Why Worry About Somebody Stealing A “Brand” You Can’t Give Away? (Congregational Polity 101 pt. 4)

Over at Material Sojourn comes this little gem:

What I am talking about, in the bigger sense, is abuse of the Polity system by rogue congregations as much as rogue ministers. We do need covenant. We need it in congregations, between congregations, and between individuals; between every minister and every Unitarian Universalist; between every UU and the entire UUA.

What the what?!?!? “Rogue” congregations? “Rogue” ministers? Granted…it’s been a year since I worked in a UU congregation, but I have my ear pretty close to the ground. And there hasn’t been a breakout of “rogue” UU ministers or congregations to my knowledge.

Anyway…the definition of rogue is (pay special attention to the adjective definition):

   [rohg] Show noun, verb, adjective

1. (of an animal) having an abnormally savage or unpredictable disposition, as a rogue elephant.
2. no longer obedient, belonging, or accepted and hence not controllable or answerable; deviating, renegade.

3. a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel.
4. a playfully mischievous person; scamp.
5. a tramp or vagabond.
6. a rogue elephant or other animal of similar disposition.
7. a usually inferior organism, especially a plant, varying markedly from the normal. (used in biology)
verb(used without object)

8. to live or act as a rogue.
verb(used with object)

9.    to cheat.
10. to uproot or destroy (plants, etc., that do not conform to a desired standard).
11. to perform this operation upon.
Going by that definition, St. Sabina Catholic Parish can be rogue. Asbury United Methodist Church can be rogue. Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church can be rogue. Trinity-Wall St. Episcopal Church can be rogue. And the reason they can be rogue is that they can be deviating or renegade, disobedient or not controllable.

So, using that same definition, how, by any stretch of the imagination, can a congregation in a NON-CREEDAL congregational polity tradition ever be rogue? By their very nature non-creedal, congregational churches are beholden to nobody except the members of that congregation. And unless something has changed recently, they can’t deviate or be renegade or disobedient.
So what’s a rogue congregation in the UUA? One that practices animal sacrifice? One that’s run by a commune? One that meets in the middle of the road with the dead armadilloes? Really…I want to know. And more than that, I want to know who gets to decide what is a “rogue” congregation and what is not. What’s the standard?
And what makes a “rogue” minister? I’m not talking about somebody who does something illegal or unethical. But if a minister is not doing something illegal or unethical, what makes them “rogue”?

There seems to be a lot of strum-und-drang about the UU “brand” that I don’t understand. If we were Coke or Nike or Apple, I could understand.  Religiously, if we were Episcopalians or Methodists or Presbyterians, I could understand. But friends…let’s try to stay on the temporal plane. And on the temporal plane, ain’t nobody BUYING our brand, much less stealing it. If UUism were a book, it would have long been out-of-print. If UUism were some other type of consumer product, we would have long been discontinued. Hell, there would be a hard time GIVING it away.

Instead of worrying about somebody trying to steal a brand that nobody’s buying and you can’t give away, why not try to encourage interest in the brand. And you don’t encourage interest in the brand by trying to stifle or limit those who can spread the gospel.


5 thoughts on “Why Worry About Somebody Stealing A “Brand” You Can’t Give Away? (Congregational Polity 101 pt. 4)

  1. Well folks are wanting the “Unitarain” and “Universalist” names (which are public domain names) but that’s not quite the same thing. The usual reason that congregrations leave the UUA is that they’ve broke up – I can think of a couple in the past 15 years that left for other reasons- they no longer call themselves “UUA affliated”. When was the last time that a UU congregration was involuntary unaffiliated? (The most recent that I can think of is the pre-merger 1950s). I would assume that something would be in the bylaws about this …
    On the other hand, there does seem to be some growth in the UU “spiritual but not religious” congregations, and things certainly aren’t as bad as they were in the early 1970s …so I don’t think we can start pealing the death bells for the UUA quite yet….

    • Hi Steven,
      I know there’s not a rush on the “Unitarian” and “Universalist” names. If I thought that was what the strum-und-drang was about, I wouldn’t have written. When some tried to resurrect the AUA moniker, they were stopped; not because of them wanting the name, but because there is money attached to the old AUA that is now in UUA coffers.
      I think the strum-und-drang is about something much deeper. Being non-creedal and congregational requires a certain letting-go of certainty. The strum-und-drang is all about some trying to have certainty that they can never have in congregational polity. To talk about “rogue” congregations and ministers is to talk as if there is some statement-of-belief or some required action that either the congregations or ministers are not taking.

      If I’m remembering it correctly, there haven’t been any involuntary disaffiliations since the early days. Remember there was debate as to whether congregations down your way that had discrimination clauses would be allowed to affiliate. All new congregations could not discriminate, but the already established ones could.

      As to the death march…I was being dramatic. However if Sunday School registration and attendance is any indication, the fat lady is warming-up. And adult “name-in-the-book” membership held steady for a little while but is now on the downward slide.

      But to sit up and worry that some random person is going to call themselves an “Unitarian” or “Universalist” minister or that some random group of people is going to call themselves an “Unitarian” or “Universalist” congregation seems beyond silly to me. Instead of trying to strangle those who might be interested, there should be encouragement of those people. At least that’s my opinion.

  2. I think Material Sojourn is working with a defintion of “rogue” as “isn’t moving in the direction of the UUA becoming a traditional hierarchical denomination.” He seems to treat the Seven Principles as some kind of foundational affirmation (even thought they were only found in a committe meeting in their current form in the mid-1980s), and is part of the current movement that raises “covenant’ to be some kind of idol. So if you don’t buy those things, on whatever basis (polity of whatever else), you’re rogue.

    So I don’t think he’s worrying about brand-stealing, but rather non-conformism to what he perceives that the brand should be.

    I wrote about a slightly different aspect of this in http://tom-wilson.blogspot.com/2012/07/velveteen-association.html. I think there are those who really, really want a formal denomination. Formally, the UUA is nothing more than a trade association; that makes some people unhappy.

  3. Well, the interesting point is that there are areas (and particularly congregations) that aren’t shrinking. That are getting younger, and whose RE programs are quite vibrant, thankyewverymuch. UU shrinkage is local, except–one might argue–in the Northeast, where the shrinkage is a broader problem. Hit the West and Southwest, and you’ll find congregations growing, more often than not.

    So fearing the imminent death of UUism seems more than a tad dramatic.

    The irony, for me, is that the ONLY substantial growth we’ve seen in generations was the fellowship movement–where the AUA/UUA paid a pittance to fund the office Munroe Husbands filled, and encouraged new congregations to rise all over. Unbound by any external authority, or even a minister (even a homegrown, not-fellowshipped one), many managed to grow, thrive and develop a fairly resilient UUism that was recognizably part of the larger faith. No harm done, really. A few hurt feelings, some ruffled feathers, and… a growth of about 50%, and slightly less than that in terms of congregations.

    More central control? Yikes.

    I’d say… anathema. But we don’t do that.

    • I didn’t say that UUism was in danger of imminent death. Nor did I say that every RE program is losing. But according to “official” numbers, UU RE programs are in decline. And adult membership had been in stasis and is now in decline. If you have different numbers, I would be glad to see them.

      There are UU congregations growing in all regions, even the Northeast. Yet, with the exception of First U-Portland, the largest congregations are all east of the Rockies. Why is that?

      I have a different take on the Fellowship Movement–as I think there was quite a bit of harm done. But that may be because I think there was a deliberate attempt to not let UUism spread beyond its traditional demographic, upper-middle and upper class whites. So pardon me if I don’t see many upsides to that period of AUA/UUA history.

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