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The Ship is Sinking

Posted by Kayla Parker // July 19th 2012 // On Campus, Stories and Voices // 5 comments

3,174 individuals came together this June for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s first ever Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ. After Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law was passed, the 2010 General Assembly delegates were given the option to boycott or answer the call of our partners in AZ to come, witness, and work for justice. As you have probably guessed, they voted to put the Justice in this year’s Justice General Assembly (GA).

Standing on the Side of Love with our partners in AZ, we attended a witness event at Tent City, participated in a citizenship fair, attended workshops on anti-racism, the prison industrial complex and immigration, and voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine is the notion that those Europeans who were ‘exploring’ were able to make the land they ‘found’ their own and rule over its non-Christian people. Our partners had asked us to look into The Doctrine, it’s history and how it is affecting us today. This concept from hundreds of years ago is important to us today because it is how our own country was founded, and it’s legacy lives on in how we have treated and still treat Native Americans, as well as new migrants to this land.

As congregations, communities and a denomination, we have thought and talked about how this affected and affects our nation. We are even taking action to change this thinking and the legal and daily injustices it creates.

Yet, there seems to be silence around how this affects our own religious movement. What is our relationship with the land we ‘own’? With those who are newly joining our religious communities? With those who are passing through?

How is this land a product of the privilege we have as a denomination, and how does our use of it exclude others? What does our land and our buildings indicate to others about our theology? about our class? about our wealth? about the lifestyles of those who come inside our walls?

I have had a countless number of conversations with local congregations who want to do campus ministry to “get more young people in the pews on Sunday morning”. I try and explain that campus ministry, like many other ministries, is an outreach ministry. The goal is to extend one’s congregation beyond it’s walls, not try to fit more people into them. It’s certainly met with different responses, some folks understanding and others having a harder time shifting paradigms.

We as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations are certainly hung up on the physical walls of our congregations.  We sometimes fail to reach out to those who want to be part of our community but can’t or don’t want to come inside our box.  Of course the Unitarian Universalist Association has institutionalized this mentality by designations of who is counted as a member of a congregation. This then equates to what they are expected to contribute in the Annual Program Fund to be counted as full Fair Share congregations. This is a practice that is being reviewed to encourage out-of-the box growth.

These and other revisions are pushing us into new ways of thinking, and many communities are already doing this work. Much of this good work was given national attention last February, when President Peter Morales wrote a white paper Congregations and Beyond. He describes how congregations must remain the base of our movement, and if we are to truly become the religious movement of our time we must be in places other than local congregations. This paper spurred a meeting of UU leaders and UUA staff that was open-source and interactive through the facebook page. There is now a team of UUA staff responsible for serving as a hub to share what is being done already, and support growth.

Indeed, many young adult communities have always existed in the ‘beyond’, and many congregations are pushing further into the beyond every day. Increased national attention towards the good work already occurring and a larger movement towards the beyond will enable our faith to be the religion of our time.

Additionally, the 2012 General Assembly of Delegates passed an important amendment to the bylaws to expand the definition of a congregation by simply taking out the qualifiers of “fellowship”, “parish”, and “local”. What does this mean? It means that spaces such as the Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online community that has long been a pioneer in new ministry, is no longer simply a de facto inclusion. Does it also leave room for camps, conferences and campus ministry groups?

I’d like to think so. And I’d like to think this a right step in being a denomination that recognizes why it has put so much value in land – and why it can no longer do so.

Directly following General Assembly, I attended the Global Chaplains in Higher Education Conference, which gathers once every four years. I attended a workshop called “Learning from the Spiritual, But Not Religious Voices” by Tom Sherwood of the United Church of Canada.

In this presentation, he spoke about how the small campus groups the attendees are working with is really the direction religious groups need to be going in, citing a decline in attendance of worship among all religious groups in Canada and an increase in personal prayer. He also added that these groups are actually more authentic to the original Christian tradition (and I would add to many religious traditions).  In the time of Christ, there were small groups that traveled together, not large regional temples. He left us with two pictures analogies that are a bit dramatic.


The traditional church:


The small group, typical of young adult and campus ministry groups:


Now, I do not think that our congregations are all ships destined for sinking, but I do think that if we believe they are the one-size-fits-all answer to religious community, we will sink as an Association. We need accessible vans, bicycles built for ten, and something cute and sporty to speed in the carpool lane with. We need to recognize that some people want to stay in the van forever, and some may just want it to get to the ship. All are welcome.

I’m not asking for a Unitarian Universalist Doctrine of Expansion where we pull everyone off the streets and into vans, just that we end our territorial isolationism, support the vans we have on the road, put some more out there, and invite people along for the ride, wherever they may be in their journey.


Don’t leave this topic on a critical note, check out the motivational and liturgical response in the “Soundings” section. Video blog as well as written text right here. Kayla sings to you!

About the Author

Kayla Parker is editor of Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood. She is currently a seminarian at Yale Divinity School, and Ministerial Intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, CT.
5 Responses to “The Ship is Sinking”
  1. Pastor Tera says:

    Kayla – right on! I love those two images at the end – especially the van. When we started doing the Water Justice Road Trips in CA, I had a longer-term vision of mobile groups of young adults, coming together for action and prayer, that would create communities of faith all over the world. Some of the members changing, some staying the same.

    And I will admit, as a new parish minister – I am not ready to give up our beautiful historic church building! I do hope our ample meeting spaces and gorgeous sustainable, edible gardens (they worked so hard over the past year to get rid of all the lawn!) can serve as inspiration AND I’d like to see our church become an intentional Social Justice Center and a hub for the local sustainability movement. I want our space to be the sacred space where we send FORTH our UU disciples into the world – to pray and to act and to be.

    You’ve given lots to think about.

    • Kayla Parker says:

      Thanks Tera! YOU are right on! I totally agree with you about not abandoning our space but seeing it as a hub for the justice we are spreading out into the world and the larger community we are building. First Unitarian Church in LA and First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia are such wonderful models of how space is used with a culture of abundance rather than scarcity. (And I of course love the Water Justice Road Trips – thank you for that gift.)

  2. Evan Young says:

    I’ve long been challenging congregations to think about why they want to do campus ministry. Often the initial answer boils down to some version of what you said–“to get more young adults into the pews.” And I’ve not shied away from telling such congregations “That’s the wrong reason.” I think if we’re going to do campus ministry, we have to do it as an outreach ministry, and the reason has to be “because it’s how we can best be who we’re being called to be.” We do outreach ministry because it changes US, makes US better versions of ourselves. If we’re not willing to risk our resources on ministry of this kind, if we’re only interested to the extent that it brings in the people needed to sustain our institutions, we’ve lost any spiritual energy we once had and might as well start planning how we’re going to close the doors. Because God has left the building. And on the flip side, if we do take that risk, we become the spiritually vital communities that people find attractive, because what we DO agrees with what we SAY we believe. That’s compelling–whether it’s within the church walls or on the street, or in the van!

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