How to increase church attendance

A recent academic study examined 20,000 United Methodist churches between 1990 and 2010. Most experienced declining attendance from 2000 on.

Except multi-racial churches: on average, their attendance increased. “There’s a rising demand for opportunities to interact in diverse settings,” said [lead author Prof. Kevin] Dougherty [of Baylor University]. And racially diverse churches in predominantly white neighborhoods had the best attendance.

I’m willing to bet this trend holds true for Unitarian Universalism. That would help explain why most UU congregations have been in decline since about 2005. I don’t have access to the full text of the study, so I don’t know the authors’ criteria for determining when a congregation is racially diverse, but I’m guessing we’re looking at 30-35% non-white attendance; there are very few UU congregations with that level of racial diversity.

Assuming your congregation is interested in reversing decline, how can we change our UU congregational cultures to become less white?

Crystal DesVignes is pastor of the United Methodist church “CityWell” in Durham, N.C., a congregation that’s 45% non-white. She points out that you have to embrace an increase in the level of conflict, which can enable people to “come out of our comfort zones” and “be honest and vulnerable with each other.” And then she says you have to be willing to learn: “It’s one thing to say, ‘Come in and be just like us’ [but] it’s another thing to say, ‘Come in and we’re willing and open to be changed by your very presence.’”

Link to the abstract of the study.

Transform and grow your RE program, conclusion

First post in this series.


Let’s review what it takes to transform and grow your programs and ministries for children and youth:

You have to figure out how you’re going to measure growth, because you will get the growth that you measure for.

Then there are four steps to growth:

One: You must have a compelling vision, and I suggest that compelling vision is encompassed within four big goals: to have fun and build community; to gain religious literacy; to gain the skills associated with liberal religion; and to prepare kids to become Unitarian Universalist adults who are sensitive, moral, joyful, and have integrity.

Two: You must build an infrastructure that will support your transformative and growing program, including $1,500 per kid, one adult volunteer per two kids, 25 square feet of physical space per kid, a good enough program, and plans in place to continue growth.

Three: You can pluck low-hanging fruit as it is available, to help motivate and encourage everyone involved.

Four: You must have at least five years’ worth of patience; and if your congregation is on a stalled growth plateau, you will need twice as much time, a decade’s worth of patience.

And the whole purpose of this is growth and transformation. We want children to grow up into caring, sensitive, moral adults with deep integrity. We want our congregations to grow so that we can accommodate all those people out there who want to join us. They might not yet know that they want to join us, but they are waiting for our fun, moving, life-transforming message. Sometimes we literally save people’s lives, and that alone would be enough justification to expand our reach through growth. We also transform people’s lives (including our own lives) on a less dramatic level because we provide a place where we can makes sense out of life: we make sense out of life being part of a community where we can share our deepest selves; we make sense out of life through an intellectual knowledge of religion that helps us be better citizens in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world; we make sense out of life by gaining personal skills like meditation and singing that help us find meaning; we make sense out of life by joining a religious community whose values we share and believe to be of utmost importance.

Questions from participants, with my answers.

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 5

First post in this series.

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?

Now on to the conclusion….

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 4

First post in this series.

Step three: Plucking some low-hanging fruit

A good deal of the work of creating transformative growth is pretty boring behind-the-scenes work. It can be tough motivating people to keep at it, year after year. So it is wise every once in a while to come up with some spectacular results to keep people interested and motivated. Let me tell you about a few tried-and-true means for doing this:

(1) If the attendance of children and youth drops off in your congregation during the summer, one of the easiest ways to boost attendance is to improve your summer offerings. This is what the Palo Alto religious education committee and I decided to do a year ago. We had tried all kinds of showy programs in the summer, and none of them had worked. One of our key volunteers said that what she’d like to do was chuck all programs altogether, and simply focus on our first big goal of having fun and building community. She said she’d take the kids to the park every Sunday during the summer to play and have fun. This is a fine example of a good-enough program. Actually, it was too good: it boosted our summer attendance so much that we saw a 21% increase in overall attendance; we wanted good enough, and now we have this big success we are expected to match again. Nevertheless, in many congregations, boosting summer attendance is an easy way to pluck some low-hanging fruit.

(2) Run a special program in the late spring when attendance usually drops off. Late spring projects that have been successful for me: taking 8 weeks to rehearse a play; the old Marketplace 29 A.D. Vacation Bible School program; a program on peacemaking. I’ve done this year after year in congregations I’ve served; it doesn’t always boost attendance, but it always at least provides a welcome change of pace for volunteers. And it’s usually easier to manage than trying to drum up enthusiasm to continue regular Sunday school classes through the bitter end of May or into June.

(3) Parties, overnights, and trips all generate enthusiasm, and often provide a small but measurable boost in attendance. I’ve taken youth groups to Chicago and to New Orleans. I’ve run overnights for grades 5 and up. I’ve helped organize parties for classes, for volunteers, and for the whole Sunday school. These projects are easy enough to do (except the youth group trips), and while the boost in attendance may be small, it is always welcome.

What I’m calling “low-hanging fruit” are things that are not going to create the kind of long-term upward growth trend that you can create through the boring work of management and building administrative infrastructure. But they are things that are fun, that provide short-term boosts in attendance, and most importantly they help keep everyone motivated.

This notion of motivation will bring us nicely to the fourth and last step… but first, any questions about low-hanging fruit?

And now on to step four….

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3

First post in this series.

Step two: Building infrastructure

Now let’s go on to the next step, building the infrastructure to support and sustain a growing program. (Remember that step two runs concurrently with step three, which is picking low-hanging fruit.)

If we’re going to adequately support growth of programs and ministries for young people, we’re going to need at least five essential elements. Let me list the five elements I think are essential:

(1) Money, from $1,000 up to $1,500 per kid. Money mostly goes to pay for staff time, and some goes to supplies.

(2) Volunteers, about 1 adult volunteer for every two kids. This includes both volunteers who have direct contact with kids, and those who do support work.

(3) Physical space, about 25 square feet per kid.

(4) A good enough program. We don’t need a supercalifragilisticexpealidocious program, you just need one that’s good enough.

(5) Pretty good plans in place to come up with more of the above when you begin to grow.

Now let’s look at each of these five essential elements. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2

First post in this series.

Transform and grow your children and youth ministries and programs

Now I’d like to outline for you one possible process for transformational growth. This is a four step process. In step one, you develop a compelling vision and set measurable goals based on that vision. Then steps two and three run concurrently. In step two, you build the infrastructure to support a growing program. In step three, you pluck some low-hanging fruit to build enthusiasm among families, volunteers, and lay leaders. In step four, you have patience and hold on for at least five years.

Let’s look at each one of these steps.

Step one: Develop a compelling vision

I have served in eight different Unitarian Universalist congregations as a religious educator, an interim minister, and a parish minister. These congregation ranged in size from the 3,000 member Church of the Larger Fellowship, our online congregation, to a 25 member church. Eventually, I noticed that each of these congregations had approximately the same vision for its programs and ministries for children and youth. And finally I wrote down this shared vision in the form of four big learning goals. Here they are:

(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a religious community.

(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected of informed citizens in our society.

(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, skills such as public speaking, singing, meditating, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.

(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions. To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.

I wrote down these four goals, and began presenting it to parents and guardians of children and youth. They immediately understood these goals, and more importantly they liked them. These goals set forth what they want for their children: to have a supportive place to grow up; to learn some basic religious facts; to gain some basic skills; and to grow up to become good human beings, the kind of good human being we like to imagine Unitarian Universalists are.

Lay leaders and volunteers also like these goals, not only because that’s what they want for our Unitarian Universalist kids, but also because these goals are specific and measurable. Let me take a moment to show you how each goal can be measured. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1

This is part one of a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Pacific Central District of Unitarian Universalist congregations. As you will see, growth is not rocket science; growth is all about patient attention to detail. I think you will find this presentation to be quite different from other Unitarian Universalist approaches to growth: it’s kind of geeky; it’s not exciting; it lacks sexy jargon terms; and it’s all about management and administration. However, since the exciting, sexy, theological approaches don’t seem to be working all that well, maybe you should check out my approach….


We’re going to talk about transforming and growing your programs and ministries for children and youth. And my emphasis is going to be on growth. I believe that there are many families who would love to have their children participate in our programs and ministries for young people, and wee need to make room for them in our congregations. Furthermore, research by the Search Institute shows that regular participation by youth in a religious congregation correlates with a decrease in risky behaviors such as substance abuse; therefore, by having more kids participating regularly in our congregations, we are literally saving lives.

If this is not the workshop you were expecting, feel free to leave now or at any time without embarrassment. I only want you to be here if you want to be here.

And if you want to ask questions, please write them down (legibly). I am going to post the entire presentation online, and I want to include your questions online. I will stop periodically during this workshop to take your questions.

How to measure growth

If you really want to grow your programs and ministries for children and youth, the first thing you have to do is figure out how you’re going to measure growth. More often than not, you get exactly the kind of growth you measure for. This is so important that we’re going to take fifteen minutes right now to go over this. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1”