Rev. Harry Hoehler speaks of Missional Unitarian Universalism – in 1968!

This morning I participated in the mission and visioning retreat of the UU Christian Fellowship Board of Directors, of which I am a member. Our Executive Director Ron Robinson offered two readings for reflection after morning prayer. One was from the Rev. Harry Hoehler, long time minister – and co-minister with his wife Judy – of First Parish Church in Weston where I am currently serving an interim ministry.

Rev. Hoehler was responding to the work of the Committee on Goals, which in the late 1960’s had just issued a report after two years of work and considerable expense. Rev. Hoehler’s response to the Committee’s report was published in the Unitarian Universalist Christian (for decades Unitarian Universalism’s only theological journal). Rev. Hoehler focusses on what role the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship might play in the larger UUA in light of the report from the Committee on Goals. I find it fascinating, both as a UUCF Board member and as one of the voices calling for a more missional orientation to our liberal religious movement, that virtually all of what Rev. Hoehler discusses in his essay can apply to the role of a missional Unitarian Universalism today in relation to the movement as a whole in much the same way he wrote (hoped) the UUCF could play a role in the larger UUA back in the late 1960’s. In many ways we, as a Unitarian Universalist Association, are still bogged down in the same issues, with the same roadblocks as our movement was in 1968. In 1968 Rev. Hoehler offered the Christian wing of the movement as a possible antidote to the issue plaguing the UUA and ignored by the Report of the Committee on Goals. Today, I believe the missional movement within our ranks, such as the Red Pill Brethren, Ron Robinson’s Community Ministry in Turley, OK and brave spirit centered church starts by Ian White Maher and Chuck Freeman, can offer the same antidote of which Rev. Hoehler spoke in 1968. Among the differences today are the fact that the missional movement is being recognized as such an antidote across the broad spectrum of American Christianity from fundamentalists groups to evangelicals, to mainline denominations to emergent and unaffiliated faith communities.

Here’s some of Rev. Hoehler’s essay with my editorial comments.

“Where Shall We Go From Here” by Rev. Harry Hoehler

The title alone is important. Within the last year, UUA president Peter Morales issued a pastoral (administrative?) statement discussion how our movement must go Beyond Congregations in order to enliven, enrich, and grow our movement. We are currently asking the question, “Where Shall We Go From Here” once again. Forty plus years after Rev. Hoehler’s essay, we are still wandering in the dessert, missionless and directionless.

Rev. Hoehler begins:

“The most serious criticism which could be leveled at the UUA’s Report of the Committee on Goals is that the committee failed to address the mission of Unitarian Universalism as anything more than the establishment of more and more churches. After two years of study and the expenditure of ten thousand dollars, the committee concluded that the long range theological and sociological goals of the religious liberal movement could be summed up by the word “Growth”. Its meager list of recommendations were all concerned with assuming the Association will be able to call 500,000 white middle class, well educationed, technically trained suburbanites its own by 1980. Providing, of course, the UUA does exactly what the goals committee suggests. Absent from the report was even a hint that as churches we are responsible to anyone but ourselves. Absent was even an outline of a program of how the UUA might creatively use its funds and resources and pool of talent to meet and try to heal some the wounds of an ailing society. Absent was any vision which could have enabled us to look to goals which transcend the exlusivistic, self-centered, self-congratulatory style of life which permeates our churches. Absent was nay sense of what it means in this revolutionary age to be churches in the world responsible TO the world’s renewal and betterment. This was the Report’s gravest sin and the source of its irrelevance.”

The more things change the more they stay the same. Growth is a huge buzzword among UUA leaders and staff. Unfortunately, it seems that what growth still means is to call more upper middle class, NPR listening, White suburbanites UU’s. Still absent from our theological and mission and vision discussions at the Association level are how we might use our people, our money, and our infrastructure to serve the world beyond the walls of our congregations. We are still, for the most part, as a religion, responsible to no one but ourselves. Yes, programs such as Standing on the Side of Love have made a few inroads into moving us out of our self centeredness, but in reality only a fraction of our people actively engage issues raised by the SOTSOL program at the local level to an extent that they become identified in their local communities with such actions, stances, and positions. Our movement’s gravest sin is still that at the local level many congregations lack any sense of what it means to be churches responsible TO the world to aid its betterment and renewal.

Rev. Hoehler continues:

Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting the UUCF become a mini, God-centered UU Service Committee. What I am suggesting is that it develop a worship life, educational life, and community life around the dual concept of gathering regularly to celebrate what we believe God is doing to reconcile our world and of scattering to do what is required of us to make this world of ours a more livable and and human place. I am suggesting that the UUCF become more than a loosely knit association of individuals who gather to celebrate past glories and frustrations.

What Rev. Hoehler is saying her applies to the missional movement within Unitarian Universalism today. He implies that we need to be less about ourselves, our membership numbers and even our commitment to Standing on the Side of Love type action, but instead seek to teach all of our people to live missionally as Unitarian Universalists, where we do spiritual deepening in order to prepare us to serve the world and sustain us in that work. Rev. Hoehler was asking what missional UU’s ask today, “Who does your heart break for?” Today’s missional UU’s would say that many UU’s only gather in congregations to hang out with groups of like minded people and talk about the past wonders and accomplishments of history’s Unitarians and Universalists. As one missional UU has written, “If a congregation has no definable mission, then it defaults to the mission of gathering a group of like minded people.”

Rev. Hoehler calls, implores, demands that our UUCF act like, well, like a church. The same call and demand could be made today of our congregations in general.

I’m suggesting the UUCF adopt the structure of a church, not a residential church to be sure, but rather a church of dedicated persons committed to performing specific tasks for the renewal and reconstruction of our world and who come together to celebrate that fact and learn from one another.

This is, in essence the call of missional Unitarian Universalism. Let’s make our faith communities places where the reason for being is to do those tasks in our local area that make for nothing less than the renewal of the world and our spiritual life a celebration of that work and an encouragement to do it.

In 1968 Rev. Hoehler begged the UU Christian Fellowship to lead the way as Unitarian Universalists living missionally.

The UUCF could do these things if we only would! But to do so, it must stop concerning itself with such rearguard and fruitless battles as the humanist – theist controversy. It must give up our concern for growth and with heralding ourselves to the outside world, with enlarging its political power within UUA. It must end it’s reactionary tendencies that is its almost unfailing negative response to anything the UUA does.

This still describes the state of many of our congregations, not just affiliated groups like the UUCF. Our congregations must be about the business of engaging deeply the need in their communities. This missional work is hampered and even shelved in favor of arguing about humanism and theism. This work is shunted aside, still, in order to rail against the evil conservative, fundamentalist religion that attracts so many in our culture.

Rev. Hoehler says:

“Let us do the theological work and orientation that the UUA is incapable of doing.”

This is basically the call of the missional Unitarian Universalists today. Let us be about the theological and spiritual renewal necessary to serve and engage the need in our backyards. The UUA is not incapable of doing this, but it certainly seems to always be on the back burner. Let us turn up the heat and bring the fire of our saving message and living tradition to the least, the last and lost among us. Please? We’ve been asking for 40 years.

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