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Preface to “Polity Among the UUs,” by Patricia Bowen

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When Peter Raible asked me to help him prepare this syllabus for a course in church polity, I confessed that I’ve never been sure I knew what “polity” was.  Peter said that polity is simply the way we are and why we are that way.  Therein lies the problem of polity.  How we are is never quite clear and certainly the “why” of it is not.  Polity is so subtle and often implicit that no matter how many attempts are made to make it obvious and explicit, confusion abounds, especially amidst our anti-authoritarian attitude

Peter says that polity involves how we organize and do things in our churches, how we govern our churches, employ our ministers, how we relate to others churches and a wider movement.  It is that, but so much more.  The subtlety of polity, especially after two centuries and two denominations merging, is often difficult to discern.  Without the ability to do that, one can get into trouble. This course is offered to help our students avoid such trouble once they are out in the parish as ministers.

The questions that I hope students will ask of themselves as they peruse these pages are. What does all- this have to do with me? What will it mean in my ministry?  How will the history and heritage of polity (and it is the heritage more than it is the history that is significant) in our Unitarian Universalist churches act itself out in interaction between minister and congregation and between a congregation and its minister and the denomination? How will my awareness of all this help me avoid mistakes that could offend a congregation’s sense of self?  How can I accomplish this without violating my own integrity?

I have observed in my years of being a layperson in our congregations in Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois and Massachusetts, and in taking on the role of religious professional serving congregations in New England and the Midwest and back to New England, that most often, church fights, whether among the membership or between the members and minister, arise around polity issues and each individual’s understanding or misunderstanding of these issues.

It is my hope that this material, reading and reflecting upon it, and discussing it in class sessions, will aid the minister-to-be in preparing to confront the reality of polity in our churches, and to gain a healthy respect for the congregational nature of Universalist and Unitarian polity so as not to be “done in” by it. A minister must understand just how very ingrained polity’s implications are in the bricks and timbers of our buildings and in the hearts and heads of those individuals who dwell within those buildings, and that it can manifest itself in strange ways.

I wish for you a few epiphanies of awareness as you trudge your way through this material, some “ah ha’s” you can carry with you into your ministries, and more you will experience along the way after you arrive there.

Patricia Bowen 
Sharon, Massachusetts August, 1991