I was fascinated in my college biology studies by the phenomena of vestigial attributes in animals – traits that have lost all or most of their ancestral function. Naturally the vestigial features of humans such as our appendix, wisdom teeth, tailbone and goose bumps were the most interesting to me. I wondered about the random turns on our evolutionary path that caused these attributes to become functionless, and pondered what natural selection had in store for our future.
It’s been with considerable consternation that this concept of vestigial attributes leaped back into my mind in observations of UU congregational life – specifically around practices of our congregational polity. For much of our modern history UUs have allowed the covenantal practice of congregational interdependence to atrophy while nurturing congregational independence as if it were the path to advanced development.
Whereas in biology vestigial traits result from chance evolutionary occurrences, conscious or semiconscious choices of church leaders determine which vital attributes of our religious heritage remain essential for a vibrant faith movement and which become historical tokens. For too long we’ve made unwise choices in our preference for the independent agency aspect of our polity, while neglecting the more adaptively sound and life-giving ways of covenantal interdependence. Through our siloed habits of we literally risked taking our faith movement on a path toward an evolutionary dead-end.
Fortunately, recent years have seen a renewed appreciation for ways of interconnection among congregations. Most encouraging to me are developments in multisite ministry – formal or permanent types of congregational networks that organize for increased capacity and outreach. On the Unitarian Universalist Multisite website and Multisite UU Facebook page you can read and hear stories of existing and emerging multisites. There are congregations becoming better together around shared staff, shared programs or themes, creating partnerships with emerging groups, merging into multi-campus churches with a common mission, and more. With growing interest in such bold experiments new forms of congregational networks are appearing.
For congregations long removed from substantive connection with other congregations, multisite ministry can seem a huge stretch, if not downright threatening to an accustomed way of being church. While formal multisite ministry isn’t meant for all congregations, meaningful covenantal relationship with sister societies is for everyone.
What do your congregational leaders know about the initiatives, hopes and concerns of your nearest sister congregations? What do their leaders know about your congregation? What if your boards met to get to know one another and left committed to helping further a hope or address a concern together?
What would it take for yours and neighboring congregations to belong to each other?
For grins let’s return to analogies from human evolution. I’ve got my holy wager on old habits of isolation becoming vestigial and the ways of robust interdependence like multisite ministry becoming the opposable thumbs and large brains of our faith’s future — adaptations that align our values and resources to raise our capacity to transform lives.
When he’s not idling away his time comparing congregations to animals and rocks, Joe Sullivan serves our Association as a member of the New England Region staff team and a member of the Multisite Support team of UUA field staff.