Three safe predictions for 2012

Allow me to make three safe predictions for liberal religion in 2012. Here’s a summary of my three predictions:

1. Baby Boomers will continue to run most liberal religious congregations to suit themselves.
2. Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.
3. Fewer kids will be part of liberal religious congregations.

Now on to my reasons for making these predictions:

1. Baby Boomers will continue to run most liberal religious congregations to suit themselves.

It’s safe to say that Baby Boomers will continue to run liberal religious congregations. Liberal religious congregations are heavily dependent on volunteer labor, and Baby Boomers are at a stage of life where they have more time to give to volunteering — most of them no longer have kids at home, they’re not pouring most of their time into their careers, and some of them are beginning to retire. The main competitors of the Baby Boomers, the GI Generation, have gotten old enough that they’re leaving leadership roles in our congregations. On top of that, Baby Boomers have been putting in slightly more volunteer hours than preceding generations. So Baby Boomers will dominate the leadership of liberal congregations.

The past history of Baby Boomers has shown that they tend to run things to suit themselves. The GI Generation has called them selfish, but I think it’s more likely that there are just so darned many Baby Boomers, and the marketers and advertisers have been catering to this huge market for so long, that they haven’t had to learn about the needs and desires of other generations. But whether the GI Generation is right about their motivations, or I’m right, I’m willing to predict that the Boomers will stick to their established habits and run liberal congregations to suit themselves, not people younger or older than themselves.

One final note: Most denominations are also run by Baby Boomers. Therefore, it is safe to predict that denominations will tend cater to the needs and desires of Boomers. Which means that denominations will reinforce, not counter, the tendency of Boomers to run congregations to suit themselves.

2. Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.

Our whole society is dominated by a financial system that focuses on short-term goals. Shareholders demand improved results for the next quarter, even at the expense of making investments towards long-term goals — and “long-term” has come to mean next fiscal year. Because our society places such importance on our financial system, our whole society has developed habits of short-term thinking.

Congregations are not as bad as the rest of society. I do see congregations making longer-term goals. But like the larger society, those longer term goals tend to be driven by concerns of finances and the market, rather than by our mission and ministry. So I see congregations setting five-year growth goals — not because there are so many people in the world who want and need our saving message, but because we think we need a larger base of donors.

The ongoing financial turmoil in the world will reinforce this trend. Congregational leadership will give short-term financial goals top priority, thinking that it’s most important to maintain a balanced budget. And congregational leadership simply won’t see or acknowledge the alternative — that in hard times, it’s most important to expand ministry and mission, so we can reach out to more people who are hurting and in pain because of the financial turmoil in the world.

3. Fewer kids will be part of liberal religious congregations.

Baby Boomers are running our congregations to suit themselves. Most Baby Boomers have launched their kids into the world. Therefore, I expect a continued decline in investment in ministries and programs that serve children and teenagers and their parents.

Congregational leadership will continue to focus on short-term financial goals rather than long-term ministry and mission. Ministries and programs for children and teenagers are long-term programs the results of which we won’t see for another ten or twenty years. And ministries and programs for children and teenagers do not help the immediate bottom line of congregations, i.e., do not help us meet short-term financial goals. Again, therefore, I expect a continued decline in investment in ministries and programs that serve children and teenagers and their parents.

Even if liberal congregations suddenly make supporting kids a priority once again in 2012, we will still see a decline in the number of kids who are part of liberal congregations. As a rule of thumb, it takes five years of ongoing investment in the infrastructure to support children and teen programs before you can turn around a decline. So even if your congregation begins investing this year, you won’t see results for several more years. And, sadly, because of the emphasis on short-term financial goals, whatever increased investment in children’s programs you make this year will probably be taken out of next year’s budget.

Finally, don’t expect denominations to provide any corrective to this trend. Denominations are also run by child-free Baby Boomers who are also emphasizing short-term financial goals.

Tomorrow: How you can change these trends.

7 thoughts on “Three safe predictions for 2012”

  1. about #3, what you write about the trend of fewer kids in liberal congregations may well be true in general, but it is far from true in the UU church I attend in St. Paul. Our children’s RE program has seen tremendous growth in the past 5 years (which seems to agree with the time frame you suggest is necessary.) Any UU congregation looking to improve programming for children could learn much from our very gifted RE director.

    about #2, My church is also an exception re long range planning vs short term financial goals.

    I am curious to see if your recommendations for changing these trends will be similar to what seems to have been done in my church.

    Reading your post has increased my appreciation for what the leaders in my church accomplish.

  2. I understand that this is simply an opinion page, but to make statements such as “The past history of Baby Boomers has shown that they tend to run things to suit themselves” with no supporting evidence is just annoying. Believe this baby boomer: if someone else were willing to be ‘facilities liaison’ I would step down in a New York minute and focus on simply carrying out someone else’s ideas. Same with running the budget drive. Same with helping older members in need. Same with serving a ‘membership liaison’. If you want to lead, please step up!!

  3. I felt the same way when I was 35 and had toddlers, and 45 and had teenagers – the GI generation ran the church for themselves. Actually, it was a huge fight to have a youth program in the church I grew up in – and that was the GI generation’s parents who were in control. We all survived, and most of us are in churches somewhere – even my UU kids, both Millenials.

  4. Laurie — Glad to hear St. Paul is an exception. Yes, other congregations could learn from you.

    Neil — I’m a Baby Boomer, too — the evidence I offer is personal observation, and personal self-awareness. The key skill that Baby Boomers seem to lack is the ability to develop new younger leaders, training and mentoring them and moving them, and stepping out of the way so the new leaders can do their thing. A classic response of Baby Boomers is that they’d be glad to step out of leadership roles if only someone else would volunteer — but we have to develop new leaders, they don’t just appear. Another classic response of Baby Boomers is that these younger people move every two years so what’t the point of training them as leaders — but that’s the new reality, and we just have to adapt to it.

    Lisa — Yup, one of the ugliest untold stories in the recent history of liberal religious congregations is the story about the bitter power battles between the GI Generation and the Baby Boomers during the 1990s. We may have survived those battles, but they left us weakened, and distracted us from our primary goals.

    Amy — Yup.

  5. My experience says this critique is on target, even if it is a little short on evidence for some of the strong conclusions. We Baby Boomers need to think about our kids and grandchildren as we make decisions and plans for our congregation’s future. I have worked hard for sounder longer range planning with some success, but not near what we need in my young (10 years) congregation. It’s about us, and about making us happy after long lives of work and raising a family, which is behind us. I think you have raised the a clear picture of the challenge we all face to be relevant as a religious body. With that said, I remain an optimist.

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