150 Years of Unitarianism in Cleveland: A Celebration of Shared History, Trinity Cathedral, January 14, 2017
Call to Worship: Rev. Daniel Budd
We gather in this place to celebrate our past
to honor our present,
and to welcome our future.
May this time together deepen our faith,
encourage our hope, broaden our love,
and connect our lives in anticipation,
expectation, and surprise.
The flames we kindle in our separate homes
come together now to join us
in this place, and in this time….
Early Unitarian History in Cleveland: Rev. Daniel Budd
Just 40 years after the founding of the city of Cleveland, some of the Massachusetts Unitarians who had moved here began organizing meetings.
The Rev. George Washington Hosmer traveled from his new church in Buffalo to preach for a few friends who had known him and to encourage the formation of a church. The congregation met in home parlors and, as it grew, in rented halls eventually finding its home in Case Hall, then on the site of what is now the Federal Building just east of Public Square. There it continued to grow in number and stability.
Finally, on January 14, 1867, meeting in the parlor of Rodney Gale, a constitution, bylaws, and bond of union were drawn up and the First Unitarian Society of Cleveland was born.
In 1878, they were meeting in Weisgerber’s Hall at the corner of Prospect and 14th St. That year they called the Rev. Frederick Lucian Hosmer (George Hosmer’s nephew) who accepted the call on one condition: that they have their own church building.
To that end, plans were made and efforts undertaken, and their new church was dedicated in October, 1880, as Unity Church, at the corner of Prospect and Bolivar. Soon, one of the first free kindergartens in the city began there, followed by a domestic science training school and a cooking school. A literary club soon grew, and a variety of plays produced.
Rev. Hosmer was eventually, in 1892, lured away to St. Louis, and a year later the congregation called the Rev.’s Marion Murdock and Florence Buck, a radical act for its time, and one that contributed to the congregation’s growth and development over the six years of their tenure.
During the ministry of the Rev. Minot Simons that followed, the congregation decided it needed to move from downtown, then next to Gray’s Armory, and to the residential section of what was then called “The East End.” Curiously enough, they were able to sell their building to an Episcopal congregation and move to the corner of Euclid Ave. and East 82nd Street, renaming itself the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. Under Rev. Simons’ ministry, the church was a source of inspiration and a medium for service to the community.
His successor, the Rev. Dilworth Lupton, continued and expanded on this tradition. A supporter of birth control, the church was the only one in town to have Margaret Sanger speak, with many members joining together in efforts that would result in the eventual founding of Planned Parenthood. Lupton also fought for, and encouraged his congregation to fight for, the rights of religious and racial minorities. And, anticipating the consolidation that would occur some thirty years later, First Unitarian merged with All Souls Universalist Church in 1932.
The Rev. Everett Moore Baker succeeded Lupton in 1942, and was a leader in groups devoted to welfare, youth, mental health, and racial justice. As the congregation had reached a membership of 1500, he encouraged the formation of a new congregation on the West Side, and in 1946, West Shore Unitarian Church was founded.
And thus we enter into a time when Unitarianism not only grew, but would expand across the region. So I pause here in our particular part of this 150-year-long story, that we may hear of the growth and development elsewhere of Unitarianism in our city. It is a story reflected, both in deed and in aspiration, in the anthem we are about to hear, as our forebears sought to “build the land, my people, we seek.”
History of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church: Rev. Tricia Hart
It was 1945, and Unitarianism was flourishing in Cleveland.
First Unitarian Church had 1500 members, and hundreds of children. Rev. Everett Moore Baker was a man of ideas. One of those ideas was that a single Unitarian Church in Cleveland was insufficient to serve a larger goal: making liberal, Unitarian ideals available to all who wanted them.
And so came a series of lectures in Lakewood, offered on Tuesdays in February and March of 1946 by Dr. Baker and his Assistant, Wayne Shuttee. Their topics:
- Religion can be scientific
- Modern man can believe in God
- Modern man can believe in himself
- What Unitarians teach their children
At least 100 people attended, even on snowy Tuesday nights. So in April, they invited Frederick May Eliot, President of the American Unitarian Association, who came all the way from Boston. At the end of his talk, Dr. Eliot said, “I congratulate you on starting the newest Unitarian Church in the country.”
Then he had to leave to catch his flight. Dr. Baker drove him to the airport, which left Rev. Shuttee alone with the people. Together they began to make Dr. Eliot’s mistaken assumption a reality. That evening, they formed three committees: Bylaws & Structures, Finances, and Nominating. Between April and August they gathered 128 charter members, and called Wayne Shuttee as their first minister. The first service brought 200 adults, 75 children, and 17 teachers. West Shore was off!
The people of West Shore spent their first 20 years quite literally building their church. After six years in uncomfortable rented spaces in Lakewood, 3.2 acres of wilderness came up for auction in Rocky River, which they won for $11,310. The 1946 Building Fund was followed by several others - in 1949, 1951, 1954, 1956, and 1962, when the sanctuary was finally completed. The 128 members grew to 900 by the mid-1960’s; with 700 children and more than 100 teachers.
West Shore was never a small church – it was always at least a “neighborhood” of people, dedicated to one another and to their church. So it was then, and still is today.
I arrived as a stranger to West Shore a few months ago. Like many other who have shown up on West Shore’s doorstep over the past 70 years, I was warmly welcomed, then invited to dive in and get busy. This has been a seven-day church from its earliest days – first focused on enjoying one another’s company, and later on the needs of the larger world. In the 1960’s, that meant racial justice; in the 1970’s, the church offered pregnancy tests; in the 80’s, women’s voices were heard in the pulpit, plus the first celebrations of Gay Pride. That commitment to social justice has only grown in recent years. As far as I can tell, there has been an AA meeting at West Shore every Wednesday night since there has been a building to hold it.
West Shore was founded to bring UU ideals to more people in this city; it has grown into a large church whose mission is to engage more people to lead lives of meaning and purpose.
History of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland: Rev. Joseph Cherry
It’s an uncomfortable thing to bring up conflict in a service where we are celebrating in unity, our shared history, but conflict is at the very core of the beginning of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. In 1950 there was a vote, to stay in the Hough neighborhood at 82nd and Euclid, or to move our church home, once again.
To move a congregation is a big decision, we had done it before moving from Prospect and Balboa to 82nd and Euclid in 1892, but in 1950, the whole body didn’t agree and so a division occurred.
Almost a year later the Unitarian Society of Cleveland was formally organized at the Boat House in Forest Hills Park after a series of Sunday Picnics. This year we returned there to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the vote that made us our own congregation.
The Society was born in part in the question of race. It is still a question with which we wrestle today. After the Hough uprising in 1966, the Society left 82nd & Euclid, offering our building to the Black Humanist Fellowship in 1971 and moved to the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, a city immersed at the time in the struggle to keep our town racially integrated.
The move was a controversial and historic event in Unitarian Universalist history.
In 2016 we were pleased to host a Moral Revival at the request of the Rev. Dr. William Barber, and the day before the revival, our Black Lives Matter sign was stolen from the front of our church.
And replaced in less than 24 hours.
We are still in the struggle regarding the question of race and race relationships. We have not yet figured out how to make everyone feel equally comfortable, welcomed and incorporated into the life of our church, but we continue to work in earnest.
The Society today serves many students from Case Western, Chicago State and Tri-C, as well as faculty, staff and residences from the Cleveland Clinic and Metro Health campuses. We are engaged with our neighbors at Musicians’ Towers, having dinners and cookie parties with them, and we welcome our friends from across the street whenever they stop by for services. We enjoy good relations with the businesses on Coventry, often serving as a meeting space for readings from Mac’s Books.
When the Dobama theatre was in its infancy, they met in our space, and we continue this tradition of nurturing art by housing the Chicago Chamber Choir and serving as a rehearsal space for the Cleveland School of the Arts. We are frequently asked to host recitals for and charity events by the students of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
I have the pleasure of serving the Society as their 8th settled minister and we have ordained four people into the ministry of Unitarian Universalism: the Rev. Jan Seller, the Rev. Chris Bailey, the Rev. Colin Bossen, and the woman who serves now as our community minister, the Rev. Dr. Rina Shere.
Offering for Greater Cleveland Congregations: Rev. Rina Shere
Today’s offering represents our shared concern with both local and national social justice issues. Our generosity will support the Greater Cleveland Congregations and Black Lives of UU.
Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) is a non-partisan coalition of faith communities and partner organizations in Cuyahoga County who work together to build power for social justice. GCC is part of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s first and largest network of multi-faith coalitions.
GCC unites people across lines of race, class, religion, and geography to promote public, private and civic sector actions which strengthen and improve the quality of life of Clevelanders.
Many here have participated in the teach-ins, the marches and the protests. How many of you have been to the large assemblies when we have over 1,100 folks gathered together? Last February 3, 2016 a group of this size presented our recommendations for the Consent Decree to Mayor Frank Jackson, US Attorney Dettelbach, and Department of Justice Civil Rights Section Chief Smith.
It was powerful! It was powerful! GCC is what local organizing looks like!
Black Lives of UU works to provide support, information & resources for Black Unitarian Universalists and to expand the role & visibility of Black Unitarian Universalists within our faith. Continued funding of this initiative will fulfill a commitment made almost fifty years ago to UUs of color. Our contributions will help create healing spaces for black people in person and online; to grow more opportunities for pastoral care specifically for black UUs; provide resources for white antiracism work within our denomination; and provide direct support to congregations during times of racialized conflict.
As a community of shared congregations gathering today, we have an opportunity to ensure the funds we gather collectively do a greater good for our world than they could have done alone.
History of East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church: Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Picture it. Mentor. Saturday, February 5, 1956.
Alice and Lincoln Christensen were joined in their living room by Eugene and Margaret Rinzler and Charles and Nell Heltman. It was an informal meeting, and though we don’t know much of what exactly happened, I’ve seen the black and white snapshots of that era, so I can guarantee you this: the air was thick with cigarette smoke.
And I can guarantee you that their meeting looked nothing like the worship services that would happen at Unitarian churches in Shaker Heights, and Cleveland Heights and Rocky River the following day. But it probably began with a reading by Linus Pauling or Albert Schweitzer.
A week later, twenty people gathered to outline what it would take to establish a fellowship in Lake County. After that, they met regularly, and within a couple months had to use space at Pythias Hall, for humanist services that ended with a Bond of Union, written by Mr. Christensen.
In May, the American Unitarian Association welcomed the group into membership as East Shore Unitarian Fellowship, a name that tipped its symbolic hat to another child of First Church.
And East Shore was a child of First Church. How else could you explain the incredible fact that by October of 1956, only eight months after that smoky first meeting, 60 families were members of the congregation! They weren’t all new to Liberal Religion….they were coming from other churches, directly and indirectly, and in 1957, their first full year, their friends Robert Killam of First and Jesse Cavaleer of the Society were their most frequent preachers.
A lot has happened in the sixty years since then. In 1960, Thomas Peterson, a former chair of the Board of First Church, bought an estate whose property was about to be bifurcated by the construction of I-90, subdivided it, and sold the tudor-style house – known as Graystone – to East Shore.
18 years ago, the congregation, long named East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, moved into its current building, a long, low affair with siding sawn from trees cleared for construction, topped by a distinctive glass pyramid. The Beacon.
Seven ministers have settled at East Shore. Four have been ordained. Thousands of adults have signed the Membership book and hundreds of children have been dedicated. Sunday mornings have gone from lectures bookended by hymns and discussion to liturgy with rituals like lighting our chalice and candles of care and concern, our prayers under the beacon.
But one thing has remained, with only one word added. We still end our time together with the words of Mr. Christensen.
“We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, that transcends all creeds, not to think alike, but to walk together.”
And now, because time changes us, and so many are now unable to walk, we’re pledging ourselves to journey together. As a congregation. As we hope to do with all of you.
History of SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Church: Rev. Kristen Rohm
SouthWest is the youngest UU congregation in Cleveland. Our story begins with extensive demographic research of the greater Cleveland area by the UUA and the determination that there was a viable need in the suburbs to the south and west of Cleveland. In 1986, West Shore raised $20,000 to seed the new congregation. The first Worship service was held on May 3, 1987 and Charter Sunday was November 26th of that year with 26 Charter members signing the pledging document.
The Rev. David Cole became SouthWest’s first Interim minister, part-time in 1990 following his retirement from West shore. SouthWest made the intentional decision from the beginning to invest in professional ministry, so they rented space in an elementary school, a middle school, and then at Baldwin Wallace, most of these in the music room. We were lucky that one of the early members, Ellen Hansen-Ellis became the Music Director, ensuring our dedication to, and love of, music.
A Statement of Purpose was crafted early on beginning with the phrase “we gather to celebrate the mystery of our being.” Mary Grigolia was called and ordained, the first full time minister as part of the UUA’s Extension program from 1992-1995. In response to the desire for a home of our own, a Building Fund was established in 1995. Soon after, SouthWest became a Welcoming Congregation and joined in Cleveland’s Pride March. We were strong supporters of Transitional Housing, now Front Steps, since 1998. We left the Extension program in 2000 having become financially independent.
Chris Nielson was called and ordained in 2002 and much growth happened during her 10 year tenure. The search for a home continued until in June of 2009 SouthWest purchased our first building, the 150 year old church in North Royalton. This small congregation kicked off a Capital Campaign to fund the renovations and exceeded our target! We renovated the historic building earning appreciation and good will from the city of North Royalton. The first service was held in the not quite complete Sanctuary on Sept. 12 of 2010 and the completed building was dedicated on May 1, 2011 with the Mayor giving Opening Words for the service.
This lovely, healthy, energetic congregation has from the beginning been very warm and welcoming and filled with committed and hard working people. They have continually been engaged in justice work in the surrounding communities. Last year, we became one of the furthest out suburban churches to join Greater Cleveland Congregations. We went from the church in a box, unpacking each week in rented space, to the church on the hill, in our own beautiful historic sanctuary and home in North Royalton. We continue to do our best to create beloved community in these southwestern suburbs and to work for change in our world. Together, we aim to live out our mission to inspire wonder, radically accept & love, joyfully connect & serve. We hope you will all join us later in 2017 for our 30th Anniversary Celebration.
History of First Unitarian Church of Cleveland: Rev. Daniel Budd
The hymn we just sang embodies in many ways the aspirations of our living tradition, bringing together as it does Frederick Hosmer’s words of 1899 with Thomas Benjamin’s music of 1992. The past becomes a part of the present and calls us into the future.
So while Unitarianism was growing on the West and East sides, in Coventry and the Southwest part of our metro-region, it also continued to thrive at First Unitarian.
A year after the founding of West Shore, First Church called the Rev. Robert Killam. Not long after his arrival, discussions began about the congregation moving again – two or three years of discussions. Finally there was a vote in 1951, and a slim majority voted to move.
Land was secured on the north end of Belvoir Oval and a New England style building erected that was dedicated on January 23, 1955. Four years later, thanks to the generosity of the Peterson family, an R.E. wing was added. Dr. Killam brought two outstanding people on board: Robert Shaw (then conductor of choruses for the Cleveland Orchestra) and the Rev. Angus MacLean, a renowned pastor and religious educator. Together they created a dynamism that inspired many and, for the first time, led to holding two services every Sunday morning. The church flourished.
But this time brought its challenges as well. Dr. Killam’s untimely death from cancer in 1965, and the social issues that were affecting congregations all across the nation hit First Church pretty hard. But after some initial difficulties and struggles, we began to evolve and support, if not embrace, the call for open housing as the community of Shaker Heights became more integrated, as well as a growing support for gender and racial diversity. We found a way, through our Social Justice Ministries Council, to give ourselves the ways and means of addressing the needs in our wider community.
Our tutoring program, long associated with the now closed John Raper School in Hough, is undergoing a transition as we learn how best we can work with our new placement at FDR School. Our Multicultural Action Committee strives to keep our connection with East View UCC vital and open to the diversity among and around us. Our Community Forum encourages exploration, discussion, and action on current issues that are shaping our culture and community. Recognizing the vital importance of education, our afterschool enrichment program, IMPACT, continues to serve the middle school in our neighborhood. We engage with our environment through our many UU Ministry for Earth projects, our Permaculture Garden, Solar Panels, and the ongoing efforts to make our building more and more green. Finally, and most recently, we became a member of Greater Cleveland Congregations (as most of you have as well) which challenges us to take our values into our community and forge inter-religious relationships whose goal is to transform our neighborhoods, our city, and our lives.
Our past becomes a part of the present and calls us into the future, into the next 150 years. We each will bring our uniqueness to this journey. But let us also move forward together, remembering “how great the cloud of witnesses encompassing our way,” knowing deep within us that love, hope, faith, and Life will ever call us on.
Prayer: Rev. Patricia Shelden
I pray in the name of ALL that we believe in – trusting that we all believe in LOVE. I pray claiming the Spirits that are our unity and strength: the Spirit of COMPASSION, the spirit of HOPE, the spirit of GOD, the Spirit of FAMILY, the Spirit of LOVE, the Spirit of RESPONSIBILITY for the world we inhabit.
I pray claiming the individual Unspoken Spirits in which we have faith. Because we are a church that encourages each to find that in which we have ultimate FAITH – the FAITH that allows us to bear the unbearable and survive what is brutal.
These spirits make us a church, not an agency, nor a gathering of like minds, nor a casual group of tolerance for individual beliefs and thoughts. Instead, our congregations are gatherings of minds, hearts and souls, built upon ground made unshakable by Shared Spirits and passions, shared fears and strengths. Our strength comes from what we share. Our growth comes from the words and ideas that are hard for us to speak yet important for us to learn and claim.
Our combined and intertwined history proves to us that our spirit of Cooperation and our shared Commitments to our core beliefs remain the solid ground upon which we stand.
I give thanks to those brave enough to create the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. I pray we all give thanks to the Spirits of Cooperation and Sacrifice that allowed each following church be born. I am thankful for the Spirits that were necessary for all our churches to exist – the Spirit of Trust, the Trust in the Good Intent of each congregation that helped or needed help to grow. For without trusting our Good Intent, the churches that followed these 150 years would not exist. Trusting in the good Intent of each of us, we must be vigilant in focusing on each other’s Good Intent not our limits and failings. Our binding Spirits remain, even if we fail or temporarily leave our common path. These moments require the hardest Spirits: Grace, Forgiveness, Re-Commitment.
I must veer slightly to address the national situation that upsets many of us. The outcome of the election was not what we hoped. Many are depressed, disappointed, worried – even terrified. Remember, when Margaret Sanger came to speak about birth control in Cleveland nearly a century ago, the fight for sex education and birth control was new. It was fought against governmental and organized opposition. Planned Parenthood, sex education and birth control are now common. It was a long, hard fight, but it was won.
The work for Civil Rights was a bloody, centuries-long battle – many were martyred and most had their lives threatened. Brave people like us stood proud and spoke truth to the power and overcame government-sanctioned and dangerous racism, changed laws and standards. That battle still rages today but the majority of public sentiment has changed. The presidential campaigns caused Americans to finally acknowledge the reality of racism today. If there is one positive outcome of this election, it is that we can no longer deny that racism, misogyny, classism and many other forms of oppression are alive and strong today.
But let us not forget that those battles were won when there were no established precedents or laws to correct those evils. We may have to fight the battles again, but we HAVE won them before. If we could overcome these evils when the fights began with little public support – what makes us think that we cannot win them today? Are we only afraid of what the government might change, and the fallout from having hate and bigotry normalized by an American President? Or, are we afraid of having to do the work again? We won these fights before, of course we can win them again.
So, I pray that we work to trust the Good Intent
of those we encounter – that we remember we are joined to many others in
shared beliefs. Our congregations are forged in the Spirits of Love and
Commitment – or should be. These beloved communities work together,
honoring the truth of our flawed humanity yet strong enough to build
churches based on shared Values and Spirits.
May these Spirits remain with us. May we find strength in Love. May we find grace ad understanding when they are needed. May we walk together in integrity, upon unshakable ground created by the Spirits we share and those we claim individually. May we remember who we are and what we have accomplished!
May all that is Holy be with us. And, may we be ever mindful of the Sacred that surrounds us.
So be it. Amen.
Sermon “Renewing the Covenant”: Mr. Jim Key
Think of it! On January 14, 1867, with the Bond of Union, Unitarian Universalism had its birth in Cleveland. Over the years, four other congregations were planted. Today, January 14, 2017 we pause to celebrate 150 years of liberal religion in the greater Cleveland area. From First Unitarian’s website: “We gather within a tradition dating back to the Reformation that affirms the value of human experience, our need for ever-deepening compassion and understanding, the search for what is true and right in human relations, and the interdependence of Life.”
Thank you for inviting me to speak on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Unitarian Universalism in Cleveland. Your collective progressive voice and prophetic imagination has been and will continue to be vital to public life on these southern shores of Lake Erie. That progressive voice and prophetic imagination is critically important today, perhaps more now than ever. Moreover, it is most effectively accomplished when we are all grounded in covenant with each other and other communities of faith.
It is the strength of our covenantal heritage and history that has sustained Unitarian Universalism over the decades. Our theological ancestors, the pilgrims and puritans of New England, understood this and organized themselves around covenant rather than ecclesiastical structures.
The standing congregations of Massachusetts and Connecticut codified this covenant in 1648 that established our polity of eschewing ecclesiastical authority in favor of independence and interdependence of congregations. In other words, the congregations agreed to walk together in love and mutual promises were made to help and support each other, rather than rely on bishops to direct and manage the affairs of the congregation.
This Cambridge Platform became our organizing polity, distinguishing us from the Anglicans and Presbyterians of the day. Over the years, we UUs have perfected the independence element of the Platform with precision, but have given the interdependence element short shrift.
I think the time is overdue for us, as a movement, to renew and strengthen our covenantal polity and theology.
Consider what our association might become if we considered with whom we were in covenant rather than how many members we had or how many congregations we had.
Let me begin at the End, our Global Ends to be specific.
Global Ends, as they are called in our policy-governance model, are our shared vision that several thousand Unitarian Universalists, crafted over several years of discernment.
These Ends statements are not the creation of the board; rather the discernment of many.
Moreover, they lay out the broad mission of our association of congregations and communities.
These Ends are best used as a baseline to challenge all of us regarding how we engage our communities to examine and resist the nation’s polarity this long nightmare of an election has exposed. Our new reality challenges us on how best to proclaim our prophetic imagination.
Let’s start with the overarching Ends statement.
“A healthy Unitarian Universalist community that is alive with transforming power, moving our communities and the world toward more love, justice, and peace.”
Assess in your own mind whether visitors, members, and friends think of our communities as alive with transforming power as they interact in services and meetings.
Let me highlight some of the language of our shared vision’s subsections:
1.1 Congregations and communities are covenanted, accountable, healthy, and mission driven.
1.2 Congregations and communities are better able to achieve their missions and to spread awareness of Unitarian Universalist ideals and principles through their participation in covenanted networks of Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities.
1.4 Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.
Countering systems of power, privilege, and oppression are more critical now than at any time in my lifetime. This is our prophetic responsibility today as a liberal faith just as abolitionist and suffragist activity was for our ancestors. Just as marriage equality and immigration reform were our prophetic responsibility in recent years.
I am indebted to Rev. Sue Phillips who is the Regional Lead in the Northeast region and also teaches Unitarian Universalist Polity at Harvard Divinity School. My sense of the critical need to renew and strengthen our covenantal polity has been developed over many conversations with Sue.
Too often, congregational leaders speak of covenant only in the context of controlling unhealthy behaviors rather than an expression of how we manifest our love for one another and the world. I am reminded that covenant is both the commitment and the means to practice engagement in community.
It is both a noun – the promise itself – and a verb – the practice that manifests the promise.
Covenant is the collective commitment TO and practice OF religious community that we embrace when we say we are a covenantal faith tradition.
We need to explore how we might change the conversation from membership to mutual covenant.
What we have seen as we worked with emerging congregations and covenanting communities over the past few years is that the practice of covenanting has energized some groups that appeared to be isolated and static.
Let’s imagine, rather than signing the book, people entered
and were welcomed into covenant that would be renewed periodically.
Imagine if congregations and communities entered and were welcomed into mutual covenant with the larger association that would be renewed periodically.
This approach to covenanting would energize our movement and attract individuals who are increasingly just not interested in membership in yet another organization, but they do desire to get connected and stay connected in networks of connection, to probe for and express affiliation.
This process of covenanting is an activating impulse that connects our personal commitments in community, drawing individuals together to co-create a world of more love, more justice, and more peace.
The trustees, at my request, charged a task force, chaired by the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, to take up this issue. They have been at work and convening focus groups for over a year.
This discussion of covenanting will be a significant part of our General Assembly in New Orleans in June as we begin a process of discernment that I expect will result in bylaw changes at a future General Assembly.
I am excited about their work to date, let me share a bit of it.
This is a part of the report from the TF shared with us at a meeting last year:
“We should not be surprised that an association that services the very entities that comprises it would develop tendencies to be focused on internal structures, bylaws, and parliamentary method. Nor should we be surprised that in such a…model reinforces the independence rather than interdependence of the congregations.
“Noting this quickly leads to concerns not just of efficiency, but of justice.
“Successful agents in this environment are likely to be experts in certain kind of very nuanced internal and long-term conversations.
“Activists, persons in love with movements but not membership organizations, and all non-congregational entities are frustrated if not actively repelled. Non congregational UU identity organizations will find it easy to claim independence over accountability in times of trouble; in times of aspiration they will become confused by the extraordinary effort necessary to gain institutional toe hold at the cost of doing their work in the world.
“One of the earliest conversations in the task force was wondering what would happen if we just replaced covenant with membership as the means of entering into the associational box…We notice that a lot of implementations of covenant become static because they imagine covenant as the glue between members or member equivalents; missing is the theological connection with transforming power.
“But what if we thought about the purpose of the association differently?
“In the past, when we have spoken of transforming governance, we have often spoken of the problem of representation, as in, congregations are not well or fully represented by delegates at General Assembly…
“Congregations require representation as certain kind of singular…entities; the will of these entities must have a means of articulating their concerns and interests inside of the governance structure that purports to act in their interests.
“But what if congregations are not important because they are contained entities, but because they are one of many ways of manifesting and incarnating a Unitarian Universalist mission in the world? What if they don’t need representation so much as they already represent various expressions of mission?
“We have gestured in this direction with (the Ends statements I shared with you).
“But of course, if this is what we want congregations to be, we need the associational structure to support this desire.
“We’ve had conversations in the past about which of our governance entities is responsible for the articulation of our mission. Our bylaws give this responsibility to the board, and yet our Presidents are usually elected on platforms with visions for the association that are necessarily related to mission. Meanwhile, we also leave it to the board to article the “ends” of the association, the President to interpret them, and the staff to operationalize them.
“And yet all UU organizations, congregations, regions, cooperative housing units, seminaries, identity based groups, —any gathering of two or more in the name—are already all of these things. We all own mission; we are all owned by mission; we all attempt to operationalize the mission in different ways.
“What, then, if our association is actually an alliance of mission partners, all related to each other by mutual and renewing covenants: radically interdependent, mutually accountable, flexible and dynamic.
“But how to initiate such a large, adaptive transformation?
“One small but significant step will begin with General Assembly in 2017.
“A next step could be to look into how to develop a parallel process for congregations, whereby rather than recruit members, they invite persons to affirm and rearticulate their mission through the vehicle of covenanting and re-covenanting on a regular basis.”
There is today a critical need for our liberal religious presence in the public square as we reclaim our historic role as a prophetic witness. Renewing our covenant, promising more intentionally than ever, is critical to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.
Think about how we currently connect people to our mission of more love, more justice, and more peace and consider in your own congregations how we move from signing the book to indicate membership to a periodic re-covenanting within and among our communities.
May it be so.
Benediction: Rev. Daniel Budd
And now may the Universal Presence
that unites and empowers us
go forth within and among us
as a flame that we carry in our hearts and minds,
as the very Spirit that we breathe,
as the very Life that we live.
Go forth and be blessed
by being a blessing in all that you do.
So be it; amen.