Review By: Jeanne Malmgren, independentmail.com Anderson, So. Carolina - November 30, 2007
Holley Ulbrich is not a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. Which probably makes her the perfect person to write a history of that denomination’s lay-led fellowship movement.
Ms. Ulbrich, a retired Clemson economics professor and member of the Anderson Independent-Mail’s Faith & Values Advisory Board, holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Emory University. Reared in the Congregational Church (now the United Church of Christ), she became a Unitarian Universalist in 1990. She belongs to the Clemson UU Fellowship.
The seed for “The Fellowship Movement” — which was published last month by an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations — was a term paper she wrote during her first year of seminary studies. She then spent several years doing further research, which included visiting UU congregations in 13 states.
The result is a book both scholarly and approachable, thorough in its scope yet perfectly understandable by non-UU members. Though the book focuses on a particular aspect of Unitarian Universalism (its history of establishing small, autonomous, self-led congregations), “The Fellowship Movement” will be of interest to anyone curious about this uniquely American denomination, which originated partly in late 18th-, early 19th-century New England when Unitarianism crossed the Atlantic and took root in Boston.
Unitarian Universalism, Ms. Ulbrich writes, is a “frontier kind of religion,” given its propensity to move into new territory by risk takers not afraid of a challenge. But in the post-war 1940s, the movement was hurting, in need of new members, short on money and lacking ordained clergy.
A specific strategy of “planting” local congregations was devised by the American Unitarian Association, in order to revive the denomination and help it spread beyond the Northeast. A man named Munroe Husbands — “the Johnny Appleseed of Unitarianism,” Ms. Ulbrich calls him — was put in charge of the effort. He spent nearly 20 years crisscrossing the United States, advising isolated groups of religious liberals as they went through the process of forming lay-led UU congregations.
Many of those groups, according to Ms. Ulbrich, met in private homes or rented spaces. They tended to be “lively, empowering, innovative and close-knit.”
The first one, formed in 1948 in Boulder, Colo., is pictured in an archival photo on the cover of “The Fellowship Movement”: six adults and a gaggle of small children bundled up in winter coats and hats, standing in front of the brick building where they met.
In separate chapters devoted to different regions of the country, Ms. Ulbrich tells the stories of many of those early congregations. About 40 percent of them survive today, she says. In the first 10 years of the movement alone, Mr. Husbands’ efforts added 323 new congregations nationwide — a total of 12,500 new members.
The great legacy of the lay-led fellowship movement, according to Ms. Ulbrich, is that it introduced the idea of “shared ministry, which is now the norm in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.”
The UU faith tradition, Ms. Ulbrich writes, has “a strongly libertarian streak” and “resistance to authority.” As such, it was fertile ground for the concept of worship led by laypeople, with no minister. While many UU churches today do have full- or part-time pastors, many others do not — and all are marked by their absence of doctrine and informal, participatory worship style. Most UU churches do not pass an offering plate. After the sermon, there is typically a “talkback” or dialogue among the congregation.
Even though the fellowship movement officially ended in 1967, lay-led congregations continue to emerge today. An example is the UU fellowship in Aiken. Chartered in 2003 partially as an offshoot of a congregation in Augusta, Ga., the Aiken group grew quickly. Today it has 60 members, including a dozen children in religious education.
Appendices to the book list statistics for surviving UU congregations that date back to the planting efforts of the 1950s and ’60s. The numbers are a testament to the importance of that period in UU history — a period thoroughly and carefully documented by Ms. Ulbrich’s book.
Review By: Gordon Gibson, - December 7, 2007
Last night I finished reading the new Skinner House book on the fellowship movement. (The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy
by Holley Ulbrich.) My reaction is to say to a lot of people, "Go thou, and do likewise."
I say that because of the book's strengths and in spite of quibbles I have about a few specifics.
The strengths include a broad and open-minded look at how fellowships have functioned and malfunctioned across time and across the continent. The author has supplemented documentary sources with conversations and interviews from coast to coast, reading about and listening to the good, the bad, and the ugly. She has thought about what she has read and been told.
Now, decades after the end of active encouragement and support by the UUA for founding lay led congregations, this is still the most frequent way we start new congregations. All across the country fellowships founded 1948-67 (during the phase of having official support mechanisms from the AUA, UCA, or UUA) make up a substantial portion of today's congregations, running as high as 53% on the west coast.
To me the most provocative thought offered by this book is that the merger in 1961 might best be viewed as a three-way affair involving Universalist churches, Unitarian churches, and fellowships (mostly, but not all, Unitarian in identity). Ours would be a smaller, duller, and probably very nearly defunct association without that third partner.
Fellowships brought not only geographic reach and thousands of members, but a style and spirit that have leavened the work of older congregations over the past 60 years.
I recommend this book to anyone who is a member or staff member in a congregation founded as a fellowship; to anyone curious about how Unitarian Universalist "culture" differs from that of our near neighbors in the spectrum of Protestantism; and to the UUA Board and staff as they contemplate growth strategies going forward. It might be helpful if a study and discussion guide were developed to facilitate the use of this book for local self-scrutiny in congregations.
At the same time, I warn about relying too greatly on small details in the book. I was troubled by a number of errors on specific facts, such as the assertion that there was an ante-bellum Unitarian congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. (Not possible, since the city was founded in 1871, six years after the war ended.)
In other words, I question some of the small brush strokes, but applaud the big picture presented.