Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Universalist congregation’s fragile ecosystem

The social ecosystems of our churches are at risk at the local community level, at the congregational level, and at the denominational level.

Nineteenth-century illustration of a large tree with three human figures near the trunk.
Public domain, via Rawpixel

Remarks delivered November 10, 2021, at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, in response to the keynote address by Dan McKanan, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. (Skip ahead 8:30 to the start of the event.) I have lightly edited the version of my remarks that appears below.

It’s so good to be with you, and with my friend Dan McKanan, on this wonderful occasion of your 150th anniversary as a congregation! Congratulations!

If we were celebrating your seventy-fifth anniversary, I might think of the congregation a little like an esteemed person of a certain age: silver-haired, full of wisdom – a leader, an elder, a sage! 

If we were celebrating your hundredth anniversary, my frame of reference would start to shift. A 100-year-old person is, even now, a rare bird. We marvel at someone making it through 100 years of life’s challenges. We know it’s truly exceptional. But when we think of 100-year-old institutions, we go looking for other analogies. There are creatures who live ten decades or more – the Galapagos tortoise, the bowhead whale, the Greenland shark – but we rarely seem to compare our institutions to such grizzled beasts. Instead of comparing our venerable institutions to long-lived creatures, we seem more likely to regard them as valuable objects: a stately house, an heirloom, an artifact, a legacy.


But as I think about a congregational anniversary, I want a living analogy. What you are celebrating this year is not an object with a fine patina and clear provenance, ready for a turn on Antiques Roadshow. You are not celebrating oldness, or even longevity. You’re celebrating vitality – a community that is alive and generative 150 years after its genesis. And so I am thinking of your community this evening as a tree.

Think how alive a tree can be at 150 years old, home to a teeming ecosystem of birds and bugs, its roots deep and broad. Its trunk will remain alive even as squirrels or owls nest in its hollows, even as woodpeckers bore in, even as branches break off. But for a tree to remain vital well beyond the lifespan of a human being, it needs to be part of a vital ecosystem. 

I am thinking of your congregation as a grand tree, and I am thinking about its ecosystems. 

Your local ecosystem is your town, the social structures that shape your lives, from the patterns of work and leisure that determine how you and your neighbors spend your time and your money to the educational and recreational opportunities that structure your children’s time; to the habits of mind and behavior – the morés – of your class and social circles. 

A congregation reflects and is shaped by its local context in profound ways. Wellesley, and Greater Boston, are the forest in which your congregation is a tree. Your health depends on your ability to adapt to the environment in which you are planted, and on your ability to influence that environment.

But your congregation is also itself a complex organism. Over time a tree can be many things, from a vulnerable sapling to a mighty baum to a stump that continues to serve as a home to many creatures even after its days of photosynthesis are done. But a living tree is an ecosystem of sorts, too, with its own internal diversity. Your congregation’s vitality as a grand tree depends on having roots, on having bark, on having branches and leaves, on having those marvelous layers of the trunk that focus on growth, and nourishment, and on structure. 

A tree needs all of these internal elements, and your congregation needs people who care about and invest in the full range of congregational life. We cannot all be branches, we cannot all be bark. Together, though, we can be the tree.

And, to belabor my metaphor just a bit more, your grand tree of a congregation is also part of another broader ecosystem, made up of other Unitarian Universalist congregations, to be sure, but also other religious communities. For you have a genus and a species, and some of your health is dependent on the health of other communities like your own. 

Dan’s wonderful look at several extraordinary figures in your history shows us how the ecosystem of your congregation has been shaped by changes in your local ecosystem – especially in ways that changes in women’s employment and the nature of American professional occupations transformed voluntary associations in the 1970s. He also shows us how the ecosystem of your congregation, with its rich and multiform organizational life, shaped the ecosystem of Unitarianism more broadly. 

I’ll come back to my tree metaphor at the end because the social ecosystems of our churches are at risk at the local community level, at the congregational level, and at the denominational level. But first I’ll highlight a few of the things that jumped out at me from Dan’s lecture.

First, there is nothing in the Unitarian Universalist ecosystem today that is analogous to the Laymen’s League or the Women’s Alliance movement of the first half of the twentieth century. These broad lay movements, organized at both the congregational and denominational level, have disappeared, largely, as Dan points out, because social forces much larger than anything within our own religious ecosystem have transformed our ways of life. I’ll come back to this point because their disappearance is part of a thinning out of our religious ecosystem, which makes Unitarian Universalism fragile as a movement.

Second, the diversity and complexity of Unitarian organizational life 100 years ago – with proliferating committees, with competing journals and newspapers, with outreach and fundraising campaigns coordinated outside the official denominational structure, with theological and regional factions issuing manifestos, and, here in Wellesley, with distinct groups for women at different stages of life – can be quite hard for us to imagine. How did they do it all? Who had the time? 

Since the 1970s, the trend in our congregations and our denomination toward the simplification of our organizational life has possibly weakened our religious ecosystem even as parts of our system – our regional staff structure, our UUA governance structure, our professional credentialing structures – have become more efficient. 

Dan points to the narrowing down of opportunities for leadership development as the number of organizations and institutional roles have shrunk, but this is only part of our dilemma. We are not just making our denominational structures more efficient by involving fewer people in committee structures and boards; we are also losing diverse forms of religious association that could give people a variety of meaningful opportunities to practice and deepen their religion. 

There are a handful of places where genuinely new forms of UU religious life are emerging; I think Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism is an especially interesting example. On the whole, however, the trend Dan points to – of diminished opportunities for UUs to practice their religion together – has accelerated over the past fifty years. We are becoming a monocultural movement in our institutional life at the very moment we are most intent on being a multicultural religion. 

Finally, I am struck by a contrast between the way lay Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists of the past focused their organizations and the way UU organizations tend to focus their efforts now. Look at what the Women’s Federation of the 1970s was doing: championing new perspectives on women’s roles in the economy and civic life while also leading the denominational discernment process about Unitarian Universalists’ core religious values. The Principles and Purposes that emerged from the Women and Religion Resolution have remained surprisingly enduring; they have in fact outlasted the movement that inspired them. These laywomen were mobilizing for change in the world, but they were also investing in religious discernment and in their own religious communities. They were focusing on their spiritual roots as well as on the growing sapwood of their congregations as well as on the needs in the forest around them.

And yet it may be that the UU Women’s Federation of the 1980s was the last broad lay movement in the UU ecosystem that focused both on UU religious life and on addressing social ills. UU laypeople have continued to organize social justice advocacy groups to lobby local, state, or national politicians for election reforms, climate justice, and LGBTQ rights – or to press the UUA to champion their particular social justice priorities. But to the extent that there are still groups of people engaged in organized efforts to understand, develop, or transform our religious practices, they tend to be our professional organizations. 

That’s a problem. Religious movements need their professionals – their musicians and theologians and educators and preachers and administrators and bureaucrats and curriculum developers and journalists. Professionals are charged with tending to the structures of the church and monitoring its internal health. I think of them as the layer in the trunk of the tree called the cambium, the layer that produces new bark and new wood as a reaction to the hormones that are passed along from the leaves. But a tree also needs its leaves and its roots.

The danger to the congregational system is that we may think the trunk is just so much wood: It’s the furniture, the inheritance, the part that’s always been there and that will always remain. Or, from our vantage points up in our beautiful tree, we may see only the needs of the forest around us. We may have lost the social habits of tending, together, to the ecological richness and complexity of our grand tree. 

That’s the real risk. We may not notice, we may not even especially care, that the roots are not drawing in water, that the leaves are not transforming sunlight, that the sapwood is dying, because we have a sturdy trunk we can rent out. We may care so little about the internal liveliness of the tree that we may as well be creatures perched in the branches, concerned more about other parts of the forest than about cultivating this spot as an enduring spiritual home. 

I am grateful to Dan for drawing our attention back to these extraordinary, inspiring Wellesleyans of yore. They renew my love of the church, not just as a venue or community center, but as an ecosystem, as a tree that roots me, that stretches me, that draws on my talents, that feeds me, that shapes me, that binds me with others into something strong and beautiful and life-giving. 

Whether you are an old branch of this grand tree, or a newer budding leaf, whether you are from the nearby oak checking in on this your neighbor maple, whether you are a root-tender, or a bark monitor, or a sapwood crafter, I salute you all for the diverse ways you are called to care for this congregation. May it thrive for generations to come.