The way out of decline

The Unitarian Universalist Association is in decline by many measures: number of certified members, average Sunday morning attendance, enrollment in religious education programs. Now obviously this decline is an average across all congregations; some congregations are growing and thriving, while others are declining. So is there a way out of decline?

I don’t believe there is some magic bullet that will infallibly cure decline. Nor am I an ideologue who believes there there is one root cause from which all decline springs — that is, I don’t believe that we’re declining because of our polity, or because we’re not Evangelical Christian, or because we’re mostly white. As a historical materialist, I do believe that there are some broad demographic trends that are pushing us in certain directions. But I also believe that every congregation finds itself in a slightly different and therefore unique setting, with a unique set of pressures and opportunities. Specific techniques for growth that work in my congregation may not work for your congregation, and vice versa.

Having said that, there are at least three obvious principles that can help us reverse decline.

Most obviously, good management over the long haul is probably essential for reversing decline. A congregation can have the most fabulous vision in the world, but you have to manage your congregation on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, over a period of months and years, in order to realize that vision. Management is somewhat different than leadership. Management are those habits and practices that keep an organization running smoothly and efficiently, and that coordinate efforts towards the big goals of the organization.

It is worth noting that the nonprofit world is a competitive place. Like it or not, a congregation is just another nonprofit competing for people’s personal involvement and financial support. In a competitive marketplace, there will be forces pushing our congregations to use resources — money, staff time, volunteer hours — with increased efficiency. Therefore, increased efficiency through better management is a goal throughout the nonprofit world — and should be a goal within our congregations.

It is probably the case that a congregation will always need more than one person driving good management. We can’t just delegate management to one person, because if only one person is a good manager, that person is going to get tired out pretty quickly. Boards have to supervise paid staff and key volunteers with management in mind; they have to be sure that staff and key volunteers have access to training in appropriate management skills; and boards have to manage themselves properly. Ministers, religious educators, and administrators have to make sure they are constantly honing their management skills. Everyone management reponsibility has to take pride in being a good manager. In short, you have to build a culture where good management is the norm, where your key people are managing the organization for the long haul.

Along with good management, you have to have good leadership — once again, over the long haul — and once again, there has to be more than one good leader. A good leader always has his or her eyes constantly on the big picture. A good leader is someone who is able to motivate other people to work towards a compelling shared vision. And a good leader is also skilled at good followership; a good leader knows when it is time to follow, as well as when it is time to lead.

Permit me to add what should be a too-obvious point: if you are not relying on your senior minister as one of your key leaders, that’s a little weird. Some ministers are not good managers, but if you don’t trust your senior minister to lead, you need to ask yourself some hard questions: do you not trust your senior minister because that person is incompetent, or do you not trust your senior minister because you are unable to trust ordained clergy or any authority figure? If you feel you can’t attract good leaders to be your minister, you will want to ask yourself why that is so: is it because you are unable to offer a financially attractive package, or is it because you have a pattern of hiring less than competent leaders, or is it because your congregation holds ministers in contempt such that they can’t be effective and/or leave quickly? These may be difficult questions for you to answer, because it’s going to be hard to get straight answers from anyone. But it is wise to answer them straight, because without good leadership from a visionary senior minister, I think you’re going to find it’s difficult to reverse decline.

I would also suggest you’ll want to ask the same sorts of questions if you can’t attract good lay leaders. If you find that your best lay leaders are getting burned out, and maybe even leaving the congregation after a stint in a formal leadership position, you’ll want to figure out why, and fix that problem. Reversing decline is a long-term effort, and you need leaders who can stick around for the long haul.

With solid management and visionary leadership in place, the next step is cheerful and dogged persistence to reverse your decline.

Every congregation will be in decline because of a different set of reasons. If you’re lucky, the reason for decline will be obvious. Maybe your congregation is unable to ask confidently and consistently for financial support. Maybe your congregation avoids all risks. Maybe your congregation’s physical plant has deferred maintenance that results in an unsafe, unattractive, messy, dirty, and/or smelly building. Maybe your congregation has a secret history of misconduct by clergy or lay leaders. If there is an obvious reason why you’re in decline, the solution is obvious. If your building is smelly, dirty, and unsafe, you can create a management plan to fix it up, etc. And you keep at it, cheerfully and doggedly, until the obvious problems are solved.

More likely, there won’t be an obvious reason why you’re in decline. Then your task is more difficult. You can spend years trying to sort out all the subtle and complex reasons why you’re declining. Or, more practically, you can focus on positive action: determine what your compelling vision is, articulate it clearly to the congregation and the surrounding community, and turn your compelling vision into reality.

This is an iterative process; that is, you start out with a rough idea of your compelling vision, try to articulate it and bring it into reality, and when you fail to articulate it and make it real, figure out why you failed and try again. Then go through this process again several more times, and the whole time you’re doing this you should be constantly paying attention to managing the congregation more efficiently, and constantly paying attention to informal and formal feedback loops that tell you honestly whether you’re succeeding or not. You keep trying, and failing, and getting better at it, and trying again, and failing but not so badly this time, over and over again, until you get good at whatever you’re doing.

If Unitarian Universalists have one weakness these days, it’s that we lack a certain amount of stick-to-it-tiveness. In social justice, we are afflicted with the “cause-of-the-month” syndrome. When it comes to growth, we’re afflicted with a similar lack of persistence — if we don’t see immediate and rapid growth, we start saying to each other, “Well, but there’s more to growth than numerical growth.” Both social justice and growth require dogged and cheerful persistence. Nobody’s going to end racism in a year; nobody’s going to reverse congregational decline in a couple of months. Our planning horizons for growth should be this Sunday, next year, five years from now — and twenty years from now, looking ahead to the next generation. This iterative process takes years — years of trying things and admitting failure, years of building up small successes until they become big successes.

There is no magic bullet to end our decline. Every congregation is going to face unique problems, and what works in someone else’s congregation may or may not work in yours. But some things we can be sure of: we need good management, good leadership, and cheerfully dogged persistence.

6 thoughts on “The way out of decline”

  1. Good one, Mr. H. This needs to appear in the UU World…and many other places! Sometimes you are extra brilliant.

  2. I think that the most common reason that UU congregations decline is that they are afraid to step up to their unique role: to enhance people’s spiritual lives in a non-dogmatic atmosphere, especially using the tools of the liberal religious heritage. Help with their spiritual lives is the main reason that people join churches these days. That’s quite different from the reason that people joined in the last century, and until we get that, we’re going to decline.

  3. I wish UU ministers would talk more about our shared (non-dogmatic) faith, and encourage others to do the same. I think that would help people feel more spiritually whole, connected with one another, and less likely to leave.

  4. What puzzles me is that the large churches in Tulsa, Rochester, Madison seem to be thriving and growing. Probably the loss in in the smaller churches who can’t afford the talent.

  5. Christine @ 2 — Since you’re senior minister at the eleventh largest UU congregation (measured in terms of average attendance), I’m inclined to give great weight to your opinion. I would characterize what you’re saying here as a call for visionary leadership.

    Victor @ 4 — I think you’re right. I would characterize that as being a need for good leadership motivating people to be part of a compelling vision.

    David @ 5 — The big congregations appear to me to be well-managed, and to have leaders who articulate a compelling vision. In fact, it has been my years of observing the big congregations from afar — and having worked in small congregations — that has led me to the position articulated in this post, that good management, good leadership, and cheerful and dogged persistence are what is needed.

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