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In yesterday’s post, I suggested that there is no “mother lode of churchgoers somewhere out there just waiting to call themselves Unitarian Universalists,” which begs the following question (at least for me): Just how is this movement going to sustain itself, let alone grow? There are a lot of folk who believe that there are more than enough potential UUs coming through our congregations’ doors every Sunday to keep our movement alive. But as Daniel Aleshire has noted [PDF], contemporary “culture has moved congregations further from the center of public life than they have ever been.” If that, indeed, is the case, then we should expect that fewer and fewer people will be actively seeking out congregations to be part of. So even if we have an abundance of visitors today, we can’t count on them being there tomorrow.

Besides, turning visitors into members isn’t exactly our strong suit. If it were, we probably could have managed more than the meager 1% growth rate we’ve been so proud of (a growth rate that has actually disappeared in the last couple of years). As I mentioned yesterday, there are plenty of resources out there to help congregations attract and retain members, if they’re so inclined. But the challenge for me, as a UUA staff member working for the Prairie Star District and the MidAmerica region, is to see if there are things a denomination and its middle judicatories can do to encourage growth. Obviously, I’m not the only person thinking about this. For example, our Presbyterian cousins (who are, I believe, suffering the sharpest decline of all mainline Protestant denominations), have compiled a list of what growing churches do. Here are the broad categories they group congregational strategies into:

  • Strong churches welcome new people
  • Strong churches encourage participation
  • Strong churches offer meaningful worship experiences
  • Strong churches help people grow spiritually
  • Strong churches commit to a positive future

They go on to say that

research also says denominations and local judicatories using the following strategies help congregations grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness:

  1. Take action and set policies to help congregations undertake the above steps.
  2. Start new churches.

Now, I’m always looking for research that corroborates information I’ve found elsewhere, and these tidbits from the Presbyterian’s U. S. Congregations survey bear a striking resemblance to something else I quoted yesterday, George Bullard’s “Judicatories Working Hard Vs. Working Smart.” Bullard says that smart judicatories focus on four congregational movements:

  1. Congregational multiplication movements
  2. Faithful, effective, and innovative congregational movements
  3. Congregational transformation movements
  4. Congregational support movements

And the first two of these seem to line up nicely with the two strategies named by U. S. Congregations. Take Bullard’s second focus, for example, “Faithful, effective, and innovative congregational movements”:

Really smart judicatories are seeking to help the top twenty percent of their congregations, who are already pursuing a spiritual strategic journey, to recognize sustainable habits that empower them to continue to soar as congregations.

What better description of  “sustainable habits that empower them to continue to soar as congregations” than those five strategies of growing churches from the U. S. Congregations survey quoted above? Bullard says that middle judicatories should be spending 25% of their time encouraging these practices in those top 20% of congregations.

But even more enlightening (and perhaps damning for Unitarian Universalists), is what’s implied by the first point in Bullard’s list: smart judicatories focus 25% of their time and resources on “congregational multiplication movements.” This is, I believe, the solution to the rather intractable difficulty suggested by the U. S. Congregations’ survey: that denominations and local judicatories “help congregations grow in numbers and ministry effectiveness” by starting new congregations. This is an intractable difficulty because, to be honest, when has the UUA and its middle judicatories ever been particularly successful at starting new congregations?

Not since the “fellowship movement.” A movement that targeted “growing college communities [that] were especially fertile ground for planting the Unitarian religious flag.” I mention this because Bullard suggests a different target group for “congregational multiplication movements”:

The focus of new congregations is on preChristian, unchurched, underchurched, and dechurched persons, rather than transplanted members of churches of their denomination who need to be reclaimed.

And rather, I might add, than the politically and religiously liberal academics the fellowship movement appealed to. And that’s really my point. The only experience we’ve had starting new churches on even a moderate scale has been forming new fellowships after World War II, and not much since then. (The old “extension” program, by the way, was basically about bringing ministerial leadership to some of those lay-led fellowships that were founded in the middle of the 20th century.)

If starting new congregations is one of the two main strategies denominations and middle judicatories need to employ in order to grow, then we’d better get started. And Bullard’s “congregational multiplication movements” may be the best way to go. But if that’s true, then we need to figure out ways to help our congregations expand their base and attract the unchurched, underchurched, and dechurched. Is this even possible?

Lately I’ve been thinking that I should start all of my presentations (in person or online) with the following sound effect: click here. It’s the sound of a toilet flushing. And that’s exactly what I believe may be happening to us as an association right now. We are, to put it bluntly, following our mainline Protestant cousins down the post-denominational privy. This is a relatively new position for us; we’ve faced up to the reality of our declining numbers only in the last couple of years. Before then, we were happy to count our one percent “growth” rate as a sign of success. But the truth for the last ten or twenty years has been that if we look at the size of our association in relation to the general population in the United States, we’ve been declining just like our Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Congregationalist friends. Maybe not as much, but declining all the same.
So the sound you hear is the sound of our inevitable swirl into oblivion (or, at the very least, obscurity). And there may not be much that we can do about it. As the Rev. Dr. Daniel Aleshire pointed out during his presentation [PDF] at this year’s General Assembly, “The fastest growing religious preference in the United States is ‘no preference.'” It seems a bit overly optimistic to believe that while more and more people prefer not to self-identify as Methodists or Presbyterians or Lutherans, there’s still a motherlode of churchgoers somewhere out there just waiting to call themselves Unitarian Universalists. And even if this untapped resource of UUs were to miraculously exist, truth is we’re not doing a whole lot to make room for them in our congregations.
Of course, there are plenty of things congregations can do to be more welcoming, more radically hospitable. (One good example is the upcoming online workshop hosted by the Prairie Star, Heartland, and Central Midwest districts called “Getting Ready for Newcomers”; you can register online here). But in my role as a UUA staff member working on the district level, I’m also interested in what denominations can do to slow (and even reverse) their decline. It may be impossible. And if fact, if we merely try to replicate what our mainline cousins have been doing for the last 10 or 20 years, it probably is impossible. It seems to me that rather than trying their unsuccessful strategies (ad campaigns, mega-church start-ups, praying really, really hard), we would be doing ourselves a big, big favor by seeing what strategies successful, growing denominations are employing.
In his article, “Judicatories Working Hard Vs. Working Smart: Reinventing Congregational Services in Middle Judicatories,” George Bullard highlights four ways middle judicatories are working smarter:

The congregational movements on which really smart judicatories focus are four:

  • Congregational multiplication movements
  • Faithful, effective, and innovative congregational movements
  • Congregational transformation movements
  • Congregational support movements
  • Bullard believes that smart judicatories are spending about 25% of their resources in each of these areas. Judicatories that are working hard (and not succeeding) are spending up to 60% of their resources on “congregational support movements” (according to Bullard, that means pouring resources into congregations that, “short of the direct, dramatic, and divine intervention of God,…are unlikely to make both qualitative and quantitative progress as congregations”).
    I have to admit that up until recently, district staff members were pretty much working in the “congregational support” mode. The good news is that there’s now a consensus among us that we need to be doing things differently. What that means, exactly, is up for debate. And, of course, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re feeling like the Ty-D-Bol guy in his tiny boat, about to be flushed down the toilet. I do think there’s some cause for hope, though, and it has to do with the first of Bullard’s four focuses: congregational multiplication movements. More on that later.

    Thanks to my colleague Sue Sinnamon for steering me toward the Bullard article.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase I’ve used for the title of this post: “We’ll Get What We Are.” It’s something that Christian Smith said in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, and it was repeated in the Faith Formation 2020 report from Lifelong Faith Associates. The basic concept behind the phrase is simple: when it comes to raising children as lifelong members of any faith tradition, you can tell how well you’re doing by seeing how seriously the adults with whom those children interact take their faith. And for most families, those adults are the parents.

    So, how are we doing when it comes to raising lifelong Unitarian Universalists? The answer might be found by asking, “How seriously are the parents of our children taking their Unitarian Universalist faith?” I’ve got some ideas about how congregations can get both children and parents to take their faith more seriously, and I’ll be sharing them with you in the coming weeks.

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