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?

7 thoughts on “Multisite Merger as a Growth Strategy, Part 2 of 3

  1. I am interested to hear,,,as I have been suggesting and working on getting three congregations (about 110 members each, all now with less than full time ministers, I am one of them) to consolidate and GROW, I think it can work…the church I serve is very successful at shared ministry and not being minister-centric…with technology and shared resources, I am positive we could do well. we are within a half hour of each other…will you tell me different?

    1. Getting everyone on the same page, what the ground rules are, establishing trust, delegating authority– these are foundational– and usually quite difficult to pull off. People like their own way of doing things– even if that way impedes the very mission they say they are about. Frankly, I think it takes a certain degree of desperation to take on the necessary risk– at least, if something is to be done sooner, rather than later.

      Where are you all located?

      And– Good luck!

      1. I think you are right about desperation, so I am trying to capitize on the fact that it is likely the other churches will have to reduce their prof. Ministry. They are less excited than I thought they would be…for some reason my church is not nearly so attached an entrenched as others…so, for better, but probably worse we are doing a few things slowly, which means we will probably never take the leap we need to. Two of us are now sharing a choir director, which is working well…and we have done some joint marketing and youth work. It is all a grand experiment. I am from the land of Quillen Shinn, Southern Maine.

        1. Another joint venture (if done well) that builds trust and increases collaboration is getting one person to do all the bookkeeping. That will get people used to standardization, and I guarantee you that of 3 churches, 1 will have the best bookkeeper 😉

  2. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Who cares about church size?

    My response: ask the people who switched to another congregation or even another denomination.

    They say: “I’m divorced. My old church did not have enough people in the singles group.”

    “Not enough children in the children’s group. My children wanted to make more friends.”

    “Not enough couples in the young-married group. Most members were gray-haired.”

    Bottom line: People expect their church to provide them fellowship with other people of similar age and interests.

  3. Love this, Daniel–it’s really helpful.

    I think the Get Big Fast plan might have worked if the planners had held themselves to the criteria, which included, or should have included, things like: (1) Hire experienced, expert staff; (2) Do massive advance publicity; (3) Have a virtual guarantee of 300 in worship; (4) Have a guaranteed funding source for the first five years. Going forward with the launch before having all those things in place was about as effective as one would expect, like planning a big journey and deciding, when the departure date arrives, that even though you haven’t gotten leave from your job or a catsitter or enough spending money, as you’d planned, you’re just going to go anyway.

    So whatever plans we come up with, let’s make sure that we are rigorously honest with ourselves about our checklist. Make it realistic, and make it an ironclad rule: do not launch until everything is checked off.

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