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.

5 thoughts on “Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 1 of 3

  1. Why set the benchmark for Fellowship success at 500 members and above? Are there other measuring sticks one could use — full time minister and/or DRE, vibrant congregational life, successful capital campaign, etc.? The Fellowship in Topeka has all those benchmarks, with lots of young adults and over 80 kids active in the RE program, with about 180 adult members.

    1. I think you’re right. The basic dream is: “to have our own building & our own minister.”

  2. From the point of view of a member of one of the satellite churches in Houston, one advantage of joining a multi-site church is that we can assess the minister (or ministers) prior to joining up. The process of a single congregation finding a new minister is fraught with secrecy and peril. For example, the “rules” forbid the congregation from inviting the ministerial candidate to its own campus to give a sermon. The selection is only as good as the discernment of the selection committee. As I can personally attest, serious misjudgments are possible.

  3. While I suspect I am going to agree with the direction this blog takes, I do think we can be over focused on numbers. Sometimes the not-so-subtle message is that if you’re a 50 member congregation you’re a failure if you can’t get to 150, If you’re 150 you’re a failure if fail to reach 300–300-500, 500-1000. I suspect that if the 50 member congregation tries to be an excellent 50 member congregation that they are most likely to see numerical growth–same for the 150, 300 and 500 member groups. While I am not that interested in a smaller congregation–I believe some are. I know that parts 2 and 3 of this blog will move on to a new alternative (to UU’s) of Multi-site congregations. I suspect that has great opportunity to offer. Is it more “bang for the buck?” Hard to know yet–but it clearly has a place. Some of those early Fellowships have grown to that 150-300 size. It may be worthy of thiinking of a new Fellowship Movement using some different strategies of where we plant and how we feed them. The biggest change for those of us out in the hinterlands (like me in OKC==is that gone is the sense of “turf” that led the AUA to look to areas well beyond the footprint of existing congregations. Now I think many of us would welcome a new congregation jusst a few miles away, Different thinks for different folks!

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