Thursday, November 29, 2007

Multi-Cultural Growth

It is true that one of the trials of ministry is helping the institution as a whole proceed in balanced and healthy programming, and not letting tails wag dogs. For instance, here in New Mexico, where the issues of racial and cultural tension are not black and white and related to slavery, but are multi-hued and related to immigration, water rights, land grants, reservations, tribes, and other complexities. We've never done anti-racism training; it's just not culturally appropriate here. Sometimes people have been angry about that. (Not that I forbade it, you understand, I just didn't do it myself, and neither did anyone else.) There are those who would make a minister feel like a bad girl for this...that's a part of the pain. In spite of this fact, I would remark, that we have a notably multi-ethnic congregation. The reason might surprise you. We have lots of young adults. Multi-ethnic comes naturally to young adults. They've had it all their lives. When they bring their friends to church, they bring a rainbow with them. As to how we attracted the young adults, well...they are a pure gift. We watched for them, tried not to repel them, and helped them get organized so they were visible to each other and able to organize themselves.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ministerial Job Descriptions

Anon. has left a really insightful comment in the post below, well worth reading. Here's my response.

Thanks so much for this insightful comment. There are wonderful stories of good relationships among colleagues working on a staff together, but of course, those don't get heard as often as the horror stories. And every job description should have some of "shiny" parts of ministry, the creative, public aspects, and some of the "heavy lifting". Also each minister (really, this goes for any staff person whose job description can be negotiated) should have some things that really excite them. My experience in working with a number of colleagues is that it is hard to know, in advance, what that split of work is going to be and also that it changes with time. I think that it is best for church leaders to give the two ministers as much leeway as they possibly can to decide between themselves how they are going to split up the ministry and to expect them to tweak their division of labor every year. Much as they might like to only hear the senior minister preach, for instance, if the Associate likes to preach and you want a happy associate, you have to find ways to let that happen. (You do want a happy associate and a happy team. An unhappy minister is a menace to themselves and their church and a ministerial transition is a huge expense.) If all ministers have some basic HR training, (that includes training in how to be a good senior colleague) they will know how to negotiate and re-negotiate these things and why it is important to do so.

Some Things UU'ism can do for Growth

By UU'ism, I mean the system within which we exist, of which the UUA is one part. I mean UUA staff, UU Ministers and other professionals like musicians and RE directors, church leaders, and all the ways we all "just know" to do things.

There are some things that no one person or church can do on its own, and one is to create a culture in which staff can work productively together. When we fancied ourselves a denomination of small, lay-lead, one-minister, one-employee churches, we did have an employment culture; a culture that expected that committees of lay people would provide support and if necessary, supervision to employees and ministers. That had its inefficiencies and injustices, but one of the truly painful and conflict-producing consequences of growth was that once you have more than a couple of employees or have grown to need more than one minister, none of that works any more and the loudest voices clamor for impossible structures and a lot of free-for-all and unsupervised staff. That culture makes growth really, really hard, it makes excellence impossible, it makes working on a staff really hard, and it makes being responsible for the work of a staff impossible. So if I could wave my magic wand on the ministerial side of things:

1. I'd insist that every minister have basic Human Resources training. A minister needs to know how to hire, train, coach, manage, discipline, and fire people. Ideally this training would be offered by theological schools or the UUA because all these tasks are somewhat different in the small staff/church environments that we work in. This is particularly tricky when two ordained staff are working together and even more tricky when both ministers are called by the congregation, which vastly complicates their relationship.

2. I'd make serving on a staff a respectable option for ministers. Assistant and Associate positions and part-time program specialties are absolutely vital for churches of over 500 members. Right now, UU ministers are encouraged from several sources to think that these positions are not very respectable and that a "real" minister has his or her "own" church. The UUMA guidelines need to be changed on this point, and I hear that they are.

3. I'd create a group for ministers serving on staffs and assist with funding a yearly retreat for them, and I'd think of them when doing things like putting together groups of ministers to talk about growth. The Associate and Assistant ministers know things the Senior ministers don't know about growth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

How to Kill Growth

When we talked about church growth, we ended up talking about amorphous concepts like "buzz", "love", and "vision", and it may be that church growth just doesn't fit itself into a to-do list. But it's easy to make a to-do list if you want to kill growth. No matter how wonderful the sermons, growth can be easily killed simply by doing any one or two of the following.

  1. Get into a fight, don't end the fight, keep it going, let it permeate all aspects of a congregation, never tell the people who are fighting that they are hurting the church, and don't do anything that would tred on their sacred right to freely say whatever hurtful, horrible things they want to say to as many people as they can find. That will insure that the congregation's "buzz" is a matter of whispering in corners or raised and edgy voices. Big Growth Killer. Nobody comes to church to fight. Church fights leave ministers and lay people with Post Traumatic Stress. The people who join a church that's in the middle of a fight are either astoundingly dedicated, clueless or..worse yet, like to fight.
  2. Let your building and grounds get run down, looking like nobody in this supposedly caring, dedicated community cares.
  3. Pay absolutely no attention to the changes the churches around you are making in worship. You may have great reasons to do it your way, but if you're clueless (or look clueless) to the culture around you, that culture is not going to knock on your door.
  4. Pay no attention to your guests (aka visitors). Make sure they are uncomfortable from the moment they arrive on your property and don't see a sign or a greeter telling them where to go. Keep them wondering after the service...where is that social hall? Don't interrupt your important conversations about church business to say Good Morning or find out where they came.
  5. Make it clear to parents that you don't really care about children. Tuck them away in a basement. Rent your classrooms to a daycare center which throws sheets over all their cool toys so that the children who come to Sunday School feel like they are camping out in a graveyard of forbidden joys. Use hand-me-down games and toys. Don't sign kids in and out of classrooms. (Parents have been taught to be clinically paranoid about their children's safety. They sign their kids in and out of birthday parties these days.)
I could go on and on forever, and in excruciating detail, but it's too depressing. It's all too easy to kill growth in a church! I've seen all these things and had to find ways to get well-meaning UU's to quit doing them. I'm tired now and am going to bed.

Lots of Kinds of Growth

Someone wondered in a comment whether the growth consultation had talked about other kinds of growth, growth in service, in spirituality, inclusiveness of diversity, etc.

The focus of this Consultation was on numerical growth, and the assumption was made that excellence in programming brings growth in service, spirit, inclusiveness, etc, and that is part and parcel of numerical growth. We talked some about the role of the minister in discerning what kind of growth is most likely to benefit the church as a whole, and we talked about the pain and complexity of having to say "no" to or not support projects that some think will be growth-producing.

Since I'm from the "Growth is an outcome, not a goal" school of thought, my focus is always on those "other kinds of growth." Perhaps that's one reason I weathered a decade of non-growth without ever feeling that I was not accomplishing my goals. We were doing much needed renovations. We were re-building community after a church fight. I was working on bringing more spirituality into the worship service. It was very satisfying, productive ministry, and I honor myself and my congregation for it. We were just trying to be a good church...and look what happened, eventually!

Growth Consultation and Transition Wisdom

One of the truisms of Ministerial Transitions is that everyone...ministers and laypeople...take a minister's skills and preferences for granted. Therefore a search committee is likely to look especially hard for the skills and preferences the last minister didn't have, assuming that "everyone" has the skills the last minister did have. So when Rev. Johnson, the world's most caring pastor, retires, a search committee goes out looking for someone who is a little more comfortable with teens. They assume that all ministers love doing pastoral care, and even when they have a candidate who says that's not her thing, she's inclined to spend her time creating a really good youth program, the committee doesn't hear it. And six months later, when the honeymoon is over, the people of the church are adjusting (hopefully) to their new minister, learning to better take care of themselves, telling their new pastor that they want her to pay more attention to the elderly shut-ins, which the minister is hopefully meeting them halfway on. Everyone looks back to realize that they had been making assumptions.

The ministers at the Growth Consultation didn't have much in the way of "nuts and bolts" of growth to discuss. We talked about vision, love, spirituality, and other vast topics. That may say something about a ministerial skill required to grow a church; grand and vast thinking. It may say something about this particular group which didn't include ministers who imagine that they have the one and only growth plan for everyone. But it may also say something about skills and preferences this group was taking for granted. Maybe we didn't want to talk about nuts and bolts of growth because some of those nuts and bolts are too obvious to bring up in an august group of colleagues.

For instance, I have a feeling that growing churches collect data. They know how many people are in church on any Sunday, how many members, children, and teens there are. They know something about the trends they are dealing with. They know how many visitors they have.

(We have, for instance, seen a marked increase in visitors since the Time Ad campaign out.)

Now, nobody mentioned data-keeping as a technology of growth. Too dull. Too obvious. But I know that not every minister insists on keeping and using data like this. We didn't talk about how we convert visitors to members, although I'd lay my money that every church represented had a method of doing that. We did talk briefly about how we assimilate members and help them find their own ministry in the church, in the context of staffing....many growing churches have Membership and Social Justice coordinators, and I'm so jealous. Somehow we limp by with neither. (actually with those functions spread amongst staff and volunteers.)

Perhaps those listening, who kept commenting that this was a very different discussion than they often heard amongst ministers, are better able to figure out what we were taking for granted, and that will be a very interesting report.

Marilyn Sewell on Growth and Love

My Colleague Marilyn Sewell, senior minister of the Portland, OR, congregation was at the Growth consultation and has weighed in here

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buzzing towards Growth

Last week we had a patio fair at coffee hour. (Last week it was warm enough. This week, not so!) There was a little arts and crafts sale, a local fair trade organization was selling gifts, and our Green Sanctuary Committee was selling light bulbs and had invited a representative from our power company to talk to people about their wind power initiative. It was a glorious Fall day and the social hall was deserted except for the folks serving coffee.

At the end of the morning, the Power Company representative approached our administrator, asking for information about the church. "There's great energy, here, " she said. "Everybody is happy!"

We called that, "the buzz" at the Growth Consultation, and we all agreed that (1) it existed and was important, and (2) that an unhappy or conflicted or depressed congregation produces a completely different "buzz". Our experience is that this is an often commented-on, very attractive feature of our congregation. Buzz is very valuable.

"Buzz" happens when the space is full, when people are excited about what and who they find in the space, when groups of people chatting are fluid and open to new people. (A group that is talking intently among itself and does not want to be approached or overheard...the sort of group that might exist during a time of conflict...makes a completely different kind of noise.)

"Buzz" is created by children, which is why we serve cocoa at Coffee Hour. Buzz is created by smiles, expansive gestures, and people calling out to their friends by name.

There comes a time as a church grows, that the members buzzing around at coffee hour don't know whether those around them are new any more, and taking care of those newcomers and helping them be a part of the buzz is really important. That's when versions of the Yellow Cup become important; we have to be able to identify a lot of newcomers in a short span of 10-20 minutes. That's also when some volunteers and staff have to keep firmly in mind that their job at coffee hour is to greet newcomers.

We do things to create buzz at our congregation. We encourage all our scouts to sell their wares, we invite groups to put out information, there are always tables full of sign-up sheets. And while we do wish that we had a larger social hall during the winter, we are glad that we don't have to deal with a cavernous hall, where it would be hard to create the buzz that helps people experience the energy of this congregation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

For churches not growing

I've been fortunate to serve churches which were willing and able to grow, and feel blessed to have been able to lead and assist that growth. But I've also lived out a period of non-growth; a decade in which we did mostly the same things we'd been doing and have done since, plus a building project, and the church see-sawed around on a plateau. There's no doubt in my mind that all the good intention and skill of minister and congregation together can't "produce" growth. I have a favorite reading on this subject, which is also a great reading for Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and to email to folks whose kids have taken an unexpected turn towards difficulty.

Do everything right,

all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, the order of her birth, his first encounter with evil, the boy who gilts her in spite of her excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs she may try once or too many times, the friends she makes, how he scores on tests, how well she endures kidding about her shortcomings, how ambitions he becomes, how far she falls behind, circumstantial evidence, ironic perspective, danger when it is least expected, difficulty in triumphing over circumstances, people with hidden agendas, and animals with rabies.” -Ann Beattie, from Picturing Will

Of course, it's all so important, our children, and our churches, that we do our best in spite of all the possible ways things might derail.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Saying Yes, Saying No

Side conversations at the growth conference convinced me that growing churches have what I've heard called a "permission giving" culture. That is, if you have an idea that fits in the church's vision, and want to give leadership to that idea, it is very easy to get permission to do that, to learn what you need to know about room use, publicity, and church policy, and get going with it. In our case most of this is encoded in policy; any staff person can help someone start a new program. We do a lot of saying yes. It may be that a growing church just has to manage this way; there's no way the staff and cadre of old leaders can manage demand by themselves; we just have to loosen up and (within reason) trust the the impassioned to go with their energy.

I have to comment here that I have learned that I'm a very poor predictor of which of these programs will "fly," so it's a good thing I don't feel the need to be controlling. Who would have thought that the group going to work in New Orleans would raise $7,000 by making one appeal on a Sunday morning? Who would have thought that the group splitting off of the young adult group and calling themselves the (old)parents of young children would grow to the point of having 24 adults and 23 children at their meetings? Or that the little group of techies who wanted to video-tape the sermon to put up on Utube and public access TV would morph into our current video ministry which serves two branches, a third service on our site, videos on our website and a sermon subscription service to lay-lead congregations?

But to some programs one must say, "no." Sometimes the program doesn't fit in the church's vision, or would compete with our core programming for space or use too much staff time or...this is the hardest...needs skilled or professional leadership to keep participants safe. There are any number of other times a minister has to just say no. It's one of the hard parts of the job. We started talking about this as the "fierce shepherd" role...the leader who loves the's people and its vision...enough to keep them on track.

Someone advanced the theory...and I think it's a good one, that the minister of a growing church must be such a fierce shepherd, and shepherds who won't do this spend all their energy chasing troubled and troubling sheep around. Some ministers have to learn to step up to this role, others have to learn to codify it with policy and share it with other leaders. But it's gotta be done.

We also commented that female leaders pay a much greater price than male leaders for stepping into this role; even UU's want their female ministers to be tender mommies not fierce shepherds. We wondered if one reason fewer women seem to apply for senior ministry positions in larger churches is that by the time they are experienced enough to think of serving a large church, they've been beaten down by the unequal price of saying "no."

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Well, this is fun! My blog tests out to a high school reading level. I think this is a good thing. We read blogs in our spare time, and too hard to too much like work. You can check out the reading level of any file on the web, so I checked out a few sermons from the church's website.
Mine run to Jr. High level. I think I should be pleased about this, too, after all, its an oral medium, but it's a bit harder...
cash advance

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?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Afflicting the Comfortable

It's one of the things ministers are supposed to do, along with comforting the afflicted. At its most simple, this 19th century aphorism reminds ministers to do their pastoral care and their prophetic preaching, 'cause their sick folks are afflicted and need comforting and their pew-sitters are too comfy and need afflicting with the world's injustices.

Young ministers quickly discover that that's way too simple. There are some people who are way comfortable with their afflictions and will soak up all the comfort a new minister can give and still need more. There are some pew-sitters who are in so much pain only an ogre would afflict more.

There are some UU ministers who feel uneasy ministering to UU's, who tend to be among the knowledge and professional classes. Way too comfortable by the world's standards, they all have enough to eat, shelter, and heat, the majority have health insurance, especially if they are over 30, and an awful lot can entertain themselves in all the ways their hearts desire.

The world's standards are very low, and frankly, I think of my folks (and myself) as afflicted in spite of their relative wealth. They are afflicted with all ills the flesh is heir to and are often rather isolated. Their lives are way too busy and terribly stressful, the younger ones often carry huge debt, and most are puzzled and uneasy, if not downright frightened, by the current state of the world. I call that afflicted. Most of my preaching is aimed, not at afflicting the comfortable but offering a word of understanding and healing to the afflicted.

We talked some, at the growth consultation, about how we deal with the prophetic side of ministry, and this was an area in which the 12 ministers of growing church clearly had different philosophies. Some do a lot of teaching about social problems and organizing of social change opportunities. Most of what you read about church growth suggests that this is crucial, but Social Justice has never been this church's strong suit, and it has grown anyway. I preach on social issues on the occasions when I think I have an insight to share. Sometime I just share my puzzlement and talk about how to live with fear. What I never do is just wring my hands, or wave my fists, sermonically. If I can't wring some hope and a to-do list out of a situation (the Iraq war comes immediately to mind), it's not fodder for a sermon, it's fodder for the prayer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Other Side of the Story

I had imagined, as had the organizers of this growth consultation, that each of the ministers would have pet programs to share, tips about how to grow, and firm opinions about what had done the trick. This worried me because I wasn't sure what I'd say. I've got an interesting program going on now; our development of branches in small towns, but that has not yet been a very large factor in our growth. My church gets great marks for openness to newcomers and willingness to restructure, but we have not done anything to create growth, and which of the things we've done in the name of good ministry that have caused growth..well, who can say?

The session devoted to nuts and bolts was on the agenda but it turned out that most of the participants felt about like I did, and the conversation at that session turned to love. Our love for our churches, for this denomination, for our work. We all agreed on how key that was. Some of us told stories of our call to our churches that bordered on mystical. When called back to nuts and bolts, we mostly talked about worship, spiritual programming such as covenant groups (and Ken, do tell them about your month of gratitude!). There was some talk about the importance of staff work and how unprepared we all felt for the growing task of supervision, and how this always fraught subject is nearly impossible in our UU World. But then we returned to the relationship between minister and congregation.

I wondered what kind of a consultation this would have been if lay leaders have been invited, and if I were following up on this, I'd invite groups of lay people from churches which have grown to a special lunch at, GA, or the Large or Medium Sized church conferences. I'd feed them well, tell them how special and wonderful they are , and ask some of the same questions. I have a feeling they'd have an entirely different perspective.

They'd talk about good preaching much more than we ministers did, I'm sure, (it was a remarkably un-braggy group) but beyond that, I'm not so sure, and I think it's important to know.

What about it, lay readers of this blog? If your church has grown over the past five years, what has caused that growth? What do you think people come for and what keeps them? What has your hard work been devoted to and why have you done it?

Growth Consultation III-redevelopment

As we told our stories we noticed a stark pattern. With the exception of the brand new church, all of our stories were stories of redevelopment. Several churches, like mine, had been on a plateau for a generation. A couple had declined from previous highs. In one church the leaders had said to each other, "If this doesn't work, we need to think about closing."

A second set of stories, which I particularly resonated with, was told about trust, in particular, trusting the minister's leadership. This is not something that comes naturally to UU's, even less so when there has been difficulty between congregation and ministers.

I digress to tell a personal story. Before I accepted the call to Albuquerque, the retiring District Exec sat me down and told me about the difficulties my predecessors had had and had caused and said (to the 35 year old across the table from him), “You do know what this means, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, in my most serious and grown up voice, “It means that it will be a long time before they trust me or follow me.” He looked surprised, and then relieved. “Well, he said, “As long as you know that, if you love them, you should go.” “I know it.” I said, and I went.

Now I look back fondly on my long dead colleague (he died within a month of that conversation). I wonder what he meant by “a long time”. I know what I meant. I’m embarrassed to report that I meant two years.

It was fifteen years.

Not that I didn’t do a good deal of leading in my first 15 years, but the lack of trust did make everything twice as hard and the toll on me twice as heavy. But about year 15, some of the invisible plasma that had impeded our life together fell away, and it has been so much easier since.

There is nothing like desperation to get an old guarde to grudgingly trust a new minister, and while desperation to grow can't show to the congregation at large, a little quiet desperation in the leadership is probably a necessary thing. It may be that a minister coming to a church that know itself to be in trouble is more likely to be allowed to help that church grow than a minister coming to a church that thinks it's doing a pretty good job already.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Growth Consultation II

The first question that was asked of us was to articulate the purpose or saving message of our church. I think we were all struck by the openly spiritual statements which were made. This group of 12 ministers of growing churches all believe that the purpose of their churches is spiritual growth of individuals and transformation of the world, in that order. Words like "community" and "like minded" didn't, as far as I remember, figure in the mix at all. The statement I made is my own purpose, I want to offer people an opportunity to deepen their lives within a theologically diverse community. I had considered this boldly spiritual but nearly all of my colleagues had even more specifically spiritual statements to make about the saving message of their church.

I've always had a hunch that one reason my church is a vital religious community is because our worship service, no matter who is leading it, is noticeably worshipful, our program is definitely heavy on spiritual growth opportunities, and our language spiritual, religious, and not dogmatic. I was hoping that that hunch would be confirmed in this gathering, which it was. It's an interesting experience to think you're "way out there" and discover that others of your successful colleagues are even more "way out." Very satisfying.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Growth Consultation

I’ve spent a couple of days now at this event, in Louisville. 10 ministers of churches which have had significant, sustained growth over several years, two ministers of churches we all hope will grow significantly, and a dozen lay and ordained members of the UUA’s growth team. The ministers were chosen to have a good mix of geographies, genders, generations and situations. I feel the honor and the responsibility of the thing, and I am very aware that a different dozen ministers could have been easily and productively chosen. Our conversation has mostly been trying to get at what causes churches to grow, how we encourage or cope with growth, and what qualities of ministry and denominational leadership make for growth. Although all of us, I’m sure, have thought about these questions on our own, read about them, and experimented, when there is only you and your church, there are no controlled experiments. My church has grown…from 400 to 500 members in the 90’s, and now from 500 to 700. My first church grew from 90 to 210 members. What did I do?

Well, gosh, and gee…I just did ministry and then struggled as open-heartedly as I could with the aftermath.

That’s no small issue. However growth happens, it is very clear that all it takes to stop or reverse it is inattention, exhaustion, a good church fight, unwillingness or inability to re-structure, unwillingness to relentlessly change old patterns, guide people in the paths of hospitality, mourn change and move on. In other words, growth is hard work. The observers have repeatedly commented on how much centered energy we 12 ministers seem to have. It’s a contrast to other groups of ministers that I don’t see as clearly as the observers seem to, but I trust them. Is the energy and centeredness the cause of the growth? It seems likely. But it also seems likely to me that the centered energy is a result of the growth. We’re shaped by what we do, and those of us who have managed, by hook or crook, to grow churches have, perhaps of necessity, developed an intensity by sheer dint of hard work and the focus it takes to lead a changing institution.

There's more. I've got lots of reflections and notes, which I'll be posting over the next week. A video is also planned.