Now that I’m done with my Five Signs of Congregational Decline workshop, I realize I may have left a couple of signs out. Like this one:
You see, the source material I used for the workshop was primarily Christian, so while there are plenty of similarities between a declining Christian congregation and a declining Unitarian Universalist congregation, I think that there may be two more commonalities of decline that are exclusively UU. So in addition to the five signs I covered in my original workshop (lack of vision, no clear path for spiritual development, overly complex structure, inward focus, and leadership fatigue), I’d like to add two specifically UU signs of decline: intolerance toward Christians, and anti-clericism.
I’m amazed by the number of rank-and-file UUs who just don’t see why a congregation should be welcoming to Christians. I say rank-and-file because any clergy person worth his or her salt knows to meet people where they spiritually are, and if that means respecting someone’s desire to retain their Christian identity (perhaps “freely following Jesus” as our brothers and sisters in the UU Christian Fellowship say), then Amen and Blessed Be. We clergy are trained to respect another person’s spiritual orientation, just as we respect another person’s sexual and affectional orientation. It is truly sacred ground and should be treated as such. But in many of our primarily lay-led congregations, Christians are personae non gratae (and you can bet that I had to look up the plural of that bit of Latin on the interwebs).
Which brings me to my second additional sign of decline for UU congregations: being habitually suspicious of clergy. After all, clergy are full of ideas about how to change things. Like maybe being more welcoming. To Christians. They’ll tell us about all the things we’re doing wrong. That we should call what we do on Sunday mornings “worship,” and that the talks given during that time are “sermons,” and that we shouldn’t burn Bibles as part of our publicity campaign. Well we had a minister here once, and she actually used the word “God” from the podium. Never again.
I’m afraid that it’s that kind of thinking that is probably keeping a lot of our smaller congregations…what’s the word? Small. And that’s a problem. According to my figures, almost 200 of our congregations have under 35 members, which means they wouldn’t even be allowed to affiliate with the UUA if they weren’t already part of it. I’m guessing that many of those congregations exhibit some if not all of the five signs of decline. Add in the exclusively UU signs, and you may just have the last two coffin nails needed to seal their fate. (Unless, of course, they’re zombies.)
It’s a deadly combination, I fear: anti-Christian and anti-clergy. Given the massive changes in the religious landscape of America in the next ten years, I’m not sure how many of these congregations can survive. Perhaps some sort of shock therapy is necessary to break these habits, something like inviting a liberal Christian clergy person to give a sermon about why he or she is a Christian. Or maybe making it a point to have a UU minister visit seven or eight times a year. Or offering (and advertising) a Bible Study using John Buerhens’ book Understanding the Bible. I’m open for suggestions. If you’ve got an idea, please let me know.