Doubtless you know that even given the most optimistic figures, Unitarian Universalism is growing at about one per cent a year. Since the population is growing at a faster rate, that means we are in fact shrinking. You may not know that other liberal religious groups such as the United Church of Christ and the Ehtical Culture Society are shrinking even faster. Overall, it seems that liberal religious groups are fading out, so don’t be surprised when they stop teaching evolution in your community’s schools.
Why is liberal religion is fading from the American scene? There’s more than one reason, but I’m not going to point the finger of blame at some other group. I’m going to look at my own profession, ministry, and show how we ministers are helping to cause the decline of liberal religion.
In large part, liberal ministers are trained to be the sole pastor in a small church. Our training assumes we will be the only preacher in a congregation, assumes we will be intimately involved in the daily lives of members of our congregations, assumes we will be generalists who will have a hands-on role in every aspect of congregational life. We largely buy into each and every one of those assumptions.
On the other hand, our training assumes we will not be working with another minister (or a team of other ministers), assumes we will not have to train lay leaders to carry out ministry (because of course we’re going to do all ministry ourselves), assumes we will not need specialized knowledge in specific areas of congregational leadership. And we ministers buy into each of these assumptions as well.
We ministers assume there is a standard progression for advancing in our profession. It goes something like this: We pay our dues for a couple of years as an assistant or associate minister, a job seen merely as a resume-builder. Then we pay our dues for five to seven years in a small, pastoral-size church where the pay is low. Finally, we plan to move up to being the boss minister at a mid-size or larger congregation where at last we’ll reach the salary level we hope for.
But there’s a real problem with our “standard progression,” because we make the assumption that we can bring the same set of skills to each of the three steps of this progression. Worse, we assume that the set of skills we can bring to each of these three stages is the set of skills needed by the sole pastor in a small church. Let’s see why these are false assumptions.
As an associate minister, what we really need is a set of specialized skills for a relatively narrow area of ministry. An associate minister is usually charged with a relatively narrow slice of congregational life, such as pastoral care, religious education, church administration, or some combination of these. By contrast, there are other slices of congregational life that associate ministers rarely have to bother with, such as preaching and representing the congregation in the community, etc.
We ministers hope to become the boss minister of a larger congregation one day. Yet should we wind up in one of those positions, we find that we are ill-prepared for the duties which face us. As the sole minister in a small church, the minister expects to be a part of everything, but in a mid-size or larger church the minister has to learn to stop micro-managing. Then too, a minister accustomed to a small church finds him- or herself ill-prepared for such tasks as training laypeople to be lay ministers or worship associates, or supervising multiple staff members, or planning at least a year in advance for all church activities, or running multiple programs, or delegation. Worse, ministers who are trained to be the sole pastor have no skills (and sometimes no interest) in working effectively with other ministers or other religious professionals such as professional administrators and professional religious educators.
A common result of all this is that a minister trained in the habits of small church ministry winds up in a mid-size or larger congregation. He or she begins to micromanage lay leaders and committees, can’t delegate tasks, alienates professional staff, doesn’t know how to adequately supervise support staff, with the final result that the congregation actually sinks back into being a small church. At last the minister feels comfortable again, so the church stays at that size — and everyone wonders why they can’t grow the church.
If we ministers really want Unitarian Universalism to grow, we should start acting like ministers in larger congregations. We should engage in continuing education to learn how to supervise support staff. We should learn how to work in the same congregation with other ministers, starting with deep reflection on what habits we have that prevent us from working with other ministers now. We should learn good project management skills which will help us to delegate. We should give up our savior complexes which tell us that only we professional ministers can minister to and save people in our congregations. Etc.
Some final points– Did you know that essentially all of the growth we have seen in Unitarian Universalism has come in large congregations? Did you know that in aggregate, small churches are losing members while still requiring lots of support from districts and denomination? Did you know that because of cost-of-living and salary trends, it now requires 175 or more members to adequately fund church staff? Did you know that unless you have an average of more than 200 men, women, and children at worship each week (counting summer months — and don’t bother with how many people have signed the membership book), yours is a small church?
So, fellow ministers, it’s our choice. I’m well aware of the attractions of being in a small church — the coziness, the intimacy. But if we ministers make that choice, it sure looks to me as if we are also choosing to kill off liberal religion. In other words, in a world that desperately needs strong liberal religious voices, there are some big moral implications if we choose to remain small-church ministers.