Wanted: Religious Leader. Belief in God Not Required

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

When you're a member of a religion with no scripture, no divinity school and no real denominational structure, clarifying exactly what you stand for can be complex. Now try picking someone to lead you on this undefined journey.

That's what was going on Sunday at the Washington Ethical Society on 16th Street NW, where about 60 members of the nontheistic religion called Ethical Culture gathered to eat sandwiches and carrot soup and explore a question: What are our core values?

The society was plunged into major transition because of the June retirement of its leader of 34 years. In response, the community of about 320 people has been deliberately trying to spell out its beliefs and mission as it prepares to find new leadership. On Sunday, that took the form of an intense, four-hour workshop.

"Ethics as a religion," said one man during a small, breakout session.

"Ethics as principles," another man scribbled in marker on the recycled paper "tablecloth" meant to prompt brainstorming.

"Right on, right on," said the female congregation member leading the session.

The loss of a longtime leader would be disorienting for any congregation, but for Ethical Culture communities, the process has particular challenges. Unlike the older, more established religions, the 130-year-old movement doesn't crank out clergy and catechism. And its core commitment -- to living ethically -- is by design individually defined and liberal.

"We have this constant problem, which is that our fundamental idea is freedom of belief, so it doesn't exactly lead to a clear national ad campaign," said Don Montagna, retired leader of the Washington society. "That was the whole idea, and it is its strength and its weakness. That's why we have to be in constant dialogue, constantly restating what we are about."

Even the type of training Ethical Culture leaders get is very broad. The national American Ethical Union must certify them, but their course work is largely self-structured. They can believe in God but don't have to. They can have a divinity degree, but it's not necessary.

Language, too, can be a subject of debate. While Montagna refers to himself as a "minister," others in the community call him a "leader." Although the group is a religion for tax purposes, some members bristle at the word, which they associate with potentially unthinking dogma. Yet, the society organizes itself as a religion -- with a Sunday school for children, Sunday services and ritual celebrations for weddings and baby namings.

In such an environment, congregation members are the ones responsible for hammering out their leadership-succession process, rather than having it imposed on them by a religious bureaucracy. Sunday's workshop, for example, was modeled after a federal government consensus-building workshop that one of the society's members, a software consultant, had heard about. They have held other congregation-led workshops and done exercises, including trying to boil down their core values to a bumper sticker. They came up with "Good Happens," "Elicit the Best in Others and Therefore Yourself" and an Ethical Culture classic: "Deed Before Creed."

Yet as unusual as the Ethical Culture landscape is, the self-reflecting and openness and heavy congregation involvement are becoming increasingly common among religions, experts say.

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