Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Whither/wither Unitarianism?

I am by nature a very optimistic person - sometimes absurdly so. At the moment though, I am deeply pessimistic about something that matters a great deal to me: the future of the Unitarian movement in Britain.

It is not Unitarianism itself that is the problem. Unitarianism has a tremendous gift to give to our society. It is the one faith I know of where people can be supported in their spiritual lives by a caring, committed community and yet still be free to follow their own path - wherever it may lead. It is the right faith for a pluralist, multicultural society. I know this to be true. I have seen people come to my congregation seeking what we have to give and I have seen the extraordinary growth there.

But, despite my usual readiness to ignore the obstacles and go full speed ahead, I can find little reason for hope that the kind of turn-around that happened in my congregation will happen in many others. There are two reasons for my pessimism. The first is related to attitude and the second to professional spiritual leadership in our congregations.

Attitude is essential, of course. To the extent that congregations wish to grow only for their own benefit, they will fail. Consistent, sustainable, and meaningful growth can come only out of a faithful desire to serve others and a deep readiness to give Unitarianism away to the future. [I talked about this in a recent presentation to the Midlands Unitarian Association's AGM.]  Until we can understand our mission as calling us to give Unitarianism away, we will not progress.

But even if this great shift should come to pass across our movement's congregations, it would not be enough. Most of our congregations are tiny. They are elderly. They have no professional spiritual leadership. To attract members in significant numbers, these congregations would need to be able to offer high quality programming that is relevant to their context. Without excellent professional leadership, there almost no chance that this will happen.

What we need is for superb ministers to appear as if by magical in the pulpits of each of these congregations and for the small groups of existing members to embrace change and fling open their doors to the world.  This magic will not happen. The reality is that many, if not most British congregations will have to shut their doors for good as their existing members become increasingly unable to keep things running.

But part of this dream is possible. How? We would need quite a bit of money to support additional ministers until the congregations could grow enough to become self-sustaining. Could that money be found? I believe that it could. I believe that if we united around this one essential objective rather than spreading our energies, we could do it. If a focused, coherent, compelling plan were brought forward, people would support it financially.

What about the number of ministers needed? There are not enough in the UK, but  ministers could come from the US if British Unitarian congregations would welcome them. [There has been a considerable discussion on the potential challenges of bringing US ministers to Britain in the comments to a previous post.]

Uniting around the goal of getting qualified ministry into many more of our congregations would not, I am sorry to say, save all our congregations. But it would leave a number of vibrant congregations dotted around the country from which a new generation of Unitarianism could grow. That seems to me a dream worth working for.


  1. In the meantime, we need more events like the wonderful worship workshop led by Linda Hart & Joy Croft, in order to develop lay leaders.

  2. Hi Yewtree!

    Yes, I agree but...

    The movement has tended lately to spend a lot of our scarce money, energy and time on lay leadership development (e.g. the future ministry initiative.)

    These efforts have further delayed any possibility of improving ministry training and finding financial support for helping congregations to get the qualified professional leadership they need. These efforts have proceeded instead of working on the ministry problem rather than as an interim measure.

    And I hope it's obvious that if the training of our professional ministers is not adequate, then replacing them with people with even less training and experience will surely be damaging.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Completely agree with your analysis. It seems obvious to me that professional (and therefore hopefully effective) spiritual leadership has to be a `given` if there is to be any hope of growth, and certainly of lasting growth, within Unitarianism.

    There isn`t a massive financial resource base within which to operate. That said, the time to prioritise leadership above all else has certainly arrived- indeed it could be said that it arrived sometime ago !

    We all realise that the deficiency in numbers training cannot be resolved overnight.In the meantime however we have to `back winners`. Invest in successful developments within our areas, back them to the hilt, learn from them, use their success as a spark to development elsewhere.

    Then-take risks ! Where there appears to be a glimmer of hope with a congregation, back it with whatever resource is at our disposal.Growth needs ideas, then leadership, then resource. We`re at the stage where `interest` spent on people works better than `interest`built up in the bank (or in some of our buildings).

    This will take a change in the `mindset` of decision-making bodies, locally, regionally, nationally. As you suggest, it is an unfortunate certainty that some congregations may not survive.Their best,possibly only chances will lie with the success of local `winning` congregations,able to expand and support;such congregations will more likely than not have professional spiritual leadership.

    Frankly, in the short-term I don`t mind if Ministers can be attracted here from the States or wherever so long as they can do the job. In common with many, I would feel grateful for their support.I don`t particularly share the fears expressed elsewhere about the `cultural` gap-such things can relatively easily be overcome.Oh, and wouldn`t it then be wonderful within a few years to see a planned and targeted stream of British Unitarian Ministers taking the reins ?


  4. I am new to Unitarianism, I just started attending a church in Scotland. So far I've been very impressed with the service programming, there seems to be a lot of lay involvement and guest appearances from ministers of other congregations. But that's just my little corner of the country, I don't know if it's typical. My feeling is that more people might be interested in Unitarianism if it was more widely known about. I only found out about it myself in the last year or so, and my family hadn't heard of it either.

  5. Thoughtful and provocative post, Andy. As a Yank, I should probably stay out of this, but I can't resist making a few observations on finding ministers:

    -- Right now there is a surplus of Unitarian ministers here in the States. Churches like it this way, but many competent ministers are having to find other work. With so many ministers looking for work, British congregations could be choosy; they would not have to settle for the stereotypical loud brash American, but could find someone who would fit in with British culture. It's also worth remembering that life tenures for Unitarian ministers are quite rare; a more typical tenure these days would last 5-10 years.

    -- Money can turn up in surprising places. A few years ago, Harvard University received a gift of USD 12 million to endow a chair in Unitarian studies. As it happened, I had served with one of the major contributors on a board of trustees for a nonprofit organization. This was a man who gave millions of dollars to endow this chair, and I had no idea he was able to give that kind of money; I know that he gave less the USD 5,000 to that nonprofit, and we never thought to ask him for more. So I would not be surprised if there were plenty of British Unitarians who could fund a minister or two to carry out your scheme.

    -- In the international nonprofit world, I am told that the British have the reputation for being reluctant to ask for money compared to many other Western countries. This is the attitude of my home region of the U.S., New England, where one simply does not talk about money in polite circles. Unfortunately, this reticence is not serving New England Unitarian churches, many of which are facing serious financial crises; in the current recession, I know of several New England churches that have moved to half-time ministry, or eliminated their minister entirely. As unpleasant as it may be, as much as it goes against my upbringing, I'm afraid that we North Atlantic Unitarians simply have to face up to the task of talking openly about money.

    -- You write: "But it would leave a number of vibrant congregations dotted around the country from which a new generation of Unitarianism could grow." This I think is your best point: strong vibrant churches can nurture continuing interest in Unitarianism within a region over time. This is an idea that we here in the States should be using.

  6. I don't know.

    I think I heard somewhere that there are less than 40 active Unitarian ministers. There are around 200 congregations. I agree that we should look to North America (any spare in
    Canada do we think?) to fill some of the gaps and bring shiny new ideas. But I'm not sure about importing another 160, even just for practical reasons. So that still leaves a large number of congregations in the country with no access to a minister - aren't they as entitled to support from their assembly as those congregations with ministers?

  7. Hi Angela

    Yes, about 40...

    The shortage of ministers is not the only problem. Most congregations that are currently without ministers can not afford them. I believe that enough money could be raised to support ministry (on a development basis with annually decreasing support) for some congregations, but not for nearly all congregations.

    If we, as a movement, wish to help any congregations to survive and grow by assisting with the support of professional ministry for a set period of time, the limited funds for that purpose will have to be used to best effect. This means helping those congregations that are most likely to succeed.

    The worst mistake we can make is to spread any available funds over all our congregations. It will be tempting to do so because it will seem to be the 'fair' way to proceed. It will be easiest because it would avoid the necessity of making hard decisions. But it would be disastrous, simply prolonging the demise of many congregations while providing none with enough help to bring about a real turn-around.

    The hard decisions must be made and we must have the strength to make them. Such decisions will have to take into account a variety of factors such as readiness for change, visibility of the location, condition of the building, population density, leadership within the congregation, and so on.

    No, we will never, even in my most optimistic imaginings, be able to help all of our congregations to support ministers - even on a short term basis. Even if we could, most of those congregations would nonetheless fail because the hurdles they face are simply too great.

    I'm sorry to be so blunt, but I think we have to take it as a given that at least half of our current congregations will not survive. We can only be encouraged by the hope that the resources released by the sale of those many buildings can be dedicated to support the growth of congregations that remain.

    In this way, congregations that close can be consoled by the knowledge that their dedicated efforts will contribute to a brighter future for the movement as a whole.


  8. Tough but necessary words, Andy. I share your thinking, and I too believe that there will be a lot more net decline and church closures before any rebirth takes hold.

    I think having American UU ministers serve over here would be a good boost for the movement. Transfer arrangements must become much simpler than they are currently, but I'm not sure if the rather meagre stipends offered by the British GA (even compared to other UK Churches) would attract the most talented seminary graduates. The best new UU ministers could earn significantly more than their UK colleagues and be one of a small team of paid staff members in a UU church back home.

    At the Annual Meetings in Nottingham, which ended today (11 April), delegates indicated they want more training for lay people, with access to Open University courses among the suggestions. The GA should support lay people in accessing academic theological study, but the suggestion that lay people should get OU courses through the GA suggests that local ministers are currently not able (or not enabled) to offer the level of teaching their congregants wish for.

    I strongly feel that priority should be to fund the training of ministers from UK Unitarian congregations to the highest standards in theology and in (third sector) church management.

  9. Tim

    Great and thoughtful comment. Thanks.

    I have already had some positive communications from US UU ministers just in response to my blog post above, so it may well be that there will be interest - and quite a lot! Don't forget that we Americans still think of Britain as a very special place and, despite the small matter of a revolution a few hundred years ago, we really do admire the British very profoundly! Perhaps that will be part of the appeal.

    Yes! Continuing education of ministers is essential. Why has that not been a priority and a reality up until now? It is a question well worth asking.


  10. Some Unitarians have taken up OU courses in religious studies, and there's also a distance learning BA in Theology & Religious Studies via Oxford Brookes University, an MA in Contextual Theology via Luther House, and a professional doctorate via Cambridge Theological Foundation.

    None of these are connected to the GA, but there's no particular reason (IMO) why Unitarians shouldn't take advantage of at least some of them. From the point of view of support - outside of possibly financial support, I see no reason to differentiate between lay people and ministers.

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  12. I think there is a problem with how the movement approaches the function of ministry and the role of minister.

    I'd guess this is why there is a dramatic shortfall in persons coming forward for professional training as ministers. I mean why would anyone step forward? What's the point?

    If Ministers don't get specific recognition, acknowledgement or respect then why do it over something else?

    Ministers should be getting the best training that is then followed by work and some sort of stability.

    I'd imagine most won't come forward if this is absent and they may instead tap into helping as a Lay person. This means the best people are not developed and trained to the best international standards. We are losing great potential here..

    Also why be a Minister if there is no difference between the role and that of others? Why then invest time and sacrifice to do this as a career?

    I doubt most professionals have the idea of making themselves redundant or no better or worse than anyone else after training to the maximum standards available.

    The whole point of a professional ministry is that it nurtures the best people who are dedicated, responsible and accountable for their ministry after receiving stable and accredited education, supervision and all the other demands of a public serving role.

    In my view Ministers are professionals firstly and the training they get should reflect the demands of their role.
    So leadership,advocacy, growth, theology, pastoral care, intellectual and academic development, ecumenical dialogue, Congregational management etc..

    As a lay person I think we should get education, training and support in the same way other denominations provide this. Our roles overlap with ministerial duties but I don't think they should or can be identical without that step and commitment towards being a minister, having undergone the training.

    The Unitarian movement in this country is very weak, even sometimes de-skilled and isolated, in comparable terms to other religious leaders.

    Other ministerial leaders get far better roles, education, positions, investment, time and recognition than exists currently in our movement.

    This allows them the ability to tackle outreach, theological questions, public speaking, intellectual consideration etc. and generally have credibility and substance to their role.

    This must be placing us at a massive disadvantage intellectually, theologically and increasing the difficultly presented for us to be taken seriously as a religious movement.

    If the movement is going to have a solid base for the future it needs dedicated ministers and the support of trained and informed congregations.

    There cannot be an absence of one for the other. However, I do think that if Lay people want to take on exactly the same recognition and roles as ministers then they should really consider entering ministerial training.

    The movement in turn needs to set its priorities and money in the correct places and really give a boost to people to enter rigorous and essential training for any chance of an optimistic future.

  13. I appreciate your bringing up these important issues. One question:
    Is ministerial training in the UK still limited to those under the age of 50? What are your thoughts on training folks over 50 for some sort of non-stipendiary ministerial post?

  14. Hi Elizabeth

    Thanks for your comment. I don't know about a specific age cut-off, but certainly some candidates have been told they are too old to be accepted for ministry training. In a system where training costs are paid entirely by the colleges and the movement, it makes some sense to make sure you get as many years of service from each £ spent on training.

    But, as you suggest, there may be creative ways to help older ministerial candidates into the ministry. I hope that some people who know much more about this will comment and help to fill in the details here...

    Incidentally, in the US, Unitarian ministerial training is at the expense of the student - with some aid possible from various sources. That makes the dynamics entirely different there.


  15. Leigh wrote:

    If Ministers don't get specific recognition, acknowledgement or respect then why do it over something else?

    It's not a problem in the US, where ministers still outnumber available positions (though not drastically). The title of minister doesn't inspire the unquestioning reverence it reportedly once did (and a good thing too), but it is still a very respected position in US communities. Not so in the UK? Ah well, many US UUs would still happily serve there awhile. Money is definitely an issue, though: higher cost of living + lower pay = stress. Heck, I had planned to spend my sabbatical in England, but couldn't afford it without my spouse also drawing a salary.

    Great post, Andy.