The habits of graceful growth (and decline)

Fourth and last in a series | First post in the series

There are two common threads running through the first three post in this series on growth. While I never stated the first of these threads explicitly, attentive readers will have noticed that whether you want your congregation to stay the same size gracefully, or decline gracefully, or perhaps even grow gracefully, I believe you must (1) know what your congregation stands for, and (2) provide steady and consistent management for your congregation.

While some Unitarian Universalist congregations have a clear sense of what their congregation stands for, in my experience the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations do not provide steady and consistent management over a period of years and decades. This is half of the reason why most congregational surveys are a waste of time — you go through all the work of doing a survey, and within months lay leaders have gone on to other things. This is also why it’s often a waste of time to bring in an outside consultant — you spend all that money on an outside consultant, and a year later the consultant’s recommendations have been essentially forgotten. More than once, I have found myself in a situation where, as a staff person, I’m still trying to implement the recommendations that came out of a survey or a consultant’s visit a year before, only to find myself taken to task by lay leaders and other staff people who want to move on to something new. “That old consultant was a waste of time,” they’ll tell me, “and his recommendations didn’t work. We need to do something new.” That old consultant’s recommendations didn’t work because no one actually did the long-term work to implement them.

This reality — for it is a reality in most Unitarian Universalist congregations — has to be faced before long-term, consistent, and graceful growth can take place. So why are Unitarian Universalist congregations unable to provide steady and consistent management for graceful growth (or for graceful decline, or graceful steady-state, if that’s the way you need to go)? I can think of several reasons:

  1. Poor or non-existent leadership development strategies, so that frequently someone brand-new to the congregation is thrown into a leadership position with no orientation to the long-term goals and strategies of the congregation.
  2. Lack of clearly articulated, well-defined goals and objectives based on a firm sense of what the congregation stands for. (To state the obvious, this of course hampers leadership development.)
  3. Unitarian Universalist congregations are often filled with bright, creative upper-middle class people who are accustomed to being the boss in the rest of their lives; these people find it difficult to be good followers and serve under someone else’s steady and consistent management.
  4. Unitarian Universalist congregations are often filled people who are extremely accomplished in their own professions, and they try to bring management strategies from their own field. All at the same time, you’ll have some lay leaders trying to apply management strategies from small businesses, some trying to apply management strategies from large corporations, some trying to apply management strategies from the public sector, and some trying to apply management strategies from the world of large nonprofits. (I have yet to run in to lay leaders who work in tiny nonprofits, probably because if you work in a tiny nonprofit you don’t have any spare time to devote to volunteer work.)
  5. Very few lay leaders, and all too many ministers, don’t read the literature on church growth — they don’t seek out information on what has actually worked in growing churches elsewhere.

Given all this, it really isn’t surprising that most Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t provide steady and consistent management over a period of a decade or more!

Case study: Steady and consistent management

What would steady and consistent management look like? I watched as my home church, First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, experienced steady growth (as measured by average worship attendance) over a period of two and a half decades, from 1970 to 1995. In 1970, average attendance was under a hundred; by the end of that period, average attendance was somewhere around 800.

In 1970, the congregation called a new minister, Dana Greeley. Greeley, who had just finished a term as denominational president during a very contentious eight-year period, and who had prior to that spent more than two decades running a large and influential congregation in Boston, had the skills and experience to provide steady and consistent (some would say autocratic) management. More specifically, he knew how to manage congregations; not businesses or nonprofits, but congregations. As a lifelong Unitarian and a skilled preacher, Greeley was also able to clearly articulate what the congregation stood for.

Greeley faced regular opposition from lay leaders who had their own, new, ideas of what should be done; or who wanted to import management techniques from business; or people who were bright and intelligent and who just wanted to try something different. Since Greeley had gotten both his undergraduate and graduate degree at Harvard, and since he had great force of personality on his own, he was willing and able to brush off such challenges. He was also charismatic enough to prompt an even larger number of lay people to follow his leadership, and submit to his management. Equally important, Greeley shaped the organizational structures of the congregation to provide a more centralized, streamlined, and efficient power structure.

When Greeley retired in 1986, following a two-year interim period the congregation brought on a relatively unknown minister named Gary Smith. Smith had as much force of will and charisma, albeit of a quite different type, as did Greeley. Some dissident factions perceived him as too strong a boss, but he provided steady, consistent, and graceful management in spite of such opposition. He was also had the charisma and talent to attract lots of talented lay leaders who felt privileged to follow his leadership (although I only filled minor volunteer roles in the church, I can attest to the fact that it was very satisfying to serve under his leadership). While Greeley’s vision of the congregation was fairly broad — he simply wanted a strong Unitarian Universalist congregation — Smith focused carefully on attracting unchurched people, especially Baby Boomers, and especially families with children.

Under Smith’s leadership, the congregation has continued to grow, to the point where it is now one of the top ten largest Unitarian Universalist congregations. This growth has happened for the most part steadily and gracefully, and with the recent completion of a major building project, there’s now no reason why the growth can’t continue for another decade.

It’s all about good habits

What’s clear in this case study is the role of a long-term and powerful minister as the key ingredient in growth at First Parish of Concord. A minister of this type can both clearly articulate what the congregation stands for, and can provide the steady and consistent management that is necessary for steady and graceful growth. (While I’m focusing on growth here, it should be obvious that steady and consistent management of exactly the same type, which involves the self-discipline to make hard choices, is also the way to achieve a graceful steady state of no growth — or, for that matter, graceful decline, if that’s what’s needed.)

A long-term and powerful minister is not essential to steady growth, although this is certainly the most obvious way to grow. An empowered and skilled cadre of long-term lay leaders, who remain clear about their goals and remain consistent with their management approach, can also lead a congregation to grow steadily over the long term.

Whether it is provided by strong lay leaders or a strong minister, steady and consistent management is a set of habits that must be acquired. If your congregation has a large percentage of people in the managerial class, you have to get in the habit of educating new lay leaders in the basics of congregational management, and how it differs from for-profit and public sector management, and management in large non-profits. No matter who your congregants are, you have to get in the habit of thoroughly educating new lay leaders about current management strategies. Above all, you have to get in the habit of thoroughly finishing and evaluating existing tasks, not abandoning them because someone has a new idea or something new and attractive comes along.

And then there’s the most important habit that must be acquired by the whole congregation — you have to stop undermining and tearing down and second-guessing leaders. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations are filled with people who are bright and creative and who probably could do a better job of it than existing leaders. But — and this is the key point — it’s more important to stick to one good idea over the long haul, than drop the old, merely good idea for a new idea that happens to be brilliant. What hamstrings more Unitarian Universalist congregations than anything else is our tendency to flit from one brilliant idea to another, year after year, never getting anywhere because no brilliant idea lasts more than a year. We have to learn to let our congregational leaders lead (even if that congregational leader happens to be a minister or layperson whom you think is not as bright as you are); we have to learn to be good followers.

Brilliant new ideas do not grow congregations. Steady, consistent management — dogged perseverance year after year — serious self discipline that allows you to not adopt all the brilliant new ideas that come along — constant repetition of what you stand for — steady focus on unvarying ten- and twenty year goals — these are the habits that grow a congregation.

It’s all about the habits you adopt.


End of the series.