Sunday, November 18, 2007

Growth: Goal or Outcome?

The most heated discussion our little group of 12 had, in the end, was over the question of whether church growth should be a goal, or is better thought of as an outcome of church health.

On the goal side are those who believe that our way of doing religion has a saving message for the world and we should make a goal of reaching more of those people. On the outcome side are those who believe that the goal should be a healthy church and a program which feeds the spiritual hungers of the community (not the church as it stands, but the larger community, however that is defined.) The "Growth as a Goal" folks are gung ho for setting growth goals, since you gotta have a dream, and we who have such an important message outta dream big. The "Growth as an Outcome" folks believe that you should only set goals about things you can control, and you can't in the end, control whether people visit and like you when they do. They were further somewhat suspicious of numerical goals; it sounds like a too-simple, "bigger is better" trip.

Ours was a multi-generational group of ministers, ranging from three to going on 30 years in ministry and twentys to fifties in age. This particular conversation divided starkly along these generational lines. Newer, younger ministers had growth goals for themselves and their churches. Older, more experienced ministers spoke for growth as an outcome of a healthy, serving church. There was some passion in both groups for their chosen style.

This could be more of a difference in language than substance (the "Growth as a goal" folks know that to get growth, you have to have a vital program, and the "Growth as an outcome" ministers had experienced plenty of growth in spite of not aiming for it.) It could be a result of sadder-but-wiser ministers who have endured plateaus and declines in spite of all the good programming and church health they could muster. It could be that the younger folks are braver and bolder and more willing to take the risk of setting goals.

An observer commented that it seemed that this group of ministers believed that Unitarian Unitarianism has a saving message for the world and that growth is a good thing. The stunned silence that greeted that statement was eloquent testimony to this group's unquestioning passion for our movement and what it has to offer our world.

What about you? Is growth a goal in your church? Why or why not?


ogre said...

It's a goal for us. But it's a goal which we understand as a shorthand for achieving bunch of other goals, and in the process drawing in and making room for more of the people who find us--or should be finding us (addressing that's another goal).

But we're acutely aware that if growth is the goal for its own sake, we'll have subscribed to the ideology of a cancer cell, just growing in order to grow. If it's so that we can afford to build a new building, then an edifice has being our purpose, not the vibrant community and saving message of UUism.

We're aware that growing WILL end up meaning building. But it will come as a necessary consequence. Growth needs to be an objective that is explained. Why? I think the answer is yes, over and over. But we need to know the reasons.

It's not to save souls for the faith. But I think it is to save lives, and to help save our society and world. Those are good reasons to grow--and they point to what kinds of things need to be part of a growth-oriented program.

The Eclectic Cleric said...

I'm definitely in the "Growth as Outcome" camp -- and some of that opinion is definitely the result of a "sadder-but-wiser" experience, where (as an ambitious young extension minister) I helped doubled the size of a relatively new congregation in 18 months (from 64 to 125 "signed the book" members), only to be run out of town on a rail by a small handful of disgruntled "charter members" who basically accused me of being "a weak leader who wants to take over everything and change it." (direct quote)

So, I sat down and scratched my head and tried to figure out how I could have done everything right, just I'd been trained to do it, and generated such great results, and STILL have had a "failed" ministry.

Eleven years (and a PhD) later, I came to the conclusion that because I had naively placed the goal of numerical growth ahead of the more subtle "incarnational" goals of growing faith, growing commitment, growing community, I had inadvertantly become a successful marketer at the expense of being an effective minister.

So now it's all about doing the right things, and pursuing excellence and faithfulness for their own sake, trusting that if we do things right the people will come. Of course, one of those "right things" is community outreach. Not to mention the all-essential ministry of hospitality.

Of course, it's great to be young and ambitious. And I'm sure there was plenty of intergenerational "culture shock" feeding into my earlier experience as well. All three of my principal antagonists in that first situation were not quite old enough to be my parents, but not quite young enough to be my peers. And now that I'm that age myself...