Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Velveteen Association

John Buehrens has a little ice-breaker story that he likes to tell near the start of a talk. [1]
When I was running for President of the UUA, one of the things my friends and family had to put up with was hearing me called “the evangelical rabbi of liberal religion.” Which provoked my daughter to send me this card she’d found, with a drawing of guy my age, with a beard, glasses, hair somehow all loved off on top, wearing a well-traveled robe, a prayer shawl, and a yarmulke – under the caption, “The Velveteen Rabbi,” with him asking the question: “When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”
It's a good story - it gets a laugh, it loosens up the audience.

Let's back up for a second and ask "why is it funny?"  Psychologists have several theories of humor, but one one them, proposed by no less than Immanual Kant, is "incongruity theory" - "humor arising from discrepancies between what is expected and what is observed."[2]  The audience is hearing a story about a rabbi, from a speaker who bears a physical resemblance to one sterotype of a rabbi, so our minds are thinking about Jewish teachers.  But then in the punch line we get a play on words between rabbit and rabbi, referencing the well-known story of the Velveteen Rabbit, who wants to be a real rabbit.  It's funny because we had to do a mental shift.  Rabbis aren't rabbits; Buehrens isn't Jewish; and he's being self-deprecating (which also playes into the sterotype of a lot of old Jewish stand-up comedy.)

But still and all, rabbits aren't rabbis, or vice versa.  This brings me around to today's observation.  In a recent UU World article [3] on "fair share" giving, there's a subtext about changing the nature of the UUA.  This includes
  • Moving toward a "single ask" (money from the congregations only going to the UUA instead of the UUA and Districts."
  • Wanting people to feel a "greater sense of identity, .... a greater sense of mutual accountability.  We want people to ask 'what is my accountability?'"
These aren't the first examples that indicate that there are those who want to make the UUA more like a real denomination.  It has been a recurring between-the-lines theme for several years.  But the UUA is an association of congregations, not persons.  No individual is a member of the UUA.  They are members of their individual congregations.  And the goal of the UUA is to serve the congregations.  That's what it is supposed to be - an organization providing shared services.  From the UUA bylaws [4],
The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.
It is human nature to want more power at the center to be able to direct things.  And to have more status because you are "speaking" for the "denomination."  But the UUA isn't that kind of rabbit.

[1] The Velveteen Rabbi:  http://uugroton.org/Sermons/buehrens-whythestork.pdf
[2] Theories of Humor:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humor_(positive_psychology)
[3] UU World, "Fair Share Giving":  http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/208991.shtml
[4] UUA Bylaws, Section C-2.2  http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6907.shtml

P.S. And by the way, how's that "organize new congregations" part going?


  1. It's interesting though most of the participants at GA aren't from Congregations though. I believe less than half.

  2. Two observations: Quite apart from one's views of districts or regions, there has been a long history of complaints that congregations that do not pay UUA or district "fair share" still receive all the services given to congregations that do pay. A lot of the conversation at the board meeting I covered focused on the way the current system treats the UUA only as a service provider, and not as a relationship between congregations. The trustees and staff were talking about explicitly about the "association of congregations" aspect of your comment.

    Second, Bill says that "most of the participants at GA aren't from Congregations." This is misleading and probably false. The number of congregational *delegates* at GA is approximately half, but I don't encounter that many people at GA who aren't members or leaders of their congregations. And those who aren't affiliated with congregations often are part of the groups the UUA is explicitly trying to find ways to connect with congregations: young adults especially.