rights, all individuals are compelled to act to further this agenda
through appropriate means. They are taught to link social justice as an extension of their
own spiritual cultivation. As the Rev. Ryan explained to me, “You’ve got to give them a
storyline that makes sense.” He went on to describe how social justice work fits into a
Unitarian Universalist ethic, “and I think that our next story line is—sounds a little selfish
again—do it not just for the world, but for yourself. Do it as spiritual development.” He
went on to present the type of interaction he has with congregants. “I might say, ‘Get
involved in social justice. Why? Well, because it is the way in which you most fully
develop yourself as a spiritual person.’ ‘Oh, ok that makes sense to me because I’m all
about spiritual development,’” the congregant responds.
This reasoning corresponds with the method of self-cultivation that becomes a
strong motivator for action. A person links social justice with the process of developing
the self and feels compelled to participate in various initiatives not out of an altruistic
desire to help others, or to make the world a better place, but because the process requires
the self to act in this way.
Since Unitarian Universalists embrace idealistic principles it might seem that guilt
would play a large role in their self formation. However, they rarely speak of guilt except
to mention the relief of leaving it behind when they abandoned their Roman Catholic or
Jewish backgrounds. This is no doubt due to the emphasis on process within Unitarian
Universalism; so long as one practices ongoing self-assessment, moving toward a goal of
authenticity, one is on the Unitarian Universalist path and does not experience the guilt
that is associated with either original or ongoing sin. Instead, one feels free to move
forward at whatever pace works best and is affirmed in this by others.
Churchgoers recognize that each person is in a different situation when joining the
organization and therefore has different needs. As they begin to follow the Unitarian
Universalist path, as wide as it may seem, they feel satisfaction by moving in a particular
direction. Practicing the process is just as important as the ideal goals. This individual,
together with a set of peers, acts as a judge of these actions.
“Lip-service is not enough,” declared one woman, when I asked her how social
justice factored into being a Unitarian Universalist. “As they say, we are about deeds, not
creeds.” Peer pressure to act in support of Unitarian Universalist principles through
rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and other grassroots initiatives is the policing method,
just as discussions in classes shape acceptable thought. Ministers are not expected to
police since individuals are required to police themselves and occasionally others. This
happens in General Assembly when participants are asked to confront people who use
sexist, racist, or other inappropriate language. Since congregants are urged to work
toward social justice, the prescriptive aspect of human rights becomes apparent and
liberal evangelism emerges. At this point it becomes harder to ignore the irony of the
advertisement that proclaims, “My God is better than Your God.”
The Practice of Process
The Unitarian Universalist process of self-cultivation draws directly from the
scientific process where outcomes can be hypothesized, repeated, and evaluated. The
Build Your Own Theology class does not specify what to believe, but rather encourages
developing personal beliefs. As participants write independently throughout the week,
answer questions, and develop diagrams, they are urged to look inward for answers and
share them with a supportive group of congregants. While they may describe this process
of working freely and looking within as “liberating” and “empowering,” they do not
readily acknowledge the concurrent process of self-cultivation by which they are guided
to think about certain topics, reinforced by group affirmations, and challenged by the
questions. Thus, while analyzing how gender and sexual orientation influence their
interpretations, the process by which this class reinforces a Unitarian Universalist identity
is rarely mentioned.
Early in my research a man explained to me that “Unitarian Universalists believe
in multiple truths.” I agree with him, since this discourse allows space for the values of
diversity and open-mindedness. It also enables a critical distinction between Unitarian
Universalist identity formation and that found in other organized religions. By accepting
and marketing the discourse of multiple truths, not only are Unitarian Universalists able
to brand themselves as unique, but they also rectify any perceived conflict between
absolute truth and their other values.
In practice, there is a fine line between multiple truths and absolute truth. Some
values, such as diversity and open-mindedness, fall in line with the conception of
multiple truths. However, some of the other values that guide Unitarian Universalism
include the notion of universal truth. Human rights, which stress the inherent worth and
dignity of every person as well as respect for the interdependent web of all existence, are
prescriptive liberal values indicating a specific way in which individuals should behave
toward one another. Since these values are fundamental to Unitarian Universalist thought,
universal truth may be discussed and even questioned, but ultimately it is accepted. This
is reflected in the type of social justice programs organized by the church that privilege
empowering individuals.
For Unitarian Universalists, the idea of multiple truths exists within a framework
of a single universal truth. In the popular book A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church (1998:8288) explains that the cathedral of the world, a structure that has been built and rebuilt
over time, contains many windows by which to see the light. He uses this metaphor to
illuminate the historical underpinnings that ground Unitarianism and Universalism. The
single light of Unitarianism comes through the many windows of Universalism. There is
one Light, one Truth, but each faith interprets their partial knowledge through a refracted
vision consisting of many truths. No one has complete access to the Light, so each person
must act based on partial knowledge and recognize that there may be other
interpretations. While a group may believe they have the best interpretation, there must
be a recognition of limitations that make a particular interpretation one truth rather than
the truth.
As Paul Rasor (2005) adds, those in liberal religion do not denounce absolute
truth. They critique it but need to orient themselves as a community toward a common
goal. In order to hold onto a larger meaning that is not diluted by relativism, they
combine a tempered modernism with many of the critiques postmodernist thinkers have
offered, without arriving at indifference or self-destruction. While on the theological
level, a notion of absolute truth is widely acknowledged, at the congregational level there
are many more comments, readings, and class exercises that focus on the multiplicity of
truth, upholding diversity and acceptance. When members talk about what they like at the
church, they report that they enjoy the freedom to think independently, to come up with
their own questions, to not be told what to believe. And a surprising number of people
continue to describe the Unitarian Universalist church as a place where “you can believe
anything you want.” Congregants use this discourse to distinguish Unitarian
Universalism as a place where there are many truths compared to other religious
traditions which impose one Truth. This distinction is often accompanied with a sharp
critique of believing in Truth, yet a prescriptive statement about human rights is rarely
recognized as another way of upholding the notion of a Platonic Form, or universally
invariable and recognizable idea.
The method of arriving at personal truth and belief within Unitarian Universalism
is part of a larger process of self-cultivation. Unitarian Universalists work at obtaining an
ongoing internalized concordance between action, belief, and interpretation through their
liberal agenda. By means of dialogue, they shape their interpretations, often using the
Principles as their guides. By using these principles to justify interpretations, they do not
set up a list of rules to be memorized and followed, rather they think through a rational
connection as to why certain behaviors and beliefs are acceptable and why others are
Because they understand so many of life’s decisions as shades of gray, the
individual is required to think about possible solutions and justify the reasoning behind
that action. They are required to self-regulate by means of conscious assessment of their
actions and beliefs. Through the process of empowerment, which is seen as liberating and
freeing both for youth and for adults, the community is required to assist individuals on
their spiritual journeys. The community of experts—whether youth advisors, lay leaders,
or ministers—work carefully to construct guided empowerment opportunities so that
others can practice individual exploration within the path of Unitarian Universalist
thought. Relying on a transparent, “power with” approach where experts work alongside
students to give them support in their individual journeys turns power into an object
which can be chosen and controlled. However, this support also reinforces an notion of
self-cultivation whereby the individual assumes accountability for choices and further
accepts this journey as individual self-discovery rather than a process by which he or she
learns how to think through a Unitarian Universalist framework.
Individual agency is necessary to fashion subjectivity so that one can act
deliberately and demonstrate a joining of action and belief to become more authentic.
Congregants feel unrestrained by others to make their choices and hold themselves
accountable for these choices. Actions become more self-regulated and connected to an
individual’s understanding of meaning, thereby strengthening this process of self-
On the occasions when class facilitators or I asked congregants to recite the Principles from memory, few
could recite more than the first and last ones. They often did remember the general idea of a few of the
Principles, but could not recite them and did not know the order in which they were listed.
cultivation. One feels invested in the decisions. He or she “owns” the choices instead of
following a set of rules. As a result one feels a responsibility to make one’s choices agree
with his or her own beliefs. Agency, in this setting, is no more “free” than in other
settings. There are a limited number of actions one can take for any given situation
because the number of acceptable options is constrained by the discourses that govern it
is. The difference here is the perception of freedom and the transference of this freedom
into responsibility.
When Sue watched her lesbian friends speak at the pulpit asking others to join
with them in sending letters to their senators to pass a same-sex marriage bill in New
York State, she decided she not only had to send a letter, but also to attend a rally in
Albany. This was her choice, she explained, because each person should have the same
rights and privileges in this society. The choices she saw as available to her were different
than those an opponent of gay marriage might consider. They are both constrained and
can make a decision among those limited choices, yet Sue sees her choices as inwardly
motivated rather than externally regulated.
As with the Preaching for Parishioners class, the choices of sermon topics, how
the ideas are presented, and the readings are shaped by the group. Each sermon has to be
“ready to present” by adhering to a set of guidelines in content, length, tone, and
accessibility. Sermons that end with hope are meant to be thought provoking and to
motivate others to action. By critiquing but limiting this critique, there is room for
change, but only through slow reform. Sermons are not trying to produce internal crisis
for the congregants but rather nurture them to guide their process of self-cultivation.
As interpretations are shaped toward this liberal agenda and individuals are
required to preserve a sense of justice, equity, and inherent worth and dignity, the
prescriptive side of the liberal agenda requires spreading these values to others.
Evangelism follows easily when there is a call to action.
Over the last few years, as the longest presidential campaign in the history of the
United States led to the election of Barak Obama, a Unitarian Universalist identity has
become easier to articulate. This liberal setting together with a severe recession provides
fertile ground for the Unitarian Universalist voice: for those who are hurting, there is
hope; for those who are liberal, you are not alone; for those who want to make the world
a better place, join us.
With more people walking through the doors of Unitarian Universalist
congregations each year it is up to the members to grow the denomination. As Unitarian
Universalists construct their identity, the boundaries between “us” and “them” become
clearer and may even narrow down to who belongs and who does not. There is a tension
between a discourse, which states that everyone is welcome, and a practice that is
otherwise. Both the discourse and the practice may need to shift so that all of those who
walk in the door are welcomed. It is not necessarily detrimental to limit these boundaries,
as long as they are examined and changed, when needed. While this is common rhetoric
at the level of the Unitarian Universalist Association and in major theological texts, my
research indicates that at the congregational level and during interactions between
individuals, everyday tensions and negotiations often create dichotomies; such as,
between them and us, conservative and liberal, absolute and fluid, constricting and
freeing, following and leading, Truth and truth, the one and the many.
Even the internal dichotomy between a strong individualism and the beloved
community bothers many Unitarian Universalists. I argue that the discourse of
individualism, as it stands, allows for the strength of the Unitarian Universalist process
by transferring responsibility to the individual and demanding a rigorous practice of selfcultivation. Yet community is the vehicle by which a Unitarian Universalist process is
exercised, judged, and maintained. Thus, community is far more important to the process
of Unitarian Universalism that most congregants realize for it is that community which is
the basis for a Unitarian Universalist identity. Congregants perceive a dichotomy of
individualism and community but the two are deeply interwoven; to belong to the
community and to practice the Unitarian Universalism, as an individual within the group,
is to be Unitarian Universalist. Perhaps by altering this perception and examining how
this apparent dichotomy is held in place, Unitarian Universalists might be able to see how
the two are interdependent.
As Paul Rasor notes, Unitarian Universalism is not for the faint at heart. The
contradictions that lie at the center of these ideals are difficult to reconcile: recognizing
deeper particularities among people while demanding a basic set of rights for all people,
being welcoming and inclusive to newcomers while strengthening a sense of
denominational identity which always excludes someone, upholding an independent
journey while corralling all individuals down the same path. As Unitarian Universalists
struggle to find their voice and grow their numbers, they also are forced to critically
examine how they can live up to the ideals they profess. By examining how the ideals are
created and negotiated through many micropractices, I not only add to their discussion
but highlight similar practices that may be present in many other liberal groups, religious
or otherwise.
“Let me know when you figure that out,” Rev. Ryan said with a grin at the end of
our interview. We both laughed before I shut off the tape recorder, knowing that my
research might be a point of departure for these complex issues. Hopefully, though, by
understanding the processes that fashion this particular mode of subjectivity, my research
fosters new questions about liberal religion and its role in the larger American cultural
landscape. It is by looking closely at these micropractices that we can gain more insight
about how groups maintain these dichotomies and inadvertently foster the barriers that
hold many of these ideals in conflict. For it is at the level of individual interactions, in
which the “tragedy of liberalism” (Brink 2000) becomes most salient. But hopefully it
also provides a place to think concretely about actions that may better serve a troubled
liberal identity.
Appendix 1: Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association,
covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth
in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process
within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we
are a part.
The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder,
affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit
and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life;
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us
to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion,
and the transforming power of love;
Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical
and spiritual life;
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s
love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of
reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of
the mind and spirit.
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the
sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the
rhythms of nature.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith,
we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As
free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another
our mutual trust and support (Unitarian Universalist Association 1993)
Appendix 2: My Seven Principles: A Child's Booklet
Each person is important.
Be kind in all you do.
We're free to learn together.
We search for what is true.
All people need a voice.
Build a fair and peaceful world.
We care for Earth's lifeboat (Unitarian Universalist Association 2004).
Appendix 3: Lyrics to Spirit of Life
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me (Unitarian Universalist Association
Appendix 4: Lyrics to A Place in the World
By Mary Chapin Carpenter
What I'm looking for, after all this time
Keeps me moving forward, trying to find it
Since I learned to walk all I've done is run
Ready, on my mark, doesn't everyone
Need a place in the world
Could be right before your very eyes
Just beyond a door that's open wide
Could be far away or in your own backyard
There are those who say, you can look too hard
For your place in the world
Takes some of us a little longer
A few false starts gonna make you stronger
When I'm sure I've finally found it
Gonna wrap these arms all around it
Could be one more mile, or just one step back
In a lovers smile, down a darkened path
Friends will take our side, enemies will curse us
But to be alive is to know your purpose
It's your place in the world
Your place in the world
Your place in the world (Carpenter 1996)
Appendix 5: Unitarian Universalist hymnbook reading It Matters What We Believe
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and
the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and
deeper sympathies.
Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of
unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth
of happiness.
Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends
from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere
differences beautify the pattern.
Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for
Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood. They blight the growth of
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of
personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with
the upward thrust of life. (Unitarian Universalist Association
Appendix 6: Youth Advisor Q
uiz, handout presented at Youth Advisor Training
Appendix 7: Photo of Ribbons used for nametags at General Assembly
Appendix 8: Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society: 2007 Statement of Conscience
Moral values increasingly frame public discourse. As Unitarian
Universalists, we must affirm the moral influence of liberal religion in
At great personal risk, the forebears of our faith have taken public positions
on issues of consequence such as religious freedom, abolition, women's
suffrage, and civil rights.
This tradition continues in our advocacy of the freedom to marry.
People often make religious claims about controversial issues such as
reproductive rights, stem cell research, the death penalty, and the teaching
of evolution. Their efforts to advocate one perspective, to the exclusion of
others, are influencing every branch and level of government.
Consequently, the United States is moving away from its constitutionally
mandated separation of church and state.
It is time for Unitarian Universalists to assert and defend two basic
principles underlying the United States Constitution: (1) the basic principle
of freedom, the right of all human beings to follow a life of their choosing
as long as others are not harmed, and (2) the basic principle of the inherent
equal dignity of all human beings, which includes the right of all human
beings to equal justice.
Our moral values are drawn from many sources. We are a blended family
with diverse theologies but common moral values. "Values" can be defined
as principles or qualities considered worthwhile by members of
communities holding them and "morals" as discernment of behaviors that
contribute to well-being. We recognize that we live in a moral context that
spans many levels—planetary ecology, societies, cultures, individuals,
cells, and molecules that we depend upon for our individual and
organizational well-being.
As an Association, we have covenanted to affirm and promote each of our
seven Principles.
The moral values of Unitarian Universalism correspond profoundly with
those embodied in the founding documents of our nation. The Declaration
of Independence and the United States Constitution embody freedom of
religion, the right of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every person.
Like the values to which we aspire as Americans, our Unitarian
Universalist values are distilled from the hopes, dreams, experiences, and
struggles of all who honor them.
Our Unitarian Universalist Principles parallel the Ends Principle, the
Golden Rule, and the founding documents of this nation. History shows the
dire consequences when this core morality is rejected. Although our
country has not fully implemented the promises of its founding documents
to all of its people, we Unitarian Universalists strive to help this nation
fulfill those promises.
Arising from our Principles, the common denominators of Unitarianism
Universalist values are Compassion, Justice, Equity, The Right of
Conscience, Reason, and Respect for Others. As Unitarian Universalists,
we have a responsibility to give voice to the moral values on which our
faith is grounded, not only with a statement of conscience but through acts
of conscience that honor the values we espouse.
As individuals, let us:
Speak out on moral issues with clarity and confidence;
Listen to people with whom we find ourselves in conflict,
recognizing them as our neighbors, our kin;
Model a religion that embraces liberalism and morality; and
Apply our moral values to improve society.
As congregations, let us:
State the moral grounding of our social justice agendas;
Speak collectively on moral issues;
Give ourselves clear and accessible language to describe our moral
values; and
Urge our religious leaders to proclaim our moral values in the
public square.
As an association of interdependent congregations, let us:
Speak out forcefully on issues using Unitarian Universalist moral
Articulate Unitarian Universalist values and their application to
living with respect and compassion;
Support civil liberties and the separation of church and state; and
Work across faith, cultural, and national boundaries to cultivate a
Beloved Global Community.
Let us proclaim Unitarian Universalist moral values to our communities
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audible, and valued in the public square. (Unitarian Universalist
Association 2007e)
Appendix 9: 2007 General Assembly Actions of Immediate Witness
Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with Transgender Inclusion and
Repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”
Stop U.S. Sponsored Torture—A Religious Call to Action
Support Comprehensive Sexuality Education Legislation
Support for the United Nation Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (Unitarian Universalist Association
Appendix 10: Advertorial 1, Time Magazine, November 5, 2007
Appendix 11: Advertorial 2, Time Magazine, December 31, 2007
Appendix 12: Advertisement 1, Time Magazine, October 15, 2007 and December 3,
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