Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Path Toward our UU Spiritual Depth

Most people have to parcel out their time– work, family, recreation, and church. So, we need to be clear about what we are inviting people to do. And we want to be excellent at what we offer. So, we’re going to do fewer things, but with greater quality.And we’re going to be realistic about what we ask people to do.

As mentioned in a previous post, most people will only go to two things at church. For us, that’s (1) Sunday Service; and, (2) Growth Groups– our adult faith formation.

But those two “asks” are part of a larger strategy toward our plan for UU spiritual depth (note that this is our plan, you may have a different one, and that’s just fine).

The path toward spiritual depth, at our church, can be summed up in three simple words:

Connect, Grow, Serve.

What does that mean?


  1. Show up on Sundays
  2. Be curious & open minded
  3. make a connection to those around you,

Grow: Our Growth Groups, which

  1. encourage you to a spiritual challenge
  2. support you when you falter & cheer you on when you thrive;
  3. are a tribe where you are truly known, and where you can truly know others.


  1. participate in a Core Ministry of the church
  2. rise to the challenge of ongoing charitable depth.

So, first: Connect. Come to these Sunday services. Next: Grow. Pick & try out a growth group. And, serve. Look for opportunities to live out your faith in & through our church.

 Connect, Grow, Serve: it’s How We Do Church Now.

It is a simpler, more straightforward way to talk about what we are already doing. It makes it much easier for newcomers & old-timers alike to understand our process toward spiritual depth. It means we can identify where people are in their spiritual journey, and encourage them to move to the next step.

Do you have an easily understood and verbalized process for UU spiritual faith formation? Can you put it into 140 characters or less and have it be memorized by your elementary aged children?


Getting past “A Mile Wide, and An Inch Deep”

To get 3 churches to be excellent together–we have to simplify just about everything.

So much church programming is a mile wide & an inch deep.

It comes from an understanding that the more choices, the more options you give people, the more entry options there are, the more likely people will come to, and join, your church.

Except, that understanding is wrong. The New York Times story on how too many choices actually reduces commitment or buying, is here.

It turns out that more choices don’t actually help– attract or keep people. For one thing, it makes a church lose focus– because newcomers can’t tell what’s really important.

Let’s see– yoga class, New U, adult discussion group, or a congregational meeting. I guess since they’re all getting equal space, they’re all equal.

No wonder newcomers are confused. And this is an epidemic among our churches. From the smallest fellowship to the largest churches– if you check their newsletter– so many programs, and not enough time.

And, when we’re spread too thin– excellence is unlikely. We have less coherence, we confuse newcomers, we won’t list a hierarchy of importance of what we do at church– we– frankly– fail to lead.

Larry Osborne, in his classic book, Sticky Church, says we can really only ask our people to go to two things for church.

If one of them is Sunday Worship, then what is that 2nd thing you want people to go to? (for us, it’s Growth Groups).

So, the general idea is to do fewer things, but go deeper. Needless to say, this frequently creates a political problem, which is one of the reasons it is so hard to implement,.

Our sermon series concentrates our programming. Sunday worksheets help us focus. And Growth Groups give the Sunday experience more depth.

What do you think about the idea of having 10 or fewer programs / ministries at your church?

And. While we’re at it– let’s not divorce the sanctuary service & religious education. Let’s make them the marriage they were meant to be.

Want to dig deeper into this concept? Check out this book.

One approach to multisite churches is for a medium to medium large sized church to spin off “satellite” congregations. These are multisite 01typically formed when you have enough families– say 5-10 who live about a 20+ minute drive from church in a particular neighborhood. These can be ideal locations to consider a new satellite. Why?

Because, while your current members from that neighborhood are willing to drive in to church, their friends are not (usually). If you start a new satellite in this new location, then their friends are much more likely to attend.

This first approach– let’s call it– planting satellites– is the one I originally thought we’d pursue, and it is the one that is being done with some success in Albuquerque, NM and in San Diego, CA, among other places.

A new approach– which we are pioneering in Houston– is to take existing, fellowship sized churches and merge them with a mid-size to larger church. The former are the “joining” churches, and the latter is the “adopting” church.

Advantages are that you already have a committed group of lay leaders at the “satellite” location. You have talent available at one location that normally would not be assisting another location. You have creative resources, you have social justice relationships, and there is some shared history.

A “disadvantage” for the adopting church is that some of their resources (mostly staff) will now go to assist satellites. The primary “disadvantage” for the joining church is giving up control (in order to attempt a new level of success that has previously eluded them).

I put “disadvantage” in quotes, because there is a hidden advantage in there, too. Staff can learn new “best practices” from the joining churches, and joining churches giving up control to supervised professionals can increase the overall quality of church life, freeing up lay leaders to do more ministry and less administration.

Shortlink for this post:

The Power of Collaboration


Teams 001 – Collaboration on a New Scale.

The way folks have traditionally operated a UU church– you would think we never heard of the interdependent web.

In the old model, say– there are 3 UU congregations in geographic proximity, to some degree. Everything they do is separate– operations, administration, finance, tax compliance, music, sermons, lifespan faith formation . They do this in triplicate– week after week, month after month, year after year.

All of the work necessary to do UU church well, but– multiplied by 3. And are all 3 churches equally good at everything they do? Of course not. Why wouldn’t you have the church best positioned to do say– bookkeeping– do it for all 3 congregations? Why should 3 nearby UU churches have 3 different part time bookkeepers using 3 different systems? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Apparently, we prefer duplication and triplication of effort. Why?

Perhaps it is that we prefer hands-on control to potential excellence, increased productivity, and simple coherency.

I understand people don’t want to “lose control” over parts of their church. But is that what church is supposed to be about– that you get to control something? Would it be worth losing “control” if you could achieve a new level of success that has been heretofore unavailable to you?

Think of it this way: what if– these three congregations worked together? There would be an economy of scale. There would be a standardization of chart of accounts, procedures for money-handling, tax compliance– all of that. And you could use the best bookkeeper rather than the most available one. You could consolidate the best practices for Operations & Administration– but at 3 locations.

And that’s just for the “back of the house” stuff. That’s the power of administrative collaboration. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more!

What if you could leverage the power of creative collaboration? Again, consider the current model of 3 local UU churches.

  • 3 ministers hole up for half a week, thinking up a sermon– on their own.
  • 3 religious educators, producing & organizing content– on their own.
  • 3 sets of leaders– doing leadership development, canvass, facilities management, governance, speaker recruitment– on their own.
  • 3 sets of bookkeepers, each with their own software, procedures, chart of accounts, and ideas about how to receive, save, and spend money.
  • 3 sets of wildly variable skills, competencies, and abilities.

Now imagine, that if you looked at these 3 congregations as a network– or an interdependent web, if you will– you would see that they are doing a huge amount of work– in triplicate– especially the lay leaders (who could otherwise be free for more traditional ministry).

What if we went further– and combined these churches? What if we were one church in three locations? What if instead of duplication or triplication– we put people to their best & highest ministry?

The ministers & educators could collaborate on monthly sermon themes, and content for sermons, for children’s faith formation, and for adult faith formation. Different people with different strengths could use them better for a larger group of people.

That’s what’s in it for you. That’s what’s in it for all of us. That’s the power of collaboration.

That’s what we’re doing at the First Unitarian Church of Houston. I’ll have more to say about the creative weekly process we use and our 42 day countdown to producing sermon and faith formation content in a future post.

Are there churches near you that might be open to either administrative or creative collaboration? Think about it.

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 3 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 3 of 3

What is it we are risking? We are risking successrainbow chalice 02

We’ve heard how people tried to grow Unitarian Universalism in the past. And we can see new models of doing collaborative ministry that could benefit everybody. (Eventually, I’ll update this post with a link to how we’re doing collaborative ministry– it’s mind-blowing!)


The information below is from a 2012 sermon explaining the multisite concept to the Museum District campus.
What do we risk? We risk giving up some of how we do things now– for getting what we say we really want.
We risk outgrowing an old, comfortable identity for a new one better serving a larger purpose.
Change is both gain, and loss. Some folks will feel this loss–  more than others.
The caterpillar– dying to her old form– may not be impressed with the promise of birth as a beautiful butterfly.
But really– there is a much bigger risk. We risk–  success. That’s right.

Guess what the success rate is for multisite churches is?

Is it one out-of-4? Is it 50-50? No, the success rate is NINETY percent.

NINETY percent success.

Of course, that is for evangelical churches. I suppose we have to throw in a fudge factor for liberal churches. But still. NINETY percent success.
As Karen Carlson, on our Transition Team, put it in 2012:
This is a big vision. If you want to expand social justice, if you want to be more than just a small island of liberal religion in the Bible belt, this is an opportunity to step up and [be counted]. (Note: this was also used as the benediction).
So the real danger to our proposition isn’t that we won’t succeed– It is that we will succeed.
Imagine that. Imagine 7 women & men– ministers & educators–  in 3 locations, all creatively collaborating on excellent content to be shared at all locations.
Imagine finally freeing up leaders from administration & operations to lead core ministry teams.
Today, we imagine building a new way of doing Unitarian Universalism.
Today, we do– what has never been done before– we move toward being one UU church in three locations.
And why do we do this? To create a brighter beacon for liberal religion.
And to create a more welcoming home for religious liberals. Let us consider the kind of home we want to build….

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 2 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 2 of 3
Previous Attempts to Grow UU on a Big Scale
Last time, I talked about the Catch-22 of Small Congregations. This post, we’ll look at 3 previous attempts to grow UU on a big scale.
  1. Quillen Shinn.
  2. Fellowship Movement.
  3. Get Big Fast.
Our church website’s very first entry for our history, is this– 1895: Rev. Quillen Shinn first arrives in Houston. Next entry– 1899: Rev. Shinn stays for two weeks. Third entry– 1907: Rev. Shinn dies.
The Rev. Quillen Shinn was an evangelist for Universalism in the early 20th century. He would get billboards & flyers put up in towns just before he came to visit. He would reserve a space– whatever was available– a home, church, or store. There, he would preach Universalism– that we are all already saved. And he’d explain how to form a new congregation.
Then he’d leave town, and come back periodically to check on things. Some called him the greatest Universalist evangelist– ever. Others called him the Grasshopper Missionary because he moved so quickly from place to place.
“Although most of the groups Shinn started failed to survive for long, a number did.”
So, starting congregations like ours back in the early 20 th century was pretty hit or miss– and truth be told– mostly “miss.”
Within 50 years, a new strategy was developed. It was called the Fellowship Movement. The idea was to start new congregations without ministers, to try and catch up with the post-war America population boom. The program was wildly successful. Between 1948 & 1958– in just 10 years! Some 323 fellowships had been organized. They had 12,500 members, 75% of whom were new to Unitarianism.

Can you imagine adding 12,500 new UUs in 10 years? That’s like the entire UU population of Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin combined.

Most of these congregations however, never got any bigger. Eventually, the Fellowship Movement ran out of steam & money. And Unitarian Universalism has not grown much since then. In fact, last year, we shrank a little.
We had Quillen Shinn on horseback. We had the fellowship movement. Now, we move ahead, 40 years later.
At the dawn of the 21st century, came the idea to start a large UU congregation from scratch. Maybe we could have the first UU mega-church. A mega-church is one that has over 2,000 members. In the Dallas area, a local UU endowment fund purchased land for a new church.
“A few generous and visionary UU families (in the area) gave a million dollar grant to lease office space and hire five full-time staff members.”
The main idea was to start a new congregation–  AND–  have it Get Big Fast. Why not fully staff as if you were already a large church? Maybe then you could grow from 0 to 600 members in three years.
That was the original plan. They were going to delay regular Sunday services until they thought they could get 300 on a Sunday. But time passed & they decided not to wait. There first service had 140 people attend– but “many of the people attending that first worship service were well wishers from other UU churches.”
The church’s 2012 numbers are 93 adults, and the original staff– is gone.
To recap:
  1. Quillen Shinn rode horseback all over the country trying to get Universalist congregations started. Many were started, but few survived.
  2. The fellowship movement did start a lot of small Unitarian congregations. But very few got out of the small church box.
  3. The million dollar idea of Get Big Fast did not work out as planned.
Except for the Fellowship Movement–  there hasn’t been any successful strategy to grow Unitarian Universalism. And those fellowships– with very few exceptions– have been caged in by the Catch-22 that affects them. I talk about the small church Catch-22 in a previous post.
Next, what if we took some of those fellowships and merged them to take advantage of creative collaboration and an economy of scale?

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 1 of 3

Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 1 of 3
The Catch 22 of Small Congregations
My understanding is that except for the Fellowship Movement–  there hasn’t been any successful strategy to grow Unitarian Universalism on a large scale. And those fellowships– with very few exceptions– have been caged in by the Catch-22 that affects them.
In my lifetime, I have personally only known of one congregation that has made this leap (from fellowship with no minister to 500+ member church). Just one. Out of 1,000. Maybe you know of a couple more? Still– Not very good odds.
That phrase Catch-22 comes from a novel. And it means something is a no-win situation. For small congregations– it means that
            because the congregation _is_ small,
            they can’t afford to hire the kind of staff 
            that will grow them to the size–
            where they could afford that kind of staff.
And, so our smaller congregations try everything they can think of–  to grow out of that small congregation box. And they almost never succeed.
These people I’m talking about– these fellow UUs– have poured their heart & money & muscle into creating a viable UU community. And that is great. It is admirable.
They know that. But they want more.
Why? Why this focus on growth? Why numbers? Why are folks so concerned about “numbers? Why is that so important? Because every number represents a person– like you & me.
And they want something else– something almost all UUs want.
They want a building to call home. And they want a minister to serve & lead them. They want to make a difference in their community.
They want to be a safe haven for religious liberals. And they want to be a shining beacon of liberal religion in often hostile world.
But that Catch-22–  is still there. And it seems to keep their dreams–  just–  out of reach.
How many congregations are we talking about? In 2011, there were 995 brick and mortar congregations listed in the UUA official list. Of those, 350 congregations listed membership of 150 or greater. That number is significant to me because I believe that is the minimum size a congregation should be in order to have a full time, fairly compensated minister and the necessary part time staff.
This means there are 645 congregations that are too small (in my opinion) to support full time, fairly compensated ministry (and additional part time staff). That is 65% of all UU congregations!
This tells me that a significant impediment to UU growth is the Catch-22 of small congregations. Don’t get me wrong– there are plenty of UU congregations WITH ministers that don’t grow, but there are lots that do.
That’s the dilemma. What’s a possible solution? What if we could take the unique identity of a small congregation and provide it with the resources of a large one? That’s the focus of a future post.