When Unitarian Universalists pass the plate on Sunday to every hand present, it’s an act of saying who we are and what we believe in.
In most Unitarian Universalist congregations (and many other religious traditions) there is a moment during the worship service when a basket or plate is passed to collect money. This is called the offering. The offering is generally not included in the service for strictly financial reasons, at least not anymore. Most UU congregations do the bulk of their fundraising through an annual pledge drive, in which people usually plan out what they’d like to contribute for the year and set up direct debit or post-dated checks. So why do we take several minutes every Sunday to collect money?
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We do it because it’s an important ritual. UU theologian James Luther Adams (1901–1994) even called the offering a “sacrament of the free church.” Sacrament is a pretty strong word that normally refers to a sacred rite like baptism or communion. Does calling the offering a UU “sacrament” mean that, for us, collecting and spending money is one of the most sacred things in our faith?
Well, yeah. It does, and it is.
Rituals such as baptisms and communion are about transformation. They’re about becoming a part of something greater than ourselves and taking our place within our communities. When UUs pass the plate on Sunday to every hand present, it’s an act of saying who we are and what we believe in. It’s a ritual we use not only to transform the world but to transform ourselves. That’s why every person at the service is invited to be a part of it.
What happens with the money that is collected is another expression of who we are. The funds are not spirited away to a higher governing body. Decisions about how the money is spent are made locally and democratically by the congregation. When the collection is split for philanthropic purposes—as is the practice of many congregations and communities—the decision of which organization we share with reflects our beliefs and values.
As a ritual that’s part of a UU service, the offering is a time for us to come together to become a part of something greater than ourselves. It’s a moment of transformation, interconnection, and UU identity.
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Liz James is a member of the Saskatoon Unitarians, on the Canadian prairie. When not executing elaborate and generally doomed UU-themed practical jokes, she runs the Unitarian Universalist Hysterical Society on Facebook and blogs at Liz James Writes.