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.)
Given all this, if growth is going to be worth it, you’d have to come up with very compelling reasons to grow beyond a small congregation. Most small congregations that say they want to grow claim that the reason they want to grow is to have more people who can give money and volunteer time, and thus support more programming and better-paid staff — but let’s face it, this is not a compelling reason to grow, particularly not for potential new members who are thus perceived as mere resources to be exploited. But I think a few small congregations might actually come up with compelling reasons to grow, and here three I have heard real people mention:
(1) “We want to grow because we want to have more influence in the community.” One very specific example of this is Unitarian Universalist congregations that want to legalize same-sex marriage in their state; the bigger they are, the more political clout they will have to make this happen.
(2) “We want to grow because we know there are a lot of people out there who want to join our congregation.” It can be really depressing to continually turn people away from your congregation because there is no organizational room for them, or even literally no room for them in your building; sometimes it can take less energy (both psychic energy, and time and effort) to grow than to keep turning people away.
(3) “We want to grow because Unitarian Universalist has a saving message that the world is hungry for.” This reason is most often put forward by people whose lives have been changed for the better by Unitarian Universalism; for my money, it is the most compelling reason, because it recognizes that there is no essential connection between the size of a congregation and what Unitarian Universalism has to offer.
Can you offer any other truly compelling reasons why a small congregation should go through all the fuss and bother of growing to a mid-size congregation?