So You Want to Grow the Congregation… Two Questions of Discernment

So You Want to Grow the Congregation…
Two Questions of Discernment

Throughout my ministerial career – for fifteen years as a minister serving various congregations in the US and UK, and more recently serving at UK Unitarian headquarters as Congregational Connections Lead – congregational growth has proved an extremely popular topic. I have heard from dozens of committed, devoted congregational leaders who would like to see their congregations grow.

I am far from an expert on congregational growth. But I have studied the subject a bit, with the help of congregational growth workshops, retreat, seminary classes, Alban Institute books, you name it. Side by side with these wonderful committed, devoted leaders, I have tried earnestly to help congregations grow. We have achieved only limited success, honestly: some of the congregations I have served have achieved modest numerical growth, over several years. Others haven’t grown in numbers – though perhaps they have grown in other ways. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story of a congregation. But the story the numbers tell is pretty clear: congregational growth is hard. Several of our congregations are in decline; any gains in membership are hard-won and tenuous. Often leaders will ask why congregational growth is so difficult. Is it because we live in a secular culture? Yes, partly. But there are other reasons as well, which I’d like to draw attention to with this essay.

I am not an expert, but having though about and studied congregational growth for twenty years, I want to sound a caution about how difficult congregational growth can be – and also offer some hope, after stressing how challenging congregational growth work really is. Any information offered herein is not original to me – you can probably find similar wisdom in other places; I recommend particular the Alban Institute’s resources. This essay is primarily geared towards Unitarian and free Christian congregations in the UK, but I suspect much of it applies equally well to other religious congregations (and even, to some extent, non-religious organisations). So here goes.

Congregational leaders learn pretty early on what an uphill battle it can be to grow a congregation. Attracting newcomers is not easy. Church attendance has been in decline for a long time. So has organizational involvement generally. When people do come, they often don’t stick around. Existing members don’t stay forever either. Long-time members will one day either resign their membership, move town, or – as we all will sometime – die and go to glory. So in order to grow numerically a congregation must attract more new members than the members it will inevitably lose along the way.

People love their congregations. They often will say – to whoever will listen – “we want to grow.” They say this with love. Often they will discuss the details of how this is accomplished – for instance, whether they need an online presence, or an outreach and publicity programme, or a minister. As important as all of these are, this essay examines something even more important: the why. I offer these two critical follow-up questions to “we want to grow.”

The Two Questions

The first follow-up question to: “we want to grow” is: why? Why do you want to grow?

This may seem a blatantly obvious question. But it is important to answer it as fully, and as honestly, as you can. If you don’t have a good grasp on why you want to grow, you’re unlikely to be very effective in growing (this is not be true for our height or our waistlines – but I suspect it is largely true for organisational development!) Knowing why you want to grow your congregation will help you figure out how to do it, and what areas to focus on.

There are probably several related reasons why the leaders of a congregation want it to grow. Some may seem a little less noble than others. I remember, as a minister of a 125-member congregation in New Jersey, how attractive it seemed to get the congregation up to 150, at which point we’d not only be officially defined as a “medium-sized congregation”, but I’d also get a GA-recommended pay rise! Admittedly, this was a pretty shallow impetus for growth – but once I identified it, I was able to laugh at myself and my own ego. And I could see there were other, better, shared reasons why we wanted to grow the congregation.

Delve deep into your “why’s”, like one of those annoying children who keep asking “why” to every answer. You want to grow because you want the congregation to survive? Why? Why is it important you want the congregation to survive?

Or: you want to grow because you want more attendees on a Sunday? Why? You’d like to see the pews full – why? Perhaps because full pews would give you a feeling of pride? Because the singing would be better? Or is there another reason?

Try not to be too judgmental, at least at first, about which of your reasons are “good” reasons and which are “bad” reasons to want to grow. It’s worth just taking some time to notice all the reasons, without leaping to judgment just yet.

Some of the reasons for growth may be deeply personal – and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Maybe one member lived through the experience of a beloved congregation shutting down, and doesn’t want to go through that again. Or maybe a leader has experienced profound heartbreak in her life, has always found the congregation to be a place of affirmation and meaning-making, and therefore wants to continue that legacy for others. Personal reasons are good reasons.

Other reasons will be collective. Finding those shared reasons is especially important. A collective why might have real staying power in a congregation. It may be part of the congregation’s “DNA”, or become part of the congregation’s DNA, their spiritual identity. For instance, it might be part of a congregation’s culture to play a role in the wider community, or to be kind to the stranger, to offer a blessing for those who mourn, or to be a voice for equality. These reasons are incredibly strong drivers of a congregation’s mission. They are always meaningful.

The question “why” is the most important question. Probably if you ask it deeply enough you don’t even need the second question. But I ask the second question to give a clearer picture of how challenging this growth work really is. Here’s the second question:

How much do you really want to grow?

Or another way to phrase the second question is: what would you be willing to sacrifice for growth? And what would you not be willing to sacrifice?

This word “sacrifice” may not always be very popular in liberal religious congregations, harkening back to arcane pagan rituals or the ransom theory of atonement. But by sacrifice, I simply mean that change is hard, and usually – almost always, actually – there is a cost to change. You need to let something go in one area, in order to grow in another.

A playful – if hard – question along these lines to ask congregational leaders interested in growth is, “if you had to change the style of music in worship in order to grow (even to something you personally didn’t much care for!), would you do it? Or what about if you had to change the time of worship, to a time that was less convenient for you?

I’m not saying, of course, that every congregation needs to change their music or their time of worship. Every congregation is different. But I ask these playful questions to get at the idea that change is quite challenging. How much do you really want to grow?

Every congregation needs to think long and hard about what changes they’d be willing to make in order to grow. And that’s not to say that every proposed change will actually grow the congregation. Frequently, something that seemed good on paper doesn’t work, for whatever reason. Therefore, a spirit of experimentation is vital. Along with this experimentation, a basic method of assessment is important, a way of keeping track of what worked, and what didn’t work. But most important of all is that fundamental openness to change.

Even if you don’t change a single aspect about the Sunday service – or anything other part of congregational life – if you attract new people to the congregation, the congregation will inevitably change. New people bring a different energy and spirit to the group. They can’t be expected to “fit in” to every aspect of the congregation, when each person brings their own personality, genius and beauty to the table. The congregation simply must change in order to welcome new people.

Change is difficult. I suspect it is probably the case that any congregation that attracts significant numbers of new people will also lose a fewlong-time members along the way. Some of this is bound to happen just in the course of life: members move away, or lose interest, or they sadly die. But also, some will be unhappy with the changes to the congregation. It’s very important not to be too judgmental about this. Long-time members can hardly be blamed for not being thrilled when they’re beloved congregation alters its character over time. However, a congregation that is really dedicated to growth probably needs to keep, in the back of its collective mind, the notion that some people are going to leave as the congregation grows. This cannot be really be avoided; it is one of the side effects of change.

Here to, it is vitally important to not leap to judgment. The people who leave the congregation are not “bad people”; nor are the new people who want to join the congregation. Strive earnestly to avoid falling into a toxic “us/them” perspective. There is no us. There is no them. There are only people, varied and wonderful people. Any long-term members who leave the congregation ought to be remembered with fondness, generally. They have devoted many years to the place. Their spirit will always be a part of the institution.

Fostering openness to change is deeply spiritual work. It can be uncomfortable for us to think about how much life is precarious. What can we be sure of, in this life? What does it mean to live together, in this ever-changing world? What if I am the one who no longer fits into a growing congregation? What does it mean to love one another, to forgive one another, to love the stranger? None of these are easy questions. Every one is worth pondering.

Daunting or Inspiring?

I know this is a lot to think about. Why does it have to be so complicated, when all we really want is to welcome a few more people through our doors?

I am not in favour of complicated things unnecessarily. I offer this essay because a lot of people wonder why attracting, and keeping, new members is such heavy sledding. As I said, societal decline in religious attendance is very much one reason. But all of what I said above – the basic challenges of organizational dynamics – is a reason too. Congregations find change hard. So before setting a plan for growth – which is a plan for change, essentially – it’s a good idea to reflect on one’s own attitude to change.

The truth is, all congregations will inevitably change, just as all individuals will inevitably change. Life happens. Congregations do not endure forever. Congregations do not stay the same forever, either. So spending some time reflecting on our attitude to change is probably a good idea, even if we have no intention to grow numerically.

And I’m not suggesting every congregation needs to grow numerically. That’s really up to the congregation. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with small, or right with big. At heart, I believe spiritual considerations are more important than statistical ones. Do I find life meaningful – and if, so why? Am I loving my neighbour truly? In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, what is it I plan to do with my “one wild and precious life?” These are the questions that really matter, as individuals and as a congregation.

Jesus taught that a tiny amount of faith – the size of a mustard seed – can grow to enormous proportions. Although we modern Unitarians do not tend to be Biblical literalists, I believe Jesus was absolutely right on this one. We know from nature that tiny seeds can grow into enormous plants and trees. In congregations over the course of my life, I have seen small ideas grow into lifesaving programmes; small kindnesses multiply by the hundreds. A congregation that genuinely wants to help others is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. A congregation can make life meaningful. It has time and again for me. Maybe congregations have made life meaningful for you, too.

If you love your congregation – for all its quirks and challenges – have great hope. I can’t promise that any of your specific plans for the congregation – or mine – will come true. Life is full of surprises. What I have discovered over the years, is that congregations find a way to live out who they are. Kind-hearted congregations practice kindness. Thoughtful congregations offer tools for reflection. Community-oriented congregations offer gatherings of succour. And so on. Growth is not so much about the number of people in the pews. It’s about living out who we are and want to be. Any congregation devoted to that endeavour will find unexpected joys, and be a gift to the world.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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