Category Archives: Marketing & church growth

How to decline gracefully

Third in a series | First post in the series

In two earlier posts, I talked about compelling reasons for a congregation to grow, and I talked about strategies to not grow and remain about the same size. But what if you’re convinced that your congregation has no real possibility for growth? What do you do then? (And even if you’re all for growth, please read this post anyway — because by the end of the post, you’ll have even more reasons to grow.)

I can think of three types of congregations that are truly in decline: (1) The congregation is in a place that has seen declining population for some years, and all forecasts point to continued decline. (2) The congregation shares its service area with another Unitarian Universalist congregation that is growing, but the surrounding population is stable so the congregation faces ongoing loss of market share. (3) The majority of people in the congregation don’t want to change the way they do things in order to respond to changes in society around them. (You will notice that the second type of congregation could be considered a subset of the third type of congregation.) Of these three types of congregation, the third type is the most common, followed by the first type.

How do you determine if your congregation is truly in decline? It can be difficult to determine if your congregation is truly in decline, so it pays to study the matter carefully. Here are some ways to determine whether decline is actually taking place: Continue reading

How not to grow gracefully

Second in a series | First post in the series

Let’s say you’re part of a congregation that has an annual year-round average attendance of about 150 adults and children. You and most everyone else likes your congregation at that size, and you don’t want to grow any bigger. What do you do?

1. Growing while not growing

Let’s further assume that your congregation, like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, has a steady stream of visitors, and if you retained even half of them you’d grow at a rate of better than 10% per year. But you don’t want to grow. So how can you stay the same size gracefully?

The first thing to remember, if your congregation has a steady stream of visitors and you don’t want to grow, is that it is actually difficult to turn people away. Emotionally, it can be kind of depressing when someone you kind of like shows up at church and there isn’t room for them. It’s also hard to turn away just enough people so you don’t grow, but not so many people that you start to shrink. It’s also difficult to turn away the correct people — the angry people, the dysfunctional people, the destructive people, the dishonest people — while letting in the right people — the people who will give freely of their time and money, who will make talented lay leaders, and who are caring loving people. Continue reading

To grow, or not to grow?

First in a series of four posts

Let’s define a really small congregation as having an average annual attendance at services of less than 50 adults and children, and a small congregation as having an average attendance of between 50 and 200, and a mid-size congregation as having an average attendance of between 150 and 500, and a large congregation as having an average attendance of more than 450. The overlap between the various sizes is deliberate, because these are not exact numbers, but approximations based on the ways human beings interact with each other in various size groupings. We could add two more size categories: a house church, with about a dozen people, and a mega-church with over 2,000 attendees each week. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations are small congregations with an average attendance of between 50 and 200 people each week.

This small congregation is a very comfortable size of congregation for most of us. You can realistically know everyone in the congregation. Decision-making takes place informally and organically and doesn’t require a lot of formal organizational structure. And it’s the size of congregation that people are most likely to have experienced, so it feels familiar. (Ministers are mostly trained to serve this size congregation, so if a small congregation has a minister, the minister is also going to prefer this small size.)

Given all this, why would any congregation want to grow beyond an average annual attendance of 200 adults and children? To grow means you can no longer know everyone in the congregation. To grow means having to institute a formal organizational structure, which can be a lot of work. To grow means turning into a congregation that no longer feels familiar. (And your minister is likely to become far less effective for several years while s/he figures out how to serve a mid-size congregation.) Continue reading

Still true today

Dana Greeley, the first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, wrote the following in 1970:

“I once preached what I thought was a pretty good sermon on ‘The Methodological Conservatism of Theological Liberals.’ We have to be as inventive with our money as we are with tools or medicine or private enterprise. And to me it is more important, and more natural, for liberal religion to be bold, and to grow, than for IBM or some new computer company to be bold or grow. The worst complacency in the world is religious complacency.”

The purpose of UU worship services

In a recent comment, Joe C. asks some very good questions, saying: “I agree that increasing worship attendance is a worthy goal and is likely to have good side effects. The questions then become: how do we increasing worship attendance? what kinds of worship service satisfy the needs of current and future members? what is the purpose of worship services in the UU context and how do we know if we achieved this purpose?”

All very good questions. Every local congregation is going to have to answer these questions to meet their local situations. A general principle seems apparent, though: one increases worship service attendance by directly addressing the hurts and hopes of present members and friends — and this is likely to address the hurts and hopes of potential members and friends, who may then begin attending worship services.

In this context, the purpose of UU worship services is to put individuals in touch with something larger than themselves. Some Unitarian Universalists (a minority these days) might say that it is God which is larger than ourselves, and the rest of us will not wish to put God in that place. But whatever our stand on the God question, all of us will say that there are larger moral and ethical principles that should govern our lives; there is the interrelationship of all life; etc. However we name that larger principle, one primary purpose of Unitarian Universalist worship services is to remind people that there is something larger than ourselves.

A second purpose of Unitarian Universalist worship services is to put individuals in touch with a living human community. This community is literally the immediate and present community of that Unitarian Universalist congregation. More figuratively, it is the worldwide community of Unitarians, Universalists, Unitarian Universalists, and other religious liberals; and it is the historical community to which the local congregation traces its roots. It is to our living human community that we can bring our hurts and hopes. It is from this living human community that we can draw strength to get through the hurtful and difficult times in life; furthermore, we can draw strength from this living human community, and take that strength out into the world to make the world a better place, i.e., to make our hopes come true.

Thus, when we say our goal is to increase worship service attendance, we are actually inviting people to join us in connecting with something that is larger than our individual selves, and we are inviting people to share their hurts and hopes with us as we share our hurts and hopes with them. When we talk about increasing worship attendance, we are implying that there are larger ends contained within that simple numerical goal.

How do we know if we have achieved these larger goals? In my experience in congregations that have lived out these ideals, there aren’t specific metrics we can look to (unlike some Christian churches that point to how many people have been saved). Instead, what we look for is anecdotal evidence that people’s lives are being changed, both by staying in touch with something larger than themselves, and staying in touch with a living human community. This anecdotal evidence can be reflected back to the congregation in a variety of formats: some UU congregations ask members and friends to give one or two minutes “testimonies” of how the congregation has changed their lives; some UU congregations reflect these stories back through the sermon (having asked permission from those concerned, of course); some UU congregations find that “Joys and Sorrows” (or as we call it here in Palo Alto, “Caring and Sharing”) is the time when persons reflect this back; some UU congregations may find this happens during a pastoral prayer; in some congregations, this occasionally may also take place outside of worship, e.g., in the newsletter.

A worthy strategic growth objective

In light of growth initiatives here in the Palo Alto congregation, I’ve been considering the following passage from Twelve Keys to an Effective Church by Kennon L. Callahan, the classic congregational growth book:

“…It is worth noting that there is a direct correlation between worship attendance and membership growth and income. Those churches that have increased their worship attendance tend also to discover that their membership grows and their financial resources increase as well. Frankly, those churches whose primary objectives are increasing their membership and improving their giving are working on the wrong strategic objectives. As a matter of fact, they would do better to work on the objective of increasing worship attendance. The by-products of that alone would be an increase in membership and an increase in giving. … We do not work to increase worship attendance as a means to the ends of more members and more giving. Rather, we genuinely and thoughtfully share corporate, dynamic worship in outreaching and outgoing ways for the help and hope it delivers in people’s lives….” [p. 32]

In my experience, Callahan is generally correct: an increase worship attendance correlates to an increase in membership growth and giving. I once saw growth in worship attendance that was couple with a decline in membership, but that was in a congregation where there were many members who were members on paper only and had no real connection to the congregation; since that increase in worship attendance led to an overall gain in giving, I did not worry about the decline in membership.

I believe Callahan is also correct in saying that increasing worship attendance is a worthy strategic objective, but increasing membership and giving are not good strategic objectives. Over and over again, I have seen congregations state that they are going to increase membership and giving — and then fail to do so, because increasing membership and giving are not worthy ends in themselves. But when we say that we’re going to increase worship attendance, it’s immediately clear why we want to do so: we know in our guts that having more people at worship will feel better, not only because there will be more energy in the room, not only because attending religious services makes me feel better and I want to share that with other people — but also because if there’s hardly anyone at the worship service I attend, I feel like a chump for having gotten out of bed on Sunday to go to something that no one else is going to.

Having more people at worship makes me feel like I’m not a chump. Having more people at worship makes worship more exciting for me. Having more people at worship makes me feel good because I know more people are sharing in something I think is worth sharing in. It is a worthy end in and of itself.

Follow-up post: “The purposes of UU worship services”

The importance of membership

How important is the size of a congregation’s membership? Here’s Kennon Callahan’s response:

“Regrettably, in many of the churches in our country there is a preoccupation with membership. A simple illustration will suffice: Two ministers meet at a conference. The one minister is in the process of moving to a new pastorate. The other minister, in an almost automatic way, asks, ‘How many members does your new church have?’ The more important question would be, ‘How many people is your new church serving in mission?'” (Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, 1st ed., Jossey-Bass, 1983, pp. 2-3.) And what does Callahan mean by “mission”? He defines it thus: “…in doing effective mission, the local congregation focuses on both individual as well as institutional hurts and hopes.”

Of course it’s more complicated, and more nuanced, than these bald statements would imply. For the complex, nuanced version, you’ll have to read the first chapter of Callahan’s book yourself.

Case study: small groups

About nine months ago, a men’s group in the congregation here in Palo Alto made a decision to expand their membership. They already had a solid program in place, so when they came to me for advice I gave them the standard ideas for growing small groups: share your enthusiasm and extend personal invitations to others to join the group; assume you’re going to have newcomers at every meeting and plan how you’re going to integrate them; plan from the beginning to split into two groups when you get to ten members; constantly train new leaders; start the new groups at different times from the old group (different day of the week, different time of day) to accommodate different schedules. They asked me if I cared whether all the participants were members of the congregation. Heck no, I said, this is an important ministry we offer to the community, why would we shut people out?

Within a few months, their attendance had grown enough that they had to split that first group. Since the first group met in the evening, they added a second group for those who preferred to meet during the daytime. Both groups have continued to grow, and the leaders of the two groups are already talking about splitting the evening group. They’re expecting that they’ll be ready to split the morning group within six months.

The evening group invited me to attend a recent meeting, which I did with pleasure — and I was frankly curious about this group that had become so popular that they’re ready to split yet again. After the meeting (about which I’ll tell you nothing, since they have a confidentiality agreement for their group), the leaders asked me for feedback. I told them they did everything right: The first few minutes when someone walks in are crucial, and their non-verbal communication was open and welcoming — they greeted people, walked towards them, met their eyes, shook hands with them. The program topic was really rich, and the group leaders managed to keep a good balance between an open discussion, while at the same time urging men to talk about their feelings for this difficult topic. We did a little bit of problem-solving around specific situations that came up during the meeting — during which, I kept reminding them that leading a small groups is a balancing act where you’re always adjusting; therefore the time to worry is when you don’t feel a little off balance.

They’re proceeding with plans for continued growth. Nothing is definite yet, although there is talk about having a couple of meetings a year when all the men’s groups that came from that original men’s group get together on a Saturday and socialize.

Now, since this is a case study, here are some questions for reflection:

1. The Palo Alto congregation has about 275 members. How many men’s groups would you plan for? In other words, what do you think is the upper limit for growth?
2. If men from other nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations started attending men’s groups at the Palo Alto congregation, do you see that as a problem? Why or why not?
3. What percentage of non-Unitarian Universalist men do you think is allowable?
4. What could be done to keep the men’s groups connected with the congregation?
5. What can be done to maintain “quality control,” that is, to make sure the men’s groups that split off maintain the same high quality program as the original one?
6. Is it a problem that these are men’s groups? What about women’s groups? What about mixed gender, or non-specific gender groups?

Integrating Facebook and blogs

I finally reconnected my blog with my Facebook account. I had done this a couple of years ago, but decided the two formats didn’t mix particularly well: Facebook is really a micro-blogging format, while I write long blog posts. But what the hell — it doesn’t cost me anything to put my blog’s RSS feed on Facebook, and someone might actually read it once in a blue moon.

But who really cares about my personal blog. I’m going to try to get my church to put together a good RSS feed from the church Web site, so I can place that on the church’s Facebook page.

Later note — This post was supposed to carry a link to a related article on Peter Bowden’s blog: Here’s the link.

Update, 2021: Gosh, how the world has changed since 2010. Now people don’t have self-hosted blogs, they just post directly to Big-Tech-owned social media. And blogs that are predominantly text? — so very 2010.