Why Do UUs Try To Complicate Sh*t That Ain’t Complicated?…or Congregational Polity 101

Since I’m in burning bridges mode I might as well stay there.

Over on the Material Sojourn blog a case is being presented that there needs to be codified ordaination standards. The thinking being that codifying ordaination standards will decrease the probability of clergy misconduct.

Here are sections 8 and 9 of the Cambridge Platform(called chapters):


Of The Election Of Church Officers

  1. No Man May Take The Honor Of A Church Officer Unto Himself But He That Was Called Of God, As Was Aaron.

2. Calling Unto Office Is Either Immediate, By Christ Himself–Such Was The Call Of The Apostles And Prophets; This Manner Of Calling Ended With Them, As Has Been Said–Or Mediate, By The Church.

3. It Is Meet That, Before Any Be Ordained Or Chosen Officers, They Should First Be Tried And Proved, Because Hands Are Not Suddenly To Be Laid Upon Any, And Both Elders And Deacons Must Be Of Both Honest And Good Report.

4. The Things In Respect Of Which They Are To Be Tried, Are Those Gifts And Virtues Which The Scripture Requires In Men That Are To Be Elected Unto Such Places, Viz.: That Elders Must Be “Blameless, Sober, Apt To Teach,” And Endued With Such Other Qualifications As Are Laid Down: 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6-9. Deacons To Be Fitted As Is Directed: Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:8-11.

5. Officers Are To Be Called By Such Churches Whereunto They Are To Minister. Of Such Moment Is The Preservation Of This Power, That The Churches Exercised It In The Presence Of The Apostles.

6. A Church Being Free, Cannot Become Subject To Any But By A Free Election; Yet When Such A People Do Choose Any To Be Over Them In The Lord, Then Do They Become Subject, And Most Willingly Submit To Their Ministry In The Lord, Whom They Have Chosen.

7. And If The Church Have Power To Choose Their Officers And Ministers, Then, In Case Of Manifest Unworthiness And Delinquency, They Have Power Also To Depose Them; For To Open And Shut, To Choose And Refuse, To Constitute In Office, And To Remove From Office, Are Acts Belonging To The Same Power.

8. We Judge It Much Conducing To The Well Being And Communion Of The Churches, That, Where It May Conveniently Be Done, Neighbor Churches Be Advised Withal, And Their Help Be Made Use Of In Trial Of Church Officers, In Order To Their Choice.

9. The Choice Of Such Church Officers Belongs Not To The Civil Magistrates As Such, Or Diocesan Bishops, Or Patrons: For Of These, Or Any Such Like, The Scripture Is Wholly Silent, As Having Any Power Therein.

Chapter Ix.

Of Ordination And Imposition Of Hands.

1. Church officers are not only to be chosen by the church, but also to be ordained by imposition of hands and prayer, with which at the ordination of elders, fasting also is to be joined.

2. This ordination we account nothing else but the solemn putting a man into his place and office in the church, whereunto he had right before by election; being like the installing of a magistrate in the commonwealth. Ordination therefore is not to go before, but to follow election, The essence and substance of the outward calling of an ordinary officer in the church does not consist in his ordination, but in his voluntary and free election by the church, and his accepting of that election; whereupon is founded that relation between pastor and flock, between such a minister and such a people. Ordination does not constitute an officer, nor give him the essentials of his office. The apostles were elders, without imposition of hands by men; Paul and Barnabas were officers before that imposition of hands. The posterity of Levi were priests and Levites before hands were laid on them by the children of Israel.

3. In such churches where there are elders, imposition of hands in ordination is to be performed by those elders.

4. In such churches where there are no elders, imposition of hands may be performed by some of the brethren orderly chosen by the church thereunto. For, if the people may elect officers, which is the greater, and wherein the substance of the office does consist, they may much more (occasion and need so requiring) impose hands in ordination; which is the less, and but the accomplishment of the other.

5. Nevertheless, in such churches where there are no elders, and the church so desire, we see not why imposition of hands may not be performed by the elders of other churches. Ordinary officers laid hands upon the officers of many churches; the presbytery at Ephesus laid hands upon Timothy an evangelist; the presbytery at Antioch laid hands upon Paul and Barnabas.

6. Church officers are officers to one church, even that particular over which the Holy Ghost has made them overseers. Insomuch as elders are commanded to feed not all flocks, but the flock which is committed to their faith and trust, and depends upon them. Nor can constant residence at one congregation be necessary for a, minister–no, nor yet lawful–if he be not a minister to one congregation only, but to the church universal; because he may not attend one part only of the church to which he is a minister, but he is called to attend unto all the flock.

7. He that is clearly released from his office relation unto that church whereof he was a minister, cannot be looked at as an officer, nor perform any act of office in any other church, unless he be again orderly called unto office; which, when it shall be, we know nothing to hinder; but imposition of hands also in his ordination ought to be used towards him again: for so Paul the apostle received imposition of hands twice at least from Ananias.

Pay close attention to the sections in red. If ordaination standards are codified, doesn’t that create Diocesan Bishops or Patrons to be answered to that the Cambridge Platform expressly warns us about?

My uncle was ordained in the Baptist church when he was 14. A number of my Mississippi relatives were ordained before the age of 15. Two of my high school friends were ordained in their early teens. And a couple of my former boyfriends were ordained in their teens.

How is it that the Baptists can do it and the non-denominationalists can do it but UUs can’t do it? We are working off of the same foundation here people. Why do UUs try to complicate sh*t that ain’t complicated? Congregational polity means that CONGREGATIONS get to choose their leaders, not somebody from outside. If you want somebody from the outside choosing your congregational leaders, then you need to find a church that is Presbyterian or Episcopal in polity.

I understand the need to lessen the incidences for clergy misconduct. But if you believe that codifying the ordaination process is the answer, I have a piece of desert property right outside of New Orleans that’s up for sale that you can buy. If you think codifying ordaination standards is going to stop clergy misconduct, take a look at the Roman Catholic Church and tell me how codifying ordaination standards has worked for them.

Clergy misconduct happens. You cannot codify it out of existence. To think that you can is naive beyond belief.

Congregationalism requires trust. Trust in the individual congregations to know what is best for their locality. I have that trust. Do you?


16 thoughts on “Why Do UUs Try To Complicate Sh*t That Ain’t Complicated?…or Congregational Polity 101

  1. The fact of the matter is that the UUMA Guidelines & MFC Rules, while seriously flawed and in need of reform, are quite capable of dealing with clergy misconduct. However the related *sad* fact of the matter is that the UUA and MFC and UUMA are apparently quite reluctant to responsibly enforce the letter and the spirit of these aforementioned guidelines and rules and manage to find various ways to disregard them when responding in irresponsibility to complaints about clergy misconduct of all kinds. No matter how adequate and even perfected any set of rules and guidelines may be it comes down to the church administrators readiness & willingness to enforce the rules when they are violated.

    It is said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

    But the flip side of that particular “coin” is equally True.

    “Where there’s no will, there’s no way. . .”

    • Not surprisingly, I politely disagree with Robin.

      While I still hold that misconduct isn’t the only reason that a stronger UUA is beneficial to all UUs, or that it is a widespread issue within the UUA so far, the MFC cannot address misconduct at all, in a very real sense.

      Firstly, the entire process is horridly skewed towards the individual in fellowship. The person(s) bringing the complaint don’t even have the right to meet the Executive Committee of the MFC on the issue. Only the individual in fellowship can ask for an appeal. And that person can have their fellowship reinstated without the complainant even being informed.

      Additionally, the worst they can do is to revoke the fellowship, which is not the problem I was addressing at all. I was speaking of the unfellowshiped, locally ordained clergy from “East Podunk”, which the UUA has no sway over at all. If East Podunk UUF pays their dues, they can, in theory, ordain a sexist, racist, womanizing Satanist who may not have ever sought fellowship, or even had fellowship revoked.

      Polity means that nothing the MFC could do, whether it was done right, or even if the process were improved, can address the problem that Congregational Polity allows any nominally UU church to call anyone they like regardless of their training, qualifications, or even mental health.

      I understand where the concept comes from. I think the more relevant issue for me is when it came from. The world has changed a LOT since 1648. I think we need to address that.

      • I am perfectly aware of the serious flaws in the UUA’s policies and procedures but the fact remains that, even within the context of the seriously flawed MFC Rules and UUMA Guidelines etc., the UUA is quite capable of disciplining misconducting ministers but all too often the so-called “guardians” to borrow Kim’s word simply turn a blind eye to ministerial misconduct and find some excuse to pretend that the misconducting minister in question has done nothing wrong, even when their behavior clearly violates the letter and the spirit of the UUMA Guidelines which BTW are not even enforced by the MFC if I am to believe Rev. Dr. Tracey Robinson-Harris’ rather questionable words.

        Anyhow thanks for pointing out some, but by no means all. . . of the serious flaws in the MFC Rules. For the record, more than two years ago now during the April 2010 Board Of Trustees meeting(s), I made it clear to the UUA Board and Peter Morales administration that the MFC Rules allow UU ministers who have been found guilty of clergy misconduct and “defellowshipped” to appeal that MFC decision but there is absolutely no provision for clergy misconduct complainants to appeal any MFC decision that they consider to be unjust or inadequate. As I pointed out to the Board and UUA administrators present this is clearly not in alignment with the second principle of Unitarian Universalism which calls for justice, *equity* aka fairness aka equal treatment, and compassion in human relations. Needless to say the UUA Board and Peter Morales had much more important things to do in the last two years than to respond in responsibility to my “prophetic work”.

        As I said in my initial comment –

        “Where there’s no will, there’s no way. . .”

  2. Oh and to answer your parting shot question. . .


    Absolutely NOT.

    In light of how the Unitarain Church Of Montreal responded to my complaint arising from Rev. Ray Drennan’s intolerant and abusive behavior, the UUA’s similarly negligent and effectively complicit response, and the fact that numerous other UU congregations have failed quite miserably to deal responsibly with all manner of clergy misconduct I do not trust individual UU congregations to know what is best for their locality. In fact both individual UU churches and the UUA have repeatedly behaved in a manner that is harmful not only at the local level but at the regional and national levels as well. . .

    Sadly the UUA continues to behave in a self-destructive manner as the UUA’s recent legal douchebaggery falsely accusing me of the crime of blasphemous libel for allegedly making “unfounded and vicious allegations to the effect that ministers of the Association engage in such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape” serves to prove beyond any reasonable doubt.

  3. neither be partaker of other men’s sins; of any of the members of the church; by doing the same, joining with them therein, or by consenting to them and taking pleasure in them, as done by others; by conniving at them, and not restraining them, nor reproving for them: or rather this refers to rash and hasty ordinations of ministers; and either regards the sins of those who lay hands suddenly on men, and with whom the apostle would not have Timothy join, that he might not be a partner in their sins; or else the sins of those that are ordained, and these, whether before or after their ordination; which such involve themselves in, who either rashly and ignorantly ordain such persons; and much more if they do it, knowing them to be such: and these sins may include both immorality and error; see . Keep thyself pure; not from his own sins, the sin of nature, indwelling sin, and actual transgressions; no man is, or can be pure, from either of these; nor can any man keep himself; Christ only is able to keep them from falling. But the apostle’s meaning is, that he should keep himself pure from the sins of others, by not rashly and suddenly admitting any into the ministry; just as the apostle was pure from the blood of all men, by faithfully preaching the Gospel; so he suggests that Timothy would be pure from partaking of other men’s sins, by observing a strict discipline in the house of God. Some refer this to chastity of body, in opposition to the sin of uncleanness, which his youthful age and the temptations about him might expose him to the danger of; and which is scandalous and infamous in a minister of the word. Which sense serves to show the connection of the following words, which otherwise seem to stand unconnected.

    • Earlier in the Cambridge Platform, there is scriptural reference as to the qualities of those who should be allowed to serve in particular church offices.

      My contention though, is that if ordaination standards are codified, we can no longer call ourselves congregational. Also that codifying ordaination standards will not bring about the intended result…lessening the incidences of clergy misconduct.

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Not at all surprisingly, you failed to address anything in my post about why this is the best way to do things, other than the reactionary “This Is How We Have Always Done Things” defense. TIHWHADT is the worst reply ever, especially for a movement that is dying on the vine. How we’ve always done things is killing us.

    Additionally, the argument that better ordination standards won’t eliminate abuse, and that it ought to be all or nothing in solving problems is ridiculous. It goes against every protest that has us Standing on the Side of Love. I goes against every time we work to get out the vote by handing out registration cards to people on the street. It goes against every attempt ever made to change the world through peaceful means. Doing something is better than doing nothing, even if that something has no chance of absolute victory.

    I beg you to answer the question I asked in the very title of my post, “How is it (Polity) helping in the Modern World?” Where does it make us stronger, more cohesive, more organized, more connected, better informed, better supplied, better able to meet the needs of the modern world? I posit that it does none of these. Show me where I am wrong.

    • There is a difference between you not liking my answer, and saying that I didn’t answer you at all.

      As I have said many times…you cannot stop or lessen clergy misconduct by codifying ordaination standards, which is what you are suggesting.

      The late Rev. Suzanne Meyer (may she continue to rest in peace), before I went to seminary, told me “Theology is polity is theology. Don’t ever forget that.” That has stood me in good stead.

      But I’ll do another post and try to put it in some different words.

      • Well, I asked how it is relevant today, and you answered by posting the text from the 1600s. I asked where it makes our weakening movement stronger, and you point out that this is what we’ve always done, and how we got here. I asked how it addresses our problem of a coherent and vibrant message, and you said, “I really like this method”.

        Logically, I say that you can reduce clergy abuse with stricter ordination standards. Maybe not the problems we have faced, but certainly problems that have happened to churches in the recent past who had self-ordained their clergy. You say that we can not end all of it, and you are right, but we should try to do better where better is possible. You say that the Catholic Church is an example of how it fails, but I would love to be able to employ the number of clerics that the Vatican has; certainly it would come with more problems, but not necessarily by percentage.

        You give me quotes from the Platform, and expect me to see how they answer the questions that I’ve said my previous reading had left me with. Nothing was magically illuminated. You post a single quote from a class I was not in, with no context, and all I can say is that there is no logic in that lone statement.

        Those aren’t answers. I mean, Theology is much older than 1648. To say that it is inseparable from polity dismisses Dávid and our fore-bearers all the way back to Origen. Theology is not polity, and you’ll need to back up your assertion with more than Name Dropping.

      • If we were talking about something science-related, and I started my comment with Newton, would you say that I’m living in the past?

        Why can’t something written in the 1600s still be relevant?

      • Yes. We’ve moved beyond Newton. His equations do not work on the large scale of astrophysics. Newton laid a foundation, but science has moved on from there and changes had to be made to keep up with new works.

        Thanks for making my point so very clearly.

  5. “….. the woman stood on the burning bridge…….” BTW, Some ancestor of mine was a deacon in the Cambridge church when they put all that together, and here I am, too weak to read it all. Bunny

  6. Kim and others … I think in UU settings we often move from “congregational polity” to “congregational idolatry” where many of us uncritically worship local congregational polity when it meets our needs (and ignore it when it doesn’t meet our needs).

    Many years ago at a UU conference, I heard Rebecca Parker speak on UU theology and she talked about the historical reasons behind congregational polity in North American Unitarian Universalism (our Eastern European Unitarian cousins are not congregational — they have bishops and a form of episcopal polity).

    The reason we are congregational is our ancestors took this path in reaction to monarchial polity of the Roman Catholic Church or the episcopal polity of the Anglican Church.

    Our Unitarian and Congregationalist ancestors didn’t trust concentration of power and they thought that congregational polity was the best possible choice for them.

    Not because it always brought the best answers and best decisions. It was more for safety — local congregational polity was an attempt to limit the scope of evil to just one congregation and not be a widespread outcome for all congregations.

    The funny thing is that our modern-day Congregationalist cousins (the United Church of Christ) do have denominational and regional denominational bodies that credential their clergy. It’s not just a local congregational decision but rather one that is done by the local congregation in consultation with the wider religious movement. The modern-day UCC process is closer to the clergy credentialing process used by our Universalist ancestors (who were not as congregational as our Unitarian ancestors were).

    • Steve,
      Count me in the “congregational idolatry” crowd then. I grew up in the conservative break-off of the Disciples (Church of Christ). So I’ve known congregationalism all my life and see no point in tinkering with it more than we already have.
      And I do know why the congregationalist on this side of the pond are congregational. That is why I wrote “Power Tends To Corrupt.”

      As I pointed out to Thomas, there is a difference between “credentialing” and “ordaination”. The UCC, UUA, and the Disciples have credentialing bodies. Yet, if a church wants to choose somebody who is not credentialed, that is their right.

      I actually don’t have many problems with the credentialing process (although I think there are so many class issues in it that need to be brought into the open). I have a problem with saying that somehow the only people who are worthy are those who are “credentialed”.

  7. And we have a larger issue, too.

    The UUA Bylaws are being violated by the current system of using credentialing to block people from accepting ordination by congregations (which is really an end run around congregational polity).

    “Section C-3.2. Congregational Polity.

    Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member congregations, including the exclusive right of each such congregation to call and ordain its own minister or ministers…”


    “Section 11.3. Admission to Fellowship.

    A minister may be admitted to fellowship by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, upon complying with the requirements of these Bylaws and the rules, policies, procedures and requests of the Committee. …”

    The UUMA/MFC process REQUIRES anyone seeking credentialing/fellowshipping to agree NOT to seek or accept ordination.

    I can’t fathom how that doesn’t violate 3.2. The MFC is the UUA’s responsibility, and for it to actively permit another institution to infringe on congregational polity and the explicitly exclusive right to ordain is… a gross violation.

    And if that weren’t enough, 11.3 empowers the MFC to admit *a minister* to fellowship. Not a candidate for ministry. Not someone who will be ordained later.

    We can argue about what is good, whether we should amend or tweak details of congregational polity. All fine and good. But *right now* the UUA bylaws DO NOT permit it and the MFC to do what they have been doing for years. The bylaws as written would require our process to be one of (presumably preparation… and then) ordination and THEN the credentialing process/visit to the MFC. Doing it that way would end the violation of *both* bylaw items.

    Note that this is not an argument about what is good, or what good things the existing process seeks to achieve. Those may be laudable objectives, but they either have to be achieved by other means, OR the bylaws will have to be amended to authorize the process (and understandings) that people would like. Please note that there is a C bylaw involved, and so a change (to make the bylaws meet the extant process) would take at LEAST two years. In the meantime, do we believe that bylaws should be followed, or not?

    I’ll note that I suspect that IF we followed the bylaws, the whole issue of congregations ordaining first would drive the UUA/UUMA/MFC to become far more proactive in helping congregations to understand their role and to be really serious about vetting ministers-to-be. As they should.

    And no, I’m not suggesting any great conspiracy here. Just human error….
    and perhaps, to some degree, reading them the way someone would like to read them, to permit achieving some laudable objective….

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