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.

2 thoughts on “What’s holding us back?

  1. Jeff Wilson

    Not really a comment on the sermon, but thought you might be interested to know that Edwards was a famously poor public speaker with no affect whatsoever (unlike his stage-trained contemporary George Whitefield). Maybe that’s why his sermons read so well: all he ever did was just read them straight. Yet somehow his monotone actually inspired fear and horror as he blandly, unrelentingly related the sins and peril of his generation.

  2. Administrator

    Jeff — Plus, Edwards wound up plunging his church into turmoil and conflict, so he’s a case study for how not to do church growth!

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