Consumerist Unitarian Universalism

We’ve all witnessed it: congregations dominated by those who expect to receive a product in exchange for their pledge. They expect that the minister and the board will kowtow to their every demand and, directly or indirectly, threaten to withdraw their pledge or cease attending if they don’t feel like we’re living up to their expectations. Too often, leaders feel like they have to give in to these demands, and the church suffers for it every time.

I’m defining consumerism here as an obsession on using stuff, those items defined very loosely. For example, a person who has to have all the latest gadgets, the newest car, and the best clothes merely for the social status they’re afforded could be thought of as being consumerist. Many authors, from Naomi Klein to Noam Chomsky to the Adbusters Collective have written about the dangers and spiritual hollowness inherent in consumerism, so I won’t repeat their arguments here. Suffice it to say, consumerism is destructive to body, mind, and soul if left unchecked.

We sometimes think of consumerism merely as the consumption of material goods. This misses the real danger of consumerism: viewing our lives merely through what other people and institutions can give us. It’s not that we shouldn’t get anything out of going to church, but when we hold institutions in emotional hostage because a narrow set of expectations has not been met, we do everyone a disservice.

Catholic mystic Richard Rohr once said:

Most Christian ‘believers’ tend to echo the cultural prejudices and worldviews of the dominant group in their country, with only a minority revealing any real transformation of attitudes or consciousness. It has been true of slavery and racism, classism and consumerism and issues of immigration and health care for the poor.

Rohr’s words about Christianity could have so easily been written about Unitarian Universalism as well. Most of us have, to some degree, bought into the dominant paradigms of our society, including consumerism. As a result, our attitudes bleed over into church life until our congregations look like stores where a person can “buy” our product through pledges and offering. This attitude is so inward-focused that it can scarcely see beyond itself.

Don’t believe me? Read a congregation’s search packet when they’re seeking a new minister. I’m amazed how many read like shopping lists for the qualities of the perfect “product” and how few seek a visionary who can challenge their institution to grow. So many want their churches to grow in numbers, with little focus given to the inner growth that will enable a community to live out its deepest-held values.

The irony, of course, is that there will not be any growth in numbers either as the congregation has failed to do ther own inner work.

How can we tell a church has fallen into the consumerist trap? A sure sign is the expectation that other people will put our good ideas into action, usually the board or the minister. These will usually be people who have a thousand good ideas but no desire to actually do any of them, preferring instead to make demands on other people. They will often react in anger if the their “service provider” refuses to take on all their good ideas, and their is often a lack of awareness of the boundaries on other’s time.

Consumerist Unitarian Universalism is not just about fulfilling our spiritual needs or having great ideas to improve the life of the church. It’s about expecting the congregation to give to us without the need to put in anything more than our time and money.

All of our congregations has at least a few people who have succumbed to consumerist Unitarian Universalism. It becomes a much larger problem when the desire for the perfect product dominates the mission and vision of the congregation. In my experience, consumerism creeps into the life of a congregation when the community has lost direction, often in times of great stress, anxiety, and change. It rears its head in congregations of all sorts, from small, family-sized congregations to the very large, in humanist- and theist-dominated congregations, and in urban, suburban, and rural environments.

The problem with consumerist Unitarian Universalism is that it allows one to believe the problems of the congregation are being handled without dealing with them at all. As a substitute for mission and vision, consumerist Unitarian Universalism will kill a congregation if left unchecked. The inward focus of this consumerist brand of our faith is precisely what makes it so dangerous: we learn to like ourselves so much we’re unable to see why others wouldn’t want to flock to us.

It is my belief that consumerist Unitarian Universalism is actively killing many once thriving congregations within our faith. We must counteract this trend if we are to survive.

Consumerist Unitarian Universalism can’t succeed because religion isn’t a good that can be bought and sold on the open market but, rather, a way of life. Next week, I’ll provide some suggestions on a radical model that can overcome the consumerist mentality.

Open Letter to the UUA Board of Trustees

Hello, UUA Board of Trustees,

I’m hearing that some of my colleagues have been less than generous with you regarding your appointment of three interim co-presidents to fill the gap until the election of the new president in June. I know how frustrating this must be, especially since I know you must have carefully considered how to precede in this unprecedented governance situation. Their words must hurt.

I wanted to offer my words of encouragement to you because you need to know not all of us agree with their assessment. Sofia Betancourt, Leon Spencer, and Bill Sinkford are an extremely qualified trio of people who I have every confidence will be able to develop a transition strategy to effectively pave the way for our new president. Each brings their unique skills and abilities to the table, and I have no doubt they will serve our association well, as they have in the past. I have absolutely no reservations about having the three of them at the helm for the next three months.

I also want to affirm this is not about you. From serving in parish ministry, I know that people have a tendency to act out when anxiety is high. We find ourselves at a crossroads, torn between our comfortable complacent existence and the call to live out our highest values. I’m sorry you’re being caught in the middle of it, and I want you to know I’m here to advocate for you in any way I can as I think you have handled this crisis the best anyone could possibly expect of you.

I hope my colleagues will take some deep breathes and examine the beams in their own eyes. Where we should be focusing as an institution right now is not on the board or our interim co-presidents, but rather on what we will expect out of the next administration. Three qualified people currently stand for the office, and I sincerely hope we can use this moment in time to clarify who we are as an institution and where we will go in the future rather than being bogged down in the same old tired debates of white supremacy.

I fear that, if we continue this path of anxiety, it will tear us apart in a controversy the likes of which have not been seen in decades. This moment is an opportunity for us, and I know that Revs. Bentancourt and Sinkford and Dr. Spencer will provide the leadership needed to move forward. The hard work is up to us, though, and, in order to do this, we must move beyond the second guessing of three very good appointments.

Again, my love and support to you in all that you do. It is not an easy time to serve our association, but your leadership is needed now more than ever. You are in my prayers in all that you do.

In faith,
Rev. Chris Rothbauer
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Houghton, Michigan