What makes someone Unitarian Universalist?

One part of my final papers involves looking at a lot of religious demographic figures. I was looking at Religion in a Free Market which analyzes the data from a survey of 51,000 U.S. Americans and then figures out what that means for the whole U.S. population. It is helpful in some ways, very unhelpful in others (but that is for another post).

The survey is based on self-identification. And according to the survey, there are about 600,000 Unitarian Universalists in the country (as of 2001). As many of us know, this is a tad more (like about three times more) than our survey of congregations shows. And this got me thinking. I’ve read where a UUA president (I want to say John Buehrens, but it could have been Bill Sinkford – I forget where I read it) commented on such a number and said that it was flattering that 600,000 people would identify as Unitarian Universalist, all those people don’t really understand what we’re about (or what it means to be Unitarian Universalist) because you have to belong to a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist. I’ve also heard this by some of our ministers – “You can’t just be UU. You have to be active in congregational life and part of a Unitarian Universalist community.” And I see where this is coming from – the idea that we are not just some random collection of liberalish people with no core set of beliefs. We stand for something and we aren’t the catch-all for people who don’t know what else to be.

Yet. Imagine if a Christian church or denomination was like, “If you are not a member of one of our congregations, you do not count as Christian.” Or if a Buddhist group insisted that if you were not a member of one of their Buddhist communities, you were out. To me, Unitarian Universalism is not a club. It is a faith. And, for me, it is about how we live our lives, not if we are a member of a congregation. This does not mean I encourage people not to be members of a congregation. Like with Christianity, I believe that our faith is best lived out in community, but that the core of what it means to be Unitarian Universalism does not mean belonging to a congregation, but means living out the principles of love, justice, kindness, and equality in your everyday life.

So now when people ask how many of us there are, I won’t say 200,000-ish. I’ll say 600,000-ish, realizing that congregations count in many different ways and that many Unitarian Universalists out there – for whatever reason – are not involved in a congregation at the time. And, realize the work that we have to do to make our congregations feel like an essential part to our faith. Not because people “have to join,” but because they want to be part of such healthy and thriving community.

8 Responses to What makes someone Unitarian Universalist?

  1. Jeff Wilson says:

    Yes, the idea that you have to belong to a congregation is ridiculous and patronizing. I was raised UU and have been an active member of three different UU churches. I met my wife–also a UU–at a UU church and we had a UU wedding in my home church. I haven’t been a member of a church for about five years because I moved and there wasn’t a UU church nearby that my wife and I both liked. We intend to join a UU church again when we move once more later this year, and bring our son up UU.

    But since I’m not at this exact moment on the membership rolls of any particular UU church, I am not UU? That doesn’t make any sense. A UU is someone who identifies with UUism and has some viable connection to the denomination: they grew up in it, have been a dues-paying member, read UU books and find inspiration there, attend UU services but choose not to sign the book, whatever.

    I’ll put it another way: whichever UUA president said that is not representative of UUism, since two-thirds of UUs (i.e. the missing 400,000 from the 600,000 number)–and likely a certain percentage of the remaining third–appear to disagree with him.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, Jeff. We should hear more about this in coming months since it can’t be long now until the survey of congregations…. I think this is especially an issue once you get off the east coast – there just aren’t enough congregations to choose from. I would love to see some sort of more concerted effort related to planting congregations or even a house church movement. But that is for another post :) Thanks for your comments. E

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think you are right that a better choice of words is a good idea. When Catholics talk about member/non-member they refer to practicing and non-practicing Catholics respectively (at least from what I have seen).

    I do vaguely recall what you are referring to. I think the basic gist was that the UUA is an association, and to be in the UUA you have to be a member of a member congregation. Certainly others will be like minded, but outside of the association you are not in covenant with other members. I think it is a worthwhile distinction to make, I’m just not sure if it is the best choice of words.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for your comments UUpdater. I agree that being in covenant with other people of the same faith – UU or Christian or Buddhist or whatever – is important, but to me that doesn’t and shouldn’t distinguish if one “is” or “is not” UU. Or if you “count” or “don’t count” as a UU. I would like to see the survey of congregations framed as a how many Unitarian Universalists are currently members of our congregations. I’m sure plenty of those people are paying dues, maybe showing up on Sunday morning – but does that mean that one should “count” more than someone who is not currently a member of a congregation, but yet identifies as a Unitarian Universalist and is seeking to live that out in his or her daily life? If we were a club that requires “membership” in order to be counted – okay. But since I think most would agree we are not a club, that we are a religious faith, then I cannot accept that membership in a congregation is THE defining factor or what makes one count or not count as a “legit” UU. It reminds me of the Catholic Church that thinks somehow that they get to decide who is in and who is out. I do not mean to minimize the importance of being a part of a congregation – I think that IS important, but only one part of a wide range of activities and beliefs that characterize what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The practicing/non-practicing issue is an interesting one. What makes one a “practicing” UU?

  5. Adam Becker says:

    If you can’t be a Unitarian without being a member of a UU congregation, then

    …We really need to stop claiming Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian, cuz he’s was a contributing member of an Anglican congregation up til the day he died.

    In every UU church I’ve attended, there have been folks who’ve attended for years but never signed the book. Are they not UUs?

    I think some of this issue comes out of the fact that we don’t have a creed. A creed based faith can say “If you accept our creed, you are one of us.” Just because we don’t have that test, we’re more likely to use formal membership as a test of “Who is really one of us?”

    On the other hand, we are probably less confused about this issue than the Reformed Jews are. (You are a Jew if your family was, unless you believe that the Messiah has already returned, unless you think it was Rabbi Schneerson.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well perhaps the reason that there are so few U*Us in U*U congregations is because the U*U religious community is not such a healthy and thriving community as it might like to think. . . Perhaps if U*U congregations were a little more safe and a little more welcoming all round there would be 600,000 or more U*Us regularly attending U*U congregations.

  7. Philocriteshttp://www.philocrites.com/ says:

    Elizabeth, you raise an important point — and it’s going to get more important as denominational leaders continue focusing more and more on the UUA’s obligations to congregations. Few U.S. organizations are focusing on Unitarian Universalists or Unitarian Universalism beyond the congregations.

  8. Meowia says:

    I believe that self identification is the key. In our own congregation we have many very active and involved people who have chosen to not sign the book (at least not yet…) Some of these individuals have been active in our church for a decade or more! Who is he to tell them they don’t count or are not UU? I don’t fully understand the reasons each person has for not signing the membership book for so long, but it is their journey, their choice and their right of conscience. Individuals should never be coerced into membership or made to feel unwelcome or less valuable because they have not officially “signed on”. I also don’t think that borrowing terminology from the Catholics works in this case (practicing vs. non-practicing) because the people I am talking about are practicing, they are just not signed members.

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