Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Growth" Part One

Thanks to Thom Belote, again, at, and for all who were at the Denver conversation this month on UU growth. Here as part one I have copied over some of what you will also see at Thom's blog. Part Two will be some responses.

First from Thom:
From May 5 to May 7 I attended the UUA Growth Consultation held at a retreat center about 75 miles North of Denver, right at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Growth Consultation brought together 17 individuals and we were charged with developing a growth plan for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

More specifically we were charged with imagining initiatives that:
1) Are congregationally based: The approach cannot be "top down" but rather must depend on congregations working together collaboratively to grow.
2) Have a low cost: Even if the money were there, growing Unitarian Universalism is not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Money can be raised for specific initiatives, but we were instructed to develop plans with a modest cost.
3) Produce results quickly: There was prevailing sense of urgency (in John Kotter's sense of the word) and an understanding that action needed to come quickly.
4) Focus on the attraction and retention of members in our congregations.
Above all, we shared a sense that the challenge of growing Unitarian Universalism could not be solved with "technical solutions." The challenges we face are cultural and relational.

The group of 17 included 9 parish ministers:
Kaaren Anderson, Co-Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Rochester, NY
Ken Beldon, Lead Minister, Wellsprings Congregation, Exton, PA
Thom Belote, Minister, Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS
Helen Carroll, Minister, UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County, CA
John Crestwell, Associate Minister, UU Church of Annapolis, MD
Howard Dana, Minister, Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA
Rob Hardies, Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, DC
Christine Robinson, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, NM
Michael Schuler, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI
UUA Staff attending included:
Peter Morales, UUA President
Harlan Limpert, Vice President of Ministries and Congregational Support
Taquiena Boston, UUA Director of Multicultural Growth & Witness
Terasa Cooley, UUA Director for Congregational Life (effective June, 2010)
Dea Brayden, Special Assistant to the President
Special Guests included:
Anne Bancroft, President of the Liberal Religious Educators Association
Jim Wind, President of the Alban Institute
Our meeting was facilitated by Jon Hassinger, President of CI International.

From Thom: Over a "break" during the UUA Growth Consultation, held from May 5 to May 7 near Denver, Colorado, a group of us put our heads together and chewed over the idea that the growth or lack of growth at any given Unitarian Universalist church might have more to do with external factors largely beyond the congregation's control than with what the congregation itself does.

Together we brainstormed a list of "external forces" that have been largely credited with helping a congregation to grow. Here is the list we came up with:

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically conservative area.

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically progressive area.

• We have grown because of our proximity to major higher education institutions.

• We have grown because the population of our metro area is transient.

• We have grown because of demographic and economic growth in our region (new buildings, new developments.)

• We have grown because of suburban sprawl.

• We have grown because of urban gentrification.

• We have grown because a local or national tragedy inspired people to go to church.

• We have grown because we attract people who hold a broad angst about politics and culture.

• We have grown because we have a fantastic location!

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that promotes church going.

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that does not promote church going.

• We have grown because we are the solitary UU congregation in a metro area.

• We have grown because there are many strong UU congregations in our metro area.

When we looked at this list and compared these statements with the congregations represented at the Growth Consultation and other growing congregations we knew about, we immediately recognized that these external factors are not causitive.

Some UU churches in major University towns have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches that are far away from major educational institutions have grown. Others have not.

Some UU churches in economically vibrant communities have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches in economically hard-hit areas have grown. Others have not.

For each item on the list above it is possible to point to congregations that have grown and congregations that have not grown. That some of the external factors that we came up with are contradictory indicates that external factors are just not as influential as internal factors.

We concluded that these external factors are not deterministic! What goes on within a congregation determines growth.

[My own opinion: Of all the items on the list above, the only one that I think needs to be carefully examined is the one about the economic vitality of the community in which the church is located. I heard somewhere that zip-code was the greatest predictor of whether a church would grow or not. At the outer limits, I think economic conditions can have the effect of constraining or supporting growth. However, I also believe that an adaptable congregation that is deeply in touch with its community can thrive in spite of external conditions.]

Also from Thom:
During the UUA Growth Consultation that I attended from May 5 to May 7, participants brainstormed ways to finish the sentence:

"It is 5 years from now and Unitarian Universalism has not grown because..."

Here are a few of the ways our group finished the sentence:

... We did not believe we had a message that saved lives.

... We were still scared of religion.

... We realized that by living our faith we might risk losing our place of privilege. Liberal religion requires that we live at the edge of what is comfortable. Rather than choosing to live on the edge we did nothing.

... We did not put religion first.

... Our ministers felt frustrated and demoralized.

... Preaching in our congregations was generic and predictable.

... Ministers hated being told what to do [to create growth in their congregations.]

... Our members lacked the ability to "go deep" and cultivate intimacy in our congregations.

... Our congregations did not want to grow.

... Our congregations were inward focused and acted like a "kept" social club.

... We equated Unitarian Universalism with white, middle-class values.

... We fought about governance.

... We failed to support growing churches.

... The focus on growth became just one of too many.

... The direction of the UUA failed to resonate at the local level.

... Our evaluation of growth programs was poor.

... We continued to neglect team leadership.

... We failed to create strong learning environments for congregational leaders.

... We did not feel that we had a moral imperative to heal disconnections in our communities and in the world.

And more from Thom:
In blogging about the UUA Growth Consulation held from May 5 to May 7, I thought you might be interested in the pre-work that the participants engaged in before we arrived in Denver.

Of course, much of the pre-work came from drawing on our own expertise and our experiences leading growth in congregations. Consultation participants were also asked to go beyond our own experiences and to confer with leaders in our congregations and colleagues.

In addition, we were assigned reference materials including:

1) The book that I edited, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality.

2) UUA President Peter Morales' Monitoring Report of Global Ends, presented to the UUA Board in March, 2010.

3) A fascinating document entitled "Faith Formation 2020: Thirteen Trends and Forces Affecting the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World."

Finally, when we arrived for the Growth Consultation we all took a standard personality inventory known as the DISC Profile. The DISC involves answering 28 questions which reveals one of four personality tendencies. The four tendencies are:

Dominance: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results.

Influence: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by influencing and persuading others.

Steadiness: Emphasis is on cooperating with others within existing circumstances to carry out a task.

Conscientiousness: Emphasis is on working conscientiously within existing circumstances to ensure quality and accuracy.

It is fascinating to note that one third of the gathered group tested as "dominant" and two thirds tested as "influencing." (Three members of the group also tested high on the "conscientiousness" scale.) But, it is worth noting that the group trended extremely highly towards the "dominance" and "influence" side of the spectrum and that our group lacked participants who most strongly embodied the traits associated with "steadiness" and "conscientiousness."

Question #1: Have you ever used the DiSC profile in a congregational leadership setting? What blend did you find among congregational leaders?

Question #2: Do you think the high tendency of our group towards "influence" and "dominance" says something about the nature of leading congregational grow

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