The thrill of participatory theology

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Speaker & Worship Leader:- Rev. Clay Nelson

The thrill of participatory theology
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Follow this shortcut to the bottom of the page for the various readings, videos, etc. shared in the service.

Clay Nelson © 7 May 2023

This morning is the fourth in a series of musings about what it means to be a living tradition. (Here are links to talks 1, 2, and 3.) How have we changed? Who decides what it means to be a UU today? And who owns the congregation?

When the eight members from diverse backgrounds were appointed to review Article II Bylaws, the first thing they did was consult UU stakeholders. These included, amongst others:-

  • Congregational leaders, lay and professional
  • Professional Associations
  • Philosophical and Theological Groups (e.g. UU Humanists, UU Christians, etc.)
  • 8th Principle and 1st Principle advocates
  • Past GA attendees
  • Former UUs who have left the faith
  • Unchurched UUs who still identify as UUs but don’t belong to UU
  • Members of the 2010 Commission on Appraisal
  • UUA staff
  • UU seminaries
  • UU Issues groups (e.g., UU Earth Justice Ministry, UUs for Justice in the Middle East

This is participatory theology. Its purpose is to determine and articulate our shared values and theology.

In a UU World article, Dan Hotchkiss says it begins with answering the question, “Who owns your congregation?

Hotchkiss says some congregations believe it is the trustees or board.

Sometimes when I ask, ‘What is the board’s job?’ someone (often a lawyer or banker) uses an obscure word that speaks rather deeply to the nature of the board’s role: ‘The board is a fiduciary.’ Many people connect this word exclusively with money, but the concept is actually much broader. A fiduciary is anyone whose duty is to act in faithfulness to the interest of another, even at cost or peril to [themself]. A parent, for example, is a fiduciary for their children and must care for them, no matter how much sacrifice that might require…

A congregation’s board is a fiduciary. Like a for-profit board, it controls property on behalf of its real owner. But who is the owner? Who owns a church? Often board members answer this question too quickly: ‘The members are the owners!’ And the owners’ interest? Satisfactory worship, education, social action, and so on…

A congregation does exist to serve its owner—but the members of a nonprofit corporation do not ‘own’ it as stockholders own a business. Corporate stockholders can vote to liquidate the corporation’s property, pay its debts, and divide the proceeds among themselves. A congregation—or any other nonprofit—that did likewise would be violating several laws. The most fundamental legal principle of nonprofit corporations is to use their resources exclusively for the specific purposes for which the law has chartered them…

Who, then, is the owner of a congregation? Who plays the role of the stockholders in a business? Not the members. Not the board. Not the clergy. All these are fiduciaries whose duty is to serve the owner… The “owner” that the board must serve is the congregation’s mission, the covenant the congregation has set its heart to and the piece of the Divine Spirit that belongs to it. Or, to put it differently, the congregation’s job is to find the mission it belongs to, the actual owner for whose benefit the leaders hold and deploy resources.”

Meditation / Conversation starters

  • What is the mission of this congregation to which we have a fiduciary responsibility? Should it change?
  • How are we doing in fulfilling our duty to our mission?
  • Will the proposed Article 2 changes to the by-laws assist us or make it more difficult to meet our responsibilities?


Opening words:- are from Toward a Place of Wholeness” By Viola Abbitt

Chalice Lighting:- is adapted from the sermon given at the Service of the Living Tradition at the 2018 UUA Conference, by Rev. Sofía Betancourt. Follow this link to go straight to the YouTube video of the relevant part of the sermon.

Reading:- is from Widening the circle of concern, Report of the UUA Commission on institutional change, June 2020 P15.

Sermon:- refers to “Article II Study Report 2021-2023” P10 & Who owns your congregation?” by Dan Hotchkiss

Closing Words:- are from “Faith Without Certainty” by Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, quoted in Widening the circle of concern, Report of the UUA Commission on institutional change, June 2020 P8.