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The Rise of Institutional Pluralism in Unity

The Human Side of Unity
The Human Side of Unity

Mark Hicks

When you hear cats fighting in the alley in the middle of the night it usually means you have kittens on the way.

This quote came from a book called The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Rodney Stark is arguably the premier religious studies scholar of our time. He has been at it for over fifty years and his work has withstood the test of time. Stark has written about many aspects of religion and I have adopted his findings in a study of why religious movements thrive and what contributes to religious commitment.

In this post I want to share with you how his findings apply to two things that are presently going on in Unity: the emergence of an independent association of Unity ministers known as the IAMU and the shift of education from "the school" to "the association".

Why Sects Lead to Vibrant Growth

None of us would be here if it hadn't been for Paul of Tarsus traveling around the areas of Asia Minor and Greece, establishing religious communities that were independent of the home office in Jerusalem, run by James and Peter. In the eyes of James and Peter, Paul was a troublemaker. Much of Paul's writings sound like cats fighting in the alley in the middle of the night. But by the time the Romans had wiped out the temple, the Jewish religious establishment and the conservative Jerusalem church, Paul's independent churches were the only Christian communities left standing. The kittens had survived and were free to proliferate.

None of us would be here if it hadn't been for the 1740 Great Awakening to Religious Experience and the 1830 Transcendentalist escape from orthodoxy. To the Calvinist establishment of the 1700's and to the Unitarian establishment of the 1800's these movements sounded like cats fighting in the alley. Today we have Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, remnants of Calvinism and Unitarianism, promoting New Thought concepts daily in modern media.

None of us would be here if it hadn't been for Ursula Gestefeld and Emma Curtis Hopkins and her renegade school in Chicago, establishing and ordaining the multiple spiritual pathways, independent of Mary Baker Eddy and the home office of Christian Science in Boston. Mrs. Eddy was not happy and the legal proceedings were severe. Again, the cats in the alley were fighting in the middle of the night. We now have Christian Science reading rooms throughout American cities, well-funded, but quiet and seeming to be a dormant remnant of a lost era. But we also have underfunded, hardscrabble kitten communities sprouting up all over the place in Unity. I prefer Unity.

Finally, none of us would be here if it hadn't been for Charles Fillmore declaring that the sectarian nature of Unity was essential for "the expansion and growth of mankind to the knowledge of the Christ consciousness." Here is a 1913 Unity reply to an inquirer:

We judge from your letter that the Truth as it is in Christ is what you want to teach, and we would say to you that the place to begin is just where you are. Speak the Truth fearlessly and let God take care of the results. ... If it splits the church, well and good; for all the old creeds and dogmas and forms and ceremonies that have been built up in the name of Christianity, during the past ages of ignorance, must be broken down and swept entirely away, that Christ may be all in all.

Charles Fillmore's call for a "universal church of Christ" that transcends the school and the association should comfort those who grieve about the sound of cats fighting in Unity. Kittens are on the way!

The Rise of Institutional Pluralism in Unity

Unity School, now known as Unity World Headquarters, and the Association of Unity Churches, now known as Unity Worldwide Ministries, are not going away. Unity Village is not going away, nor is Unity Institute, nor the Library and Archives, nor the Education Building. They aren't going anywhere. They are just being set free.

What we are witnessing is the break-up of a Vatican-style consciousness which seems to take hold of religious movements as they evolve into the well-known process of becoming a religious monument.

In 1966 Charles R. Fillmore recognized that the field ministries of Unity would be best served by allowing them to form their own organization to tend to their own needs and aspirations. That was the first step toward institutional pluralism in Unity.

However what was organized in 1966 was more of a guild of ministers than an association of Unity churches. Here is how things were described by Dell DeChant in 1993:

Unity conforms to the clerical model of leadership, in which members of a professional class (clergy) monopolize knowledge and power in such a way as to disempower nonprofessionals (laity). In Unity the disempowerment of persons is predicated on their political disenfranchisement. Since only churches led by ministers sanctioned by the AUC are recognized as Unity churches, and since political power within the AUC can only be exercised by the ministers, the laity is wholly dependent on the clergy. This dependency is most obviously a political dependency since the laity has no voice in the movement beyond the voice of its clerical representatives. Political dependency broadens into religious dependency because church membership in the Association of Unity Churches is contingent on clerical leadership. One cannot be part of a Unity church, and hence a public participant in the religion, unless the church is led by a member of the professional elite of the AUC; and since this professional elite has exclusive control over formal religious activities and services, the public religious life of Unity members is dependent on their recognizing the formal religious authority of the minister who leads their church. pp.117-118

I was stunned when I first read this depiction of the early days of the Association of Unity Churches. It shows how far the status of Unity ministers has fallen in twenty years. No wonder ministers are frustrated.

If anyone is disempowered today, it is the Unity ministers. Many of them are unable to find work, most opportunities do not pay a living wage, a substantial number of churches have elected to forego having an ordained Unity minister or have chosen a licensed teacher, and several have gone with some crazy New Age guru. Many feel threatened by strong boards of trustees and a substantial number feel under-represented by UWM.

I do not know of any group of professionals who do not have their own organization that looks out for its own best interests. The emergence of the Independent Alliance of Ministers in Unity (renamed to Unity Minister's Alliance in 2023) is a sign of rising institutional pluralism in Unity. It is a recognition that those who are in the profession of ordained ministers who serve Unity congregations have needs and aspirations that are best served by their own organization, rather than by Unity Worldwide Ministries, which, as it's name implies, serves the needs and aspirations of congregational churches.

That the IAMU got distracted early on in fights over the CLMRS review system is normal, healthy and to be expected. Fundamentally, the cats who were fighting in the alley in the middle of the night were ministers, not churches; and what they were fighting about were the professional interests of ministers. From that fight we see the emergence of an organization with a very healthy mission of "ministers serving ministers." I am confident that in time they will take on the role of policing themselves and regulating the ordination process.

In the end, we will wind up a Unity movement that stands on three legs: Unity school, Unity Worldwide Ministries and IAMU (or whatever it evolves to be). That brings us to the hand off of education from Unity school to UWM.

The Need for Multiple Schools

Handing off Unity education to UWM poses a big risk. And the risk that Unity HQ has created is not handing off education; rather it is handing off education to Unity Worldwide Ministries.

Unity World HQ could have spawned Unity Institute off as an independent school. If it had done so, then the new, independent Unity Institute might have been in a better position to achieve accreditation and we would have seen another healthy example of institutional pluralism in Unity. It is not too late for UWM to recognize this opportunity.

How do things look now that UWM has inherited Unity Institute? In the July 2015 conference call it was said that "UWM shall exercise UWM’s authority over all formal Unity educational activities to provide credentials, training, preparation or support for Unity ministries or credentialed Unity spiritual leaders as part of the Unity movement." This seems to me to be Vatican-style thinking, for a number of reasons:

First is the training of licensed teachers. Up until now churches have accepted a curriculum dictated by Unity school. But that authority to arbitrarily set what is taught in SEE will come under a much more democratic process once the program is free from Unity school. Licensed teachers and other unpaid paraprofessionals are the lifeblood of Unity congregations. Churches, their ministers and licensed teachers now have a place at the table regarding the curriculum. That is healthy. And they are unlikely to like submitting to UWM's "authority" any more than they liked submitting to Unity school's authority.

Second, it is likely that the Unity ministers will be much more assertive in the content and format of ministerial education. Some professional associations, like airline pilots, pretty much do as their told. But others, like teachers, doctors, and lawyers, set their own standards regarding training. I suspect that Unity ministers fit closer to the category of teachers and doctors.

But the big risk in handing off education to UWM is that UWM has now relinquished its opportunity to be an impartial judge of which independent educational programs ought to be acceptable for Unity training. Most denominations have multiple seminaries. Unity has two: Unity Institute and the Unity Urban Ministerial School. There are other well-respected programs, including the Johnnie Colemon school, the Mays New Thought School, the Interfaith seminary and all the accredited seminaries that offer MDIV degrees.

UWM had an opportunity to be an impartial judge of which programs would be acceptable training paths for Unity ministry. Unity could have had a dozen programs, each serving a diverse variety of needs and interests. But now that the UWM is in the education business, it can no longer claim to be impartial. UWM could privilege its own program over the Unity Urban Ministerial School and other alternatives. Will it do so? I am not saying that it will, only that it has lost the opportunity to claim impartiality. I believe we are about to hear more cats fighting it out in the alley.

Unity and Licensed Unity Teachers

Until the 1920’s, the training and credentialing of Unity teachers focused on the need to have trained leaders in the “great educational movement inaugurated by Jesus Christ.” The role of Unity teachers was the development of centers of study of the teachings of practical Christianity and the focus of their work was on the development of “disciples” of the teachings of the Fillmores. It is no wonder that the mission of Unity licensed teachers sounds similar to the mission of Unity school. Both are educational in nature and both focus on discipleship, or "spiritual formation". Licensed teachers were in a sense missionaries who augmented the work of Unity publications as field lecturers in the early days of Unity.

As Unity school has somewhat abdicated its role in “great educational movement inaugurated by Jesus Christ” we should now see licensed teachers stepping up to provide leadership in engaging culture with the Unity message. I do not believe that UWM nor the Unity ministers have done an adequate job in doing that. Their mission has been pastoring and leading churches, not culture. They have painted themselves into a narrow niche market, in my opinion.

As I mentioned above, the Unity movement stands on three legs, the school, the association and the ministers. Licensed teachers have a common interest and mission with the school. As the school withdraws, teachers need to step up. I am not yet proposing the establishment of another independent institution in Unity that represents the interests of licensed teachers. Nor do I suggest that licensed teachers seek ordination or try to run churches. When they do that they too often wind up in the weeds. That is not their strength.

But I do suggest that the needs and aspirations of licensed teachers are distinct and recognizable and that the church's dependency on licensed teachers to foster discipleship will grow as the role of Unity school in spiritual formation diminishes. UWM and Unity ministers need to rethink what role and relationship they wish to have with licensed teachers. Licensed teachers are now at the table and in time their role will foster another instance of institutional pluralism in Unity.


You can listen to Eric Butterworth speak about how religious movements evolve in five steps from being a man with a message to an inspired movement that eventually crystalizes in machine-like fashion to become a monument to something no one cares about any longer. And you can read in The Churching of America how the rise of denominational control killed the explosive growth of Methodism in America after 1850. It doesn't have to be that way.

Successful religious movements shift from monolithic structures to institutional pluralism. They replace a Vatican-style form of organization and governance with multiple, independent and free organizations that seem to be out of control. But they aren't out of control at all. They are free and the their freedom is the ability to compete in a religious marketplace based on the Principle of Giving and Receiving. No one is privileged, no one is protected. Everyone serves and if one organization fails then it doesn't bring down the entire movement.

I understand how distressing it can be to hear the cats fighting in the alley in the middle of the night. But what I hear are people who want to serve claiming for themselves the right and the intention to serve in new and innovative ways. As Kojak once said, "Meow, Baby!"

Mark Hicks
September 6, 2015

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