UNCO pt. 5

On the last day of UNCO 13 West, we opened with a short prayer service. Then we shared some of the results of yesterday’s breakout sessions, and talked about what might be topics for some final breakout sessions. What needed ongoing attention? What might be some projects that “have legs,” i.e., are ready to be implemented? These are the topics that emerged for the closing breakout groups:

— A group to talk about vocation and identity for ministers who aren’t doing traditional ministry, including the following: ministers who aren’t serving a congregation; ministers who are taking a break from formal ministries to raise kids; etc.

— A group to talk about transitional roles, including the following: how to manage transition in a congregation or other setting; how to talk about change without freaking people out; how to help a local congregation to die (congregational death being a perfectly natural thing; someone reminded us that none of the churches Paul of Tarsus started are now in existence); etc.

— A group to talk about the issues that face ministers and leaders who are starting new ministries (i.e., church planters, etc.), and to talk about the loneliness of pastors serving in those roles.

The person who had signed up to volunteer with the kid’s program said she really wanted to join one of these groups, so I immediately volunteered to take her place as one of the adults working in Kid UNCO. Continue reading “UNCO pt. 5”

UNCO13 pt. 4

For the first afternoon breakout session, I went to a discussion on creative worship ideas. It turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion. Early on, this question came up: When might a minister wear a t-shirt in the pulpit, and when might a minister wear a robe? — and which is more authentic, and why? We had no final answer; sometimes a t-shirt is appropriate, and in other congregations or contexts robes and vestments might be best.

We talked about how congregations sometimes embrace innovation in worship, and sometimes reject it, and that spun off an interesting conversation about sometimes innovation and creativity in worship is not the right thing to do. Someone pointed out that most of us in the creative worship breakout group personally enjoy traditional worship services, with Bach and organs and pews; yet at the same time all of us are interested in creative innovation in worship. It occurs to me that the best creative worship probably comes from those who really love traditional worship, but see its limitations, and want to move beyond its limitations.

As a mystic myself, I particularly appreciated on comment from this breakout session: “There’s a burning bush in our service and we don’t even know it.” — Annie Dillard says much the same thing in Teaching a Stone To Talkwhen she says, “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Continue reading “UNCO13 pt. 4”

UNCO13 pt. 3

UNCO is an unconference. According to Carol Howard Merritt, one of the organizers of UNCO 13 West, here’s how the UNCO process goes:

“• First step — Create a graffiti wall. We write down all of the cares/concerns/dreams/ideas that we carry into the conference.
• Second step — Host discussions on particular topics.
• Third step — If there‚Äôs a particular project that needs further fleshing out, then we hold a planning session to decide who/what/how it’s going to happen.
• Fourth step — Report back to the group.
• Fifth step — Stay in contact with one another, encouraging one another throughout the year.”

So a brief worship service this morning, we were all asked to write on the graffiti wall, and within half an hour we had generated a list of half a dozen discussion topics for each of the four hour-long breakout sessions — and had identified a facilitator for each discussion session. In addition to the discussions sessions, Megan also needed an assistant each hour to help out with Kid UNCO, the children’s program. I decided to spend the first two hours with Kid UNCO.

Since we’re meeting during the week, most older kids had to be in school. And kids have to be toilet trained to attend Kid UNCO. So we had just two boys, Adrian and Burke (not their real names to protect their privacy). Adrian is 5 years old, likes to play horsie with adults, and is autistic; Burke is 4 years old, brought two Dinobots with him, and showed us he can count to 100.

Megan talked about the story of Noah while she and Burke (mostly Burke) drew a mural of the Noah story. Adrian didn’t feel like drawing, although he did enjoy playing with the crayons. Since the kids were just 4 and 5, their attention wandered, and I was impressed by the way Megan kept bringing us back to the story, and back to the mural. I mostly work with older kids — school-age children and up — so it was helpful for me to spend two hours with a four year old. It was also really helpful for me to spend two hours with a child with autism. It was perhaps the best two hours of RE professional development I’ve done since Ferry Beach Religious Education Week last summer.


Above is the Noah mural Kid UNCO made this morning. The rainbow is at right; lots of water and an ark in the middle.

More on the afternoon sessions in part 4….

UNCO13 pt. 2

The other reason I’m feeling comfortable at UNCO13 — aside from the fact that it’s a gathering of clergy and other congregational leaders that welcomes kids — is that people here speak geek. The conference is also taking place on Twitter, allowing people who can’t be here physically to participate

Yesterday evening, at “coffee hour” (the evening social time), I wound up speaking geek with Jeff, an interim minister serving a UCC church in San Jose, and Rob, a church communications expert working for the Presbyterians. And then our conversation got tweeted by @jazzpastord:


And Jeff was blogging about it as we talked. Speaking geek is not just talking about tech, it’s also extending that conversation online, and it’s also openness to continually learning about the ever-changing world of online communications.

Mind you, face-to-face still has its place. Face-to-face, Jeff and I could talk about challenging moments in congregational life that we would never post online. And one of the things I’m liking about UNCO13 is the mix of online and face-to-face.

On to part three…

UNCO13 pt. 1

As I write this, I’m attending UNCO13 West, which is “an unconference for church leaders, pastors, families, and seminarians.” I heard about it as a gathering for people who are doing creative innovative things with religion and technology and churches reaching out to people under 40. But what made me decide to attend was this statement on the UNCO Web site: “If church is for families, and UNCO is about doing church in new, different and better ways, then UNCO is for families.”

By way of comparison, on Friday and Saturday I was at retreat for Unitarian Universalist ministers:— no spouses, no children, not even any child care. There is a feeling among this group of ministers that they need to have time away from anyone who is not ordained. Although I understand the desire for a time and place where ministers feel they can talk completely openly about their ministries, I’m not sure this desire for complete separation serves us particularly well. We’re not that special, that we have to hold ourselves apart from non-ministers.

So the opening meeting of UNCO13 West has just finished. And yes, there were children: a couple of babies, a couple of toddlers, and three or four older kids. During the opening prayer, some of the babies were vocalizing, but no one cared. Children were wandering around during the orientation, and no one minded. It was nice — a powerful statement that here was a group of people who, as they figure out new ways to do religion, were committed to including everyone.

On to part two….

The price of growth, the pleasure of growth

The latest attendance figures for our congregation here in Palo Alto show a significant increase in our attendance. In the twelve month period from August, 2012, to August, 2013, average attendance in the worship service was up 10%, and average attendance in children and youth programs is up 25%.

We’re paying a price for this growth.

Just a couple of years ago, regular attendees had more of a feeling that they knew all the other regular attendees in the congregation — or at least they felt they could know all the other regular attendees with a little effort. Increasingly, I’m hearing from regular attendees that they no longer have that feeling. This is particularly true across the two different worship services: if you regularly attend the 11:00 service, you may feel that you just don’t know anyone in the 9:30 service.

As a staff member, I pay a different price for growth. I’m feeling the strain of trying to deal with expanding attendance, e.g., we had to add another Sunday school class to deal with increased attendance, which meant recruiting more volunteers. I’m working more hours than I usually do at this time of year, and it’s a challenge to make sure I don’t get sucked in to working too many hours, and neglecting my own personal and spiritual life. (And part of the price I’m paying for growth is a lack of time and energy to write much of anything for this blog.)

We’re also beginning to see benefits from this growth.

I’m definitely feeling a shared a sense of pleasure and low-level excitement. It is pleasant and mildly exciting to be part of a successful, growing organization. It’s flattering to think that people come to visit us, enjoy what they find in our congregation, and stick around. This benefit is somewhat vague, and even hard to pinpoint or define — nevertheless, it’s real, and it feels good.

In the children and youth programs, there are much more tangible benefits. In a small Sunday school or youth group, a child or youth may be the only person of their age and gender — yet most kids want to find a friend of their own age and gender. When there are more children or youth in a given age group, an individual child or youth is more likely to find one or more friends. I think this effect is larger with middle school kids, who really like it when there’s a good sized group of people their own age.

That’s a quick summary of the price we’re paying for growth, and the benefits we’re seeing for that growth. If your congregation is thinking about making a real effort to grow, I’m thinking you might be particularly interested in reading this report from someone who’s in the middle of it. And you might be asking yourself: Is it worth it? From my point of view, exhausted though I am right now, spending as I am a great deal of time and energy to get the new Sunday school year going. Kids are happier and think our congregation is more fun; that alone would be worth it. Parents and guardians are happier because their kids are happier. From my point of view, then, as someone who cares about kids and families with kids, as someone who thinks that one of the primary functions of a congregation is to help raise up the next generation — yes, growth is totally worth the inconvenience.

Making changes

Major changes may go smoothly, but they are never easy.

This year, our congregation decided to start Sunday school a month earlier than our usual start date. Since 1950, we had started Sunday school classes in the middle of September. Back in the 1950s, that’s when the local school systems began a new school year, so it made sense for Sunday school to resume at the same time. But this year, in 2013, classes in the Palo Alto Unified School District began on August 15. If we were to follow the pattern of past years, we would have had our first day of regular Sunday school classes on September 22; but it simply didn’t make sense for Sunday school to open more than a month later than the public schools.

So this year, we had our intergenerational ingathering service on August 18. The choir came back from its summer hiatus on August 18; and the Sunday school resumed regular classes on August 25. That also meant that Amy, our senior minister, and I, as the minister of religious education, had had to return from our summer breaks a couple of weeks earlier than usual, on July 22.

Now in theory, moving the start of the congregational year back a month is not all that difficult. We started planning months ago, we paid attention to details, and really everything has gone surprisingly smoothly. Yes, there have been some people who forgot that the congregational year was going to begin a month earlier; yes, there have been some minor annoyances for everyone; but on the whole, we have had almost no real problems.

But that doesn’t mean it has been painless. From my perspective, I realized that for the past eighteen years, I have counted on having the Labor Day holiday as a cushion, in case I needed an extra day to prepare for the opening of the congregational year; I had no such cushion this year, and I could have used it; I’m pretty burned out right now. From the perspective of families, I’ve received a few plaintive email messages from parents saying that they didn’t realize Sunday school was starting so soon; this makes me feel terrible.

And I know from experience that every time you make major changes in a congregational system, you will run afoul of unexpected effects (some of which remain hidden for months) for the next ten to twelve months. Sometimes it’s a cascade effect: one small thing is affected, and that results in two other small changes, which result in even more small changes.

If there is a theological lesson to be drawn from this, it is that everything is connected, often in ways of which we have little or no awareness.

If there is a practical lesson to be drawn from this, it is that even a positive change, one that is widely supported, can be difficult to implement. Which makes me think: No wonder it’s hard to grow a congregation.

Are you hungry?

According to a recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (PRRI), the strength of religious conservatives may be waning:

“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation (ages 18-33).” (“Survey finds strength in religious left,” attributed to Religious News Service and added sources, Christian Century, 21 August 2013, p. 12.)

In my own religiously progressive congregation, we’re seeing an astonishingly large number of visitors and newcomers — I estimate it’s something on the order of 200 or more a year (not all of whom we manage to count accurately). Since our congregation has a year-round average attendance of just over 200, you can see that 200 visitors is a significant quantity of visitors.

But our attendance is holding pretty much steady. (It does look like we’ve seen an uptick of about 5% in the last 12 months, so maybe we’re starting on an upward trend.) I’m willing to bet that most progressive congregations are probably in pretty much the same boat we are: lots of visitors, not much retention.

Back when I was in sales, we used to talk about whether you were hungry or not. Your sales commission is low? Maybe you’re not hungry. Is another salesperson doing better than you? Then she or he is hungrier than you are. It’s just like when you’re actually hungry — I mean starving hungry — and hunger forced you to have a laser-like focus on where your next meal came from. For salespeople, being hungry meant you didn’t rest on past performance because you were always looking ahead to where the next sale was going to come from. Being hungry meant that you were willing to go the extra distance to build relationships with potential customers. Being hungry meant that you were always on your game, and never slacked off for a moment.

I think religious progressives need to get hungry. We are too willing to rest on past performance — “We were involved in the Civil Rights Movement!”; but that’s in the past, and today, who cares? Too often, we are not willing to go the extra distance — “I don’t want to seem like I’m proselytizing”; instead of thinking about how you can share an important part of your life with those who might want it. We’re not hungry, so we’re not on our game.

I think progressive religion will continue to grow. But I’m not convinced that it will be centered in existing progressive congregations — that is, unless we get hungry.

Quotation on congregational decline

I ran across the following in the notebook we hand out to Committee on Ministry members.

Staffing for growth

1 program professional for every 100 active members [active members defined as average Sunday attendance]
1 support FTE [full time equivalent] for the first program professional; 1/2 FTE for each subsequent professional
Ministerial interns don’t count in the equation

“If you staff below maintenance level, I can promise you that you will decline. And if you staff above the staffing for growth level, you will probably decline as well. Not having enough to do leads to low performance levels.”

Unfortunately, the quotation is given without an attribution. Search engines don’t turn up anything with quite this wording. Anyone have any idea where this comes from? I’d love to know, because it’s such an interesting assertion — that your congregation will decline if you have too many program and support staff.