Monthly Archives: April 2006

Around the world with Hosea Ballou

The Treatise on Atonement typing project is now a world-wide effort. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’m trying to get the classic Universalist book by Hosea Ballou, the 1805 Treatise on Atonement, typed and put up on the Web as a searchable electronic text. The project is about one fifth complete by now (fifty pages from the original 250 pages [Link]). With the addition of an Australian typist, this is no longer a United States project!

Thanks to the current typists:

Russell in New South Wales, Australia
Steve in South Carolina, United States
Scott in District of Columbia, United States
Dan in Massachusetts, United States

Why don’t you help type, too? You commit to typing 10-11 pages of the original, one to two hour’s worth of typing for a touch typist. You’ll get credit as a typist on the online version, plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made Universalism widely available to a new generation of religious seekers. All you have to do is send me email at danrharperATaolDOT com, giving your postal address — I mail you photocopied pages — you type, and send me the electronic text — I put them up on the Web site. It’s as simple as that!

(Umm, not to promote competition or anything, but so far only men have volunteered to type… just pointing that out….)

Ten reasons why mid-size churches are better

I’ve been getting tired of the way liberal religion is becoming increasingly marginalized in the United States, which means I’ve been thinking a lot about church growth. Did you know that most Unitarian Universalist congregations average less than 100 men, women, and children at worship and Sunday school each week? Same is true of other liberal churches. If we could only get those small churches to grow… but many people who belong to small churches say they like the feeling of knowing everyone at their church.

OK, maybe, but here’s ten reasons why mid-size churches are better:

(1) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you don’t have to be on a committee every year, so there’s less volunteer burnout.

(2) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can serve on the committee you really like, whereas in a small church everyone has to serve on every committee.

(3) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because in a mid-size church with two ministers, even if you don’t like one of the ministers, there’s another minister that you might get along with.

(4) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have lots more programs such as more adult religious education, more support groups, more small group ministries, etc.

(5) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have bigger choirs (in small church choirs, you better be an excellent singer because you might be the only person in your section some Sunday!).

(6) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because you can have more programs for children and youth (like children’s choirs, dramatic productions, etc.).

(7) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because they are far more financially stable — if one big donor leaves a small church you’re in trouble — mid-size churches spread the financial load over more people.

(8) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because when a couple gets divorced, the mid-size church is big enough that both of them can still belong to the church (especially if there are two worship services).

(9) Mid-size churches are better than small churches because there are more small groups where you can really get to know people well.

(10) But the top reason why mid-size churches are better than small churches is because if all our small churches were mid-size churches, Unitarian Universalism would really be a force to be reckoned with in the world — if all our small churches were mid-size churches, there would be twice as many of us out there making a difference!

Now you add your own reasons why a mid-size church is better than a small church….

What’s holding us back?

I’m always reluctant to put sermons on this blog. Sermons are an aural genre, and the only sermons I find stand up to reading are sermons by Jonathan Edwards (not that I agree with his theology, but he writes a fine sermon). Besides that, I don’t think I write particularly good sermons, and I don’t want to embarrass myself by making them widely available.

But I actually feel pretty strongly about the topic of a sermon I preached on Thursday to the Ballou Channing chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Liberal religion is shrinking right now — all the traditional liberal denominations are shrinking pretty quickly. I believe a big contributing factor to our ongoing decline is the relationships between ministers and congregants in smaller church. That’s what this sermon is about….

“What’s Holding Us Back?”

Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. [Mark, ch. 9, verse 50]

According to Charles Gaines, a Universalist minister who is now retired, there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists now than there were in the 1960’s. And considered as a percentage of the total population, we are in a steeper decline.

According to Bill Sinkford [president of the Unitarian Universalist Association], there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. But there are another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls; and if you look at the demographic data, there are another five million people in the United States today who seem to be pretty much like the people who are already Unitarian Universalists.

Charles Gaines is convinced that we are declining. Bill Sinkford is convinced that there are large numbers of people who are ready to become Unitarian Universalists, if they could only find a way into one of our congregations. I’m convinced both Bill Sinkford and Charles Gaines are correct. We’re declining, yet we could easily be five times the size we are now. And so I ask the question, what’s holding us back?

Not that I have the final answer to this question. I have some ideas about what’s holding us back, and I’ll share a couple of these ideas with you today. But the real point of this sermon is to keep us talking — and maybe to get us talking openly about why we’re seeing such a precipitous decline in membership in our own district.

I’ll start by telling you about the congregation I served last year; I was the interim minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois. The Geneva congregation is about an hour due west of Chicago, in a fast-growing suburban area. They grew slowly but steadily from 1979 through about 1999, but in 1999 they hit a plateau and have not grown since. Yet I saw an average of about 6 newcomers each week visiting the worship services, they had a solid Membership Committee who did everything they were supposed to, the senior minister is known as an excellent preacher, they have a well-regarded church school for children, they have respectable youth programming. They were doing everything right, yet they were losing people just about as fast as they welcomed newcomers. So I had to ask: what was holding this congregation back?

Lay leaders, the senior minister, and I finally decided the congregation was facing a problem rooted in group dynamics. As you probably know, the Alban Institute, a group of church consultants and sociologists, have been studying the group dynamics of congregations for some time now. Arlin Routhage of the Alban Institute found that congregations operate in quite different ways depending on what size they are. Routhage identifies four different types of congregations based on size: family size, with up to 50 active members; pastoral size, with 50 to 150 active members; program size, with 150 to 350 active members; and corporate size, with 350 to 500 members. And do remember that “active members” does not mean how many people have signed the membership book; it means average worship attendance — adults and children — each week for twelve full months.

Arlin Routhage says that each of these four different size congregations looks quite different to a sociologist. And he contends that it is quite difficult to move up to the next size. The most difficult transition can be the transition from a pastoral size church — 50 to 150 members — up to a program size church — 150 to 350 members. The church in Geneva, Illinois, was facing just this transition. In order to make the transition, they discovered that they have to change the way they made decisions, the way they communicate with each other, the way they treat their senior minister, the way they do worship — in fact, there is very little they won’t have to change.

I’ll give you one specific example. Back when they had a less than a hundred active members, everyone knew that the way to find out about church news and events was to call up Lindsay Bates, the minister, and ask her. But in 2005, with just over 200 active members, it was impossible for everyone to “just call Lindsay.” Lindsay didn’t have enough hours in the week to answer all those phone calls! And with all those people at three different worship services — yes, they had to have three worship services — there’s no way church members could catch up with everyone and learn all the church news and events. As a result, lots of people felt left out, and so people start drifting away from the church. As fast as new people came in, others left. (You should know that everything I say about the Geneva church has been shared with them publicly.)

By contrast, in a program size congregation, everyone knows that you have to plan all events months in advance. Everyone knows that there are half a dozen sure ways to learn what’s going on at church — the church newsletter, the bulletin boards where you have coffee hour, the church Web site, the announcements printed in the weekly order of service, and letters mailed directly to church members (but not word of mouth). The ministers and leadership of the congregation know that they have to pay careful attention to maintaining these half a dozen communication paths, and they know they have to give everyone plenty of advance notice for all church news and events. So you see: two different size congregations have two completely different ways of doing things.

Let me work from another example. In all of North America, of all the Unitarian Universalist congregations that have been founded in the past thirty years, how many of those congregations have become mid-size congregations? Well, the answer is exactly one, and that congregation is the Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Horizon was founded in 1987 with 34 members, and now they’re up to 350 members with a $350,00 budget, six acres of land, and an 11,00 square foot building. Their goal is to continue growing until they reach 750 members.

Their parish minister, Dennis Hamilton, says that one of the things that has allowed Horizon to grow was that they believe their congregation changes people’s lives, and changes the world. He put it more bluntly, so I’ll read you his words directly:

To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it.

So writes Dennis Hamilton. Are we all on board with that? We ministers know that our religion is a redemptive force in our communities. I have seen our churches literally save lives; I have seen our churches save people from spiritual ruin; I have seen people transformed into new human beings by the power of our churches. So what’s the role of a minister in such a redemptive church? Here’s Dennis Hamilton again:

I believe that central to growth from the pastoral to the midsize to the large church is the role of the minister. When I came to Horizon I did everything from making coffee to writing the newsletter. I attended every meeting and ended up being the one that people came to for decisions. Although our bylaws did not make me the CEO, I was acting in that manner. When we reached 120, I kind of awakened to what I was doing and vowed to change the way I acted. I refused to make decisions that were not mine to make, to grant permission, even to be involved in every committee. I backed off and let the board and congregation know what I was doing. I say I have become less competent every year. The result is that the church has become more competent. In the meantime, I have steered my ministry toward the staff and leadership, toward team building and training, toward preaching and worship and devotion and away from hands on or micro-managing.

Now I have been talking about ministers who serve in local congregations, and I have been ignoring those of you who are community ministers, or retired; yet each of you is also affiliated with a local congregation. I believe by virtue of being so affiliated, you can wield a great deal of power in your affiliated congregation, if you choose to do so. You community ministers are one of our brightest hopes right now; I wish I had it in me to be a community minister, because you are the ones who are living out our theological message in the public square; and in your affiliated congregations, you are a witness for what it’s like to live out our theological values in public. Yet I believe community ministers will want to be delightfully incompetent in your affiliated congregations, in order that other activities will not get in the way of this witness you offer. Retired ministers, too, transcend the bounds of one congregation; you too can be delightfully incompetent in witness of your now wider role.

Delightful incompetence is exactly what I saw Lindsay Bates achieve in the Geneva church. She would be firm about not answering questions about the church calendar, referring those questions to the church administrator. Lindsay is about the most competent person I have ever known, yet she was able to be delightfully incompetent. It was more than delightful incomeptence: it was a redemptive incompetence.

I believe being incompetent is very difficult for us ministers; I speak in part from my own experience as a minister serving a small pastoral-size church; it is much easier for me to just give in and be what that pastoral-size church would like me to be: a minister who is always available to talk with anyone in the congregation, 24/7; a minister who knows everything that’s happening in the church and can answer all questions; a minister who attends every meeting of every committee and always expresses an opinion. It’s so tempting to just give in and be so doggone competent; but I know that to do that would be to limit the size of the church; I know that in a program-size church availability translates into emotional fusion with the congregation, knowing everything disempowers the Board, and attending every meeting of every committee becomes micromanagement. So my current spiritual practice is to cultivate delightfully redemptive incompetence.

We sometimes allow our religion to be shaped by inconsequentials instead of by deeply-held theology; but we can no longer afford to do that; the world around us needs too much redemption. That’s why I think we ministers need a redemptive incompetence, which is to say, an incompetence that will allow our religion to regain its redemptive saltiness. After all, we are really in the redemption business.

Yes, it is true that the bills do need to be paid, the email does have to be answered, the newsletter really does have to get into the mail on Monday. But all those little details are flavorless without redemption. Jesus would tell us: “Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves.” If we lose the redemption, we’ve lost our saltiness. Salt yourselves with some incompetence. So may we flavor our lives; and so may we perhaps redeem the world.

If you want to read more about Dennis Hamilton’s approach to growing churches, I have the text of a presentation he did at the 2004 General Assembly on my old Web site — Link.


A couple of nights ago, we went over to Freestone’s at six. The bar was pretty full, and a courteous older man moved over so we could sit in two contiguous seats. I ordered scallops, and Carol drank orange juice and tonic water (she had eaten earlier, so she stole from my plate instead of ordering). We chatted about this and that, the bar emptied out, and eventually we wound up chatting with the courteous man who had moved over for us. He was from Boston, “an old Boston Brahmin family,” he said. We agreed that the world view of Bostonians ends at the Connecticut River. He told us that when he had gone to UCLA to do doctoral work, an elderly relative of his had exclaimed: Poor boy, you’ll be so far from the ocean out there. “She didn’t realize that there’s another whole ocean out there! It’s even bigger than the ocean here!” he said. Now I have heard this exact same anecdote told any number of times, but never with the level of detail he brought to it: he gave the name of the person who had said it and when she had said it, and he claimed to be a direct witness because she had said it to him. Perhaps he had worked this old anecdote into his own memories of leaving New England; perhaps the incident as he told it was actually the original of that now-widespread anecdote; perhaps his elderly relative had heard the anecdote and used it knowingly, with that extremely dry humor of some elder New Englanders which young people take too literally. So I just had to tell him the anecdote about Mrs. Cabot of Boston, who had to entertain Mrs. Smith of Ohio while Mr. Cabot did business with Mr. Smith; Mrs. Cabot said, “And where did you say you come from, Mrs. Smith?”; “Ohio,” said Mrs. Smith; whereupon Mrs. Cabot said, “Mrs. Smith, here in Boston we pronounce it ‘Iowa’.” He did not particularly care for my anecdote, perhaps because it was all too evidently made up.

Children’s books and kerfluffles

I’m one of those people who take children’s literature seriously. If you’re like me, you probably already read Horn Book Magazine for their coverage of the field and for their insightful reviews of children’s books (and if you don’t read it yet, find it in your local library!).

My younger sister, Abby, told me that the editor of Horn Book, Roger Sutton, now has his own blog devoted to children’s lit. You can’t go wrong with daily post about children’s literature. Better yet, Sutton takes on the current kerfluffle in Lexington, Massachusetts, where a public school teacher dared to present the children’s book King and King in which two kings get married. This action caused a parent to take offense. Sutton writes:

I guess I misread the zeitgeist when I reviewed the book, saying “the whole thing is so good-natured that only the most determined ideologue will be able to take offense.” Lexington school superintendent Paul Ash is my hero, saying “Lexington is committed to teaching children about the world they live in, and in Massachusetts same-sex marriage is legal.” [Link].

Having spent five years working in Lexington, I learned that the town is in fact home to some determined ideologues. From the Boston Globe’s coverage of the story:

“My son is only 7 years old,” said Lexington parent Robin Wirthlin, who complained to the school system last month and will meet with the superintendent next week. “By presenting this kind of issue at such a young age, they’re trying to indoctrinate our children. They’re intentionally presenting this as a norm, and it’s not a value that our family supports.” [Link]

Indoctrinate? –a storybook is going to make your kid gay? That kind of logic would lead to the conclusion that if we read stories about boy heroes to little girls, the girls will turn into boys. Everything in a children’s book is presented as a norm? So that means that every little girl should wear a red riding hood and let a wolf eat up her grandmother. I’m going to be uncharacteristically bitter here: determined ideologues like this are people for whom logic is not a concern.

Molluscs and clean water

Long walk today up to Riverside Cemetery in Fairhaven; from there, I walked out on the point for views of the upper New Bedford harbor. Found some of the older gravestones in the cemetery, dating from the late 18th C.

On the walk back, I went down one of the side streets that terminates at the edge of the water. The tide was low, and I was able to walk out onto the shore, mostly sand but with an admixture of mud. A greater diversity of seashells than I had expected: people say that New Bedford harbor is essentially dead, that only killifish and quahogs live in its waters, but that was certainly not true this far up into the harbor. I first noticed some long meandering tracks through the sand of some small gastropod, which proved to be Common European Periwinkles (Littorina littorea). I picked one up by its shell: the mollusc clenched its body into the shell, but after I held it still for fifteen seconds, it relaxed, letting its foot come out, and then its two delicate black tentacles, which it wriggled gently; if the tentacles are where its chemoreceptor cells are located, and if its eyes are at the base of its tentacles, perhaps it was exhibiting a kind of molluskan curiosity. I placed it back on the sand, and it resumed its course down towards the verge of the water.

There was a small patch of salt marsh hay growing from the muck, which, when I got close to it, proved to support a large number of Atlantic Ribbed Mussels (Geukensia demissa), packed in so tightly that their shells touched and it was only in the interstices between the shells that the salt marsh hay could grow. All these living mussels pointed upwards; with the tide so low, they were all closed tightly. In addition to these living molluscs, I saw quite a few shells and shell fragments, of course including Northern Quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) which is well-known to grow in the most polluted waters of the harbor, but also Atlantic Jackknife Clam (Ensis directus) which we always called “razor clams” when we were children, and Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica).

It was getting late when I stopped at this little beach, and I suspect if I had had more time I could have found a few more species. Given this diversity of species, it may be that the water quality towards the upper end of the harbor (that is, nearer to the Interstate 195 bridge) may be fairly good; and this is the only place in the harbor thus far where I have seen living molluscs.

(Reference: Seashells of North America: A guide to field identification, R. Tucker Abbot (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968, 1986, 1996); in the “Golden Field Guide Series”.)

Another “Why I’m a UU”

Kok Heong McNaughton writes about why she’s a Unitarian Universalist, from her point of view as an Asian immigrant: link. Fascinating, well-written, concise.

It also brings back fond memories of Unitarian Universalism along the Pacific Rim — which has a distinctly different flavor from New England Unitarian Universalism. Here in New England, we look towards the east, across the Atlantic, and it feels like we’re fairly aware of European, and to a lesser extent African, cultures. But the Pacific Rim in North America looks west, across the Pacific. It’s a very different orientation.

April is gray

April is gray this year, the way it should be. I was worried after such a sunny March. Years ago when I worked in a lumberyard there was an April when the sun did not shine once; at least not that I can remember; and it rained and rained until the river backed up into the millbrook which backed up into the lumberyard, forcing the foreman to move piles of vulnerable plywood and drywall. By the end of the month, we all became irritable from lack of sun. April can be that way: gray, now cold and now warm, showers, drizzle, rain, too much wind, the time of sunset too rapidly changing; a month that tries patience and fortitude. Because of the grayness I often find myself staying inside, even though it’s pleasant outside; or when I go outside I keep my head down, and only with difficulty do I look up to see masses of white blossoms covering a tree; only with difficulty do I hear and listen to a House Finch singing its amazingly liquid song. I notice the dandelions’ first yellow blooms only to think, Now that they’ve bloomed they’ll be too bitter to eat. On Sunday, I saw a two-year-old in his mother’s arms, clutching a dandelion bloom and grinning, but he was also clutching a piece of crumpled paper and a piece of candy in the same hand and I couldn’t say which he grinned at. I suppose if I lifted my head more, or paid more attention to what I hear, April would feel less gray; but I happen to like gray, and for that reason I like April.