As Unitarian Universalists continue the process of regathering in person, many of us are trying to understand what the “new normal” may become for our faith. The world has been in a period of significant transition, and, so often, in such turmoil, and our faith community is no exception. How much of the faith we knew will abide? How much must change for Unitarian Universalism to thrive? What is permanent and what is passing?
Award-winning science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler wrote an essay for Essence in 2000 entitled “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.” Among these rules is the importance of learning from the past, respecting the law of consequences, and being aware of our perspective. And, she wrote, “most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today.”
Learn From the Past
This year I am serving as transitional minister at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, D.C. I am also minister emeritus of First Unitarian Portland, Oregon, where I completed twelve years of service last June. I have been UUA president, twice: eight years as the solo president when Unitarian Universalism was growing in numbers and in spirit, and a few months as one of three interim co-presidents when the ability of this faith to fulfill its promise was much in doubt.
Learning from the past tells me that Unitarian Universalism can live into a future of deepening spirit, powerful witness, and institutional health. Because we have lived that. We can create a culture that finds hope in the real, lived human experience we bring, informed by our diverse identities.
Learning from the past also tells me that our faith can lose track of its center by refusing to answer the call of love—because we have tasted that future as well. No faith can expect an unlimited number of second chances.
Respect the Law of Consequences
COVID-19 has changed us. Regathering our congregations is a work in process. Attendance has not reached pre-pandemic levels, even adding those attending online. Almost every Sunday, I meet someone who is returning for the first time.
This is a liminal time between COVID’s peak and whatever “normal” will emerge.
Some members have lost the habit of church and will not return. Watching church in pajamas has also become a real choice. More will come but not as often, at least not yet. While others, including some in the disabled and elderly communities, may continue to find it easier to attend virtually. Given the choices, how will we support depth of connection? Will our understanding of covenant begin to change?
These patterns are not settled. This is a liminal time between COVID’s peak and whatever “normal” will emerge. Will congregational life return to what we knew before?
Be Aware of Your Perspective
If our perspective centers lamentation for what we have lost, if our energy is directed at recreating a flawed and declining past, our ministries will not speak to either the present challenges or the real opportunities.
There are reasons for concern. Attendance at congregations is down, and budgets are tight. Many ministers are retiring. Full-time ministries are becoming less frequent. Some small congregations are closing.
Even before the pandemic, aging congregations and shrinking memberships were concerns.
In many congregations, most perhaps, the stream of visitors continues. Folks continue to be drawn by the openness of our faith, the big non-creedal theological tent we try to pitch. They are drawn by their desire for values-based religious and sexuality education for their children, by Black Lives Matter signs and rainbow flags that promise a faith no longer shaped by uninspected privilege and a monocultural understanding of God’s love. They come yearning for connection in a community that still finds it possible to believe in love.
Our need for religious community abides, to support and celebrate with us, and to connect us to the enduring Spirit of Life.
These seekers want to be invited to build Beloved Community, and they are more than willing to help, but they first need to be fed by welcome and worship. They want a religious community that is worth the effort.
The world they inhabit is multiracial, multicultural, and multireligious. Often, so are their families. The visitors to our congregations want a faith that will help them thrive in that world. So do our longtime, faithful members. Our task is to find the power in that pluralism.
Our Shared Journey
This faith is less a destination and more an invitation to a shared journey.
We often try to describe Unitarian Universalism as if it were a finished product. But this faith is less a destination and more an invitation to a shared journey.
As Butler wrote in her essay:
“All that you touch/You Change
All that you change/Changes you
The only lasting truth/Is Change”
Change is manifesting all around us in a variety of ways, which I believe offer hope for our faith’s future. Congregations are building new collaborations. Several in the D.C.-area have shared summer worship for the past two years in what is called the Potomac Partnership (see “Congregations Practicing Interconnection”).
Ministry online is here to stay and can be a source of hope and growth. At First Unitarian Portland, 15 percent of attendance was online before the pandemic, and the reach of our faith formation programs grew substantially online. We developed a national and even international audience.
There are new collaborative leadership models emerging. More shared ministry, less hierarchy, more leveling of leadership.
The number of BIPOC religious leaders called to Unitarian Universalism continues to grow. And through the Eighth Principle or the Commission on Institutional Change’s work more congregations are getting glimpses of the liberation possible when we inspect our religious culture through the lens of privilege and the practice of accountability.
These are all hopeful signs, but Unitarian Universalists must welcome the reality that we are at another beginning. Finding energy can be difficult for those who are worn down by these last years.
We know, at some level, that if we just do what we were doing before the pandemic, we will get what we got: a narrative of decline and fears about our sustainability as a faith. But there is real energy in our regathering, and possibility waiting to be claimed.
Our task is liberation into lives of abundance and justice and joy.
Our task is liberation into lives of abundance and justice and joy. Our task is to live as if Beloved Community is not just an idle dream.
We do not need to claim that we have all the answers. Those that are yearning for religious community deserve more truth than that. We do not need to claim that we have reached the promised land, but it should be clear that we have embraced the journey.
“So, what’s the answer?” Butler was asked. “There isn’t one,” she responded. “There is no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. . . . Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
Our hope is to be found in the effort itself, in the process, in the many attempts, each of which shifts the paradigm—some a little, some a lot. Our hope is to be found in answering the call of love, by living as if our deepest yearnings could be fulfilled. Because that is the only way they will.
I gave up my crystal ball years ago. But the need for religious community, for connection and care, the need to gather in thanks and praise has not changed. Some of the ways we live out our mission may be new, but the call of love abides.