One reason liberal religion is dying

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.

11 thoughts on “One reason liberal religion is dying

  1. CDS

    Preach it!

    Not all of us are interested in following that proscribed path. Not all of us are looking for that perfect small church, the perfect sole ministry position.

    Unfortunately, just as you call it, that does seem to be the hole we are being rounded off for in our seminaries.

    Fortunately, I’ve always been more comfortable as a square peg.

  2. ser

    so basically, you are saying that UU needs to continue to give up on small churches and make UU a denomination of the large urban areas only? And that certainly is what UU as an association has been suggesting for the past ten to twenty years and more – and why UU has indeed given up on most of the country — and for my view, one of the reason, it continues to shrink.
    I am aware that small UU churches lose members, but it is also my understanding that many of them send alot more money to hq than they recive, and moneywise, if they didnt have the link on the website, they might do better as non-affliated; hmm, even with the link, they still might do better as non-affliated)

    I dont doubt what you’re saying above is true, but I think that the “solution” means more shrinkage – it heralds the death of UU, not its rebirth.

  3. Bill Baar

    I agree.

    I’m a graduate of Grinnell College, Grinnell Iowa. It’s a school with a long tradition of
    political and social liberalism. I had lunch with the President once and he told me what a
    struggle it was to get all these liberal kids to make a change; tear town a building, remodel
    something… do anything different. It was tough to change make any change when you were
    surrounded by all these liberals.

    Evangelicals have a message and always looking for new ways to proclaim it. Some lessons there
    and I think you started at the core. With the folks who manage it all…

  4. Administrator

    Note to scr: Please read the post more carefully — I am criticizing ministers who think small, I am not criticizing small congregations. We all know that small congregations have an important role to play in spreading liberal religious values in rural areas of low population density — but that is an issue for a completely different post.

  5. Adam Tierney-Eliot

    An interesting post, thank you. Think you were right on about the
    way in which many of our ministers experience seminary and ministry.
    While I am not sure that we should all learn to be large church
    ministers, it does make sense to me that we need to think much more
    Many of our churches are unnaturally small and I agree that our professional leadership seems ill equipped to share “its” ministry. However, my “career arch,” if you will, is somewhat different from what you described and so my experiences may be a bit different. I statred in a congregation (two yoked congregations, in fact) that were smaller than small! Another way in which we need to think creatively is to empower and equip
    the laity of these small churches to lead them without a constant pastorl presence. I realize that there is some work going on in this area but, frankly, we need more. We also need to get used to the idea that planting small (sometimes very small) churches will also help our movement grow by bringing our liberal faith to places which otherwise will not have it.

  6. Adam Tierney-Eliot

    Hey again, for some reason I could only see half the “comment box”
    When I wrote the above post. So some completely illegible words
    escaped my computer. Please substitute “started” for “statred”
    and “pastoral” for “pastrl”. Finally, I just want to clarify
    that these new smaller congregations also need to be led by the
    laity and assisted by professionals. I always thought (at least
    when I was serving in rural Maine) that it would be fun to be the
    piad clergy staff to a network of “House Churches” (like 8-20 people)
    and be paid by them (not the UUA) to do whatever it was they felt needed doing.

    Alas! I am filling up your space! My apologies…

  7. Administrator

    Note to Adam: Your post helps me clarify my criticims of ministers and our training. The problem lies in a contradiction: We ministers get trained to be in small congregations, many of us like being in small congregations, yet many of us long to be in larger congregations.

  8. Jess

    I thought I left this comment last night, will try to recreate….

    I don’t think it’s just ministers who tend to think small. How many of us have been in a committee meeting or even an Annual Meeting where the sentiment is expressed right out in the opening – “Why do we have to grow? Aren’t there enough people here already?”

    And something that gets left out of the debate most of the time is the question of retaining youth members. What kind of foundation do we really give our youth, and is it enough so that Unitarian Universalism actually meets their spiritual needs once they’re out on their own?

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