The nuances of authority are important to understand when investigating the appeal Unity has for mystic individualists who value personal control and experience. As shown in Chapter V, Unity has transferred almost all perceived authority to the individual, who must choose whether or not to follow the philosophy. With that authority comes individual responsibility for the spiritual results. If the individual does not reap spiritual rewards, the flaw is not in the philosophy but in the execution of it. Unity philosophy, therefore, is not for scapegoat-hunters who are looking for something or someone to take the blame for their misery.
For many participants, Unity has been able to maintain a perception that it has no dogma and no hierarchy. In reality, Unity as a church does have a great deal of influence over individuals, as shown by the almost uniform conformity of belief among participants in Unity's fundamental teachings. Furthermore, most people who attend Unity churches probably realize that there is a church hierarchy, although they might not know specifically about their own church's Board of Trustees or the Association of Unity Churches. What they value is the perceived lack of edicts and rules which are handed down to the church communities and individuals, as well as a lack of bureaucratic red tape within the church. In addition, they value the fact that there are few, if any, demands made of participants in terms of belief, time, money or membership.
As the movement continues to grow, however, Unity will find itself faced with the necessity to place further limitations on its churches and other arms of the movement in order to maintain the central belief system. As the Association of Unity Churches grows, which it needs to do in order to serve the growing number of churches, the leadership should be certain that any limitations placed on individuals through the churches are absolutely necessary. The amount of strictness and authority which Unity adopts will have tradeoffs for the organization. A more strict approach may lead to a more committed congregation with fewer free riders, as Iannaccone (1994/1996) suggests. However, the movement could not become more strict without losing the doctrine of individual choice, which is firmly enmeshed in the Unity philosophy. In fact, it is possible that the loss of the emphasis on individual choice would alienate current participants so strongly that the negative effect on the organization as a whole would be much worse than the existence of free riders in the congregation. Therefore, Unity must prepare to have large numbers of noncommitted participants in its congregations and continue to develop ways to encourage participation without the perception of strictness.
In addition, the potential for divisive conflict exists between the Unity School of Christianity, which runs Silent Unity and the publishing ministries, and the Association of Unity Churches, which caters to the needs of ministers and their congregations. The goals of these two organizations are quite different, and have clashed in the past. For example, some Unity ministers have complained that Jesus Christ is being taken out of Daily Word in order to soften the message so it will be appealing to people of other religions. Jafolla denies that Jesus Christ has been taken out, but acknowledges that Silent Unity is attempting to universalize the language as part of their outreach efforts. "Silent Unity is really non-denominational. In Daily Word rather than talking about Christianity as being the one and only, we want to be more inclusive. We're being very true to the Unity beliefs without being exclusive" (Jafolla, 1996). Silent Unity's goal, which is aligned with the Fillmore's original intent for Silent Unity, is not to convert people, but to offer them a positive prayer philosophy as well as membership in a global prayer community. The Unity School leaders therefore see a need to "universalize" the message, which they see as an introduction to Unity and New Thought philosophy for many people. Some ministers, on the other hand, have a goal of maintaining the integrity of the original message while at the same time attracting new members. For this reason, they would prefer that Daily Word retain its Christian focus. Overall, however, the Association is much more unstructured and allows more diversity of thought than Unity School.
As long as the disagreements between Unity School and the Association do not become insurmountable, the divisions between the two organizations can continue to be a strength to the organization as a whole. Unity School and the Association serve different purposes to the community of Unity believers, and together they are able to reach a much wider range of people than they would separately. The surprising statistic that only 4 percent of people who use Silent Unity or read Daily Word are affiliated with a Unity church (Jafolla, 1997) attests to the broad reach of the organization as a whole. Unity School is a good source of spiritual nourishment for those who don't want to be involved in a Unity church, whether it is because they are fed up with churches in general or because they are comfortable in the community they find in another denomination or religion. Others, who may have family and friends who view Unity negatively, may want to avoid the stigma of attending a Unity Church. They can read Unity publications, call Silent Unity for support and attend retreats if they need to capture the effervescent feeling of group worship. Unity Churches, on the other hand, are good for those who want a community and enjoy searching the path with a group of people with whom they can speak freely.
The challenge which remains for Unity School is how to be appealing to the masses without losing content and importance, and without alienating its own churches. Although the mission to reach as many people as possible is a worthy goal, Unity School must be certain that the message doesn't get universalized so much that it no longer means anything.
The churches face a different set of challenges. As outlined in Chapter IV, increasingly more bureaucracy is needed as a church movement grows, and Unity is no exception. The Association of Unity Churches needs to decide what is important enough to fight for, and continue its attitude of flexibility in other areas. In order to maintain its appeal as a church with the perception of no authority, the Association should avoid McDonald-like conformity, but allow for rules which would provide consistency between different communities.
Furthermore, it is at the level of the individual church that the most hierarchy and bureaucracy will be seen by participants. Paul, for example, worked for a large Unity church for three years and said it experienced the same power struggles and hierarchical troubles that any organization experiences. The problem, he said, was that he became disillusioned when he realized that Unity principles were not always put into practice by the leaders.
I would put people on pedestals too. You know, I think "Okay, this is a leader, or this is the person that's running this organization, so they should be more spiritual than I am." So here I am, I'm not that spiritual and I'm doing better than they are. I'm not screaming and yelling and cussing at people and doing all this stuff that is seen in the background of an organization. Then on Sunday we're all smiling and everything is rosy and really good. You know, it was just a handful of people. There are a lot of people running the organization. They get stressed out, and it has to do with fear and control. I think you'd find that in any type of organization. It's not something that people like to talk about too much, but it does exist at certain levels. It's because we're human. . . . I always tried to debate in my mind: how strong does the ego have to be, you know. If we're serving God and stuff we'd be more humble and soft-spoken, we wouldn't try to exert our power and control over people. But I found this to be, when people start leading organizations, and I didn't really care for it.
The problem of hierarchy and hypocrisy mentioned by Paul is not an inherent problem of the church itself, but the result of a specific managerial style or personality of a certain minister or ministers.
In addition, Paul attended a church with between 1,500 and 2,000 participants. Logistically, it would be difficult for a minister to avoid setting rules and regulations in a church this size. The problem as a church gets larger is that, of necessity, there must be more hierarchy and more rules, which in turn could make the church less attractive to some. The talent that a minister must have, then, is being able to set rules and enforce them in a way that does not feel dictatorial to the participants.
As in other denominations, many Unity consumers shop for ministers rather than churches. In Unity, ministers are challenged to provide practical application of Unity principles and to present the philosophy with confidence in its truth and provability while at the same time respecting other religions. As explained in Chapter IV, it is also the minister who carries the responsibility for creating a truly welcoming and accepting atmosphere in the church. The importance of the minister cannot be understated, especially with individualist religious seekers, because if they don't like what they hear they will take their business elsewhere.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.