A “Dear John” Letter to Unitarian Universalism

I’ve really been wrestling with my future in the Unitarian Universalist movement. I’ve talked with other UUs — people who are smarter and more disciplined than I. I’ve prayed about it. Yes, prayed . I’ve waffled. I’ve read books about humanism. I’ve re-read parts of the Bible that scare me. I’ve lain awake at night wondering if I’ve wasted my soul or if I’m giving up on my free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve decided to explore liberal Christianity. I think it’s more honest for me, at least right now.

There is so much I love about UUism. The honesty about the mystery of the sacred, and the clarity from the clergy about our habit of making meaning through stories, song and silence. I love that the UU clergy is so well-read, generally speaking. I also love many of the UUs I’ve met along the way.

What finally convinced me to leave? A lot of things, including the nagging feeling that UUism lost it’s religious heart to political liberalism a long, long time ago. And I craved so much to learn about the meaning of salvation in UUism, but no one would touch the question with a 10-foot pole. Sure, we could talk about Buddhism, pagan rites, humanist hope for a world transformed — but not salvation, and certainly not sin. I could read Rev. Davidson Loehr’s essay “Salvation by Character” and re-read Walden. But I couldn’t expect to engage in a dialog about salvation with my peers. Mostly, they answered my questions with “We can’t save anyone. We don’t sell fire insurance.” I thought we could talk about salvation from a Unitarian and a Universalist philosophy, leaving heaven and hell out of the discussion. But no. It wasn’t to be.

There are other, more tangible reasons, too.

Ambivalence about membership
In my former congregation, you could pledge $5 a year, rarely show up for worship and decline to donate any significant time to the church. However, you can show up twice a year for the congregational meetings, make a long speech about your many “concerns” about the motions presented and actually get calm people worked up. And there was so much touchiness about money! It’s as if talking about money, and how to use it, was in itself a condemnation of those without means. But even then, there was no specific expectation of what members should do to align themselves with a vision for The Beloved Community, either. As much as the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” nettles my soul, I always felt oppressed by the resistance to articulating clear membership expectations — spiritual and material.

A chief sin of cultural liberalism is its reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences. Boundaries are very fuzzy in a lot of UU congregations, and every leadership workshop or seminar I have attended in the last four years has eventually come around to the question about what to do with disruptive members. We always seem to stub our toes on the first principle of our covenant with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our first principle reads thus: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

This principle has been perverted. By what? By a blind terror of the appearance of bigotry. So we are no longer guided to welcome all people, but to welcome all behavior — even disruptive, corrosive and dangerous behavior.

Too often, I’ve seen this behavior metastasize. I’ve watched in horror as people have brought personal grudges up during worship in the messiest and most dangerous part of church life I’ve ever witnessed: Joys, Sorrows and Concerns. (For non-UUs, this is a time in the service when the congregation is invited to share. I’ve seen this part of the service go toxic more than once, and as a lay leader, I never understood the insistence that we protect this part of worship. Probably because those who love it have never or rarely had to spend hours a week doing damage control because of what someone shared. It’s very likely that the folks doing the damage were totally obtuse to the havoc they were wreaking on worship. I can forgive that. It’s harder for me to forgive lay leaders and members who either resist putting healthy boundaries around sharing in worship, or pretend what’s hurtful is somehow protected by freedom of expression. (Expecting people to behave, and to respect the worship hour is not censorship. Shame on you if you think it is. )

For any organization to be healthy — not perfect, but healthy — leaders have to identify boundaries, and then make policy and procedure to protect them. UUs have a very tough time with this. Some avoid setting boundaries all together. I failed utterly in this responsibility myself — sometimes out of ignorance and just as often out of cowardice. I own this, and it still haunts me.

Negligent worship
There’s a cartoon that lovingly skewers the UU habit of avoiding depth in worship. The cartoon shows two doors — one is labeled “heaven” and the other is labeled “lectures about heaven.” The UUs in the cartoon are going to the lecture.

I’ve spent too many Sunday mornings listening to lectures that are absolutely inappropriate for religious ritual. An example? A well-respected academic came to my former congregation and spoke (not preached) about something called “facilitated after-death communication.” The professor was obviously very credible, very knowledgeable and very passionate about her work. She wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it wasn’t worship.

UUs are more comfortable dedicating Sundays to the ethics of fair trade coffee than to bringing people together for a common experience of transcendence. I can’t speak for others, but I come to church because something is unanswered in my life and the world, and I’d like to work it out — at least a little — before I die. I want to know how I can help save the world. Or a piece of it. I don’t think I can do that by being a smarter coffee drinker. I couldn’t ignore the grain of indignation I felt when sitting in these worship services. On Sunday morning, I want to leave my consumer identity behind for an hour and reach out to the depths of me — and the depths of the others in church. I want to know why we’re worth saving.

And I can’t live with the guilt that washes over me when a visitor or member comes in, sharing that they’ve lost a child, a spouse, a job or their hope — and they have to sit through a supposed religious service that won’t deign to offer them some sort of blessing, some bit of consolation.

The bloody embarrassing hyphenates
I was at a UU leadership function. I met a really smart, really energetic and sweet guy. The kind of guy that any church elder or pastor would love to recruit onto the board. He volunteered his path to me: “I’m a Buddhist-Humanist,” he said. Then he took a swig of fair trade coffee while I told every particle of my being that, no, I would NOT roll my eyes.

You can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist. You just can’t. Religious humanism claims that there is no supernatural force directing our moral decisions or the environment we live in. Atoms do what they do, and the only help we humans have is a conscience and a heart to make moral decisions. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that the world is an illusion. If Buddhism and Humanism aren’t opposing philosophies, they are incongruent and incompatible. (Don’t think I don’t feel conflicted about the big differences between Unitarians and Universalists, either. But that horse died a long time ago. I’ll leave others to flog it.)

Pick a philosophy that resonates with your heart and mind, and then do the work, dammit! Be a Buddhist or a Humanist and do the work, because I suspect that claiming a hybrid philosophy might have something to do with wanting to be “spiritual” without the messy work of transformation.

So I’m leaving the faith. I never thought I would, and I am grieving. I still feel and think like a Unitarian Christian. But I’ve got to do some religious work, work that somehow rises above mere political activism, and learn how to serve God’s children. I think I can do that better in a liberal Christian community, one that won’t low-ball me in terms of expectations or covenant.

My soul depends on it.


117 comments on “A “Dear John” Letter to Unitarian Universalism

  1. Rev. Eric Posa
    August 7, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    I grieve w/ you, Cindy, that our religious community could not – no, would not – hold the depth of your spiritual journey. Having made compromises to remain in this faith tradition – and despite what some other UUs would say, for me Unitarian Universalism is very much a faith – I have known real pain at finding my way through a religious culture that has resisted transcendence and transformation. While I have seen enough pockets of exception to know that UUism can be better, I hear how it has not been for you, and I completely respect your decision to search elsewhere for what your spirit needs. I pray you find that deeper encounter with salvation through your sojourn within the Christian community. I continue to hope for transformation within UUism, but knowing that day has not yet come, for now I can only wish you, “Vaya con Dios.”

  2. Shawn Koester
    August 9, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    Amen and testify sister! If American Unitarian Universalism is to thrive and have a future, I believe we must renounce the strong current of Christophobia present in the UUA. I understand that some UUs have been badly traumatized or harmed by a conservatively minded evangelicalism, fundamentalism or Catholicism but these bad experiences do not give them the freedom to paint all of us Christians with the same broad brush. On behalf the body of Christ, and as a UU Christian, I apologize for all who have misused scripture, God, and Jesus to justify hate, oppression, ignorance and exclusion.

    Unless the Christophobia is renounced in the UUA, they will only be Universalists and Unitarians in name only. Learning from the world’s religions is all and good and yes God does speak through other religions, but the idea of following all the religions at the same time without going into any one tradition in depth borders on spiritual irresponsibility. Tom Wintle is right when he says that there is a difference between learning about the tradition and learning the tradition. I think it would be best for us to abandon the religiously generic character of modern day UUism and with that in mind we should center on our liberal Christian faith while learning about other faith traditions.

    When new members join a church we can offer them a class that will be able to explore their religious pasts- to discard what was harmful and destructive while reclaiming the positive and life affirming elements. When I was in the UUA, and I came out as a Christian Universalist, the congregation was not understanding at all- they assumed I was a fundamentalist or an evangelical, they assumed that I wanted to impose my faith on others, and they falsely claimed that my path was the only correct one (which all those claims were false). I explained my UU Christian faith well but they did not listen or understand.

    I tried setting up a UUCF chapter but to no avail. I was spiritually hungry and spiritually dying in that congregation so I found the United Church of Christ (UCC) and joined the local parish. It was sad having to leave the UUA in order to worship God and follow Jesus in freedom. By renouncing Christophobia in the UUA, our UU Christian faith can be viewed as a living influence on the UUA rather than as a historical curiosity, more UU Christian churches would be birthed, those who are UU Christian clergy and seminarians can be placed into parishes easier, our interfaith and ecumenical outreach would be more effective. I sense God’s call to the ministry and I’m thinking I could get a dual standing with the UCC and the UUA, or get dual standing with the Christian Universalist Association (CUA) and the UCC. I do have a heart for church planting.

    • Taigitsune
      August 11, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      “I think it would be best for us to abandon the religiously generic character of modern day UUism and with that in mind we should center on our liberal Christian faith while learning about other faith traditions.”

      This would very succinctly turn many people (including myself) off from UUism. There are many who have very specifically rejected Christian doctrine for a variety of reasons, and to assert it would go directly against the grain of religious pluralism that attracts many people in the first place.

      • maria
        August 16, 2011 at 11:57 am #

        Me as well. Im a born and raised UU, and I have to admit i am frustrated when we consider ourselves “failures” fir not being all things to all people. We are no longer a Christian church in that we do not assert the primacy of Jesus, and we havent been for a very long time. At least in my community, there are liberal Christian churches that do, if that is what you are looking for.

        I wish you well in your search for a spiritual home that meets your needs.

      • Cara in Exile
        August 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

        this precisely. If I wanted to be a Christian, I’d join a Christian congregation, not a UU one. I don’t reject christian teachings, I’m just not a Christian and have no interest in becoming one.

      • Thomas
        October 5, 2012 at 12:18 am #

        Add my name to this roll. As much as I respect the true wisdom of the Torah and the teachings of Jesus, I would not be comfortable abandoning the other sources. One cornerstone of Liberal Religion, as stated by James Luther Adams, is that the glory of creation is always being revealed in new ways to every person. We cannot ignore the experience of every other culture in favor of a pure focus. That sort of thing has always proven to go poorly in human history.

      • lifelong UU
        August 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

        Yes, lifelong UU and I feel the same way.

      • Rissa Tuttle
        October 10, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

        Add me as well. If we are just “learning about other faith traditions” but declaring Christianity as the dogma of UUism, then I can’t even go anymore, since I’m an atheist. I think each person can bring his or her faith along as adhere to it – but to blanket all UUs this way? That’d empty the pews, m’friend.

    • Anne
      August 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

      i decided to complete the rites of first communion and confirmation in the roman catholic church during my final year of seminary – at starr king school for the ministry. i completely identify with your experience of christophobia (love the term) and also think it’s quite detrimental to the uu movement. if you’ve had a bad experience with xianty, therapy might be a more appropriate place to work that out. long before i went to seminary it always bothered me that it was okay to change the words to christmas carols but if you suggested changing the words to a song from another faith tradition… egad, the sky would fall on your culturally insensitive, bigoted head. it just got too bizarre to be a part of a faith tradition that denigrated and downplayed its own origins (except for the candle light xmas service with the sanitized lyrics). with all the picking and choosing of this and that from here and there, i started to feel like there was no there there. no engagement and struggle and opportunity to define oneself in relation to an actual faith tradition, warts and all. no one likes the warts, but it increasingly seemed to me that in an effort to be welcoming to everyone, anything controversial or challenging had to be swept into the dustbin. i also hated the imperative to re-invent everything. personally, i found it exhausting. people like – even need – meaningful religious rituals and symbols. they yearn for it. modern american uuism has precious little of either.

      are there things that i can’t stand about the catholic church? absolutely. it’s outrageously homophobic. whenever i hear that “love the sinner, hate the sin” crap it’s all i can do to not deck whoever said it. it’s sexist as they come, and worried more about its image and legal liability than protecting children from being abused (with a few notable exceptions). do i struggle with that? yes. i struggle with those things in a context of a faith that goes back two thousand years. i struggle with that and at the same time i am comforted and affirmed by participating in rituals that are meaningful and have power (for me). i come from a irish-catholic background where the church was a refuge from centuries of brutally oppressive british rule. i can point to place after place and time after time when the church was, and was not, a force for spiritual and political liberation. the catholic church has a there there, and every catholic has to figure out where they stand in relation to that, whether in assent or dissent. the church won’t change if everyone who feels as i do decides to throw the baby out with the bath water. the men in dresses aren’t the church, the people in the pews are, and they’re as much of the problem re: change as the vatican.

      • Joanna Lillian Brown
        August 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

        Personally, I chose to become a UU precisely because of the “Big Tent” philosophy, e.g. there are no religious tenets, only a few general traditions. In UU congregations, people are free to explore and find and embrace their own spiritual and/or humanistic credos.
        I realize that this amount of freedom, non-conformity, and “hyphenation” doesn’t meet some persons’ needs, however, it meets many people’s needs for whom any stripe of denominational religion is too confining.

        I have a friend who has previously been a member of an Episcopal church. She left that church and now is a member of a UUC church. She still attends the UU church several times a year, as well as attending the local Jewish synagogue or the Quaker meeting every now and then. She has found a way to validate all of those experiences without making any of them wrong for not totally meeting her needs.

        “There are many paths to God” is my view, and I believe that my Mother/Father God likes it that way. May each of us continue to explore until we find THE way that is right for us or continue to follow several paths to meet our needs.

  3. Emily
    August 10, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    I really got a lot out of this post in particular. Then I went back and saw that you’re as much of a “Love Lockdown” Kanye fan as I am, so I have to subscribe. I’ve already begun sharing this post with fellow UUs. Some are atheists and some, like me, are former Christians. Great food for thought!

  4. julian
    August 10, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    Cindy I agree with everything you have said in your open letter. I myself feel as though I am on the same path regarding UUism as you are… about to leave the faith. Hurts to even think it.

    It’s a shame no one has engaged you in the idea of salvation. I believe UUism saves souls. I do believe there is salvation in UUism. In fact, I gave a sermon at my congregation on the very topic a few weeks ago. I believe we fall short of the mark everyday and it is by Grace we are saved and pulled to our higher self.

    I was just leaving work and so can’t comment much more but will revisit your blog later.
    Blessings and big hugs from Texas


    • DetroitBertha
      October 5, 2013 at 4:37 am #

      If you feel the path you’re about to choose is right, why does it “hurt”? There is no failure is finding your more comfortable home. Miss friends?…aren’t friends always friends? “Onward” is a great goal in finding a spiritual home that’s more resonant, not pain. Good luck!

      • aloneoneono
        October 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

        Could be old fashioned “conscience pangs.” I hear her saying that she’s decided to reject the (shameless?) UU’s with whom she’s been aimlessly hanging out, in favor of new friends who are more to her liking because they share her “sense of sin” as well as her longing for “salvation.” Although she doesn’t say from what she feels she needs to be “saved,” she hints at it when she mentions that she expects her new friends to hold themselves and each other to stricter (higher?) standards with reference to monetary contributions and other responsibilities. (–And she calls that going back to liberal Christianity?) Can’t blame a girl for wanting to clean up her act, but I suspect she’s “riding for a fall.”

  5. Edward Carroll
    August 10, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I can understand your pain. I too have been challenged by our congregations allowing the 1st principal to be misused and allow unhealthy people to control and abuse process. I can tell you at First Unitarian Denver talks about salvation all the time. We talk about sin. We talk about evil. We have 3 banner that hang in our Sanctuary they express our congregation beliefs. “There is a Unity that makes us one” All souls are sacred and worthy” and ” Salvation in this life”. I wish you well on your journey.

    • wondertwisted
      August 10, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

      Edward, that sounds great! I think you’ve hit on something that blogger PeaceBang has said: Unitarian Universalism IS the local congregation. Which means people like me might penalize a congregation for well-meaning efforts that fail because A) the ministry isn’t full time or effective, or B) members have become so afraid of offending anyone that they just become flaccid entities that are about belonging, rather than serving.

      • Erik Wikstrom
        August 11, 2011 at 12:58 am #

        I hear so much pain and passion in your post, yet this reply to a reply contains for me such an important idea — Unitarian Universalism IS the local congregation and, yet, it is also a movement that transcends those local expressions. (At least, I believe this to be so.) There is a liberal/progressive, open, inviting, inclusive, awe-filled spirit that, at our best, should infuse and inform any of its particular local expressions. Unfortunately, it does not always do so. If you live in the Boston area, for instance, there may be may other particularized expressions (i.e., “other congregations”) for you to explore. In much of the country, though, there is not. A person can be stuck, then, with having to deal with that one local expression of Unitarian Universalism for better and for worse. Yet I am convinced that our wider movement IS deepening, is evolving, is continuing to MOVE toward that common spirit. It may take us a while. (After all, the nascent Jesus movement took around three hundred years to transform from a Jewish sect to the religion called Christianity!) So I stay.

        Even more, though, is that there is an even more liberal/progressive, open, inviting, inclusive, and awe-filled spirit of which Unitarian Universalism, even at its best, is only one expression. Liberal Christianity is as well. So is liberal Buddhism. So is liberal humanism. And, so, no matter what path we take, as long as we travel toward THAT spirit, we will always be traveling together. Blessings on you, and thank you for sharing this.

  6. Christian
    August 10, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Your thoughts are right on, here, though I’m committed to staying in the fold and making these changes (as a candidate for the UU ministry, I better be). Thanks for writing this, and I wish you the best on your journey. I’ll also personally hope it leads you back to Unitarian Universalism.

  7. Gini
    August 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    Thank you for this clear articulation; it is a gift. Many, many people within Unitarian Universalism are moving their congregations in directions you describe – taking their religious lives seriously, demanding more from themselves and each other. I’m truly sorry that we aren’t yet consistently the congregation you are looking for. Journey well.

    • wondertwisted
      August 10, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

      Gini! I’ve had a crush on you ever since we met on the SWUUC Dwight Brown alumni cruise… So good to hear from you.

      I can’t pretend that I don’t have gut-check moments during the bible study I’ve been attending — moments when I feel like a traitor for getting uncomfortable when someone who basks in their trinitarian point of view shares. The pastor I’m studying with knows I identify as a Unitarian Christian (Jesus is my avatar, so to speak) and has been truly wonderful. Who knows. Maybe one day this prodigal daughter will come back home.

      • Rev. Georgette Wonders
        August 11, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

        A few Sermons on our Calendar for 2011-2012: ‘Prayers to ~ALL THIS~, ‘Salvation by What Means/What Do You Mean by Salvation?, ‘Unitarian Universalists and God-Talk’, ‘A
        Free and Responsible Search for a Spiritual Life’, ‘Love Wins: Universalism and Evil’ and “Who do You Say I Am?”. We are all searching for truth and meaning, some days with more grace than others. Unitarian Universalism is local (and beyond) and local means people and people can be influenced by the questions and journeys of others. Keep advocating for your own salvation wherever you are, Wonderer,

  8. Theadora Davitt-Cornyn
    August 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    Thank you, Cindy, for trusting us enough to share your concerns with us ~ I identify myself as UU Christian… it took me a while to get here! I rejected Roman Catholicism in my late teens, then went 40 years wandering in a spiritual desert. Accidentally finding my way to UUism has been salvific for me personally, so after a dozen years or more, I continued on to SKSM when, armed with an MDiv after 5 years parttime, I now do an informal community ministry with marginalized folks close to home (mostly farm workers). My own theological foundations matured at seminary, so I invite you to consider seminary for yourself. You seem a very promising person for such theological searching. My own journey is an attempt to emulate the examples of Jesus. I highly recommend books by Tom Owen-Towle, as well as the link below, which book you may already have read. In the meantime, I send many blessings for your path, and hope you will keep us within your loop!

    In solidarity with all on the sacred search… Theadora


  9. Patrick McLaughlin
    August 11, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    Ouch. I am so sorry that your congregation failed you, failed to live up to what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. Ouch.

    I know that better can be done–is being done (I’ve watched my home fellowship make the long, hard struggle). I hope it gets better where you are, or that you find, in your explorations, a UU congregation that’s strong enough and healthy enough for you to be there.

    There is–must be–a space for UU Christians (Unitarian, Trinitarian, whatever…). While I’m not one, I’ll fight for that (and have).

    Oh, and just to offer one clarification; humanism is a broader thing than you’ve understood it as. While there are forms of humanism that make the claim you’ve described, there are, and have been, humanistic forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., etc. In its broadest sense, humanism is about focus–it’s this world, and humanity, that matters, it’s this world, and humanity, that we are called to save. Here, now–not some other world. And while one can make the point about Buddhism’s focus on escaping this world as the teleological goal of Buddhism… the idea that one can do that now is dismissed. It’s an extremely long term goal–sometime waaaay down the line of many, many, many lives. In the meantime, Buddhists commonly agree that they have a calling to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings–which focuses on making this life better, healthier, saner… more humane. I don’t think it’s impossible to be Buddhist and Humanist. Just as being Unitarian and Universalist were compatible from the beginning (just read up on Hosea Ballou; one of the handful of people who might be held up as the most respected Univeralist among Universalists, he was convinced of Unitarian views–just not comfortable with the Unitarians as a class and tradition. Similarly, Thomas Starr King (minister, U.S. Senator) was a Universalist who was also a Unitarian–and served the Unitarian church in San Francisco; Starr King School for the Ministry is named for him.

    But in the end, you’re right. We can do better. We ought to do better–and we need to do better.

    • wondertwisted
      August 11, 2011 at 1:35 am #

      Clarification: my former congregation was very loving and accepting of my Christianity. There were a lot of refugees from evangelical churches – that pain was palpable at times.

      As for the weaving of philosophies and theologies into personal belief systems? I’m no theologian. And yet I doubt that it’s easy to be a Buddhist-Humanist in a meaningful way without insulting both traditions or recklessly appropriating the meaningful spiritual dimensions therein while making an ass of yourself.

      But perhaps this is a failure of the ministry? Perhaps the ministry should be bolder in leading members as they develop their faith personally and in community? In my experience, most expressions of “interfaith marriages” of faith ideals have been hokum. I’ve attended UU events and services where I’ve caught myself wondering if I’m in a Christopher Guest film or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

      • Kat Hussein Liu
        August 11, 2011 at 2:23 am #

        With respect, I think you’re assuming that all of us who are “religious mutts” (as I like to put it) are so because we like to dabble. Some of us are hybrids because that’s what we are. Either we were born into inter-religious families or, like me, we were exposed to one tradition at home and another in school and/or society. In fact, this idea that you have to be only one thing is Western and very Abrahamic idea. In Asia it’s quite common for family practices to be a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Hindu, and indigenous/folk beliefs. People absorb what they are exposed to and use what resonates.

      • wondertwisted
        August 11, 2011 at 3:45 am #

        Kat: love the term “religious mutts!”

      • Patrick McLaughlin
        August 11, 2011 at 4:22 am #

        I’m glad that the congregation was accepting of your Christianity. And yes, we have a lot of wounded from various churches who need tending–and need to be helped and urged to heal (not always fun).

        The insult to a tradition is… well, more likely a convenient way for someone who’s already squatting on a label to insist that it means what they say it means. Traditions move, even the ones that insist that they don’t. Just as the Sabbath was mad for humans, not the other way around, theology is made for humans. If the neat package that someone else pieced together works, great–but if it almost works, and would for you, if only it included X and Y and didn’t include Z… what’s to say that it’s less valid?

        Now, it that means “want to believe,” I’m not interested. Freedom here is about what one “has to believe” in their own heart of hearts, what one must believe. We offer that freedom, and then we expect one to test it (and keep testing it) and to live it.

        I do agree that there’s been a failure of ministry (and of congregations) in this. But I’ve been watching congregations (plural) moving out of the safety zones of not talking about theology, about beliefs, about spirituality…

        And no doubt there will be much shallowness. Sturgeon’s Law still applies; 90% of anything is crap.

      • Ray Teurfs
        August 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

        The Buddhist-Humanist issue hits at the heart of UUism for me. Our minister is Buddhist and I sure think of him as a humanist as well …and a Christian. When Gandhi talked of the truth of all religions, I don’t think he was talking lightly. I believe, even, that one can be an atheist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim all at the same time. I am an atheist because I do not believe in a God that…(pick anyone’s definition of God that does not fit yours and you do not believe in their god and so are atheist in that way). I am an agnostic because a big huge honest part of me shouts, “I really don’t know!”. I am a Christian because being like Christ is a good thing. I want to be like Christ. I am a Buddhist because the four noble truths and the eight-fold path, the development of my witness through meditation, and other aspects of Buddhism resonate with me. I am a Catholic because I was raised one and I cannot deny its indelible effect. I am a Muslim because I, too, believe in some kind of zakat and I see the struggle (jihad) of human existence, as do you in your post. I have told people that I am probably mostly Taoist. That force flows through everything and, indeed, flows through all religions. It can’t be named, nailed down, or described, but we will try.

      • wondertwisted
        August 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

        Ray, with much respect, there is an enormous difference between observing a force (excellent word for it) that bubbles up in the religious sources feeding UUism and practicing a religion. What you’re talking about is a belief system, not religion. Claiming a faith requires practice – both personally and in community. You simply can’t practice all the faiths simultaneously, not with any degree of honesty. Embracing a religion is, in part, a commitment to a community in prayers, presence, gifts and service. More than one rabbi (Reform Judaism) has told me that observant Jews claim all of their Jews – secular and observant – but once a Jew embraces another theology, he’s no longer part of the tribe so to speak.

      • Chris Rothbauer
        August 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

        I would only add to what cat said by pointing out that Humanistic Buddhism is a real life stance and one that’s apparently popular enough to warrant its own Wikipedia article:


        (and it has quite a few citations and additional external links)

      • PeaceBang
        October 9, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

        Dear Cindy, I say that all the time about feeling that I’m in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. It’s painful. I wish you well and more than well, and thank you for taking the time to let the UU community know why you’re leaving for deeper experience of the living God.

    • Rev. Georgette Wonders
      August 11, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

      And many, if not most forms of Buddhism are humanist.

  10. elizabethcmarsh
    August 11, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    I read this, as I think many people have done and will be doing, and wanted to leave a note instead of just skedaddling on to the next thing. Thanks for speaking your truth so boldly here; I hear you, I hear your frustrations and I often echo them to myself. Blessings on your journey, really, as you grieve and continue to explore.

  11. Marianna
    August 11, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    Much of this spoke to me–I have had trouble finding any spiritual home in my home congregation, although I love the community and liberal, open support of my identity and my own pursuit of faith. Although I don’t attend service often, I still see myself as a UU–one that is also searching for a practice. I myself have not been as spiritually rigorous as I could be, or active in trying to find a practice or set of rituals that work for me. Part of that problem is that I would like to find a faith that both resonates with me and that accepts my sexual orientation and womanism, my radical politics. Part of the problem is, despite being raised in a faith that encourages exploration, feeling shy and uncertain about where to start–especially because I am pretty sure that monotheistic faiths wouldn’t work for me, and I am unsure about how to tread in religions that traditionally do not belong to my culture. Part of the problem is just that it hasn’t been my priority. I still see myself as a UU–I am not sure if, once I do finally take my courage together and take a plunge, whether I would attend UU services regularly. The sermon style doesn’t do it for me, in general. I don’t see this as contradictory, though UUism’s deeply rooted Protestantism is clear to me and, sometimes, I find this alienating (not in an anti-Christian way, but in a this-isn’t-working-for-me way). I, like you, would appreciate a congregation in which I feel worshipful–and this isn’t quite it.

    As an activist, I value a church that is politically engaged. Tying spirituality with political action is a vital and powerful force. But I agree that the “spirituality” end could be held up more, and I wish that there was more rigor in worship, whatever that may be.

    I would say that your discussion of the perversion of the first principle seems congregation-specific, or congregations-specific. While I only participated in my own congregation as a child, I have never seen Joys & Concerns get gossipy or nasty. I was vaguely aware of sometimes-contentious meetings, but I feel that this is something that occurs in most organizations at many times.

    To add on a bit to your discussion of a Buddhist-Humanist path, Buddhism can be humanistic. First–what kind of Buddhism are we talking about? Buddhism itself, depending on the denomination, does not treat the Buddha as a god, and while many Buddhist paths have cosmologies and systems that require some leaps of faith, this is not an aspect of some forms of Buddhist philosophies and paths. Second–while some Buddhism can be removed from this world and focused on enlightenment, engaged Buddhism incorporates activism and social justice into its core–while also allowing for worship. As a Unitarian Christian you should understand that there can be quite compatible overlaps between faiths and philosophies.

    For me, the most valuable thing about UUism is the value of what CAN happen as a result of being allowed to choose and work with multiple philosophies and faith. That freedom is very important to me. I admit that I have a lot more hard work to do until I establish a path that works for me–but I don’t want to give up that freedom, at least not until I find a perfect single path.

    Thank you for your post, and articulating much of the feelings that I hadn’t even baked properly in my own self yet. Best of luck at the UCC! I hope it gives you what you need.

  12. Kat Hussein Liu
    August 11, 2011 at 2:12 am #

    Namaste. I have no issue with most of what you’ve written and wish you well on your spiritual journey. Personally, I don’t feel that everyone who is liberal and religious needs to be a UU. If I could comfortably be just Christian or just Buddhist, I would. But since I grew up in a Chinese family in a Christian-dominated society, life has led me to be a mixture of both, amongst other things, and above all to be a humanist. So I am a UU (and don’t know what else I could be).

    Speaking of which, I do take issue with your rather emphatic assertion that one can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist. Yes, you can. Buddhism’s assertion that all is “illusion” in no way implies that there is a supernatural entity causing that illusion. Now, it is true that there are plenty of references to supernatural beings within Buddhist scripture (which is why I also take issue with people who claim that Buddhism is atheistic). But the core message of Buddhism – the “good news” if you will, the stuff you have to believe to be Buddhist – is non-theistic. To be a “hyphenate” (as you put it), does mean that one picks and chooses only parts from different traditions and ignores other parts – there’s no denying that – but I would argue that even non-hyphenated religious folks have to do that. Certainly liberal Christians do. And personally, I see nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done with thoughtful reflection.

  13. Ethan
    August 11, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Just wanted to thank you for this, and to sympathize. I’ll echo the comments above and say how much it depends on the local congregation… but that doesn’t help you much, since most of us generally live in one physical place and aren’t quite ready to move to another city or state just for a congregation (though I know a few!)

    I think the changes you describe are happening, particularly in churches with younger leadership. The ministers and congregational leaders I’ve encountered who insist on the milquetoast UUism you and both abhor seem to skew older, and are sometimes people who were UUs for just a few years before entering ministry/leadership. I grew up with a set of UU evangelists who are unapologetically religious and spiritual; most of them who are still involved are ministers in their 30s.

    I’ve been very torn as I watch a lot of folks from my generation leave and never come back because they’re driven out by the same things as you… others (like me) created little bubbles within our congregations that served our needs without having to completely upset the Established Order. A lot of it has been about staying steadily active in order to be well-positioned at points of leverage — a ministerial search, or a vote to bring the DRE up to full time, or an opening on the worship committee.

    It all makes me wonder which committees my own kids will one day want to kick me off…

  14. Emilie
    August 11, 2011 at 3:24 am #

    Thank you, thank you for putting into such eloquent words what I’ve been trying to say through months (years, even!) of conversations with my husband. I have never been a UU, but I have attended 4 different UU churches in 3 cities scattered across the country and have found them all to be very similar to each other, and to what you’re describing. My husband was passionate about his faith and his involvement in his congregation when I met him, so I have really tried over the course of our relationship to understand UUism. I just can’t do it. I didn’t have any sort of strong religious upbringing and have “tried out” everything from Judaism, to Christianity, to Paganism. All of the religious traditions I’ve been a part of have been spiritually fulfilling in one way or another, but just haven’t been quite “right” for me. Spirituality in general and a strong belief in God are central to who I am. I just don’t get any spiritual guidance in UU churches at all. I feel like I’m in a lecture at best; and at their worst, some of the “sermons” made me so uncomfortable that I just wanted to leave immediately. I consider myself to be a Liberal in almost all things, but UUism is just too liberal, too political, and too lacking in true spirituality to be the right path for me. I will again resume the quest for a spiritual community in which to continue to grow and learn. Any idea where a true Unitarian (not a Christian Unitarian) might look next? Good luck on your own journey, and many blessings to you.

  15. Daniel O'Connell
    August 11, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    I wince at the examples– certainly some things I’ve experienced over the years myself. But (for me) invariably, they were at lay led fellowships. Most protestant congregations are small, but many people who go to church, go to larger churches– ones that have ministers of some standing, and other staff. Also, the issues of insularity, quality of worship, willingness of the locals to provide radical hospitality, and encounter the unfamiliar can be very different there (in my experience). My own sense is that the complaints you express are real– and they are now the exception, rather than the rule. The other point I simply must say, is that it is my firm conviction that if church is a shopping experience, or an attempt to find the great metaphysical key to the emptiness in our own lives, then, it may be that we are setting ourselves up for deep & permanent disillusionment & disappointment. Despite the Culture’s insistence that it can satisfy our every whim, Church is not the opportunity to get OUR needs met: it is the opportunity to be led to greatness by a stranger, and the willingness to take a friend’s hand and leap into a social justice effort, whose fruit will not be realized in time for our holiday cards to extended family.

  16. Susan Dorbeck
    August 11, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Thank you for your honesty and your search for a deep, soul-full commitment. Your criticisms of UU culture are on target. As a member of a smallish UU congregation, I’ve seen us struggle with many of these issues time and time again–balancing our openness with our need for direction and boundaries and commitment to something spiritually real. And, sometimes, I leave a service feeling spiritually empty–but, sometimes, I rejoicing that I got myself out of bed that Sunday morning and heard something in that service that “saved” me–at least for the next day or two. Yes, on occasion someone has co-opted JCM for some petty agenda, but then other times a member’s personal JCM has touched me deeply. Sometimes a lay leader has failed to touch some soul-deep part of me (and I’ve been one of those lay leaders), but sometimes a lay leader has surprised me with the depth, creativity, and spirituality of his or her service. Daniel, above, has said this so much better than I can. No ONE CHURCH–UU, Baptist, synagogue or coven–can give me everything I need. Just like no one friend, or one lover, can be everything I need that person to be. I know I cannot return to my trinitarian roots, but the old Baptists hymns still sing in a place in my soul that means home and comfort. At one time those same hymns meant salvation. Now I’m struggling with what salvation means in this world, how to define it. What in me do I want saved? What do I want to save? Salvation is a big word. Does it mean comfort and solace? Does it mean an end to poverty and oppression? Does it mean hope and faith? Or the means by which we achieve those ends? Liberal Christian theology has saved Christianity for me, by focusing on how Jesus lived, loved, and worked among the poor and oppressed. I first was taught that theology, though, in my UU congregation, a congregation with human people fool of human frailties and human egos. I bet you’ll find those frail human beings in lots of other denominations, too. But, then, I’m a religious mutt, who can’t even label all the different philosophies that have entered and altered my life.

    But your words are words we UUs need to hear, the painful problems that arise from our particular faith tradition. Thank you for giving them to us.

  17. revnaomi
    August 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    Peace on your journey; joy in your life; may you meet God wherever and however you go. Selfishly, some day I hope you’ll return, but there are so many wonderful ways of living into holy love and doing holy work, I pray that you find one that fills your heart with thanksgiving and praise.

  18. Lisa
    August 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Hey Cindy. Wow. I related to your post so much! I was also part of a UU congregation but…well, you understand. I’ve been exploring Progressive Christianity and wanted to recommend a book that might help. Delwin Brown’s “What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?: A Guide for the Searching, Open & Curious” It has really helped me see I may still have a place in the liberal Christian movement. As a former fundamentalist, I sometimes struggle with words or views people pull from the bible, but I’m open and searching…and still know I am honoring that free and responsible search I so cherish. Good luck and keep us posted.

  19. Erin
    August 11, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    I started attending a UU church when I was 13 years old. I was very active until my mid-twenties, when Sunday morning became one day of the week I could sleep in. I spent years attending young adult retreats like Opus, working on campus ministry, starting young adult groups in local congregations….and then I got tired, and stopped.

    For me, UUism is the one place where I really feel safe to explore what I think and believe, and as such I have a hard time imagining identifying religiously as anything else. However, I’ve had to stay away from the politics of the religion for a while so I can really go back and feel okay. It got really hard to constantly advocate for myself, for what I needed in a spiritual community to be fed, inspired, and passionate about my own spiritual well being.

    What has stuck with me, though, are some profoundly moving moments of worship-in young adult worship more than any time inside a congregation-that remind me WHY this faith is so important and necessary.

    Much of the toxic stuff you talk about in your post IS alive and well in some congregations-but in others, it isn’t. There is hope. And at least in some of the young adult groups, I can tell you that we are very much in the business of saving souls. The UU Young Adult group in the Ohio-Meadville district has some folks who are around now that really wouldn’t be, had we not been there for them when they needed it most.

    I hope that you find whatever it is you need to feel supported and nourished. Although I am sad that UUism isn’t doing that for you right now, I hope a congregation in our faith can do that for you again one day.

  20. Andy
    August 11, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Henry David Thoreau said, “Most people lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to their graves with the song still in their heart.” For me as a UU salvation is simply finding what I’m currently searching for (via a free and responsible search for my own true and meaningful destiny). I would love to go to my grave having sung the songs in my heart.

  21. Yvonne
    August 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    I have a hybrid identity – I am Unitarian and Wiccan (but not hyphenated – I treat the two traditions as separate, although there is considerable overlap).

    I wrote a whole essay on whether it is possible to faithfully practice two traditions in parallel, and identified four different types of syncretism (as opposed to spiritual pick’n’mix). It was published in the UK Unitarian journal “Faith and Freedom”. (Happy to email you a copy if you’re interested.)

    What irritates me is when people unthinkingly say they belong to more than one tradition without having _done the work_ to become members of both traditions. I am an initiated Wiccan and I am going to train to be a Unitarian minister. Imagine my dismay then, when someone on Facebook appropriated my religious and political labels without even bothering to find out what they meant – as it cost me some considerable pain to arrive at being Unitarian and Wiccan – I had a mystical experience of Jesus and had no idea how to process it. Eventually this led me to Unitarianism.

    As you can imagine from the above, I have no problem with Unitarian Christians, and I have even done a whole sermon on sin. I must write one on salvation… thanks for giving me the idea 🙂

    However, in the UK, Unitarianism more closely resembles liberal Christianity in most places, though there are plenty of people who do not identify as Christian, there are also plenty who do. They do have spats from time to time – but it’s getting better and there is a sort of conversation going on about it. I even met a Trinitarian who attends a Unitarian church the other day!

    I hope you find what you are looking for at UCC – if not, I don’t think UUs are into excommunicating people 😉 And you could always start a UU Bible study group.

  22. Taigitsune
    August 11, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    I’ve got some processing to do, and now’s not the best time. Some of your criticisms are fair, and some less so. The Universalist portion of UUism (to me anyway) has always represented that salvation is a non-issue – that we should focus more on how we can best live this life than we tend to focus on how to earn a place in Heaven as though there were an unspoken competition.

    I am happy that you have found meanings in the teachings of Y’shua, as there are considerable and many teachings of his that are meaningful today. May you continue to grow in wisdom as you continue your journey. Also remember that Y’shua once said:

    “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.”

    May it be that the members of your UU family do not become those with which you maintain strife.

  23. HangsWithPeaceBang
    August 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    I call myself a Trinitarian Universalist. When I worshiped with a large urban UU congregation, I loved so much of the community, but worship left me unfulfilled. Not only was Jesus absent but so was God – There seemed to be an eternal ever-flowing spirit that I couldn’t seem to pin down or access in any meaningful way. It seemed as if the church was embracing every kind of written word except for the bible. The UCC has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of the UU, but I have found a home there.

    • PeaceBang
      October 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

      (Of course I’m dying to know who this is….) By the way, Cindy, LOVED what you said about doing the work!!!! And this: posts such as yours invite tons of projection, and I see you being subjected to a good deal of it here. Brava for staying present and gracious in the midst of all this reaction.

  24. Tony Johnson
    August 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    This is a vibrant discussion. I have recently preached to four congregations the need to claim the core of Universalism and welcome people coming to that belief through more orthodox faith communities. In each congregation there was knowing and uncomfortable laughter when I pointed out that UUs tend to welcome any religious identity except for Christian. I don’t think political liberalism is the problem. The fact that UUs have lost sight of a religious core is the problem. A weak political consensus fills the vacuum.

  25. Ron Robinson
    August 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Remember that the UU Christian Fellowship is for those also who are not UU as well as for those who are not Christian, even as we are made up of a lot of UUs of varying theological orientations, including lots of varieties of Christians and of Jesus followers among us too. Hope you find ways to journey with others through us too.

  26. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
    August 12, 2011 at 12:25 am #

    A lot of your criticisms of Unitarian Universalism resonate with me. Your definitions of both humanism and Buddhism are wildly inaccurate, however. Maybe if you understood them more fully, you’d see how someone can be both, and furthermore, can be walking one path with great diligence while still recognizing that his theology fits another as well.

    I trust you’ve tried out a few different UU congregations and aren’t just extrapolating from one.

    You sound thoughtful and engaged, and I selfishly hope that you find a home with UUs, but wherever the road to salvation takes you, I wish you blessing.

    • wondertwisted
      August 12, 2011 at 1:19 am #

      Amy: Fair point. I became a UU in 1995. I’ve attended UU events/services in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Oak Cliff, Carrollton and Denton – all in Texas; in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and in Washington, D.C. Nearly all of my active service & attendance has been between two congregations in Texas, where I live. I don’t think I could fairly call myself a newbie.

      I remain respectfully wary of the adoption of hyphenated belief systems, even if I’m not as informed as I ought to be on the nuances of our UU sources.

      • Melinda
        August 12, 2011 at 2:00 am #

        The rest of the post made some really strong points, but the rolling your eyes bit threw me. Humanism and the teaching of the Buddha are not at all conflicting. The Buddha didn’t say the world was an illusion, his later Hindu-ish followers grafter that on. In any, case it’s hard not for me to roll my eyes at the idea of salvation. which you say is very important to you. The point of pluralism is to accept (not necessarily believe in) other people’s crazy-to-us ideas.

        But yeah, the connected inability to say ‘What you are doing is wrong’ in so many cases makes lefty liberalism weak in so many ways. I’m not sure there is a simple way out of this maze. But ethics are never perfect, and always about doing the best we can figure out to do. For example, we could argue about whether killing animals is right or wrong, but the harm done to the obviously feeling and thinking animals when they live and pain and then are killed is so terrible that it’s better to err on the side of kindness.

      • Amy Zucker Morgenstern
        August 12, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

        Unitarian[-]Christian and Buddhist[-]humanist have one hyphen each by my reckoning! 🙂

        Wariness is warranted if people are just dipping a toe into this and that. The religious life requires commitment. However, you can identify with more than one label without being a dilettante.

        And nope, you sure aren’t a newbie. If you’ve gone to nine congregations and had so consistently frustrating an experience, I don’t blame you for seeking elsewhere.

  27. Thanks
    August 12, 2011 at 3:17 am #

    To wondertwisted,
    I have not and probably won’t read any of your responses to your “dear john” letter to UUism so I don’t know any of the feelings about it. However I just wanted to let you know that I have been trying to find a way for a long time to explain why UU just doesn’t work for me, and explain it to my whole family (all UU’s). I am so grateful for you being able to lay it out so meticulously and beautifully. You have no idea of the amount of speech this has provided me with to be able to talk to my family. I appreciate it oh so much. Thanks again.

  28. Dave Dawson
    August 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    I am a Christian Universalist and have shared so many of the frustrations expressed in the posts that have preceded this. The “refiniding” of my Christianity began when I entered a UU Church pastored by an incredible Humanist minister over 30 years ago. It was exactly what I needed at the time as I had been so “bruised” by the Christian Fundamentalism of my youth. And I got back on the Christian path at a Universalist Church in Akron, Ohio pastored by Rev Gordon McKeeman and the journey resumed. It is only recently that I have begun to realize that the Kingdom of God is “within me” and I must live it wherever I am planted. I do not mean that in an egotistical way…I am only one tiny particle of that kingdom. No matter where I go I will share my story in hopes that it will help build that Loving Kingdom of God. And I believe with all my heart that Unitarian Universalism needs me as much as I need it.

    Blessings on your journey wherever it may lead.

  29. Kathleen
    August 13, 2011 at 4:35 am #

    I feel like this church is empty, that we’ve taken everything out for a spring cleaning and replaced it with a good set of bones; solid framework, open minds, introspective checks and balances.

    Now let’s fill it with something meaningful. Something, dare I say it, spiritual. Something passionate and resonate and real. That’s what I need to see.

  30. daniel
    August 13, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Hi Loved your story. Just try a different UU church. Or better yet change the one you’re in into what you’d like to see. I’ve seen a rise in UU’s these day’s that are preaching what you spoke of here. I’ve been considering doing something very similar at our UU church. Good luck.

  31. SpecKay
    August 14, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    This is a moving, thought- and heart-provoking piece. It has spurred several of us from the UU congregation in Northampton, MA to meet tomorrow night to talk about what this raised for us. Thank you.

  32. Marzipan
    August 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Sounds like your 15+ year journey with UU may be coming to an end or “taking a break” (Friends). It will be interesting to hear of your exploration of Liberal Christianity. Safe journey. Hope you share!

  33. Ryan N.
    August 16, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    What bothers me about this, and I appear to be in the minority here, is that the argument here appears to be that you do not like Unitarian Universalism, not that there is something wrong with it. While I do understand and agree with some parts of what you wrote (most chiefly Accepticemia and Ambivalence about membership), the general feel that I get is that “this is not a good fit for me.” That is not a crime of yours, or a crime of Unitarian Universalism: Godspeed, and it sounds like you will have a great time at the UCC. I personally would not, as it’s not for me, but it is certainly for some people. However, this to me looks like you felt you had to take a parting shot at my religion on the way out. I did not convert to Unitarian Universalism in any year — I have been a UU since childhood. To join a church and tell it that it is not serving me is something that does not really make any sense to me. I certainly would not want to see Unitarian Universalism become more Christian to serve people who really will never be happy apart from being in a Christian church. That does not mean it should be OK for UU’s to get into a frenzy over the use of the word god either, but there can be a balance.

    • wondertwisted
      August 16, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

      Ryan, your comment seems angry and defensive to me, so I’ll make some clarifying points:

      – I don’t plan to attend a UCC (I never mentioned the UCC; Other commenters recommended it and mentioned it) congregation simply because there is not a congregation near me. This plays into the difficulty I have in attending another UU congregation. There isn’t another congregation in the region that wouldn’t require me to make nearly a two-hour roundtrip each week. I live in Texas. It’s a huge state, and UUism (and the UCC) isn’t as ubiquitous as the Baptist, United Methodist or Catholic Church. I’m attending a United Methodist congregation in my community.

      – At no point in this post did I ever say – or even imply – that Unitarian Universalism “doesn’t meet my needs” or “isn’t serving me.” I’ll post more about those ideas in a few days, because I think the notion that churches have an obligation to meet its members needs is misplaced at best, dangerous at worst. In fact, my first problem was that there weren’t clear, concrete expectations on how local UUs would serve the faith itself or the community. No church — least of all the UU church — is all about me. It is NOT the church’s job to make me happy.

      – This was never intended to be a parting shot. If anything, it was a long goodbye.

      • maria
        August 17, 2011 at 12:52 am #

        I’ll be honest, I had a similar reaction both to your post and the comments that followed. I also don’t see Ryan’s post as angry or defensive in the slightest.

      • Ryan N.
        August 17, 2011 at 5:14 am #

        It wasn’t particularly angry or defensive — I was explaining how this article came off to me. I don’t feel the need to defend myself, because there are parts of this I agree with it and parts of it where I think the church did nothing wrong, and it does not really affect my one way or another if someone thinks they did. I did confuse some of what Shawn wrote above with your post somehow (probably the length). It is more of a matter of feeling as if I don’t blame Roman Catholicism for not working for me (beyond where it tries to impose “god’s will” on people in all manner of ways, or to hurt people because of their read on the text of the bible). While I would like them to change, I’ve “voted” with my feet. I do personally think that your local church would benefit from this information if they’ve not already received it. I don’t know what they’re doing — perhaps the reason I don’t understand you is that they’re much more secular than my church. But again, it’s not really my issue. I don’t need everyone to be UU — if what they arrive at is in line with UU principles (eg. equal rights, a skepticism of it being so easy to sin your way into hell, etc.), I couldn’t care less where someone chooses to worship. When someone tries to use their faith to take away the rights of others, that’s when it becomes my business, but not before.

        The issue of the variability of UU churches is sort of an interesting topic. I’m lucky* enough to live in an area where there are probably 10-15 churches within a 20 mile radius (*It’s not really luck — while I don’t choose where to live based on the availability of UU churches, anywhere I’d consider living happens to have at least 3 — I’ve got a lot of the same problems with Texas as I do with Christianity). Should there be a church that rubs someone the wrong way and one that is a great fit within the same denomination? It’s a question, but I think that’s what you end up with when your churches are democratically run. Ideally, larger churches would be able to have multiple types of worships on multiple days and affinity groups that work for the different types of folks in the church. UU churches often do not have the benefit of such numbers or money (and the reasons why could be another long topic for discussion).

        I inferred that UUism is not meeting your needs spiritually by virtue of the fact that you no longer want to be a member of one of our churches. Agreed that we are too internally-focused and that our criteria for membership and what is expected of members are not really sufficient. Some individual churches have this figured out and are doing better for it.

  34. Jeanine Braithwaite
    August 17, 2011 at 3:28 am #

    Hi I agree with Ryan and found wondertwisteds response to him to be defensive and off the mark. If you want Chrisitianty, great you have a wide choice of churches. If you are agnostic like me, you may really love being a UU. Good luck with your spiritual journey everyone!

  35. Robin Edgar
    August 17, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    “A lot of things, including the nagging feeling that UUism lost it’s religious heart to political liberalism a long, long time ago.”

    I suppose that assertion is open to a variety of interpretations but there really is no question that “The U*U Movement” seems to have confused liberal *religion* with left-leaning politics and related “social activism”, and I say that as someone who leans left politically myself. It has often been stated that the American Unitarian Universalist “Church” is “the religious arm of the Democratic Party”, the Canadian version of that statement would be the U*U church is “the religious arm of the New Democratic Party (or the Liberal party)”. Earlier tonight I just found some Tweets from the Twitter account of the Vancouver B.C. Unitarian Church that serve to underline that point. They are Tweets that were Tweeted immediately before the most recent federal election we had in May 2011 –

    Strategic voting calls you to vote NDP if you live in New Westminster

    Strategic voting calls you to support NDP in Nanaimo Cowichan.

    Strategic voting for North Van calls you to vote Liberal in that riding.

    end quotes

    I have never seen a more flagrant example of an alleged “church” telling people how they must vote in a federal election. I am not sure about the legality of such voting instructions provided by a Canadian “church” but I expect that they would not be legal south of the border. Quite evidently political conservatives will find themselves to be rather less than welcome in Canadian Unitarian “Welcoming Congregations”. . .

    I will probably respond to some of the other concerns that you have shared here in some follow-up comments later, and I will certainly be blogging about your “Dear John Letter” on my blog.

    • Patrick McLaughlin
      August 17, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

      If those tweets are from an official Twitter account of UCV, they–in the USA–would be a violation of the law (they’d put the church’s tax exempt status at risk). Were it to have come out of my congregation, here in the US, I’d have gone to the board immediately and insisted that they repudiate the tweets officially, apologized, and yanked the tweeting individual’s access to the account, permanently.

      But as you observe, the law in Canada may permit this. And if so… well….

      I find it curious that a Canadian would be more certain of the legality of such in the USA than in Canada, but… perhaps that’s just the result of the egregious spill over of US media into Canada. But before disapproving of them and chiding them, it would seem appropriate to be certain that they really have violated Canadian law.

      • Robin Edgar
        August 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

        :perhaps that’s just the result of the egregious spill over of US media into Canada

        Nope just a decade’s worth of reading UU internet forums and blogs etc.

        Regardless of whether or not those who to vote for Tweets are legal in Canada they are questionable on ethical grounds as per the concerns that Wondertwisted shared here. How can Canadian Unitarian *churches* be genuinely welcoming to political conservatives, or even centrists. . . when they are blatantly telling people to vote for the political left?

        I think that I will look into the legality of those Tweets, and may take action if they are in fact illegal.

  36. Patrick McLaughlin
    August 17, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    One point that I want to drive a stake through is the sometimes implicit–and sometimes, it appears, explicit–idea that there’s not a place for a Christian to be UU, or that it’s silly for a Christian to be UU, or things of that sort.

    THAT is noxious, bigoted, ignorant of our history, and contrary to Unitarian Universalism.

    No, Christians aren’t the majority of UUs. But according to the surveys I’ve seen, there IS NO majority theological view among UUs–and the largest groups are somewhat tenuous, since they represent several related views (not necessarily in complete agreement). There are UU Christians who are Humanists (and Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, etc., who are also Humanist). Humanism is a perspective, not a singular theology–and in fact, the form of Humanism that is Atheist arose largely out of Christian Humanism.

    We are not one, other than in intention and spirit. We are many–and the idea that we can be, or should be–or should try to be–of one theology is, as far as I can tell (from our history, tradition, and practice) utterly abhorrent. As a born and raised UU, I’ll fight that idea to the death.

    (I’m delighted to see that the idea that we’re NOT somehow anti-Christian or hostile to Christian is becoming more widespread, particularly among UU youth and young adults. I understand where it came from, and I’ll celebrate its demise.)

    • maria
      August 18, 2011 at 1:33 am #

      But the complaint seems to be that we aren’t Christian enough, and that I object to.

      While historically we come from Christianity, in its modern form UU has many sources which we all have the right to consider for oursselves. My minister gave a great sermon a few years ago comparing the six sources to a sound mixerboard. Different sources resonate with different people to various degrees. There is certainly room for Christianity within UU, but not at the expense of the other sources.

      • wondertwisted
        August 18, 2011 at 1:55 am #

        Hi, Maria. When you say the complaint seems to be that we aren’t Christian enough, are you referring to the original post? Or are you responding to the longer discussion at hand? I ask because I didn’t leave my congregation because it wasn’t Christian enough. I left because the lack of vision, the absence of a religious call to redemption and transformation. I’m exploring liberal Christianity because it provides a cohesive, transforming mission and vision I didn’t sense in my congregation. Perhaps my use of the word “salvation” telegraphed more than I meant. I certainly don’t think one has to be a Christian to seek salvation (or redemption, or transformation.) I am a Unitarian Christian, yes. Didn’t need the person sitting next to me to identify the same way.

        I don’t want UUism to be more Christian. I need it to be more religious. That might not be in the cards. If that’s the case, so be it. – WT

      • Maria
        August 18, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

        Wondertwisted, it’s the thread as a whole – sorry I wasn’t more clear, I was responding from my tablet, and it’s hard to read back and forth.

        Particularly it’s this comment from Shawn: “I think it would be best for us to abandon the religiously generic character of modern day UUism and with that in mind we should center on our liberal Christian faith while learning about other faith traditions.”

        That statement to me is antithetical to UUism. I am not a liberal Christian. I am more than happy to share the pew with liberal Christians, and I do, but please don’t ask me to pray to Jesus in my UU church. I find my UU experience (and I’m a born and raised) to be deeply religious – indeed it’s the only religion I feel at home in. Perhaps that’s a factor of my congregation, perhaps a factor of my personal belief system, I don’t know. But I get bristly when told UU isn’t religious enough. Religious enough for whom?

        I just see the UUA, lots of blogs, articles in the magazine, etc lamenting how we need to not be who we are, as if there is something wrong with who we are. Yes, we need to expand our outlook and our outreach. Yes, indeed, being human, we have flaws. But it’s impossible to be all things to all people, and that seems to me to be what we are beating ourselves up for failing to achieve.

    • Robin Edgar
      August 18, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

      :THAT is noxious, bigoted, ignorant of our history, and contrary to Unitarian Universalism.

      That sums up much of what I have been saying for well over a decade Patrick but I have not only been stubbornly ignored by UU leaders but censored, suppressed and punished for speaking out.

      :(I’m delighted to see that the idea that we’re NOT somehow anti-Christian or hostile to Christian is becoming more widespread, particularly among UU youth and young adults. I understand where it came from, and I’ll celebrate its demise.)

      So will I Patrick, but it is far from dead yet. . . I keep seeing instances of anti-Christian or more broadly anti-religious intolerance and bigotry occurring within the UU religious community and even at very high levels of it. Rev. Peter Morales’ “stump speech” in whih he trashed Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other “old religions” being just one example. The Emerson Avenger blog quite regularly receives visitors who have run a Google search or Yahoo search etc. for –

      antiChristian Unitarians

      intolerant Unitarian Universalists

      Unitarian hatred

      etc. etc.

      In fact I had two such visits in the last 24 hours.

  37. August
    August 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    Good luck on your journey. I’ll be very interested in hearing what you have to say after you’ve spent ten years in a liberal Christian church. I suspect you’ll find as much foolishness, frustration, and disappointment there as you have on your UU path. I hope the fulfillment you find far outweighs. Just one substantive comment on your encounter with that poor fellow who identified as a “Buddhist-Humanist.” First, Buddhism is an enormously vast term, stretching from Afghanistan to Japan and Korea over thousands of years, including as much diversity of theology and cultural practice as Christianity. (this is perhaps the pivotal point of the UU tradition, as articulated by Theodore Parker in The Transient and Permanent in Christianity). That said, all across that vast universe of Buddhist tradition, I’m pretty sure you’d find more educated Buddhists saying the EGO is an illusion, not that the WORLD is an illusion. The ego, in a deep sense of the experience of time, the inflated sense of personal ownership, gets in the way of our experience of reality. I think this is actually entirely consistent with the outlook of most humanists. I totally get the larger point you’re making about UUs skimming the surface without really knowing what they’re talking about. But I think you may be falling into the same trap by saying “Buddhists believe this” and “Humanists believe that.”

    Anyway, not to quibble. OK, that was a quibble. Anyway, good luck and I’m sorry your UU congregation disappointed you.

  38. Christina M. Neilson
    August 20, 2011 at 2:45 am #

    I’m going to risk exposing my working class roots here, but so be it. I have multiple strong reactions to your “Dear John” letter, so feel free to stop reading if that is more comfortable for you. But I want to share my story of being “saved” by UU’s.

    Yes, saved. I am one of those people who have been damaged by Christianity. I was sexually abused by a Christian Youth pastor, made to feel like I was a worm before God because of my wanton sexuality (yes, he thought it was my fault) and that my only hope for my salvation was through the death of Jesus. But my story is minor compared to some. I got out before the church destroyed my soul. God reached in and said, “I’m keeping this soul for myself. I’ll show you a church where you will be at home, affirmed, welcomed and loved.” That church was the Unitarian Universalist Church in Livermore, CA.

    Before I left the Christian church, I had found other Christian churches that were healthy. I loved to sing in the choir, direct the children’s choir and theatre group, and go on outings. I loved the worship service. But then they asked me to teach sunday school, and I had to face the fact that I didn’t believe any of the doctrines, and when it came down to the systematic teachings of the church, I had rejected everything except the belief in God and an appreciation for the teachings of Jesus. I realized I couldn’t teach what I didn’t believe, and so I left the church, this time for good.

    I know that Christian phobia is alive and well in our Unitarian Universalist churches, and that people need to heal and move on, but before you criticize anyone for their harsh words, ask instead,, “What makes you feel that way? What happened?” I guarantee you will hear stories of deep pain, soul destroying pain. We need to meet these stories with compassion, not critique. That doesn’t give them a blank check to say what they want. But we need to acknowledge that the Christian church has sinned, and it’s pastor’s and members are it’s perpetrators. We have to hold the church accountable, just as we need to hold our own accountable. The people who show up on our doors who criticize the church are waiting for pastoral moments. No one shows up by accident. Moments like I experienced from the crotchedy atheist who said, “Let me get you a cup of coffee- you know it’s okay if you don’t believe those doctrines.” Or the Universalist who said, “God still loves you. Always has. You are part of the great community of all souls.” The Buddhist who said, “let me show you another way to pray. It’s called Meditation.” Or the pagan who said, “When you’re feeling lost and without worth-get down upon your knees and touch the earth. You will hear it whisper sacred child you belong to me.” (Words from a song by Bren Chambers) And the Unitarian who shared his scholarly and rational critique of the bible, and didn’t make me feel like I would be struck by lightening if I did the same. Then there was my awesome minister, who spent hours and hours with me during my religious impasse, challenging my fundamentalism, and invited me to embrace my theology- what I really believed, and that of the atheist-Buddhist-pagan UU that I had come to love. Jesus didn’t save my soul- these people did. Over and over- from the most cantankerous fellowship to the cathedrals of Boston. I believe in this faith, and love the promise of this faith.

    You don’t believe that this faith has good work to do. When you lose your faith, you should leave. Before you do, spend a few hours with the youth group or the kids. They are awesome! If that doesn’t open your heart, nothing will. They are amazing, and if you can’t see it, it really is time to move on.

    However, if you find a crack in your armor, and it re-opens your soul, then it’s time to get you butt to Seminary. I recommend Starr King! As far as your complaint about our political liberalism, I challenge you to show up at Phoenix next year and call that effort superficial. Rev. Christina Neilson, North Royalton, OH

    • David
      August 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      Each of us is in pain over something, and compassion is the authentic spiritual response to another’s suffering. Critique may also be required, however, if in our pain we are causing pain to another – and we almost always are, given the nature of what pain does to us.

      Christian phobia certainly both comes from pain and causes pain – at the very least, to some potential converts from Christianity, and to those raised UU’s who have been taught an authentically UU style of worship that nonetheless triggers “Christian phobia” when those youth enter the adult church. I believe it is also a key contributing factor in what Wondertwisted has called “negligent worship”, which may cause pain / miss opportunities to alleviate pain for many UUs. Certainly it seems to be for her, hence a goodbye letter to that which she once loved.

      I will not say that we must look to the plank in our own eye before looking to the mote in our neighbor’s eye, as spiritual abuse is no mere mote (and your experience sounds particularly egregious, as well as criminal). But we have a much greater responsibility to hold ourselves accountable than to hold anyone else accountable, if only for the practical reason that our own behavior is the only behavior we may ever really control.

      I hope that those hurt “over there”, wherever there is, may find a safe place for healing without making “right here” a place others will later remember as their painful “over there.”

      • Robin Edgar (@RobinEdgar)
        August 28, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

        “But we have a much greater responsibility to hold ourselves accountable than to hold anyone else accountable, if only for the practical reason that our own behavior is the only behavior we may ever really control.”

        Very well said David. Most regrettably for all concerned the UUA, and/or individual U*U “churches” where Christophobia and/or other anti-religious intolerance and bigotry occur, obstinately refuse to hold “less than perfect” U*Us accountable for these and other internal injustices and abuses. Rev. Peter Morales and other UUA leaders put on a big public show of “(grand)standing on the side of love” for illegal immigrants etc., but they knowingly and willfully refuse to provide any real and tangible restorative justice to those people who have been victimized and harmed by intolerant and abusive U*U clergy. For me and too many other people the so-called UU World is a painful “over there” and this is due not only to the direct spiritual abuse that we have been subjected to but to the grossly negligent and effectively complicit manner in which the UUA and implicated U*U “churches” have responded to our complaints about such spiritual abuse. Sadly, I see no evidence of the UUA being willing to change its highly questionable behavior and, as we know all to well, where there is no will there is no way. . .

    • Kate B
      October 8, 2013 at 3:40 am #

      Thank you Reverend. That was the most compassionate honest moving response.

    • PeaceBang
      October 9, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

      Ouch. Christina, I think it unkind and unfair to accuse anyone of having closed their heart and soul because they are bidding a thoughtful adieu to the faith tradition you love and are nurtured by. Wow.

  39. Theadora Davitt-Cornyn
    August 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Hallelujah! ~ and thanks to Rev. Christina Neilson….

  40. Rick Kritzer
    August 21, 2011 at 2:05 am #


    You generalized your experience to all UU Churches. What you’ve described doesn’t fit the 750 member Chuch I belong to, the First UU of Columbus Ohio

    We do not have what you describe (” . . people have brought personal grudges up during worship in the messiest and most dangerous part of church life I’ve ever witnessed: Joys, Sorrows and Concerns. (For non-UUs, this is a time in the service when the congregation is invited to share. I’ve seen this part of the service go toxic more than once, and as a lay leader, I never understood the insistence that we protect this part of worship”) In my Church, our Joys Sorrows (no Concerns) are read from the pulpit by the service coordinator. Nothing rude is said. Again, you have genralized your experience to all UU Churches.

    We have a Covenant of Respectful Relations which is a procedure for dealing with “dissruptive, corrosive, and dangerous behavior.” Recently our Ministers expelled someone, due to such behavior

    Having said this, it doesn’t seem like you fit with UUism, for ex re “salvation and sin” and “saving souls.” UU’s don’t believe souls need saved. This is the major tenant of Universaiism

    After considered what you’ve said, I suggest you check the United Church of Christ. Or Unity

    Wishing Peace to your soul


    • Robin Edgar
      August 21, 2011 at 11:32 am #

      Gotta love how more and more U*Us are now giving Cindy the –

      “If you don’t like it why don’t you leave?”

      treatment *after* she has already said that she is leaving. . .


      I have now seen several U*Us, including at least one U*U minister, tell Cindy that she is not a Unitarian Universalist.

      Rick thank you so much for telling everyone about your sanitized version of Joys & Concerns and your congregation’s “Covenant of Respectful Relations” which can so easily be misused and abused in order to get rid of “undesirables”, especially those that dare to openly criticize serious problems with the church. . .

      :Recently our Ministers expelled someone, due to such behavior

      Let me guess. . . Someone dared to complain about the disruptive and/or corrosive and/or dangerous behavior of one of the ministers in question, so the “less than perfect” ministers deemed their legitimate complaint to be disruptive, corrosive, and of course dangerous behavior and threw them out. OK I am not saying that this particular scenario actually happened in your U*U church but it *could* happen and very similar misuses and abuses of such “Disruptive Behavior” policies have happened.

  41. timbartik
    August 21, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I think this post makes some congregation-specific points, but also makes some more general critiques of UUism that certainly deserve attention.

    1. Some of the post is concerned with issues with how Joys and Concerns is handled, bad behavior by people at Annual Meetings and otherwise within congregations, and poor and uninspiring sermons. While I think these issues are sometimes major problems at some times and places in UU churches, I suspect that these issues are: (1) also present in other churches and indeed all human institutions, and; (2) not as present in other UU churches with more effective leadership. Given that the UUA respects congregational polity, I’m not sure how we can effectively address these failures of local leadership except to ask that the democratic process at individual churches respond to these problems.

    2. Others have already addressed the issue of whether it is possible to be both humanist and a Buddhist, which seems to me to be a sidepoint.

    3. But the heart of the general critique is that UU churches do not adequately address religious needs for something called transcendence and something else called salvation. There is some truth to this in UUism in general. Transcendence and salvation can certainly be positively and aggressively addressed and discussed from a non-theistic as well as theistic perspective, and UUs need to figure out how to address these human needs in a way that encompasses the variety of metaphysical positions of UUs, both theistic and non-theistic. People NEED a positive message on how they can be “saved” towards a better relationship with themselves and with people and this world, and many (not all) have a need to address their relationship with the broader universe. (On a side note, I disagree with Mr. Kritzer’s comment above, as I think it misinterprets Cindy’s post to be asking for salvation in the afterlife.)

  42. rtyecript
    August 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

  43. Casey
    September 30, 2011 at 2:01 am #

    Like some who have commented here, I was raised in the UU Church and the UUF. However, I have close family members who refer to UU as a philosophical coffee club. I remember my first visit to my local church, they made a point of saying “we are more Christian than some congregations.” Since I have found God in most of the teachings of my UU churches, I was cool with it. However, it was the way it was said that concerned me. It was half-whispered and half-mumbled. I feel I am good with God and I value the teachings of Jesus. I also find my “spirit cup” is filled by the persons who make up my church. When my father was sick and dying, UUs stood for me when I could not. I think in some ways it was easier when I was young because our teachers insisted that all points of view had value. I was given advice about toxic environments and people, “Work the problem, not the person.” I pray and hope you can find a home that makes you happy and fulfills you.

  44. Paul Oakley
    November 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    “You can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist.”

    1) Perhaps that is true if you require that a person be internally consistent, which is rarely, in fact, the case. The requirement of unity and internal consistency of belief system is the product of a certain kind of culture and/or personality. Perhaps your coffee hour nemesis has the capacity to simultaneously hold two incompatible philosophies/ theologies without it hindering his life.

    2) The fact is, one can be a fully committed adherent to one theology/ philosophy in one setting and of another incompatible theology/ philosophy in another setting.

    3) If a one can be a cafeteria Catholic (and one can, even if one officially mayn’t), one can be a cafeteria Buddhist and/or a cafeteria Humanist. It is possible to pull together elements of each that work together, even if the systems as wholes are mutually contradictory.

    So of course one can be a Buddhist-Humanist even if YOU couldn’t. Leave the Buddhist-Humanist guy alone. Your problem with UU has nothing to do with him. He is not even the symbol of a problem. That role is yours, if you insist on someone taking it.

  45. reyjacobs
    November 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    “A chief sin of cultural liberalism is its reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences.”

    You mean the chief sin in liberalism is condemning sins and the chief virtue is condemning those who condemn sin. Unfortunately, its the same in Paulinism — which makes Paul a liberal.

  46. Ken
    April 17, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Wonderful thread. May I simply add my advice. Be careful not to overthink and intellectualize all this. I’m not going to explain this but I’m a Quaker half the year when I’m not a UU. Works for me. It’s ok to simply seek god or Truth. Be there and wait. The Light will come.

  47. dedangelo
    October 5, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    This is a fascinating essay that left me with a few thoughts. First of all, so many of the complaints the author cites about church structure and lack of boundaries are the exact reasons I left the United Church of Christ a few years ago. Ironic, huh? That has less to do with denomination than with human imperfection, I suspect.

    Secondly, I fully support folks leaving faith traditions when they no longer engender spiritual growth. In fact, it’s vitally important to do so. The fact is, we outgrow relationships, jobs, wardrobes. Why should our faith journeys be any different?

    Finally, I share concerns about the unresolved spiritual abuse that is often manifested in anti-Christian sentiment. I’m LGBT — trust me – I know a little something about spiritual abuse. However, dealing with that issue has deepened my spiritual life considerably. Pain can provide fodder for growth. We should help our brothers and sisters along this path, instead of helping them sublimate their pain.

  48. Penny
    October 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    It may be naive to think you won’t have the same issues in a liberal Christian religion. Many of your complaints have more to do with the fact that humans are imperfect and that is not specific to UUs. It is also worthy to note that not all UU churches are the same. Your problems at your specific UU church could also be explained by a lack of good leadership. It also sounds like you are actively in search of something that doesn’t exist. I understand, it is also part of our human nature to do so. But while you are searching for something that doesn’t exist, you are not doing the things you want to do when you get there. Stop searching and analyzing and do what it is you want to do.

  49. Rev Scott Sammler-Michael
    October 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    I grieve for/with you. I am very sad the church you attend(ed) has left you in this place. However, the church I serve is not like the one you describe at all. We have vibrant worship, court a public relationship with the holy, praise with vigor, and toil to increase theological literacy. We also serve the community instead of simply ‘talking about service.” We have also asked some toxic members to leave and been supported by the membership for doing so. Every congregation is different. The congregations doing church well are thriving, as we are. Church is never perfect because it is made up of people. We are called to stick it out and make the church – and the people in it – better. It is never easy work, but it is our holy duty. Anyone can leave – it is those who stay and dig in to transform the institution who get the real rewards of church life. Unless of course the church you’re in is particularly toxic – then just walk away with grace.

    • wondertwisted
      October 8, 2013 at 2:29 am #

      An update: This post was published a little more than two years ago. I am now in membership at a modest United Methodist Church. The original post was never intended to be a blanket description of all UU congregations. It was, however, intended to remind UUs that, in a movement as limited in size and scope as Unitarian Universalism, the local congregation IS the UU movement.

      For those concerned that I might be upset when a liberal Christian congregation turned out to be fully human and imperfect, rest assured that I expected no such thing. It isn’t perfect. My current congregation has thus far articulated clear expectations for membership, and a clear mission and vision for the faith.

      Blessings to all who have the fortune of a congregational family.

      – Wondertwisted.

  50. Richard Hurst
    October 9, 2013 at 5:18 am #

    I consider myself a theological universalist, an institutional Unitarian Universalist, and I attend a UCC congregation (that the Baptists in time assure us is not “Christian,” but whatever), at least for the time being. These things happen. I suspect every one of your complaints (and do be assured in our United Church of Christ congregation we have joys and concerns) could and does happen elsewhere, though I likewise completely understand that this does not excuse the failure where you are. Of course in a UCC congregation, I feel nothing if not more UU, whatever that means, as comfortable and wonderful a place as it is. You can “leave” a church but Unitarian Universalist is larger than the UUA. There’s no monopoly on the movement.

  51. associatedluke
    October 9, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    I loved your letter! What you articulate is what kept be from going UU. I love everything about UU: openness, diversity on every level, intellect, and even down to the use of space and art in worship. However, I am finding out that many UU’s are just secular humanists who like to meet on Sunday mornings. Nothing wrong with secular humanists mind you, but I am after an experience of the divine. I was in a UU church this past summer during Ramadan, but there was no mention of it being Ramadan. We can learn so much from our Muslim brothers and sisters! I also what to talk about Jesus and not have people flinch, which has been my experience often at UU gatherings.

    But that’s my experience, it’s not everyones. I love my UU brothers and sisters and I hope they find a way to make their voice heard again and get out to the radical edge that they once were on. They have led the way on so many issues. We, the rest of the churches, need the UU’s to reclaim their space so we know where we’ll be heading next (you know.. it a decade or two ;-))

  52. Tom Petrocelli
    October 9, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    Sorry to hear this. One thing struck me though. You give a good list of common problems with UU communities but very little about UU religious beliefs. Isn’t there more to religion than hyphenated people and our discomfort with money? Maybe that’s the real problem -a focus on the problems of the people. Or, is it an excuse? I can understand that for you, UU theology and spiritual practices leave you cold. I can respect that.

    The problems you dwell the most on are problems of a UU church not the UU Church.

    I could have a long discussion about salvation BTW especially Universalism. 🙂

    • wondertwisted
      October 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

      Tom, at the risk of angering an awful lot of people, I think one of the greatest failures of the UU movement is its lack of religious identity and relevance. I don’t think UUism has any real religious center. It seems to be a collection of well-meaning people who cling to a quasi-spiritual identity that makes them “special” but fails utterly to hold them accountable for their “belief systems.” Much of the spiritual gumbo (I mean that affectionately, not atagonistically) I encountered in the UU movement couldn’t be experienced in community, much less practiced in community. As for the seven principles? Noble in intent, but when held up in a religious light, they read like a corporate policy dressed up in seminary language.

      – Wondertwisted.

      • Tom Petrocelli
        October 9, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

        I’m not of the gumbo variety and know lots of UUs who aren’t just as I know lots who barely know what a religion is. There is a disconnect between our traditions/spirituality/theology and what many people think it is or experience. That’s true of a great many religions. A Catholic theologian once told me that few Catholics know their own traditions. True.
        The 7 principles are greatly misunderstood. They were intended to be how congregations behaved toward each other. Instead they’re treated as doctrine (which they certainly are not) or some kind of rules of behavior. The latter is not true either.
        I can respect simple spirituality. It’s too think for me so I seek more but for some it’s enough. It’s a tough balance when there is no overriding doctrine. As a helpful hint, read John Shelby Spong. He’s an Anglican theologian. You might find him interesting as you consider liberal Christianity.

      • wondertwisted
        October 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

        Tom – thank you for your reply. You’re correct about the theological depth many people have as they honestly and authentically practice their faith. You don’t have to be a seminary professor to connect with a powerful presence experienced in religious life. I don’t happen to agree that there is a religious center in UUism; I think it’s deeper than not having a central doctrine or identity. Why else do so many UUs urge you to go to seminary when you want to explore UUism past what I call “UU 101” in so many congregations? Seriously. At every single leadership event/retreat I attended led by district officers, more than one leader would bring this up. “I don’t WANT to go to seminary to learn more about UUism!” was the sentiment. When it’s somewhat perfunctory for congregational leaders to get this have-you-considered-seminary once they begin to mature in the faith, I say warning bells should ring. In other religious communities, you can be mentored in scripture and concurrant religious disciplines as a means to deepen your practice. If seminary is the only way to “grow” UUs, then something is amiss. And then there is the realization that in a lot of the congregations in the Southwest, people identify themselves as Buddhists/Pagans/Humanists/Seekers/Wiccans in membership at UU congregations. I can’t recall the last time I met someone who identified as a Unitarian Universalist.

        And pardon me for nitpicking — I’m not “considering” liberal Christianity. I am a Christian in covenant with a local United Methodist Church. – WT

      • Rev. Eric Posa
        October 10, 2013 at 5:43 am #

        Hi, Cindy. I hope you’re well. FWIW, I have no idea why your two-year-old blog post suddenly is making the rounds among UUs on Facebook this week. But it’s getting almost as much attention the last few days as it did then, and a large portion of that attention is very positive. Which is actually why, as much as I appreciated your original post, this comment surprises me – and frankly, it hurt a bit.

        Yes, too many UUs, too often, have claimed that UUism has no religious center, convinced ourselves that we were an interfaith club, etc. But they’re wrong, and I have to say that when you claim that we have no real religious center I think you are mistaken, as well. UUism cannot stray far from its Universalist legacy of radical, universal love for every soul, and still be UUism in any meaningful way. Nor can it reject its Unitarian heritage of affirming covenant over creed – not just non-creedalism, but the promise-making and promise-keeping tradition of covenantalism, with all of the beliefs that are implied by this central religious practice. The fact that some UUs are misguided about believing their faith to be without content, does not mean the faith actually is without content. There is a there there in UUism, even if it’s “there” in a different way than it is for other faiths.

        And more and more UUs are realizing it, including the many who are cheering this week in FB posts and comments, what you said two years ago. UUism is changing, for the better I’m not trying to convince you to come back; I’m really glad you’ve found a church home where they know who they are and whose they are. But the bad experiences you had are becoming less the norm every year.

        They’re not even the norm in our old home church any more. I guest preached there this summer, and it has changed. Not completely, of course, but I was impressed at the different, more spiritual feel of the worship from what I remember. I heard stories of much better boundary-setting than used to be the case. They’ve experienced some real transformation, from what I can see. And this is true nationally, as well. At the risk of bragging, one of the most talked-about workshop at GA this year was this one:


        Forget that I was part of it, though – the fact that I’ve been seeing UUs around the country over the last 3 months talk about “loving the hell out of the world” and asking “who does your heart break for?” – as ways of getting at the core commitments of our UU faith – is just one sign that things are changing for the better. UUism is less and less the theological vacuum it used to claim to be, and while some congregations still don’t get that, and others are in the growing pains of moving past some old, bad habits, many more are grappling with deeper questions, and opening themselves to a vulnerability and (yes, I’ll say it) grace in their collective religious lives that once was shunned. It’s a real treat to see.

        So when I see someone I know and respect, who I know to have once been deeply committed to UUism making the categorical claim that UUism has no religious center at all, that it fails utterly to hold people accountable for what they believe, when so many others of us have worked so hard to turn that around (with at least some preliminary success) – well, ouch. Maybe I’m being defensive as a result of that slight bit of hurt, over feeling the work we’re doing was being invalidated. But I felt compelled to respond to that one, to say that while I know the dynamics you describe have been true in your experience (as they once were in mine), they are not the whole truth for UUism, and a more grounded and deep way of being UU is coming into being. Would that it had already arrived for you in our former home church, before you needed to leave, but please do not assume that it never will, because to some extent, it already is.

      • wondertwisted
        October 10, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

        Eric – just dropping in to second your notice of the change at our home congregation. Having full-time ministry has made an enormous difference. When I was in membership and leadership there, the congregation was lay led, and the anti-clerical sentiment was strong. Not universal, but palpable. FWIW, I consider my leadership there a failure. – WT

  53. Mary L.
    October 9, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    I think an awful lot of the UU experience rests in the individual congregation. I do not experience any of these issues in our congregation, except maybe the hyphenates. Transcendence. love and exploration are in abundance at our UU congregation.

  54. theentropyking
    October 10, 2013 at 1:53 am #

    It sounds like you might have just had a poorly lead congregation. Personal grudges in joys and concerns is terrible, and shouldn’t happen, and wouldn’t be allowed to happen in most congregations I’ve attended.

    Also, you can totally be a Buddhist-Humanist. It’s very easy to reconcile

  55. William Burpee
    October 10, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    I can only speak to my own UU experience. I’ve been with the same church for many years, and I’m satisfied with it. Maybe I’m just easily pleased, or maybe I lucked out. But most of the problems you cited, for the most part, I don’t see at my church, at least from an institutional basis. There are some individuals who seem to have a problem with anything to do with Christianity, or any discussion of money, but not at my church as a whole. As for Joys and Concerns, our chief problems with it seem to be people who use it for announcements that aren’t appropriate for J&C, or who just ramble on, not for anything said that hurts anybody.
    I have sometimes used a tailoring metaphor to describe being a UU. It’s more of a “custom-made” faith as opposed to “off the rack”–there are great opportunities to construct one that fits you. I like about 90 percent of what my church does, and, with few exceptions, don’t feel that strongly about the other 10 percent. If you get 90 percent of what you want from anything, I’d call that pretty good.
    I’m glad there’s such a place as the UUs. If there wasn’t, I doubt I would attend any church at all. I’ve found my path, and wish you every success in finding yours, whether it’s with the UUs or somewhere else.

  56. Paul Dahl
    October 10, 2013 at 6:38 pm #


    I would like to converse with you over e-mail since I have concerns about where you are going in order to feel that you are saved. What are being saved from? I am a former United Methodist pastor that got tired of the social club atmosphere of most Christian denominations. UU is refreshing and liberating to me.

  57. John Albertini
    October 11, 2013 at 3:43 am #

    Jesus was a wonderful rabbi (teacher) whose message of Love we should embrace fully. Maybe he WAS Divine but you and I can never know the answer to that until we get to heaven, if it exists. Most UUs think he was no more divine than any other human. We are ALL divine!

    Our goal in this life is to try to LIVE the life Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and myriad others taught and still teach: love, justice, compassion, charity, service.

    Our Sunday services are largely not meant as worship unless it is to worship our universal COMMUNITY. The purpose is primarily to offer guidance, elucidation and inspiration.

    Saddened that you feel UU does not offer you the support you seek.

  58. Stephen Abbott
    October 11, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    I found this “Dear John” letter to be moving, heartfelt and familiar. I wrote my “letter” to UUism back in the 90s. A friend re-posted this on Facebook and tagged me on the conversation because he knows well my experiences with UUism were disturbing and exasperating.

    I’m sad the author wasted time seeking Spirituality (worse, liberal CHRISTIAN spirituality) among an organization that rarely speaks of religious spirituality, sought God among those who do not generally allow “God-Talk,” and sought religion and ritual among those who for the most part hate religion and ritual – even liberal varieties that defy the Fundamentalist stereotype many liberal religionists think of when they hear the word “religion.”

    Her comments about this all-inclusive faith that isn’t at all a “faith community” and is not at all inclusive of the Deity or those who seek to worship the Deity are spot on. That UU ministers are largely platitude- and psychobabble-spewers who may also be skilled at lecturing about radical Left-wing politics, group rights and moral relativism is a main reason why this “group” isn’t growing, and why current members aren’t growing in spirituality, or depth.

    A faith based on hatred of religion and a denial of a God (or the mere discussion of God) to be ludicrous and unworkable on its face. A collection of “Nones” is a clever idea, but one that won’t work, because for it to work, all talk that’s “offensive” to the Nones must be “shut down,” which means hiding one’s faith and never speaking of it publicly. A “Forced Agnosticism” within UUism is unacceptable and violates one’s freedom of conscience. Religious people need to exit UUism and “come out of the closet” as God-worshipers and spiritual Beings who have a right to speak.

    Her call to “Pick a philosophy that resonates with your heart and mind, and then do the work, dammit! Be a Buddhist or a Humanist and do the work” resonates with me. We have a basic right to a free conscience, but a Forced Agnosticism (or Forced Atheism) is unacceptable, and a self-imposed Sole Practitioner-style faith is vauge and lacks the spiritual support of others.

    I hope she, and all other religious people in UUism join with other (non-UUA-related) groups that don’t fear to speak their Faith freely, or start their own groups, churches or even denominations as an expression of our religious freedom and our right to worship collectively and without coercion!

    I wish her all the best!

  59. David Ashcraft
    October 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    I grew up in the UU church and came of age in the “do it if it feels good movement,” during the 1960’s. Loved it all, in ways mentionable and unmentionable. Then I went to AA. People talked from the gut, from the true depths of their despair; they sought affirmation for life, believed, nay insisted, that a group of honest, questing people could be the best field for growth in life. The UUism I had loved so much felt hollow after that. I grew tired of informational lectures posing as worship; of individual’s tyranny within the congregation. America is too “me” centered and UU is a finely honed version. Two events finished me off: 1) a speaker with spiritual values who was challenged, mocked, and treated with disdain by “liberal” congregants, 2) a service led by a woman who had just graduated with an M.Div from the seminary I would eventually attend. She made the fatal mistake of making a pitch for the Bible, a heresy which enraged all the hollow intellectuals present that Sunday. I began to see Christianity as a place where one could “anchor” and gain comfort. On Sunday one received warm, encouraging talk about life, not a lecture from the latest National Geographic. I’m now comfortable in a blended spirituality that honors the unknowable, asks for help from an unknowable universe, and encompasses the high level of intellectual intercourse a UU church always provided. I work as a chaplain and hang around now with Quakers. When I first encountered Quaker meeting I thought it funny that the “peaceable” people could argue and fight as well as UU’s. The map of Quaker schisms is remarkably complex; the first time I saw it in a diagram I was shocked. Within my little city there are buildings representing at least three branches of Quaker belief; When I want a good dose of UU now I go to the website for West Shore UU in Rocky River, OH. (I attended there as a youth. Rev. David Cole performed by brother’s memorial ceremony) Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz consistently deliver informative and spiritual sermons that most of the time, warm my soul.

  60. Ken B.
    April 12, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    I’m leaving the UU fellowship I’ve been a member of for about 7 years. The main reasons are: toxic behavior by some members that never gets addressed, lack of civility, a total lack of focus on the seven principles, lack of meaningful sermons, discussions and/or events that focus on personal growth/spiritual comfort, and the fellowships obsession with “social action” activities to the exclusion of ministering to it’s own members, eg. seniors, infirmed, etc.

    • wondertwisted
      April 13, 2014 at 12:08 am #

      Ken, fellowships *seem* to lag behind in just the way you describe. Churches seem to have better systemic coherence because they are served by professional ministry.

  61. uujesusfreak
    July 3, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    Right on, man! I’ve been having some issues with Unitarian Universalism, too. I just feel like we need something substantial in our religion (and I ain’t talking about the principles). We need do something in order establish our credibility as a religion and not a college World Religions course I’ve got an idea, feel free to respond with your opinions:

    #1) Affirm our liberal Christian heritage while simultaneously, emphasizing the inherent theological diversity enshrined in all of our Six Sources as a whole, but also accepting the uniqueness of each one (be AUTHENTICALLY pluralistic, don’t try to reduce our Sources to a generic, theological neutrality.)

    • David L. Ashcraft
      July 7, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

      I tired of UU after I had an awakening that made me feel in touch with spiritual forces to which I had never paid attention. The syncretism of the church, the motley of beliefs and believers it sustains, leads not to spiritual strength, but to a Sunday service focused on some social studies topic. Who we’re better than, what I don’t believe, what we as UU’s don’t believe; it’s religion by acquisition and disposal. I’ve served as a Christian chaplain for eight years, now living on disability due to health problems. Christianity as it exists in the mainstream, drawing on leadership more than a thousand years old, is terribly toxic and in its worst forms, deadly. After reading “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, I think it can guide discussions of finding good parts of our Christian heritage. Not the aspects encoded in the ideas of the Church Fathers, but the insistence on love and justice espoused by Jesus. The Quakers, in many ways, exceed our social justice and populist beliefs, but they are more mainstream Christian than I believe most UU’s agree with.

      As a chaplain my work has been divided; on the one hand I preach a mainstream Christian message, focused on the love, not the suffering. On the other I spend hours relieving people of toxic Christian beliefs that crush their souls rather than life them up.

      So I would vote for a slight movement toward our roots in early Christianity, but only if it follows the philosophies espoused in “Saving Paradise…” Christianity, realistically, is no less syncretic than UU’s, which is why we have an opportunity to peel off some of the rotten top layers to reveal the beauty underneath,

      David Ashcraft

  62. Dj Dénouement
    July 22, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    I was born and raised a Unitarian Universalist in a New England Community in 1971, with solid liberal, open minded UU foundations.
    I am proud of my many years of service as a UU youth leader all over the country and specifically held leadership positions in the NH/VT district in the late ’80′s. I come from a family of UU leadership that would knock the socks of most intellects across the board.
    I love my UU roots, as well family and friends.. It was a fantastic up-bringing, 30 years well spent…
    However, I didn’t find a spiritual home until I was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ finally at the age of 42. I spent that 12 years out of “young adult” status asking myself the same lyrics played over and over at con con, “Well how did I get here,” (David Byrne)
    That relationship, is personal, not about a sanctuary or lay leaders, and definitely not a committee. It is not better nor worse, it is very personal and definitely comes with a price, (salvation, which we know how well that goes over in my upbringing) but for me, I am done arguing and being intellectually one upped and debating, I am present and accountable, to God, in the name of Jesus Christ my savior. I have no idea what the answer is for anyone and at times struggle for my own, but for the first time, I feel consistent, free and I have faith. I do not judge, I only offer one love for all that I encounter and pray for forgiveness for myself and people hurting everywhere. Thank you for what you wrote.. We live in a world of judgment, even I have felt judged especially about growing up UU and becoming a Christian, but the reality, for me, is just letting Go and Letting God, I feel like the messy middle gets in the way of an amazing relationship with a higher power, and I think deep down Christian or UU or anything, that is all most people want in this mortal coil, Community comes from self respect and acceptance. I pray that all your needs are met, and that people will get a long, in whatever faith they choose. I just choose to do that in the name of Jesus Christ… food for thought for those of you so set on what one might think is an open faith, wonder how your kiddos will rebel? 😉

  63. F. Martin
    May 2, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

    This resonates with me a lot. I began attending the local UU church a few years ago because I figured it was the only option for an agnostic / atheist like myself. I stuck with it for two years before leaving. It just felt too much like the Church of Nothing In Particular, as preached by white middle-class liberals. A bland mash-up of the least controversial parts of Christianity, secular humanism, and the New Age movement. The church equivalent of sugar-free candy. There’s no core to it, no defining essence, no shared faith or identity beyond a list of principles that can be boiled down to “don’t be a Nazi.”

    I”m still an agnostic / atheist, still struggling, still looking for something that will provide what I came to the UU church looking for. I haven’t found it yet.


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