As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the state of liberal religion in 2011. For once, I’m actually feeling kind of hopeful about liberal religion; for once, I’m feeling as though liberal religion might not die out in another 20 years. Mind you, it’s still touch and go, but I feel the odds of survival have gone up from two in five to three in five. And so I’m going to start a series of posts on the top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011.
10. The Great Recession
How can I possibly think that the Great Recession is one of the top ten best things to happen to liberal religion this year? Before I answer that question, I have to tell you a dirty little secret: the majority of Unitarian Universalist belong to a congregation with more than 250 members; yet half of all our congregations have fewer than 100 members.
Now I love small congregations, and have served three congregations with fewer than 100 members. But for the past forty years, while long-term economic trends have been forcing most of the non-profit world to become increasingly efficient, small congregations have, by and large, refused to change. Thus we see many small congregations that both refuse to grow to the point where they would be economically viable, and at the same time refuse to consider the possibility of cutting their budgets.
The Great Recession is forcing many congregations to face up to the fact that they are on the horns of a dilemma: they must either grow, or slash spending. After enduring nearly three years of a lousy economy, these congregations can no longer put off the inevitable: will they pass through the horns of the dilemma by cutting expenses, or will they wrestle the dilemma to the ground and vanquish it (at great risk of being gored) by learning how to grow the congregation?
Thus, for many congregation, the Great Recession has made their preferred third option — continuing to rest on the horns of the dilemma by changing nothing — untenable. This is actually fantastically good news: those congregations resting on the horns of that dilemma were actually stuck, going nowhere. It’s boring being in a stuck congregation, going nowhere. So with any kind of luck, the Great Recession is going to continue to force many congregations to get unstuck.
Mind you, getting yourself unstuck from the horns of a dilemma is not a pleasant experience. Those horns you’ve been stuck on are sharp, and when you pull off of them, you’re liable to start bleeding. But the horns were going to kill you in the long run: best to get the pain over with as quickly as possible, and if the Great Recession forces you to do that, then it is a fantastically good thing.
My only fear is that too many congregations will choose the easy way out: they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by cutting staff or building maintenance. Or worse, they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by increasing revenue in ways that allow them to avoid taking responsibility for raising their own money, e.g., excessive drawdown of endowment, excessive rental of building, involvement in harebrained moneymaking schemes, financial illegalities, etc. My hope is that the Great Recession is going to force a lot of congregations to focus tightly on their mission in the world, and to cut away all that is extraneous.
Next: 9. Dealing with race