The Changing Face of Congregations
As our name change taskforce guides us in exploring new possibilities for VIUF, I’d like to look for a moment at the place and time we find ourselves in. I thought I’d write a short article, and instead, have ended up with a mini-sermon. This is the occupational risk of being a minister! I won’t be offended if you don’t make it through the whole article. And I will be delighted if you do, and if you ask me about it on Sunday.
The Religious Landscape of the Pacific Northwest
Our name change is a reflection of both who we are as a religious community of Unitarian Universalists, and of the significant social and cultural changes in our world since the founding of VIUF in 1956. In the Pacific Northwest, we are in what scholars of religion and public life call “the none zone.” More people here describe their religious identity as “none” than anywhere else in the U.S. At the same time, even among those PNW’ers who do claim a religious tradition, the single largest percentage of people have no affiliation at all with a religious community where they learn, practice, give, and receive the gifts of their faith.
Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk, authors of Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, note that the open religious environment of the PNW has led to a proliferation of many, independent spiritually-based organizations, groups, and communities, with and without formal leadership. It is a culture where the boundaries of individual and social identity are fluid. The authors offer this keen observation on the vital social functions of organized religion:
“High levels of religious adherence provide social support for institutional religious participation. A clearly recognizable religious reference group functions as a social mirror, alongside or against which an individual can define herself or himself. The Pacific Northwest has neither, and so each individual’s religious identity and organizational affiliation can be a life-long project. Everyone who comes into the region must negotiate his or her own religious identity, because the meaning and style of religious belonging changes in a context where commitment, experimentation, and indifference are equal.”
My take on this is that we live in a time and place where there is much religious freedom, and also much vulnerability–the givens of having a stable worldview and others who affirm how we experience ourselves and our identities and relationships are not very given. There is little accountability for living our values in our daily lives without collective cultures that hold up a mirror to us.
Recognizing the Value of UU in Our Region
This is why Unitarian Universalism’s 8 principles and the new, recommended 6 values can be a life-saving life-line in our area. This structure is deceptively light, yet it offers plenty of room and challenge for personal growth and mirrors the freedom to experiment that PNWers are accustomed to. And it offers a creative place to develop our own sound judgment on acting responsibility and accountability towards one another within our covenant of right relations.
For those who are weary of negotiating a religious identity alone, without the support of other travelers on the spiritual journey, the companionship–we might even say fellowship–of a UU congregation is a welcome discovery.
How do People Find UUs?
So how do the people who need us find us? In response to the pandemic, VIUF and congregations like ours across the country went online and became virtual in a transition that was more swift than any of us who were imagining the future of a digital church could have dreamed. Now, people can discover us through our channel of recorded services, can watch and listen, and reflect on what is shared and what is happening here, and decide in a split second–or over weeks and months–whether they even want to step in the door of our physical building and experience us in person.
Some congregations have discovered that their community has gone entirely virtual and has no desire to gather in person anymore. I know of one that is deciding to sell their building, and will continue meeting on zoom and over live-streamed services, indefinitely. And some congregations, like ours, are joyfully re-connecting in person and maintaining an online presence as a form of inclusion for our loved ones who are immuno-compromised, homebound for other reasons, or simply tired on a Sunday morning and wanting to just watch.
Some Reflections on our Name
What does this all have to do with our name? It means that as Unitarian Universalists, we –for better or worse–have a brand that attracts those to us who are likely to benefit from what we offer. We are recognizable, and it is important that we become visible as UUs–claiming the history of our merger by adding Universalist to our name.
It is important that we have a history and a tradition that is more than a DIY spiritual community. Because the PNW is a place where so many forms of intentional community exist, I lean away from the word “community” in our name. For tired spiritual travelers, the religious history, the depth and wisdom of our forebears, and the active, living, collaborative growth of our tradition to be ever more inclusive can be a safe-haven. When someone finds out about us, they can look up UU, find out more about the larger faith, and know that we have credentials. We’re established. And we know who we are, and how we are a part of the colonial history of the United States. We have a place from which we begin to do our social and environmental justice work. We don’t have to create our ethical framework from scratch, even as we work with our history and tradition to make it our own. This is more rigorous than I have typically experienced in other gatherings that called ourselves “community.”
So then, what do we call ourselves when we gather? I will admit that I lean towards a name that makes it clear that we are a religious organization. I’ve noticed that it’s not very helpful for those who are new to UU and have attended a congregation for 5 years to suddenly realize, “Wait, we’re a religious institution?” This happens more than you might think. It’s a known phenomenon that people start to wrestle with their belonging as a UU around the 5 year mark. If not invited to deepen their faith, some will leave us at that point. So, we could use the word “congregation,” which comes from our religious history, and is inclusive to the Jewish and Christian traditions. But it doesn’t necessarily include the names for ways in which our members who are Hindu-UU, Muslim-UU, and Buddhist-UU have gathered in temples, mosques, and sanghas, for example. We are challenged to use a name that comes out of the religious history in which we are rooted that also includes our aspiration of becoming a multicultural, multifaith movement. And if we choose to call ourselves by the name of Congregation, we’ll be in good company with the other UU congregations in our region who recognize themselves in the mirror of our history.
Some have suggested that we drop the word that describes our form of gathering altogether and simply call ourselves Vashon Island UUs. It’s a suggestion that mirrors the individualism of the PNW: the sense that we are a loose collection of individuals rather than a committed body of faithful people dedicated to building a better world. Does that bother me some? Sure does. And we can talk about this more, together, over time. That said, I think it’s an accurate reflection of where we are at, in this place, and in this time. And perhaps that is the most useful thing we can do right now: be truthful about where we are.
I look forward to hearing your reflections on April 16 when we will gather for small group discussions of the name change after Sunday Service.