Disruptive forces acting on congregations

In an essay on the Alban Institute Web site titled “Restructuring the Rabbinate,” Hayim Herring writes:

Individuals can access educational, spiritual, and cultural resources on their own, independent of congregations. The Chabad movement continues to expand its network of synagogues, minyanim, religious schools, preschools, camps, and college campus houses, and undoubtedly is planning new initiatives. This movement abandoned the typical synagogue financial membership model of “joining” a synagogue for a relationship-based model of involvement. They understood that people who are emotionally connected to a rabbi and community are willing to contribute voluntarily. Chabad’s global reach and its ability to work with families over a lifespan has been a disruptive force for many established synagogues.

I think a key phrase here is “disruptive force.” This is a phrase that comes from the world of business, and it refers to the way that innovation that provides a good-enough product or service can put high-end or excellent products on the defensive and by so doing, completely disrupt an established market. An example of this is Craig Newmark, who developed Craigslist, a Web site that offered largely free classified advertising; in so doing, Newmark disrupted the newspaper business, for newspapers had depended on classified advertising for their financial survival. Arguably, Craigslist isn’t as good as newspaper classified ads — because it’s a free service there are many stupid ads which merely waste one’s time, and of course when one bought a newspaper one also got journalism along with the ads. But Craigslist ads are good enough, and Craigslist has disrupted the newspaper business model by driving newspapers out of the classified ads business.

As much as we’d like to think that religion is free from market forces, in today’s consumer capitalism nothing is free from market forces. And there are disruptive forces acting on religion. Hayim Herring gives the specific example of Chabad as a disruptive force acting on typical synagogues. While Unitarian Universalist congregations rely on a different financial model than do Jewish congregations, we also have disruptive market forces acting on us. Perhaps the most important disruptive force acting on Unitarian Universalist congregations is the religious-fee-for-service business model.

This fee-for-service model is exemplified by the yoga industry. North American yoga is an adaptation of Hinduism, and the North American yoga industry has a business model where you pay only for the service you use: if you go to a yoga class you pay for that class, and if you don’t go you don’t pay. The fee-for-service model is in contrast to the business model of Unitarian Universalist congregations, where you are asked to pledge to support the whole congregation, including services that you never use; often, you are also asked to support ongoing maintenance of a physical plant, most of which you never use. While yoga studios do not offer the rich array of religious services and support offered by congregations (e.g., yoga studios do not provide pastoral care for the ill and elderly, rites of passage, etc.), nevertheless they provide services that are good enough for most people most of the time; or at least, they’re good enough for most people with disposable income most of the time.

While it is tempting to get nostalgic for the good old days when congregations did not face competition from disruptive market forces, such nostalgia is misplaced. The current business model of most Unitarian Universalist congregations is only about 150 years old, and furthermore the current business model took almost a century to replace the old pew rental system. The pew rental system had in its day supplanted state-supported congregations. If we’re going to get nostalgic, where will our nostalgia stop? Will we wind up longing for state-supported congregations? — that’s essentially what many Christian conservatives are doing when they try to claim that the United States is a Christian nation. I don’t think we want to adopt that kind of Christian conservative nostalgia.

And while it is tempting to say that religion should be exempt from matters of business, that we should not have to sully our religious purity by dealing with such mundane matters, that temptation is quite destructive. We can no more divorce religion from the business, finance, and maintenance than we can divorce our spiritual selves from our physical selves. There are religions which believe that the spiritual self is separate from the physical self, but Unitarian Universalism is not one of those religions; we do not waste our time indulging in such fantasies.

Instead of succumbing to nostalgia or fantasy, I’d prefer to look at how we might innovate. What can we adopt and adapt from the disruptive forces that are destroying our current business model? How might we become a disruptive force ourselves? Are there theological advantages to new and innovative business models? Or, to use a traditional metaphor, what are the new wineskins into which we will put our new wine?

But these questions will have to wait for another post….

3 thoughts on “Disruptive forces acting on congregations”

  1. Completely agree. The pledge system has not worked well for us for a long time. The typical Unitarian Universalist secrecy around money allows some people to game the system and take advantage. Unfortunately, such people often think they are being clever, not dishonest. So they don’t contribute when they could, yet demand services in a loud voice. A cleaner model would, IMHO, do us all good.

  2. Will we wind up longing for state-supported congregations? — that’s essentially what many Christian conservatives are doing when they try to claim that the United States is a Christian nation. I don’t think we want to adopt that kind of Christian conservative nostalgia.

    Nor is it something to wish for, judging from a friend of mine who worked for a state church in Switzerland. Everyone belonged, no one attended.

  3. Agree with much here, but knowing Christian Conservatives, state support of Churches is the furthest thing from their minds when they’re describing the US as a Christian Nation.

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