Congregational Polity

Unitarian Universalists have congregational polity. If you don’t know what that means, it’s worth knowing. So today's blog will review the basics of polity in faith-based organizations. It's crucial to understanding authority in those institutions. Polity addresses such questions as who has the authority to ordain a spiritual leader, install such leaders in a congregation, start up new congregations, close congregations, relocate a congregation?

The three main forms of church governance, or polity, are congregational, Episcopal, and Presbyterian.

In Episcopal polity, the chief authority over a local congregation is the bishop. The bishop appoints the spiritual leader (priest, vicar, minister, rector), and a person becomes eligible for such appointment by seeking ordination from a bishop. Bishops oversee various other matters of church operation, and the church property, under full Episcopal polity, would be owned by the diocese. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican churches, and a number of Lutheran churches have Episcopal polity.

In Presbyterian polity, local churches are ruled by assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Reformed churches and Presbyterian churches have this kind of polity.

In congregational polity, each congregation is autonomous. Unitarian Universalists, along with Baptists, Christian (Disciples of Christ), and United Church of Christ, have congregational polity. The congregation, by whatever process its own members decided to have, makes its own budget, raises all its own funds, makes its own bylaws, hires its own staff, owns its own property, and makes its own decisions about buying, building on, or selling its property.

Under congregational polity, the congregation, not the bishops or the presbytery, has the authority to ordain. (On Sun Jan 26, Community Unitarian Church hosted an ordination service for Lara Campbell – now Rev. Lara Campbell. If you were able to witness that, you saw that ordination is not conferred by a hierarchy but by a congregation – in this case by two congregations, the Mt. Kisco congregation and the Church of the Larger Fellowship.) Ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, a.k.a. clergy, is not conferred by any higher authority, because under congregational polity, there is no higher authority.

In the Unitarian Universalist system, we also have a thing called ministerial Fellowship, which is governed by the central authority, the UUA, Unitarian Universalist Association, in Boston. (This is basic church stuff, and it’s not terribly exciting, but some of you might not know this, and I think we all need to.) While a local congregation can exercise its own authority to ordain – using any standards, or no standards, as it sees fit -- admittance into ministerial Fellowship has very specific standards, including a Masters of Divinity degree, an internship, several rounds of psychological and career assessment, a unit of clinical pastoral education, and passing an interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

When Community Unitarian Church needed a minister, there was no bishop or presbytery to simply send one. CUC had to form a search committee of its own members which selected a candidate who was then called by a vote of all members. As a matter of congregational polity, you were free to call anyone you deemed right for you. Unitarian Universalists congregations don’t have to choose a minister and at all – and many of our smaller ones don’t. If a congregation does choose to call a minister, almost always it chooses someone who is both ordained and Fellowshipped, but this is not a requirement. Congregations may, and sometimes do, call a minister who is ordained but not Fellowshipped, Fellowshipped but not ordained, or neither Fellowshipped nor ordained. I learned a couple days ago that a UU congregation out in Michigan this year called a Jewish rabbi to be their minister. Interesting. It can happen. That’s how we roll.

Ministerial Fellowship is a stamp of approval from a centralized authority that is known to be very careful about who it approves. That credentialing is often very helpful for congregations looking for a minister, but not always.

Some years ago, I was chatting with an Episcopalian rector and we were talking about the differences in our church governance. He shook his head at this concept of congregational polity. He said, “that’s letting the inmates run the asylum, isn’t it?” I had to laugh because, it’s funny, yet kinda true, because sometimes things do get a bit crazy in congregational life. Still, we’re all in this asylum together. There’s nobody here but us inmates. We’re all crazy, and sanity, if we find it, emerges from our collective support for the best in each other.

I should hasten to note that, in practice, the differences between these forms of church governance are smaller than the formal description implies. Under our congregational polity, the congregation officially has the authority, but, when calling a minister, for instance, something like 97 percent of the time, they choose someone who is Fellowshipped – so there’s a lot of de facto authority resting in that centralized Fellowshipping agency. We can sing any songs we want to, but every Unitarian Universalist congregation I’ve ever been in uses the same hymnal – so there’s more de facto authority in our UUA, which assembled and publishes the hymnal.

And under Episcopal or Presbyterian polity, there’s a hierarchy with the formal authority, but they know it’s wise to listen carefully to the local congregation – so there’s a lot of de facto authority resting in the congregation. So in practical terms, the differences are really rather small.

Still, we have this congregational polity and we exercise it in a lot of ways. And congregational polity means the members own the congregation, right?

Earlier, I said, ordination "is not conferred by any higher authority, because under congregational polity, there is no higher authority."

Let me amend that. Actually, I think there is.

Next: The "higher authority"!

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Who's In Charge Here?"
Next: Part 3: "The Day Things Changed at CUC"
Previous: Part 1: "Who's In Charge Here?"

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