The Next Steps: Unitarian Universalism in the 21st Century

Keith Kron

Bridgehampton, NY, July 21, 2014

How do the lyrics go? You know….from The Sound of Music? Ahh, yes. How do you solve a problem like Maria?

It’s not every day history comes knocking at your door. So when it did, the people of Bainbridge, New York, were surprised. In 1811, a young woman of 30, a Universalist, preached. Women had not been allowed to preach. This was unusual. Some considered it wrong. It had not been done before.

But Maria was mesmerizing. And she would become the highest grossing Universalist evangelist that year. She was invited to preach all over New York and Pennsylvania. She was offered the hand of fellowship, to become the first woman preacher in the Universalist Church, in the state, in the country. She had both a genteel and commanding presence.

Maria, however, did not believe the offer was sincere. She believed that the male Universalist ministers of New York and Pennsylvania were really not ready for a woman minister. There were male Universalist ministers trying to keep her out.

So she did not accept the hand of fellowship and preached about her right to preach. She was eventually jailed. In jail, she preached Universalism to the inmates. She was released. She never became an ordained minister. She was just too ahead of her time.

It would be over 50 years before the Universalists ordained Olympia Brown as the first woman minister. Maria did not live to see this. Yet her legacy changed Universalism and Unitarian Universalism.

I was talking with a friend recently who told me this story of her early days of working, where she and other women had started a shelter for battered womens . She said she was working one day when a woman walked in. The woman walked up to my friend and handed her a ten dollar bill. The woman said to my friend, “Use this to help other women.”

The two women talked for a while then the woman showed my friend her bruises and cuts. My friend tried to persuade the woman to stay, that there was space for her here in the shelter. The woman shook her head. “It’s too late for me,” she said. “Help the ones who still have time.” And with that she walked out of the door.

She thought her time had passed.

I told my friend her story made me think of a quote by the mother family systems therapy, Virginia Satir: People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.

One Easter, I was asked to preach at our congregation in Salem, MA, 1st Unitarian. I knew this to be a Unitarian Christian congregation.

Being a part of the generation that had come into Unitarian Universalism where the most stated theology was, The-Church-of-the-Not- That-Christian, I was uncertain that I was the best Easter speaker. But I had some strong views on the resurrection story, in particular that it was not a story about a resurrection from death, but from deadness. The deadness that keeps us from being fully alive.

I was told as long as they could sing Christian songs about Easter and as long as I was willing to lead them in the Lord’s Prayer, all would be just fine.

Thinking this would have to be different Easter experience than that I had known growing up in Southern Baptist church, one that had told me I

was going to Hell, I decided this would be a good way to push myself into a more Universalist theology.

Besides, Maria Cook, was a heroine of mine. I could channel her.

So we sang the hymns, I led the readings, including the resurrection story from the Bible, and did the sermon. I invited the congregation to join me in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

And so I began to recite with the utmost confidence:

The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…

It was by the time I’d gotten to “maketh” that I realized something was amiss. No one but the most generous congregants were speaking with me. This was not the Lord’s Prayer. And I knew that. I just couldn’t remember any part of the Lord’s Prayer at the moment.

I stopped myself and looked out at the 250 people gathered.

“That’s the 23rd Psalm, isn’t it?” Some people giggled. “I believe at this moment on this Easter Sunday morning I have completely forgotten the Lord’s Prayer.” Uproarious laughter.

“You do realize this is the minister’s worst nightmare.” More laughter, and I joined in.

“Would you all please start the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll join you.”

They began, “Our Father who Art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name…” and we all concluded the Lord’s Prayer together. It was a humbling yet oddly gratifying and healing moment.

And in the receiving line after the service, I believe I shared more hugs than I had in any of the other over 450 UU congregations I’ve visited in my 17 1⁄2 years working for our Unitarian Unversalist Association. Though not one person other than the other minister present mentioned my mistake.

I was clearly not a UU Christian minister but had been welcomed and heard and loved.

The world is changing quickly. The technology we have in theory turned off in pockets and pocketbooks will undoubtedly be obsolete in 5 years. In ten years, the technology we will be using has not been dreamt of today.

We live on an increasingly smaller planet, where we can turn on our computer and see a live picture of Africa, look inside a brain, and discover ancestors and relatives we’d never thought we’d meet.

This has changed religion. The regionalism that determined beliefs based on a particular geography or culture no longer work. And on some level we already know it. We no longer pray to a god for Snow or believe or worry about cattle grazing with other kind of cattle. We just have more information than we did 3000 years ago, even if it doesn’t always make us wiser.

Indeed, the Christian church of the 1950’s and 1960’s that didn’t trust even Catholics (and vice versa) now seems like ancient history.

So what does it mean to be a church, a religion, a faith in this time? And what will it look like in the future. How do we find comfort, community and hope in an every changing world? How will we go on?

As I talk with more and more Christians, what I hear from them is Maria Cook’s Universalism. There’s a sea change in how women, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and people from other cultures are seen. More and more Christians and Jews look at the stories from the Scriptures as metaphors, as teaching stories used by a people to live in the world some 2-3000 years ago.

And where does that leave us? What is the future for Unitarian Universalism? What legacy will we leave for the next generations?
In terms of our religious future in a changing world, we are more in danger of being the metaphorical ministers who thwarted Maria Cook than being Maria herself. We are more likely to NOT push ourselves out of our comfort zones, to NOT heal ourselves for fear of reinflicting wounds, and to think, if not say, that it is too late for us.

All you have to do is look around and talk with people and realize that the faith saved each of us, can save so many others. They may not have our history.

Indeed, the next generation of Unitarian Universalists will come from the ranks of the unchurched. They will be without the baggage of a previous religion and filled with questions about God, spirituality, and so many other

words that are hard for those of is with the theology of “The Church of the Not That Christian” to hear. To say.

Are you ready? Such was the question for our congregation in Boulder, Colorado some years ago. Following ministries of clergy misconduct, the congregation of 300 had dwindled to the point of not having a minister.
There were times in the 60s and 70s that some of our congregations were afraid they would be taken over by Christians but this congregation’s worship was now being led weekly as a pagan circle. Sunday attendance was down to 30. Many wondered if it was too late for them.

But the leaders decided it was not too late. They decided on risking uncertainty. In working with denominational leaders they agree to a five year contract with a minister who would help them look at themselves and journey with them together as they worked out goals for this new ministry, which would later be called developmental ministry. And the congregation risked something else. With the new minister they risked trust.

They agreed that if they moved to fire the minister they could do so at any time but only if the minister were then paid for the entire five year contract.

The minister knew his work was cut out for him. He knew that regardless of what he did or didn’t do, because of the congregation’s history, someone would get mad at him. It is an inevitable outcome following clergy misconduct.

Trust with a minister is usually built over time anyway as the new minister interacts with the church members, especially for weddings, child dedications, and memorial services. It is more complicated after misconduct. Because people expect misconduct or at least something they don’t like from the new minister. Conversely, there were people who liked the misconducting minister, never experienced the misconduct or, in some cases, benefitted from it. Sides get drawn and quickly.

So regardless of what a new minister does, some will like the new minister. Others won’t. And usually there are trigger moments. Moments that revisit the divide.

So the new minister in Boulder new that job one was to be rebuild trust. Job two which is a part of job one was to have impeccable boundaries. Job three was to work on the congregation’s self esteem. He did this by making the

church building which had fallen somewhere between storage unit and decay a more attractive and inviting place to be. And then he waited for the storm.

All the while he helped the congregation on the agreed upon goals. Note that he didn’t do the goals for the congregation but helped the congregation achieve them. He helped them achieve them by bringing in resources, being a cheerleader, letting people get angry at him, and weathering storms. By rebuilding trust and helping the congregation see itself in a new light—a place where people could figure out how to go on in the face of life’s challenges however small or large. He reminded them again and again that these where the congregation’s goals. He, over time, and mutual hard work—because the congregation risked working as hard as he did, has helped the congregation return to size of 300 and to begin to see itself as a place of hope and the church of the place where people can make meaning in the world.

In my travels to UU congregations across the continent, I see this struggle again and again. Will we continue to be the church where we are certain of who we are, where we are both comfortable and possibly quietly miserable or will we be a church that risks hope, meaning, and a new future.

I see a struggle between those who believe Unitarian Universalism must be The Church of Not That and the newer folks who ask the question: Can we be the The Church of Helping Us Make Meaning in the World including some of That? The church where we deal with the How, Why, and Where of it all? The church where we journey together with life’s unanswerable questions and figure out our answers that may only be somewhat adequate for now.

The church that helps us figure out how we will go on? And who will go on that journey with us.

And I’ve seen people shamed, scolded, and silenced out of our congregations for asking the same kinds of questions we had about meaning, but with different context and wording. They want to wrestle with theological questions yet take them deeper. They want to wrestle not over wording but over ideas of mystery, justice, equity, compassion, and wholeness.

The next generation of Unitarian Universalists will talk differently from us. They will act differently from us. Yet it many ways they will be us, if we let them. They are the product of a generation of our teaching about how unimportant things like Stars upon Thars are. Don’t ever forget that you’ve helped changed the world already.

They are us, if we them. If we let them in, if we let them preach, if we help them heal their wounds and let them help us heal ours, if we tell ourselves now that it is not too late for us. If we are willing to develop and if we are willing to companion each other and find ways to go on. And you can be a part of making that happen.

Maria would be appalled at how little we evangelecize about God and Universalism. She would recognize the Unversalist and the Unitarian Universalist in all of us and in almost everyone she met.

Can you? What will your legacy be?

When we look toward the future can we see that in a fast changing world the next generation of Unitarian Universalists will not be like us, but will still be Unitarian Universalists?

Will we be able to forgive? Will we be able to be forgiven? Or are we the church of “it’s too late for us? The church that is certain it is right. Or can we be the church that is only certain it is somewhat adequate for now.

This is my wish for Unitarian Universalism.

Risk uncertainty.

Navigate an ever changing world by seeing the Unitarian Universalism in all those around you. Be strong enough in your own convictions and theology to honor the convictions and theology of others, of those who will join you and those who will follow you.

Imagine what Unitarian Universalism could look like in 50 years if we made room today for that which is changing and new, even when it feels uncomfortable, even, at times, miserable. Live with the faith that will never say, “It is too late for me.”

Preach the good word of Unitarian Universalism here. Make room for the next generation yet don’t give up on yourselves. It is not too late for both. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Deliver yourselves from the evil: the evil of the rigid thinking we tried to escape from.

Be of comfort to each other as you move forward, heal, and make mistakes.

Imagine what this congregation would look like if there 500 Unitarian Universalists.

Make the most of an ever changing future that desperately needs Unitarian Universalism.

EB White once said, “Life’s meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.”

Risk the uncertain. Be the place that helps people develop, hope, love life , go on.

As Dr. Seuss once wrote:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

May you care enough to resurrect Unitarian Universalism into its next stage of life. May you risk being ahead of your time.

How will you solve a problem like Maria’s?


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