The fellowship movement

Sixty years after Unitarians began encouraging the formation of lay-led congregations, a look back at the movement that transformed Unitarianism.


The story of the growth of Uni­tarian Universalism in the last sixty years is largely the story of the fellowship movement and its aftermath.

Between 1948 and 1967, the main growth strategy of the American Unitarian Associa­tion (AUA) and its successor, the Unitarian Uni­versalist Association (UUA), was to plant small, autonomous, lay-led congregations just about everywhere ten or more religious liberals could be brought together. This large-scale experiment in church growth was both unique in the American religious landscape and controversial.

In researching my new book, The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy, I found that about 40 percent of the hundreds of little lay-led congregations planted from Cape Cod to Alaska and from Minnesota to the Virgin Islands survive in some form. Thirty percent of the UUA’s current congregations—323—started as fellowships during those two decades. Some are still small and lay-led. Others have evolved into full-service congregations with buildings, ministers, and religious education programs. Fellowships introduced our religion to thousands of people and hundreds of communities, even as they challenged traditional UU churches to change in often radical ways.

In 1948, the U.S. economy was in the midst of a postwar economic boom. The postwar baby boom, which lasted until 1964, spawned a demand for religious education for children and religious communities for traditional but highly mobile nuclear families. The U.S. population was relocating, away from the northeast (where most Unitarian and Univer­salist churches were concentrated) toward the south and west and parts of the Midwest.

The two great nineteenth-century social movements in which both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply engaged, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, saw the rise of “descendent” social movements in the 1950s and 1960s in the civil rights and feminist movements. From long before the 1961 merger of their two denominations, Uni­tarians have shared with Universalists a commitment to creating heaven on earth, preaching and practicing the social gospel. Toward the end of the fellowship era, the antiwar and environmental movements began to gather steam as well, broadening the range of opportunities for social activism. For many who might otherwise have remained unchurched, lay-led fellowships often provided an environment in which these three activist social change movements could be grounded in religious community.

The GI Bill sent many ex-soldiers to college in the 1950s. They were followed by the children of the baby boom, so the 1950s and 1960s saw a great expansion in the college population and, with that, a growth of college faculty and college communities. Unitarianism has always had a strongly intellectual component. Under the sway of the humanist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Sunday services in even traditional Unitarian churches had shifted toward the intellectual and away from the more emotional, spiritual, and ritualistic elements of worship, a trend that appealed to many academics. Almost always more liberal, politically and religiously, than the surrounding society, these growing college communities were especially fertile ground for planting the Unitarian religious flag.

The fellowship movement, then, was born and grew to maturity during times that were ripe for such a religious movement. It appealed to people moving from region to region who were looking for a religious community in which to put down roots, raise their large brood of baby boomers, and engage the pressing social issues of the day. At the same time, these fellowships provided religious homes for a growing academic community and an expanding population of educated professionals.

In the first ten years of the fellowship movement, 275 lay-led Unitarian fellowships were organized. These fellowships attracted 12,500 members, one-third of the AUA’s membership growth in that decade. Three-fourths of these fellowship members were new to Unitarianism. California, Oregon, and Washington alone spawned nearly one-fifth of the fellowships established by 1958.

The tenth year of the fellowship movement proved to be a high water mark for new starts in a single year. Of 55 fellowships organized in 1958, 33 have survived—more than from any other year. But from that peak, a slowdown began. The flag­ging energy and limited budget of the small staff were partly responsible. Munroe Hus­bands, the program’s director, had one assistant and a budget of only $2,300 in 1957, with which he was ex­pected to start 25 new fellow­ships and service the existing ones. But there were also other reasons for the steady decline in new fellowships. Just as congregations reach growth plateaus, so did the movement as a whole. The program had already planted fellowships in the most promising com­munities, leaving fewer targets for additional growth.

The end of the fellowship program came with the loss of two key staff members—the death of the Rev. Grant Butler, minister-at-large, in 1967 and the retirement of Munroe Husbands in the same year. With the UUA in difficult financial circumstances, neither of them was replaced. The loss of staff leadership effectively put the fellowship movement on hold as a major component of church extension. That hold was initially designated as temporary, but ultimately became permanent. The post-merger UUA took a different approach to growth.

Forty years after the formal end of the fellowship movement, judgments about its success as a growth strategy still run the spectrum from wildly positive to extremely negative. The positive view maintains that the congregations planted as lay-led fellowships between 1948 and 1967 saved Unitarianism from near extinction and converted a regional religious movement into a truly national one. Along with growing the denomination, fellowships brought innovation, vitality, and lay leadership into a religious community greatly in need of fresh air.

At the other end of the spectrum is the view that the fellowship movement spawned small, introverted, even hostile groups that did not want to grow or welcome newcomers, did not identify with the larger denomination, and represented Unitarian Universalism in ways that did not reflect the larger movement’s self-understanding.

Neither of these views is entirely correct, and yet both are. No one description encompasses the diversity of the first-wave fellowships. But the widely held belief that there are many surviving “garage” or “club” fellowships is a myth. Only one-fifth of surviving first-wave fellowships have 50 members or fewer, and only one-seventh are at the cozy family size of 30 members or fewer. Most of the more than 50,000 Unitarian Universalists whose congregations began in the fellowship movement have the benefit of religious communities that offer a broad range of programs and services, including religious education and at least some part-time ministry.

In 1994, the Rev. Dan O’Neal interviewed four ministers from formerly lay-led fellowships, along with lay leaders. The lay leaders were generally very enthusiastic about their experiences. The ministers were more ambivalent about whether the fellowship program should have been undertaken at all. In the end, however, both groups concurred that there was more good than harm in the fellowship movement. The respondents noted the vitality that fellowship members infused into the larger movement, particularly theologically—in paganism and feminism, for example. In addition, all organizations need criticism as a defense against idolatry. Fellowships provided this kind of critique of Unitarian Universalism.

O’Neal’s interviews also pointed out that this was an affordable growth program, perhaps the only affordable one. He concluded that fellowships contributed more money to the AUA than they cost in terms of services.

The common understanding of the merger that created the Unitarian Universal­ist Association is that two bodies came together. But with lay-led fellowships accounting for almost 40 percent of Unitarian congregations at the time, it might be more accurately viewed as a blending of three partners: Unitarian churches, Universalist churches, and lay-led fellowships from both denominations (including eight from the Uni­versalist side). Like the three wise men in the Christmas story, each partner brought their own unique gifts to the union. At the risk of oversimplifying, one might say that the Unitarians brought the voice of reason, Universalists the blessing of tolerance, and fellowships the gift of freedom. When applied to Unitarian Universalism after the merger, each of them is a blessing that also carries a shadow side.

The shadow side of freedom, the gift of fellowship culture, is anarchy—a lack of order and structure, and the inability to create and sustain a center. Those qualities remain the primary danger facing lay-led fellowships. When each person is free to create his or her own religion, there is no grounding, no common core. When we gather in community on Sunday morning to pass life through the fire of thought (as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it), we need to hold up our religious experience and understanding to the test of reason. We need to be encouraged to listen to the voices of others with openness and tolerance.

The shadow side of reason, the hallmark of “church Unitarianism” in the 1950s and 1960s, is that spirituality often gets parked outside the door. In the words of Joanna Macy, humans are more than brains on a stick. We experience with our emotions, our bodies, in relationship as well as alone. It is too easy to rely only on words and our intellect to process experience, or to turn over responsibility for articulating our faith to professional clergy to explain. When others interpret religion for us, our experience is narrowed. We become consumers rather than participants in the creative process. Excessive reliance on reason needs to be held in check by the freedom to question and the tolerance of other ways of being religious.

Tolerance, the gift of the Universalists, also has a shadow side. Those who tolerate everything stand for nothing. Unitarian Universalists spend a lot of time drawing and redrawing boundaries, knowing that revelation is not sealed. Yet some truths are fixed. The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism espouse the acceptance of diversity. But they also spell out values that define Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition—respect for the individual and for the natural environment, a commitment to justice, and a duty to engage in the search for spiritual meaning.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the fellowship movement is that it held up a mirror—first to Unitarianism, then to Universalism, and finally to itself. Traditional Unitarianism and Universalism were challenged to reflect on their style of operation and to incorporate some of the positive dimensions of fellowship culture. As a result, Unitarian Universalism today reflects a number of changes that can be credited to (or blamed on) the fellowship movement.

Today’s popular small group ministry program, for example, owes some of its ancestry to the culture of intimacy in small fellowships. So does the equally popular concept of shared ministry. Highly participatory morning worship services have spread from fellowships to the more traditional Unitarian Universalist churches. Some of these changes were welcomed, others resisted.

The fellowship story doesn’t end in 1967. Many new lay-led congregations have emerged since the end of the fellowship movement. Of the congregations listed in the 2005 UUA Directory, 277—more than one-quarter—were established between 1967 and 2004. Some were sponsored by the UUA, some were supported by neighboring congregations, and others arose independently. Of those 277 congregations, 168 are still relatively small and/or without full-time ministry, although some have consulting or part-time ministers. These new congregations are heavily concentrated in seven states far from Boston: California, Florida, Minne­sota, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and Washington—states experiencing rapid population growth, mainly from other parts of the country.

Unitarian Universalism is alive and well in the twenty-first century, due in no small part to the fellowship movement. It is a livelier, more vital, more diverse religious movement because of the pioneers who took the faith to new places and created a frontier kind of religion. Just as the frontier in the Ameri­can West settled into established communities, with a scattering of ghost towns, so likewise did these pioneer settlements. But change took place among the senior partners in Unitarian Universalism as well. The entire movement absorbed some of the empowerment of the laity, modified its forms of worship, experimented with new ways to be in community, and appreciated the value of small communities within the larger whole. Unitarian Universalism today has been not only challenged but also enriched and revitalized by the unique phenomenon of the fellowship movement.

Excerpted with permission from The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy (Skinner House Books), © 2008 by Holley Ulbrich. see below for links for links to related resources.

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