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Salvation by Committee – 3/27/2011

I was at a meeting of our Building committee recently where we talked about a bit of repair work that needed to be done on the light fixtures that hang way up above the front doors of our meetinghouse. The lights are powerful enough and set up high enough that fixing them was more complicated than grabbing a foot-stool and a few fresh 40-watt bulbs. As always, that capable and dedicated band of volunteers were on the case and a plan to effect the needed repair was made without incident or delay. Still, I could not help musing to myself on the obvious question that the situation posed: “how many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?” Does anyone have a good answer for this one?

I’ve heard a number of punch lines to match this set-up, and one of them goes like this: “It takes twenty UUs to change a light bulb: Seven to form a committee to discuss the ecological implications of compact fluorescent vs. incandescent bulbs, six to form a committee to discuss labor practices, six on the aesthetics committee to discuss the exact tint and wattage, and one who goes ahead and does it without consulting anyone else.”[i]

We Unitarian Universalists do have a penchant for forming committees. Like potluck suppers, good coffee and the absence of Hell, doing work by committee is one of the hallmarks of our spiritual communities. Out there in the larger world there is a pernicious idea that giving any sort of task to a committee of people is at best a waste of time and at worst a way of insuring that no one will be satisfied with the result. The saying goes that a camel is a horse designed by committee. This is supposed to be a hit against both committees and camels, presumably by someone who has never tried to cross a desert on horseback.

There are some real reasons for this bad reputation. In modern business, and in government, committees are sometimes formed with the express purpose of failure – a way to appear to be addressing a problem, while ensuring that no one will have the power or collective will to solve it. More often, a committee of public officials or corporate employees is not intended to fail, but it is destined in that direction because the rules and the process that govern it completely overwhelm the purpose it was meant to serve. And so the very idea of the committee has become associated with dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The science fiction author Stanislaw Lem, who wrote in the context of Communist Poland, had much to say about bureaucracies run on broken wheels. In the first chapter of his novel The Star Diaries, the protagonist, Ijon Tichy finds himself careening through space in a rocket ship with a broken rudder. Passing through a region known for its strange, time-distorting vortexes, Tichy is faced with an unusual problem: he keeps running into himself. As days and weeks bend and fold back on each other, the rocket ship becomes more and more crowded with past and future versions of the hapless pilot. Unfortunately, Tichy finds that he and his selves from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and points beyond and before do not get along very well. Whenever they meet, he and his dopplegangers have an argument over who should be the one to fix the broken rudder, they squabble over the spacesuit needed to do the job, or they come to blows over the ship’s dwindling supply of chocolate.

Eventually, so many copies of the same person from different times have piled up in one place that the group resorts to parliamentary procedure to establish some order. The oldest of them – who claimed to be from next year – was elected chairman by popular acclaim, and, as Lem writes, “We then appointed an elective committee, a nominating committee, and a committee for new business, and four of us from next month were made sergeants at arms.” Finally there seems to be some possibility of cooperation, rather than Tichy’s working constantly against himself. But things do not go as planned. New wrinkles in time keep changing the size of the group, and so the bylaws must be constantly revised to set new requirements for quorum, and a new slate of officers chosen to replace the ones that have disappeared. The disruptions in time grow more serious as Tichys from far in the past and future – children and very old men – begin to arrive.

The problem is finally solved only when two of the youngest Tichys sneak off while their grown-up versions are arguing and both climb into the only spacesuit, one boy standing on the other’s shoulders. Together, they repair the rudder, and the population of the rocket goes back down to just one Ijon Tichy, no longer lost in time. This is the common perception of what committees are all about: wasting time with discussion while someone else shows the courage to act decisively.

Friends, I am here to tell you that that common perception is wrong. There are many ways to misuse and abuse the idea of the committee, as with any other scheme for organizing human beings. But the solution to the perversion of an ideal is not to abandon it, but to redeem it. Working in committees is fundamental to who we are and what we are about as Unitarian Universalists – in fact, they are essential to our collective salvation. So particularly on this day when we have honored and welcomed the newest members of our faith community, it seems right that some special introduction should be made to that holy assemblage, the committee.

Ours is a free faith. It cannot be established in the heart or the mind by coercion, nor would it seek to be, and our meetinghouses are assemblies of equals. There is no spiritual hierarchy accepted here, no division between the reprobate and the elect. We pursue democracy with reverence, and treat the elements of its practice as sacraments. We have inherited this attitude in large part from our Puritan ancestors, including the ones that founded this congregation. Puritanism in America is associated with many characteristics that we no longer admire: humorlessness, doctrinal rigidity, abject confusion between church and state and, of course, the whole Witch Trial business that still drives the annual economy of the settlement to our immediate South. But the Puritans, who variously fled and were expelled from the Church of England in the 15 and 1600s, formed their own religious communities on staunchly egalitarian ideals. In framing the Puritan influence on the system of government in the United States, the historian A.S.P. Woodhouse has said that,

The congregation was the school of democracy. There the humblest member might hear, and join in the debate, might witness the discovery of the natural leader, and participate in that curious process by which there emerges from the clash of many minds a vision clearer and a determination wiser than any single mind could achieve.[ii]

It is here, in the basic work of struggling to live with one another in the democratic spirit that our penchant for committees first emerges. A committee is a group of people who work together with a common purpose. Usually, they are a subset of some larger grouping: a business, a legislature, or in our case a congregation. But always – and this is a critical and tragically overlooked element – always they are gatherings of equals. There may be different roles and responsibilities in the group, but in order to be effective, everyone involved must be free to contribute what they have to offer.

In a democratic community such as ours, committees become the basis of how almost everything gets done. We might play around with their names: call them task forces or working groups. They might be formally elected by the whole group, or be as informal as whoever shows up to wash the walls of the sanctuary on a Saturday morning. But these are still groups of people coming together freely to serve a common need. And so out of the need to get things done in a way that is horizontal rather than vertical, based on many people becoming powerful by working together, rather than a few people exercising power by telling others what to do, we have formed into committees. But once we begin to work together, something wonderful takes place.

When I was a teenage Unitarian Universalist, I served on my congregation’s Religious Education committee. We met every month over a lit chalice and a homebaked snack. That congregation had a practice, begun during the AIDS pandemic, of distributing free condoms in all of its restrooms. Sometimes during our committee meetings we would prepare little packets containing one condom, one set of instructions and one information sheet on preventing sexually transmitted diseases. I remember folding the sheets of paper and packing everything into the little sealable plastic bags while we talked about curricula and teacher training. I had been a part of that congregation my whole life up to that point, but serving on that committee was what really made me feel like a member. The group depended on each of us working hard, thinking carefully, and bringing our gifts to the situation at hand. Knowing that my contribution mattered gave me confidence, it made me care more, it made me want to do more. It was good for my soul.

The Rev. Eric Walker Wilkstrom published a book last year on the spiritual practice of lay leadership. In it, he offers several ways to cultivate the sense of holiness that can come with serving on a committee in a religious context. One of the points he raises is that, at any meeting, in any discussion on any issue, there are important things that need to be said. But it is the quality of the ideas that matter – not who offers them. One of the gifts that committee work can offer is the opportunity to calibrate the balance of silence and speech in our own lives. When the group is already finding the wisdom it needs from another member, listening and choosing not to speak, is itself a contribution.[iii]

Nearly all religions affirm that we need to gather together into groups in order to best practice our faith. In Judaism, for instance, a minyan, a sort of spiritual quorum is required in order to properly perform many prayers and rites. Some number of worshippers, in most cases ten, is required in order to pray in public or bless a wedding, for instance. There are certain levels of holiness that no one person can reach all on their own.

Our own tradition as Unitarian Universalists has a particular take on this. James Luther Adams, one of our great theologians of the last century, put it something like this. Simply to be good as individuals is not enough. Goodness in a person is never fully realized, it cannot reach its greatest height, until it has been turned into some collective good. We may be gentle, and patient, and wise and kind, but unless we have pooled those qualities with others, working together to build kind institutions and wise organizations, we will be neglecting the deep calling of our faith. Unitarian Universalism is not a religion of small ambitions; the purpose of our tradition is to save the world; not from a fiery afterlife or an angry God, but from meaninglessness and despair, and all the anguish and injustice wrought by humans treating other human beings inhumanly.

James Luther Adams used to tell a story about a time during the civil rights era when he was a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. There was another member of that board who complained often that their minister’s preaching spent too much time on racial issues – that it was too political and ought to be more realistic. “Realism” seemed to be a euphemism for not making trouble, or trying to drum up sympathy for ‘those people.’ One night at a board meeting, this man started in to it again, and the rest of the group gave it right back to him. Someone challenged him to explain what the purpose of a church was. After attacks and defenses and dodging the question and trying to beg off, by the time it had gotten to be one in the morning, as Adams puts it, the man “became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge.” His final answer was, “The purpose of a church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”[iv]

The purpose of a congregation is to get hold of people like me, and you, and you and you and you, and change us. Help us move from what we are to what we can be. And we seek to get a hold not just of the people in here, not just to be looking always and only inside, but to reach out to people beyond our walls as well. As we change ourselves, we also change the world, and as we change the world, we change ourselves anew.

So this congregation, you will find, is full of committees. For holistic leadership, we have our Board of Trustees, and together with them come a whole mess of other formal committees. We have them to help us care for our building, to challenge and organize us to work for social justice, and to help us in caring for members and friends in their hour of need. We have also many committees that do not go by that name: the groups of teachers who are helping to rear a new generation of Unitarian Universalists in our Sunday school every week. The bands of volunteers who serve in our Tuesday night supper program. The choir; our committee of song. Each of our covenant groups is a committee on spiritual and emotional matters, digging deep into our own lives in order to build connections with others and better understand what we believe.

We work together because it helps to save us from the lonesome separateness that afflicts our wider society, and because working together is the best way we know how to do our part to save the world.

In the time-twisted story of Ijon Tichy, when the rocket was damaged and hurtling through space and all his older selves were so busy arguing pointlessly, it was two of the youngest who snuck off and fixed the problem on their own. But I do not take that as a condemnation of collective decision making. It took two of them, working together, to fix the ship. So the moral is not the stagnating influence of public debate, but the saving power of the committee.


[i] http://scuu.org/site/content/elevator-speeches

[ii] A.S.P. Woodhouse, from Puritans and Liberty, quoted by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker in her essay, “What They Dreamed Be Ours to Do,” collected in Redeeming Time (Walter P. Herz, editor).

[iii] Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, Serving With Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice

[iv] From the sermon “Fishing with Nets,” in The Prophethood of All Believers, by James Luther Adams, ed. George K. Beach

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