by Christine Purcell, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
At a recent cluster event, I had a chance to spend time with a congregational leader I haven't seen in several years. She---let's call her Pam--- is a leader in a small congregation in a rural area near a town with a few larger UU congregations. I know that Pam's congregation shows up for racial and social justice work, has the appropriate staffing for its size (including a part time minister), offers music and RE programs, offers opportunities for members to socialize, and has a good website and social media presence. Its minister frequently writes letters to the editor of the newspaper and is interviewed on the news. People in the community know about this small and mighty congregation.
I remarked on an article shared on Facebook which Pam's congregation's minister had written. I asked about the good things happening in her church community. She said, "I'm not sure any of that matters because we're not growing." She shared stories about stewardship difficulties and volunteer fatigue, and didn't mention any of the good things that I've heard are happening in her congregation.
I get it. When a congregation is small, lack of membership growth can feel like a ministry failure, but lack of numerical growth is not necessarily an issue to be fixed. Binary thinking with growth and failure as the only options does not serve congregations. There is a third option which holds tremendous benefits for the members of and community served by a small congregation: simply being a healthy, small congregation!
Worrying about numerical growth can distract the congregation from its mission and vision. Well-lived mission, vision, and covenant yield maturity and the embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist faith and values in our congregations and in the world. I encourage smaller congregations to focus more on measuring their impact than on counting heads!
Visitors intentionally seek out small congregations for close relationships and the chance to make a difference. Congregational health increases the chance that visitors will return, be inspired, and get involved. Congregations which choose to work on health may find that numerical growth follows. They may not. In the case of Pam's congregation, I wonder if numerical growth will happen without a change in the demographics of the community. I am amazed and delighted that there are about sixty Unitarian Universalists gathering in that rural town! If the congregation's welcoming practices and new member integration are on track, numerical growth is probably not the best indicator of the success of its ministry.
Here are some suggestions for congregations feeling the pinch of being small:
- Consider a common read for your leadership such as "Doing the Math of Mission" by Gil Rendle to help change your congregation's focus from counting to measuring, or "Not Your Parents' Offering Plate" to rethink your congregation's approach to stewardship.
- Consider consolidating some committees. You only need a few: worship, faith development, the caring community (includes membership support), and social witness on the program side, and property and finance on the administration side.
- Try mentoring successors to leadership roles more effectively to reduce volunteer fatigue.
- Use Appreciative Inquiry to focus on your congregation’s health and strength. Emphasize and build on 2-3 things you do well.
- Equip your leaders by sending a team to a Southern Region Leadership Experience.
- Contact your regional staff if you are stuck. We are here for you and with you.
Small congregations are on my heart because of my experiences last week as a staff member at Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE) in Little Rock. I worked with leaders from small congregations on applying systems thinking to a case study. Year after year, I’m inspired by the stories I hear from LE graduates who were challenged by what they learned, felt invigorated and called, and went back to their congregations prepared for the hard work of shared ministry. Teams leave Leadership Experiences with game-changing insights into elements of congregational health: covenant, mission, vision, faith development, systems thinking, small group ministry, governance, stewardship, and anti-oppression work.
Did you know that more than half of our Southern Region UU congregations (124/208 certified) have fewer than 125 members? Your Southern Region staff understands the unique challenges and opportunities in small congregations. To support and encourage small congregations, we are offering an adapted Leadership Experience in central Florida: 05-10 February, 2017. Watch for announcements about the Small Congregation Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (SCUULE) in our newsletter, on Facebook, on our website, and in emails from your Primary Contact. I hope to see you there!