Sedona Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

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SUUF Membership
 
Unitarian-Universalists are perhaps the most under-recognized force in the global religious community. However, asking a UU what he or she believes can elicit a variety of responses, none of which are necessarily relevant to the person’s identity as a UU. Thomas Jefferson, often cited as an early UU in spirit, wrote:

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
While keeping his personal belief about a deity to himself, the author of the
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence clearly felt that uniformity of belief was not a requirement for a person to claim to be religious.

Although the historical origins of Unitarian and Universalist beliefs and practices are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, current practice extends far beyond this source. A statement on the UUA website proclaims:

We are creating a force more powerful than one person or one religion. By welcoming people who identify with Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Earth-Centered Traditions, Hinduism, Islam, and more, we are embodying a vision “beyond belief:” a vision of peace, love, and understanding.

The common link connecting our religious communities is covenantal practice, not doctrinal faith — orthopraxis (right behavior), not orthodoxy (right belief).

Many congregations proclaim this emphasis by including in each service a unison affirmation such as:
Love is the doctrine of this church;
The quest for truth is its sacrament
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace;
To seek truth in love
To the end that all shall grow into harmony with one another;
Thus do we covenant with one another.

This is not a creed or statement of belief, such as the Apostle’s Creed used in many Christian denominations, but an affirmation of the purpose of the church and a pledge to abide by a covenant, adopted and published by the congregation, that governs our behavior towards one another and the world at large.
Our definition of religion may differ from that employed by persons who equate religion with a set of beliefs, specifically with a belief in a supreme being. However, accepted definitions do not all confine the meaning of the word to one that requires such a belief. One of the accepted meanings is:

A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices.

which covers the practice of Unitarian Universalism. In this passage “religious” is employed in a literal sense based on its derivation from Latin words meaning “that which binds us together”.

Each year we endeavor to hold a series of meetings that present the historical context and current practice of Unitarian Universalism relative to other religions and explore various paths that participating individuals have taken in their religious journeys to become UUs. These are intended especially for persons new to UU, but any interested person is invited to participate.

We base our common practice on seven principles5. Each congregation adopts Mission, Vision and Covenant statements that guide it in applying these principles to its operation.

1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person
2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3
rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The Principles are not dogma or doctrine, but rather a guide for those of us who choose to join and participate in Unitarian Universalist religious communities.

Unitarian-Universalist congregations welcome all who embrace the values described in the principles, regardless of gender, age, race or affectional orientation.

The Welcome by the Dublin (Ireland) Unitarian Church eloquently states this policy:

We bid you welcome.
We do not ask what you believe,
Or expect you to think the way we do,
But only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life
With the dignity proper to a human being.
Welcome, all who believe that religion
Is wider than any sect
And deeper than any set of opinions
And all who might find in our friendship
Strength and encouragement for daily living.

When people unfamiliar with UU hear these principles, or read them and reflect on them, their response is often quite favorable. “Of course I agree with all of those things — or at least most of them. Does that make me a UU?” What does one have to do to become identified as a UU? Well, the answer is rather amazing. You can consider yourself a UU if you say you are and practice putting these principles into action. It’s reminiscent of the definition of an artist, attributed to Mark Twain:

“Anybody can say he’s an artist and nobody can say he ain’t!”

But more than self-identification is necessary to become an active participant in the UU community.

The fundamental unit of our religious association is the congregation, organized in the tradition of early congregational Christian churches, each one unique and governed by its members. Members determine whether a congregation wishes to characterize itself as a Fellowship, a Church, a Congregation, a Society or some other institutional designation. Congregations with at least thirty adult members can petition to join the UU Association of Congregations (UUA), which provides national and international visibility and leadership for matters of mutual interest and concern.

Welcoming Congregations are those recognized by the UUA as having demonstrated that their Mission, Vision, Covenant and Bylaws specifically include non-discriminatory policy statements and that they engage in active programs to inform members of non-discriminatory practices that welcome marginalized groups. The rainbow chalice displayed by SUUF on its banner and literature signifies the Fellowship’s status as a Welcoming Congregation.

The UUA serves “self-identified” UUs not affiliated with congregations through the “Church of the Larger Fellowship” (CLF), a UU congregation without walls designed

to provide a spiritual home for isolated Unitarians and their families, and to transfer the allegiance of its members to local Unitarian churches whenever and wherever possible.

This statement of purpose clearly shows that the intent of the CLF is to encourage UUs to affiliate with a congregation “whenever and wherever possible”. Of course non-affiliation can be the result of an individual’s location not being near a convenient UU congregation. But what about those who are UUs in spirit, but choose not to attend meetings of nearby congregations or to attend one occasionally but not participate in its governance?

First, let’s address the obvious question: “How does one become a member of a congregation?” The answer is determined locally by the policy of the congregation. Since congregations in the UUA are self- governing, each sets its own criteria for membership. A congregation can also choose to recognize non-member affiliates. The Bylaws of SUUF describe such an affiliate as a “friend”. Article III Section 1 of the SUUF Bylaws states:

Any person who is in sympathy with the purposes and programs of this Fellowship may become a member by signing the Membership Book in the presence of an officer of the Fellowship and supporting it through financial and/or personal participation. Persons affiliated with the Fellowship other than as members shall be designated as Friends.” [SUUF Bylaws, Article II Section 1]

Periodically throughout the year SUUF holds recognition ceremonies for new members who have signed the Membership Book since the last such ceremony or who have not been presented to the congregation since signing the Membership Book. Those wishing to become members can also sign the Book at this ceremony.

In common with many other congregations in areas with a high seasonal population variation, many Friends of SUUF are members of congregations in other locations. In such circumstances congregations may permit part-time residents to become members even though they may be members of another congregation in another location that they consider their primary place of residence. The eligibility of such persons to become members of SUUF is not precluded by membership requirements in the Bylaws. The UUA has no objection to this practice as long as individuals with dual memberships are only reported to the national organization as members by one organization.

One other feature of membership deserves mention. The number of delegates that SUUF is authorized to send to the UUA General Assembly each June is based on the number of members as certified at the end of February each year. Only these delegates can vote on behalf of the Fellowship on matters that come before the Assembly. So the extent to which our voice is heard at the national level on matters affecting the UUA depends on the magnitude of our membership.

Historically the cost of the congregation’s formal affiliation with the national and regional organizations has been based on the number of members SUUF reports to the Association. Currently this expense is approximately $85/ member annually. At our present level of operations this cost represents slightly over 0.1% of our budget per member per year. For this, each member receives a subscription to UU World, a quarterly
publication of the UUA that contains news and information on the world-wide UU community.

In our recent past some members have elected to change their status from member to friend, or some friends have chosen not to become members, in order to “save money for the Fellowship” by not being included in the membership report that determines national and district dues. The Board of Trustees has never encouraged this practice as a matter of economy. Also, pending changes in the way that the UUA assesses the annual Fair Share contribution from each member congregation will remove this measure as a factor in determining the required annual contribution, so there will be no “savings” to the Fellowship associated with such action. The Board of Trustees recently approved a policy of reinstating, upon request, members who had chosen to change their status for this or any other reason.

The classification of Friend raises a second question: “How do the benefits and obligations of membership differ from affiliation as a Friend?” The Bylaws address this issue by providing that only members can vote in elections and on matters of policy that come before the congregation. Also, service in elective positions, such as officers, trustees and members of elective Congregational Committees, requires membership in the congregation. While both members and friends are expected to take an active part in the activities, financial support and congregational life of the Fellowship, the governance of the Fellowship is reserved to its members.

So the objective distinction between members and friends of SUUF boils down to governance. Who can participate in decisions about what programs and activities the Fellowship will pursue and support? Who approves the annual budget of the Fellowship? Who can vote on and serve as elected representatives of the Fellowship? Who determines the Mission, Vision and Covenant of the Fellowship? Who votes on deciding whether and when to issue a call to a minister? Who participates in making decisions about who we are as a Fellowship? These are all the prerogatives of the membership.

Persons undecided about becoming members might take the position, “Well, I’ll just wait and see what kind of programs and activities they come up with and decide whether I want to participate.” But I submit that there’s more than that to the decision. By choosing to become a member of this or any UU congregation a person:

1) affirms their acceptance and support of the Seven Principles that define UUs,
2) covenants with fellow members to employ the Principles as a guide for personal behavior.

It is a promise to behave in a manner that helps to bend the arc of history towards a more just and equitable world. It is a public acknowledgement by each person that “This is who I am”. You are who you are whether you choose to be a member or not. But it is human nature to seek out the company of like-minded companions with whom to associate for the purpose of working together to accomplish common goals and reinforcing values held in common. Our voices are louder, our influence is greater and we face life with greater confidence by acting in concert with one another.

Here’s my hand; if you hear our music, come join our dance.