Step four: Have patience and hold on for at least five years
I got spoiled in my first job as a director of religious education. In my first three years on the job, we more than tripled enrollment, and probably tripled attendance. That first job gave me the impression that growth is easy, and that it happens quickly.
Sometimes that is in fact true: sometimes everything comes together and you get explosive growth in a short time without much effort. But most of the time, it takes years of hard work to get growth that you measure in a few percentage points each year.
Or, and this is more common than even slow growth, you find yourself stalled on a plateau for years at a time. Let’s talk about these growth plateaus for a moment. Growth plateaus often occur when the year-round average attendance of adults and children in a congregation is between 35 and 60, and again when attendance is between 150 and 200. When I look at 2011 attendance data on the UUA Web site, I can see several congregations in our district that may be stuck on one of these plateaus. Chico, Lake County, Sacramento Community Church, Stockton, and Sonora may be stuck on that lower plateau. Oakland, San Francisco, and San Mateo may be on that higher plateau. You may be interested to know that congregations that have stalled on growth plateaus seem far more likely to experience serious conflict — and watch out for conflict: it can stop growth dead, so you will want to manage conflict carefully so that it does not stop growth.
The only way to figure out for sure if your congregation is stalled on one of these plateaus is to check attendance data going back at least a decade. My own congregation in Palo Alto is reporting an average attendance of 208, but looking at our attendance data shows that we’ve been stalled on a growth plateau since about 1998. A couple of times we have broken 200 average attendance, only to fall back below that number after a year or two.
Growth usually takes patience, and it usually takes years. If you’re stalled on a growth plateau, it can take twice as many years and far more patience. If you discover that you’re stalled on a growth plateau, the best advice I can offer you is to stick to the basics: Carefully measure enrollment, attendance, and pledge income. Continue to maintain an administrative structure that provides adequate funding, adequate volunteers, adequate physical space, and a good enough program. Pluck low-hanging fruit when it’s available. And have patience.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a genius to create growth in your programs and ministries for children and youth. You just have to be good enough — and you have to be patient.
Any questions about having patience and holding on for at least five years?