by the Rev. Susan Smith, Congregational Life staff member
Does your congregation have too many committees and too few programs? Since I’m out on the road doing ministerial start-ups this time of year, I am repeatedly explaining the work done by Rev. Arlin J. Rothauge in his foundational 1986 book Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry about how congregations function at different sizes of attendance. Many of you have seen this at our Leadership Experiences, a workshop on mission/vision/growth or maybe at a training held in your own congregation. It is both a sociological model about how homo sapiens organize themselves according to the number of people of all ages gathering at one time and a developmental model in which the lessons learned when we are smaller will make or break us when we attempt to serve more people.
In brief, Rothauge identified:
Family or Matriarchal/Patriarchal (0-50) congregations operating literally as a family where newcomers must be “adopted” and ministers serve as family chaplains;
Pastoral (50-150) congregations in which the minister becomes the nucleus of the congregation and the touchstone for all members even as groups within the main body develop their own identities;
Program (150-350) congregations which attract new members through their various mainly lay-led programs and where the minister can no longer have a personal relationship with each member and primarily assures that all of those programs are of high quality and aligned with the mission; and
Campus or Corporate (300-up) in which the minister is CEO and head of staff and a significant public figure while other professional staff manage programming.
Susan Beaumont has gone on to further parse the organizational lives of larger congregations in her book Inside the Large Congregation.
What I’ve noticed is that it is difficult for Unitarian Universalists to understand these models because we tend to be so focused on committees. We see the word “programs” which means softball teams, study of sacred texts, Habitat for Humanity work days, women’s and men’s groups, dinners for 8 and small group ministries; and we interpret it as “committees” like finance, fundraising, membership, faith development, socials, social justice, etc. Often when we break down what the congregation actually does, we find that the needs of members to see their friends, hear about what is happening in congregational life, and feel that they are making contributions to and have a say in the work of the congregation are being fulfilled by going to committee meetings. When this happens, leaders may avoid participating in small group ministry or attending worship because they have already been at the congregation 3 times this week and need to get on with the rest of their lives. In so doing, they fail to participate in the very things that would energize, feed and deepen them, but this is a path to burnout. Also, we might forget to plan actual programs so that the only way a newcomer can participate and get to know people is by serving on a committee.
From our “congregationalist” background through our Unitarian forbearers and by observing our cousins on the tree of American religions today, we know that any size congregation can actually be operated with only two committees. Our ancestors called these “deacon” and “elders” by which they meant those who are stewards of the congregation’s resources and those who are stewards of the congregation’s spiritual life and covenantal commitments. All of these positions were elected and ordained to their particular ministries. Some of our “congregationalist” cousins have added a committee for faith development and/or one for social justice and philanthropy over the years.
So, I recommend that you take those 13+ committees that you have (I’ve never found a congregation with less than 13) and first figure out which are actual programs. Divide all of them up into four teams:
Worship (including music, lay readers, rites of passage);
Membership Inreach and Outreach (including caring, socials, new members processes);
Faith Development (including social justice, affinity groups, small group ministry); and
Stewardship (including finances, fundraising, building and grounds, communications).
Have them all meet at the same time on the same night. Remember to provide child care and supper so that a variety of folks can serve more easily. In small congregations, you can even do this at separate tables in one room. This will keep overfunctioning eldest children from spreading themselves too thin. (You can only sit at one table at a time and must make a choice.) It brings together those one-member committees into team of persons with very similar interests. It also allows one group to immediately ask a question or arrange an event with other groups. Have the Board members and staff do some floating about or assign them to a certain table as observers. They should serve as resources and encourage the teams to make all possible decisions that can be made at their level of ministry. Have a brief gathering to coordinate calendars. The board meeting held after this need only be 30 to 45 minutes since all decisions that can be made at a lower level have been made by this time, and there is no need to dabble inappropriately in programs since the need to feel connected to and knowledgeable about what is going on will have been satisfied.
Having knocked out what usually takes many, many, many hours of the congregation’s leadership, everyone can proceed to participate fully in the kinds of programs that will enrich our lives, spread our values, lighten our hearts and strengthen our mutual ties.