Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 1

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

7 thoughts on “Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 1”

  1. It is true in general, not just of UU – most churches are small – median is about 75 members – but most people go to a large church. When I was a rural librarian, I constantly repeated that 90% of public libraries served communities of less than 10,000. We have become more urban in the 20 years since then, but many of those “urban” areas are large towns and their quite rural surroundings – and half the country still lives outside even those “urban” areas.

    There are undoubtedly 75 potential UUs within 20 minutes or so of our congregation – there are probably not 250. I believe everyone deserves to have a liberal congregation within easy reach, and if that means having a plain building or shared space, a minister who has a day job, a circuit minister, or lay leaders – the traditional solutions for small congregations everywhere, so be it. And more urban areas might think about whether those are not solutions for them, too. Megachurches succeed only when they provide many small groups within the church – what is the point of being large? Why not small neighborhood churches? In areas with many churches relatively close, it also gives people a choice of liberal styles.

  2. Lisa, I love smaller congregations, too — as long as small congregations act their size, and confront their financial realities. It’s just that it’s really important to remember there’s no use living in a fantasy world where small congregations can remain small, and retain all the bells and whistles of large congregations, and have a balanced budget every year.

  3. Bill, I like your phrase: “stasis as unsustainable: no growth, you wither.” I’d want to qualify the word “growth” though — it doesn’t have to be numerical growth, it could be growth in self-awareness, in mission, etc.

  4. Maybe Dan, but I read your post and had the feeling you meant budget and pledging units. I think self-awareness and mission follow, but we need to create the foundation to build it first. I’m not rigid about that..it’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing.

  5. It is an opportunity, as you’ve put it, Dan, and I agree that many churches are rising to the challenge. Unfortunately, Maine (and northern New England in general) has a number of rural churches (all of which, interestingly enough, were originally Universalist) with aging congregations of less than 50 that don’t have so much as a formal RE program.

    Other than the UUA once again dumping their dwindling funds into a few of them as growth projects (has this actually worked anywhere?), I don’t see any evidence that these places serve for much more than a weekly coffee spot for the elderly. As a result, UU-inclined folks are finding themselves driving longer and longer distances to an active church, and in this economy, that often means cutting something else out from the budget.

  6. Agree with your point, but am wondering about the following: “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.”

    When you speak of “their mission in the world,” what do you mean? The congregation’s “mission statement” (which, generally, no one can recite)? My view is that it should be “our common RELIGIOUS mission.” Don’t all UU congregations have essentially the same religious mission, i.e., to help members mature spiritually, and to become a beacon for liberal religion in their particular part of the world, to help their local area garden grow, as opposed to “their unique mission in the big wide world”?

    And I also can’t help but wonder, what are the UU congregations with 250+ members doing to help the smaller congregations thrive? This is an institutional problem that needs to be addressed on many levels.

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