In late January, the UUA hosted a conference in Florida discussing some of the issues covered in this blog.  They established a Facebook page which has seen very active conversations during and since.  You might want to visit.  I have fallen behind and have to catch up on it myself, but I plan to share the ideas that interest me the most here.

A current thread discusses the very nature and structure of congregations, the fundamental building block and unit of organization in our Canadian and American associations.  And excellent comment comes from New Mexico, colleague, Christine Robinson:

 The big “aha” moment for me at the conference was realizing that, while congregational polity is a given, we could redefine “congregations” to encompass a much larger set of spiritual activities. Let’s say a congregation is defined as a group of people, meeting regularly for spiritual conversation, ritual, or worship in the free religious tradition, which wishes to affiliate with the UUA. There could be a couple of categories of congregations, perhaps “supported” congregations, which get benefits of voting, DE’s, ministerial search etc, and “Free range” congregations, which would pay a much smaller fee and would allow the group of men who meet for breakfast every other week to talk about their spiritual lives, or the group of women who meet early Saturday mornings to do rituals, to affiliate and those folks to become “real” UU’s. We could further create a congregation of the unaffiliated and let those people who pay individual dues belong to that group.

How will we define a congregation as we go forward?  For example, this modest blog has over 125 people following it, which makes this group as large or larger than most of our Canadian congregations.  In one small sense it does function like a congregation…the ‘person in front’ puts out a message every now and then and a bunch of people follow the ideas.  During the discussion phase a few folks offer their thoughts on the topic at hand.  I bet even a few of them are sipping coffee while they read.  Maybe we should light a virtual chalice!

And like a Sunday service, not everyone reads every post, and probably some tune out half way through if the topic isn’t all that interesting.  As I’ve mentioned several times…I’m a preacher.  I’m used to people tuning out.

But that’s as far as it goes.  There is no sense of community.  Followers only know who else is following by accident – someone they know mentions it or recommends it or comments on a post.  Heck, I only know only a handful of followers identities.

So we may enjoy the ideas discussed (or not), but there is no sense of community, no sense of mutual support.  As Gertrude Stein famously said of her hometown, “There is no there there.”

Christine offers an interesting idea about “Free Range” congregations that would recognize non-traditional groupings of Unitarians and UU’s who gather around a smaller founding principle…but the point is that they gather.  There is a community connection, a mutual caring and sharing, whether face to face or on-line.  I am struck by one potential drawback: it might be that we really do need to preserve our traditional congregations, for it is these bodies that carry the tradition and support the ministries of educators, church musicians and yes, ministers both serving in the parish and to an extent, the community.  I want to talk about the role of the religious professionals…but I will save that for the next post.

As always, your thoughts are most welcome and valuable.