“Unitarian Universalists sometimes revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.”   At a recent regional gathering, Metro NY District president Ted Fetter shared this statement, but then talked about his optimism about the possibilities that our faith offers for the future.  I’ve asked Ted to share these thoughts as today’s guest blogger as part of our red pill/blue pill series.


By guest blogger, Ted Fetter, President of the Metropolitan New York District

(Note: This is an excerpt from a talk Ted gave at the Central Nassau Congregation in Garden City, NY in April 0f 2012.  It’s a little long, but I couldn’t bear to edit it.)

The future of Unitarian Universalism is not assured.  There are issues and concerns, but there are also great possibilities.  I’m on the side of optimism.  I am confident we can succeed, seize our opportunities for growth, be able to get our message out to all kinds of people and make them glad they found Unitarian Universalism.

Let me first share some sobering trends.

In the way we traditionally count our numbers, we’re a shrinking faith.  Not by a lot, but we’re not growing.  As many of you know, each congregation reports their membership number and other data to the UUA each year, and for several years in a row we’ve been declining in membership.

You know, as UUs we are mired in tradition.  Now, many of us, myself included, love a lot of that tradition.  Our humanist heritage, our passion for justice, our openness to diverse religious paths, our embrace of multiculturalism, our work to overcome the blights of racism and sexism and homophobia  — all these are the very things that bring so many of us to the faith.  We dream about a time that we’ll come together in one strong vibrant religious community as one, rejoicing in our diversity and learning from each other.

But there’s another side of tradition, too.  We often like things as they are.  We can be insular and isolated.  In fact, I think sometimes we revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.  We revere the past, and celebrate our heroes who did great things for religious freedom and for historic causes like civil rights.  We debate the present, and you may have your own list, whether it’s children in the worship service or maintaining our physical plant or funding outreach programs.  And we ignore the future, by just not thinking much about the demographic changes in our congregations and wider communities, not asking much about the needs of our youth and young adults, and not doing much in leadership development in our own congregations.  I think those things are part of our tradition, too, and they worry me.

Okay, that’s enough about our problems, because I believe our potential outweighs our problems by a lot.  What are some of these great opportunities?

A major report came out about three years ago called “Faith Formation 2020.”  Maybe you already know it.  The report cited eight major trends or driving forces affecting America’s religious outlook over this decade.  At least five of those driving forces, it seems to me, actually support the potential for vigorous growth in Unitarian Universalsim as distinct both from traditional denominations and from the evangelical churches.  Here they are:

  • Fewer persons identify as Christians, and there’s a marked increase in persons who report no religious affiliation.  Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Americans reporting no religious affiliation doubled.  And for those between 18 and 29 years of age, that percentage is 25%.
  • More people described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Again, the survey responses grew by 50% just between 1998 and 2008 to 14%, especially among young adults.  A direct quote from the report is “Individuals mix their own spiritual potpourri.”  Does that sound like us, or what?
  • The report cited increasing diversity and pluralism in the country, giving rise to a lessened sense of “truth” in any particular denomination or dogma.  Sound right?
  • They worry about an increasing influence of individualism in American culture, a feeling that no one should tell the individual just what they should believe.  Now let me ask you, who’s more individualistic than UUs?
  • And finally the report notes the changing patterns of marriage and family life, with later marriages, fewer children, and more religiously-mixed marriages.  They don’t even consider issues of marriage equality!

My point is that if these are the major forces affecting religion in America right now, we should capitalize on them!  The ball is in our court!  We ought to be able to attract thousands of these folks — the religiously unaffiliated, those who have spiritual feelings but don’t want to be part of a traditional denomination, those who reject a simple truth from any one source, and so on.  We want the individual thinkers!  We want people to “mix their own spiritual potpourri!”

Beyond the Faith Formation 2020 findings, other trends are positive for us.  More recent surveys show that people think religious teachings are getting too political, priests and ministers are directing their congregants on how to think in political campaigns.  This trend is especially important when some church leaders are reopening policies that most of us thought were decided decades ago — women’s rights, access to birth control, reasonable immigration policies, health care rights, to name a few.  I’m very sure that thousands and thousands of churchgoers are rejecting the pressures of these clergy to vote the right way.  People want a religion that will respect their political and social views, and let them decide these things for themselves.

Another big observation for me is the very clear trend among younger Americans.  People under 35 or so are so much more open and tolerant on issues that we UUs care about — LGBT rights, marriage equality, environmental sustainability, and so on.  The people who are coming into their prime right now are much less fearful of “the other,” the person not like themselves, and they are much more willing to support their demand for full participation in American life.  These younger persons, when they search for a religious home for themselves or their families, will be more likely to want to find a faith like ours, one that respects everyone.

A related point is that I’m convinced Unitarian Universalism has staked our claim, made our presence known, in the key human rights and social justice issues of this generation.  I’m thinking specifically of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, the clear priority of fair and compassionate immigration reform, and the all-important emphasis on building sustainability into our use of the Earth’s resources.  There are lots of other issues, of course, and all of them are crucially important.  And UUs are involved in them.  We can name some of them just to make sure they’re not forgotten — antiracism, economic justice,  education, peace.  UUs are present for these, but so are many other faiths, many coalitions.  My point in SSL, immigration, and Green Sanctuary is to say that here our faith is known, we’ve made these campaigns especially our own, and I believe that these are three of the crucial issues of our time.

Finally, I believe we’re on the right track in faith development and spirituality.  Now I can’t claim any special expertise here, but it seems to me that in an era of growing religious pluralism, of people wanting to find answers to their deep questions and find support in their own spiritual journeys, our faith is ready to respond.  We offer them a free faith, an opportunity to explore, to share ideas and test out beliefs.   We do this more easily and more naturally than any other faith I know.  And, we teach their children to explore for themselves as well.

So, if these are some trends that look hopeful and promising for UUs, how can we capitalize on them?  What should we be doing to brighten the future of Unitarian Universalism?

First, we need to look seriously at updating our worship style and our music.

The future is with the young.  We need to find ways to bring them into our worship community.  A few congregations are experimenting, becoming more interactive, with participation well beyond just the responsive reading.  A few are using video technology to make the service crisper and more open.  And a lot are moving into a wider range of music, with more rhythm, more participation.  Even when I think I might not want all of that, at least not all the time, I should join in and spread my own wings.  So should we all.

We need to focus on social justice and outreach works that attracts followers to our programs.

As I said, I think the Standing on the Side of Love campaign and others are right for our time.  We need to be fully engaged in them, showing our commitment to greater justice for every person.  But we need to be careful about how we advocate.  Just as I’m convinced the Catholics and evangelicals are losing adherents by making their message too political, we can’t go the other way and make our message of liberal religion too political either.  We should firmly root our advocacy in clear moral principles so it’s easy to see how we got to our positions.  And we should refrain from directing anyone else to see that one solution is the best one or the only moral one.  In our tradition of an open faith we need to make room for those who come to other conclusions.

We need to make much greater use of social media.

That’s how the younger folks communicate, how they find themselves in groups.  Virtual communities are full communities, and we need to learn about them and find ways to offer UU virtual communities in Facebook and twitter and so many different vehicles.

We need to redesign much of how we operate.

For example, the role of districts in our governance and service delivery is changing.  The districts are combining for many services into regions, which allow specialists with greater expertise to serve our congregations.  And in governance there is more and more a sense that the whole Association needs to get on the same path, with a smaller middle piece making policy decisions.

We need to develop an intentional and focused statement on faith development.

As a whole Association we should agree on how to foster adult RE programs and how to respond to the needs of young adults for their spiritual support.  Individually we can be focused as well.  To me the idea of an “elevator speech,” a quick summary of our own beliefs and approaches to life’s big questions is excellent.  Each of us should practice an elevator speech so we can share our own faith — the most vital parts of it to us, knowing they might change — with our friends and co-workers.

We need to get beyond our congregations, beyond the bricks and mortar of our buildings.

There are about 160,000 UUs who are members in our congregations right now.  But there are about 600,000 persons who identify as UUs, who call themselves religiously-affiliated and see themselves as UUs.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why aren’t they part of our congregations?  Could it be that we are recognizing only about a quarter of our fellow UUs?

We’ve tried lots of ways to get those wanderers into our congregations, and not much seems to work.  We should keep trying, I’m sure.  After all, the congregations are at the center of how we come together, how we identify ourselves.  But maybe in addition to urging them to come to us on Sunday mornings, we need to think of ways to partner with them, to bring them into a wider grouping, where they can find community — in campus groups or in virtual communities or in partnerships that work in the wider community.  I don’t know what the potential is here, but I’m sure we should be open to ways to attract these hundreds of thousands of our fellow UUs.

Friends, we have a saving faith.  We offer a message of openness and welcome, of giving and forgiving.  We are compassionate and inquisitive and caring.  We don’t necessarily offer eternal salvation, but we do offer joy and redemption right now, a sense of worth and dignity, of service and calling, of mutual support and comfort.  We have a life-affirming, positive message that everyone should get to hear.  One of my favorite quips comes from Gini Courter, the Moderator of the UUA.  I’ve heard Gini say that we as Unitarian Universalists aren’t sure about life after death, but we are sure about life before death.  In other words, we want every single person to live their lives fully, with all the potential and all the joy and all the love they can bring.  It’s this eternal message, a message about life that we offer.  How can we not share it, now and in the future?

Ted Fetter is the president of the board of the Metropolitan New York District.  He has led the national District Presidents Association and chaired the UUA Moderator nominating committee.   Ted earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1974 followed by a 34-year career in judicial administration. He is a member of the UU Congregation of Princeton, NJ.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.