Monday, January 19, 2009

The Tyranny of Excellence

Thanks to iMinister for posting the keynote speech by Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools on the Tyranny of Excellence from the UUA Excellence in Ministry Summit. The following remark are striking:

As you might expect, “excellent ministry” is more likely to become an issue when there are fears that something is not going well. . . . When the question is being asked in earnest, my hunch is that it is often a symptom of some underlying dis-ease.

My hunch is that “excellence” is a topical way of getting at some other question, maybe some worry. I have a hunch that, if UU ministers and congregations were doing well, and if there were abundant money for all the movement’s agenda, including theological education, the question would not be asked.

Ministry always has a communitarian setting and “excellence” must have a definition that a community has agreed to honor.
When I was a child in Washington, DC, in the 1950s, UUism was busting out all over. The sermons of A. Powell Davies, minister at All Souls, not only filled the church's sanctuary and social hall, but were piped into several suburban locations by radio. These locales became the nuclei of five new suburban congregations—Arlington, Cedar Lane, Paint Branch, Mount Vernon, and what is presently known as the Davies Memorial Church—established under Davies' leadership. These "daughter" churches later founded three additional congregations—Fairfax, Rockville, and River Road. Some of these congregations -- and Arlington (which had been established earlier) -- remain among the largest UU congregations.

Yet, on the other hand, in the 48 years since the Unitarians joined with the Universalists in 1961, UUA membership has varied slightly around 160,000 adults while it has dropped from .08% to .05% of the U.S. population which has grown from 180 to 305 million. If you don't believe that numbers matter, read American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips (or at least the Wikipedia article on the book).

This phenomena is like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) in reverse. In that film, when Scott Carey, the protagonist, begins to shrink because of exposure to a combination of radiation and insecticide, medical science is powerless to help him. UUism has not shrunk, it has remained the same size while everything around it has grown, like Gulliver's travel to Brobdingnag.

Please, please hear that I'm not saying that the formation and development of UU ministers is the source of the stagnation in UUA membership, much less the rise of politically and theologically conservative Christianity. I'm merely raising the question of whether there is any relationship between the two.

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