How not to grow gracefully

Second in a series | First post in the series

Let’s say you’re part of a congregation that has an annual year-round average attendance of about 150 adults and children. You and most everyone else likes your congregation at that size, and you don’t want to grow any bigger. What do you do?

1. Growing while not growing

Let’s further assume that your congregation, like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, has a steady stream of visitors, and if you retained even half of them you’d grow at a rate of better than 10% per year. But you don’t want to grow. So how can you stay the same size gracefully?

The first thing to remember, if your congregation has a steady stream of visitors and you don’t want to grow, is that it is actually difficult to turn people away. Emotionally, it can be kind of depressing when someone you kind of like shows up at church and there isn’t room for them. It’s also hard to turn away just enough people so you don’t grow, but not so many people that you start to shrink. It’s also difficult to turn away the correct people — the angry people, the dysfunctional people, the destructive people, the dishonest people — while letting in the right people — the people who will give freely of their time and money, who will make talented lay leaders, and who are caring loving people.

Without careful planning, congregations will come up with strategies for turning people away that don’t serve them well. The classic strategy to turn people away is to make it hard to find the congregation — you hide the building behind a lot of bushes, you make sure the sign is invisible, you have a crappy Web site, etc. While this is a fairly effective strategy, it can be difficult to find just the right degree of hiddenness that keeps out just enough people to prevent growth but not so many people that the congregation heads into decline. Another classic strategy is to ignore or be rude to visitors and newcomers. Unfortunately, what happens with this strategy is that too often a greater percentage of nasty, dysfunctional people find their way past all the barriers erected to keep people out. Another class strategy is to make sure there isn’t enough room, but that runs the risk of inconveniencing everyone; and (speaking from experience) overcrowding also tends to promote behavior problems.

In short, it’s actually quite difficult to develop a good strategy for keeping just enough people out that your congregation doesn’t grow. You run the risk of keeping out too many people, or letting in too many of the wrong kind of people, or making the whole experience unpleasant for everyone.

A better strategy to keep from growing is to spin off new congregations when you get too big. One way to implement this strategy:– when your congregation starts getting too big, a new group starts meeting in a new location while using the staff and volunteer resources of the parent congregation. Thus, the new group uses the parent congregation’s administrative staff, consults with the religious educator, and perhaps even meets at a time when the preacher can come and preach to them. The goal is to spend a couple of years growing the new group to the point where they can afford to support themselves financially.

There are many variations on this theme, but the basic principle is the same: a parent congregation nurtures a new congregation until it is self-supporting. It is not an easy process, and requires careful management and planning, but it avoids the negative aspects of the earlier strategies for not growing. It’s also less depressing than the other two methods I mentioned earlier — it’s depressing to be rude, and it’s depressing to turn people away without coming up with an alternative UU home for them. It’s even more depressing to let in too many nasty, dysfunctional people.

Whichever strategy your congregation chooses, I suspect what’s most important is careful planning and management. If you hide your congregation, planning and constant attention to management can allow you to increase your visibility when you see a significant drop in attendance, and hide yourselves more when too many people start showing up. If you choose the strategy of being cold to visitors, careful management can allow you to become a little warmer when you see a drop in attendance, and a little cooler when too many people start showing up. And of course splitting off new congregations requires careful planning and management all the way through.

But in each case, steady and consistent management is the key to success.

Next: When growth isn’t an option, how can you shrink your congregation gracefully?

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