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1st Reflection Paper: Reflections on Ministry Context: Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines

September 19, 2011                                                                   D. Min. Seminar, Pacific School of Religion

Reflections on Ministry Context:

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines


The context for my project is the local, institutional and theological manifestation of Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations on the Philippine Visayan island of Negros.

I seek to learn more about their church history (which dates only to the 1950s); their forms of worship, governance, community life, theology, and spiritual practice; their role in the leadership of and economic development in their villages and urban neighborhoods; their changing relationship to North American congregations (especially Partner Church relationships, a recent development) and their relationship to the Unitarian Universalist Association, the larger denomination which the UU Church of the Philippines joined in 1988.

Following a two-week visit to Negros Island and Manila in March of 2011, I now seek to make further visits in February of 2012 and 2013.  UU church leaders there have asked for UU ministers from North America to spend time in residence there, practicing ministry and in particular offering instruction to ordained and lay leaders in UU history and identity, religious education, church administration, and leadership development, among other topics.

Philippine History and Geography

The Philippines is the second largest island chain in the world.  It was the first western colony in Asia and the first Christian nation there.  The Spanish empire and Roman Catholic Church controlled the islands for nearly four centuries.[i] Unlike Spanish colonies in the Americas, the empire prevented Filipinos from learning Spanish.  This way, divided by multiple native languages and scattered on separate islands, Filipinos were less likely to unify themselves against their oppressors.  Today’s richest families date back to the 1500s.   Spain granted large pieces of land to its elite families, who set up dynasties on the islands and sent their kids back to Europe for expensive educations.   Resistance movements arose, but independence was not achieved until 1898, in the Spanish-American War.  The next year, a Philippine-American war made the islands an American colony (leaving 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 civilians dead).

Protestant missionaries and other teachers from the United States brought English to the masses.  Now with almost 100 million people, the Philippines is the world’s fourth largest English-speaking country.[ii]  After the Second World War, the United States gave full control of the country to Filipinos, leaving intact four centuries of wealth-inequality.  As with other poor countries, many of its citizens live and work overseas and send money home.

Religious Demographics

Over six percent of Filipinos are Muslim (most living on the large island of Mindanao), five percent are Protestant, 20 percent are listed as “indigenous Christians,” and 83 percent are Roman Catholic.  About three percent practice tribal, folk or animist religions, and folk traditions are visible in expressions of Roman Catholicism, which itself is reflected in popular culture.[iii]   On Negros Island and in Metro Manila, I noticed (in many villages and city neighborhoods) houses of worship for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, with 400,000 adherents each, and the Iglesia ni Cristo, with as many as four million members.  This evangelical movement began indigenously in 1913[iv]

Unitarian Universalism in the Philippines

There are 29 UU congregations in the Philippines, nearly all of them on the small, forested island of Negros, comprising two national provinces.  The national headquarters is in Dumaguete City (Negros Oriental), a small college city on the coast.  It has fewer cars than motorbikes, including motorcycle taxis with sidecars, known as pedi-cabs.  Most congregations are in mountain villages, with a few in coastal villages.  For money and food, the people grow rice, sugar cane, corn, root vegetables.  Some have livestock. On the coast, they fish.  Most of their ministers learned their ministries on the job, with mentoring by elders.  There’s no salary, so they have other jobs:  farmer, teacher, school principal.  The national headquarters helps with a little money and a clergy uniform—a shirt with a UU flaming chalice logo

How did this Unitarian Universalism arise in the Philippines?  In the 1950s a young man from the Visayan island of Cebu went with his Roman Catholic family to Negros.  They lived with a Presbyterian uncle, who had a Bible.  The young man read the Bible and became a Protestant.  Later he got involved with a Pentecostal movement and joined it, where he became a preacher and musician, spreading the message in villages.  By accident he found out about the Universalist Church of America, and he wrote to a congregation because his own denomination was the Iglesia Universal de Cristo.  It took a few years, but finally he got a reply, and learned the theological character of the American denomination.  Its belief in universal salvation, and in God’s parental love for all souls, resonated with his own beliefs.  This man, Toribio Quimada, kept an active relationship with the Universalists, asking for missionaries (which they didn’t have), Bibles, and religious education supplies for children.  He applied his evangelical fervor to spreading the Universalist gospel as he had his Pentecostal message. He founded churches and converted existing ones.  He recruited people (mostly men) to be ministers.

His relationship with American Universalists persisted through the 1961 merger with the Unitarian denomination.  By 1988 the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was advocating to its voting delegates that the UU Church of the Philippines be accepted as a member of the UUA.  To welcome a non-North American church entailed a revision of UUA bylaws, and led to some controversy about what such an addition would mean:  Was it perpetuating imperialism?  Was it inviting dependency?  At the UUA General Assembly in June of 1988 delegates voted to welcome the Philippine denomination as a member.

Yet a few months earlier, Toribio Quimada had died.  Because of his association with land-reform activists in Negros, he was murdered.  His daughter’s husband was the new president of the UUCP, and he took her and the family to Chicago, where he began studies for the UU ministry and they were safe from harm.  She worked in a seminary office and took some classes.  His behaviors against her (abuse, adultery) led to a separation.  She took more classes and then decided to return home to lead the church, against the advice of Filipino immigrants and even a seminary teacher.  Since then, the Rev. Rebecca Quimada Sienes has been president (or held another role) in the church headquarters.  Her son and daughter-in-law are ordained and educated ministers.   Along with other relatives and friends, they also work for headquarters.

Unitarian Universalism in the United States

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) is the result of a 1961 merger. Our 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations here are made up mostly of people who have been to college and hold professional jobs (or who did, before many became unemployed).  We are widely a white, middle-class population.  Our average church size is 150 individual adult members, with some ranging to 1,000 members.  Most churches have paid staff, or at least a minister, who holds an M. Div.  Our members are liberal and inclusive on gender and sexual orientation and mostly progressive in politics.  Theologically we are diverse:  we have no creed to which you have to agree to join a congregation.  Our worship structure appears to be Mainline Protestant, owing to our heritage.  Yet theologies in a church can include Pagan, Buddhist, liberal Christian, liberal Jewish, mystical, naturalistic theist, and Humanist.  For much of the 20th century many of our members called themselves Humanist, which meant agnostic or atheist.

Our autonomous congregations come together in the larger denomination for mutual support and a common voice on public issues.  While we have no creed for individuals, delegates to denominational assemblies have ratified (and revised) a statement of seven Unitarian Universalist Principles as well as a list of six Sources of our Living Tradition.

Congregations here voluntarily support the denominational structures financially, and we keep the denomination going.  In the Philippines, the congregations rely on headquarters for extensive practical support, guidance, and financial assistance.  (Hence the current project to raise funds to build a visionary revenue-generating project in Dumaguete City, using part of the land where headquarters is located.)

We have a thriving Partner Church Council, which links North American congregations with Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist churches in Romania, northeast India, the Philippines, and a few other countries.  A partnership includes visits (usually North Americans going overseas, but sometimes with foreign clergy visiting churches here) as well as pen-pal relationships, exchanges of gifts, and often financial support of local projects in other countries.

Much work and learning has taken place to promote these as relationships of mutuality, and not as a charitable, missionary, or other kinds of one-way connections.   Many in the Partner Church movement have learned and attempted to teach our fellow North Americans how to engage on the level of equals in the face of unequal economic conditions.  (As one colleague says, “You cannot embrace each other if your arms are too full with presents.”)

About 10 Philippine churches have partnerships with U.S. churches. I am hoping to convince the congregation I serve to commit to a partnership with a Philippine church.


How does this context shape the questions that I bring to my work? 

My topic needs more focus; the more I read the more I think of issues to research and questions to pursue.

Pastoral questions:  What is the role of the congregational minister there?  How is authority conferred, transmitted, retained, and kept in care?  How do clergy learn their calling and craft, and how do they balance ministry with their need to have income?

Institutional and governance questions:  How are congregations governed, and what is the purpose of their governance structures?  How do they feel about the effectiveness of their structures and polity?  What is the denomination’s polity?  What are the pressing issues for congregation-denomination relationships there?  (Here, we are relatively autonomous from headquarters and from our neighboring UU churches—as distant as we choose to be.)

Theological questions:  To what extent are theological claims and theological questions a part of worship, preaching and religious education for adults and children?  What are the predominant theological beliefs, and how much variety in perspectives is there within and between congregations?  What is their Christology, if they have one?  Do they identify as a Bible-based movement at this stage, and if so, how is that expressed?  To what extent would Philippine Unitarian Universalist rituals, practices or beliefs there resemble an earth-based or animist religious practice?  In what ways does a local cultural identity shape the contextual theologies?  To what extent does the practice of faith healing on Negros integrate, ignore, reject or shape UU theology there, and to what extent is it an unaltered inheritance from popular religiosity?  How deep is the integration of a core of Unitarian Universalist theology and values in these village churches?  As Catholic contextual theology writer Stephen Bevans asks:  “Is it possible to recognize the one faith in the different [i.e., North American and Philippine] interpretations?”[v]  How can their context shape our American understandings of Unitarian Universalism?

Social-outreach questions:  What is the role of a UU congregation in its local village or urban neighborhood?  How do its members relate personally and institutionally to people and leaders in other denominations’ parishes?  To what extent is there an inter-faith component (e.g., discussion of beliefs and practices), a fellowship component (shared festivals and meals, close friendships or family ties), or a local economic-development component?

Denominational growth questions:  How are the newer UU congregations different from the longstanding ones?  How many congregations have developed since the original ones were either founded or converted by the Rev. Toribio Quimada?  What is the history and status of the two newer groups near Manila (on Luzon Island)?  What are the plans for establishing other new churches on Negros, Luzon, or other islands?  Is there any strategic thought given to the fact that many North Americans are choosing the Philippines as an affordable, English-speaking retirement destination?

International relationship questions:  What’s the recent history of the UU Partner Church relationships between Philippine and North American congregations?  How do Philippine congregational lay leaders and clergy see these relationships? How does these impressions, hopes or complaints compare to the views of the official staff and leadership of the UU headquarters in Dumaguete City?  (To what extent is that any of my business?)

How does this context shape the content of my work? 

Several of the congregations on Negros have held Community Capacity Building (CCB) workshops, inviting not only their own members but people from their village communities.  The principle is that only the people of a village (or of a country) are able to solve their problems, and they do have the knowledge to evaluate their situations, review their assets (broadly defined), identify goals and prioritize them, and then make a detailed work plan of who will do what, and of what help is invited from western partners.

Professor Richard Ford, an American UU who has worked in development-assistance programs for decades, espouses these principles when leading CCB workshops and then in summarizing the results.  (He’s done this for UU congregations in East Africa, Central Europe and the Philippines.)  He makes a strong case that most of the problems of poor, post-colonial nations are in large part the legacy of the arbitrary and arrogant decisions made by colonial powers.  In March 2011 he led a training of Filipino UU church lay leaders and clergy on how to conduct CCB workshops, and then co-led one for three days at a village.  I have been in touch with him and hope to be in conversation and use him as a resource or even dissertation committee member.

Given the UUCP leadership’s interest in having me and other U.S. ministers spend time there doing ministry and training clergy and lay leaders, I wonder if the CCB approach would be useful in developing ministry and leadership training courses?

What are the theological, social and practical issues that emerge from this context?

It strikes me that I have two contexts.

One is the UU Church of the Philippines as it exists on Negros Island and in two groups in Metro Manila (Luzon Island) and as it is changing and perhaps spreading.  It has a major project to achieve regular income and financial sustainability; it helps leaders of its village churches lead local economic development initiatives, and seeks the training of lay leaders and clergy with the help of North American clergy.

The second context is one of encounter, of current and future relationships with North American UU congregations, our clergy, one or both of our UU-identified seminaries, denominational headquarters in Boston, and the Partner Church Council, a network of volunteers with one staff  person who promote international church-to-church relationships.

Even if I leave aside these ongoing relationships and potential new developments (i.e., the second context), I will put myself in the middle of this context through my own efforts to understand and document the situation of the UU churches in the Philippines, and my plan to respond to their invitation to stay there a few months to provide ministry as well as training and information to their clergy and lay leaders.

[i][i] Governance of this colony was controlled from New Spain, or Mexico.  Civil and military governments changed often in the Philippine colony, so power accrued to the Catholic orders and bishops due to long and uninterrupted terms of clerical office.  Native Filipinos were prevented from being priests until the late 1800s.

[ii]  This Wikipedia article lists USA, India, Nigeria, Philippines, & UK as the top five.  Lonely Planet Philippines says it is the third-largest English speaking country.


[iii]“Philippines,” Encyclopedia of Christianity, Erwin Fahlbusch et. al., editors.  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  2005in Vol. 4, pp. 181-184.

[iv]This church “claims to be the only true church and the only means to salvation and opposes both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.”  It also rejects doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and has a an authoritarian church hierarchy:  “[T]ithing and twice-weekly church attendance are strictly enforced.… The [church] instructs its members on how to vote and accordingly wields considerable political power.  [It] has appealed to the lower socioeconomic classes and, through job-training programs, has been successful in raising the standard of living for its adherents.” (183). From its base in the Philippines, Iglesia ni Cristo has founded 200 congregations in 67 other countries, with up to ten million members .

“Philippines,” Encyclopedia of Christianity, Erwin Fahlbusch et. al., editors.  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  2005in Vol. 4, p. 181.

[v] Models of Contextual Theology, by Stephen B. Bevan (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2002), p. 23.


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