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.