Family Church 01/11/15 @theBFUU

After last week, with all the Dog and God jokes after the service, the line in the reading about the minister of a pastoral-sized church being a spiritual bartender, made me wonder what sort of jokes we would come up with this week.


What kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical? Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini? Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer. Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit. We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism.   It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.


Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing. Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where at least some of every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve. You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well.


It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here and some people will need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.


Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about our family church.


This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence.   The easiest definition is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services. You were much larger at one time, however, and I have heard you even had a very large religious education program with many children enrolled.


Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families.   Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Pretty much everyone knows everyone else. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is.   They have “town hall meetings” where decisions are made. The board has very little actual power in a family church. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time.   A few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group and to get the important things done.


Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around. Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted. It can feel great! You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what! How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.


Those same trusted individuals, in a family church pretty much run everything. They decide what newcomers get adopted. They usually have veto power over anything new that that they don’t think is a particularly good idea. They have this power because they are loved and trusted, because everyone knows them well and listens to them. In the literature on church governance, they are referred to as the matriarchs and patriarchs. There can be one or two, but usually not more than four. Usually they are elders, but not always.


A matriarch or patriarch can be anyone who has a lot of personal power and influence, regardless of whether or not they have an official role as a board member or committee chair.


All of you who have been around for a while can probably name several people who have had this kind of personal power here over the years.


The individuals with the power can change over time, lay leaders can be driven out if the congregation feels they have exceeded their authority – or worse, made a bad decision. I suspect this has happened more than once here.


People who challenge the authority of the church leaders can also be driven out. I also suspect that has happened here.


There is an emotional component to all of this too.


Most of the matriarchs and patriarchs do a lot of the work, or give a lot of the money, and as a result feel like their opinion really should count for more. In a family style church, that is exactly what happens. They insist, and no one really wants to offend them so they get what they want most of the time. If they don’t get what they want, sometimes they leave in a huff, taking their money and their time and energy elsewhere. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote. “


Family churches are just like real families in other ways. Some are healthy and others are, well, pretty dysfunctional. Some of you probably gathered with some difficult family members over the holidays. Healthy families and churches establish good boundaries for their more troubled members. All of us have some issues; all of us have been damaged in some way by our life experiences. No one is perfect and we all have a need for both healing and growth. But sometimes it is more than that. All families and all churches have members whose issues are so serious that clear boundaries on their behavior need to be established for the protection of the other members and the family or church as a whole.


A real family might invite the cousin who has a conviction for child pornography to dinner, but they don’t let him hang out after dinner playing computer games with the kids.



The uncle who can’t seem to help making sexual and sexist comments, might be tolerated by his family. But he is also told to be quiet when he gets really offensive. No one ever asks him to say grace.


We all also have different skill levels. Someone who can’t cook isn’t asked to bake the pies for a family dinner, at least not without some serious supervision.


Boundaries are important in families and in churches. Everyone can be accepted and loved, but not just any one should be on the board of trustees or chair a committee.


As I said earlier, this fellowship has been a family church for years, sometimes growing toward health and sometimes struggling.


You have worked hard on improving how you are with each other, and you have tried to grow. It has worked for a time, but in reality, things have stayed pretty much the same over the long term: 50 members, a few more of less. There have been periods of good boundaries and improved communication styles and times where dysfunction has ruled and people were even known to disrupt the Sunday service.


There is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.




It is important to understand, however, that in order to grow beyond that number and to become financially sustainable, continuing to function as a family church just won’t work.


The reason is simple. The maximum number of people who can all know each other is roughly 50. If you want to be larger than that, and frankly you need to be larger to be able to afford both a minister and a building, then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.


In the meetings you held with your interim minister, the Rev. Joy Atkinson it was clear that most of you wanted to change. An overall goal was described by the phrase.


“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”


This is what your board of trustees and I have been trying to achieve.


The only way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading as well.


The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.

The individual power of the matriarchs and the patriarchs decreases. Town hall meetings are no longer where most decisions are made. The board gets input from the congregation when needed, but they establish almost all the policies during their meetings. They hold the vision and work to fulfill the mission. The minister in a pastoral church is also granted full authority over the worship services so that there is some consistency in quality and grounding in our faith tradition.  People in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders. Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone. One person can easily know 100-150 people. 150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.


If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people leave.


Alice Mann, in her GA workshop on navigating size transitions in congregations, said this,


“When a church is changing sizes, it has to dismantle one way of doing things, and construct a new way…that’s called transition, and it is always uncomfortable. It can be stimulating and life giving, but it is always uncomfortable. Sizes can go upward and downward…but it is hard to be in a growing church that doesn’t want to let go of the old way of doing things.

People need to sociologically ‘rearrange the chairs’ to accommodate the change.”


Transformation, a fancy word for deep substantive change, is not easy. All change involves some loss. Even leaving a bad relationship involves some grief over what might have been. This congregation is undergoing deep change. It is undergoing fairly rapid change. We are rearranging the chairs, sometimes literally.


Some think we are going to fast, but slow and very incremental change usually fails, as the desire to retain what is comfortable and safe is strong. Sometimes you just have to go cold turkey. We need to make the changes that need to be made and get on with what we need to do. Has anyone ever successfully quit smoking by just “cutting back” on a few cigarettes a day?


The board has been stepping up to their role of being a real governing body. As your minister, I have changed the Sunday service format and content so that the services are hopefully more focused and more spiritual. Some elements that were popular with some have been eliminated. Joys and sorrows is the big one and having a variety of different people making their own announcements is another. The restriction on announcements is simply to limit the “business aspects” of our gatherings so that is clearer that we are a religious gathering and not just a social club. That we have stopped passing a microphone around for people to express their own joys and sorrows is very hard for some people. I understand that.

We all remember times when something particularly moving was shared. Sometimes speaking of a deep pain in front of a congregation of friends is been truly healing. Something very special and precious was lost when we stopped passing the microphone around. It is OK to grieve that loss.


But we have lost other things too. Things most of you likely don’t miss very much. Because always, there will be someone in any room, if given a microphone, who will take the floor and just ramble on. People will share trivial things just to have a chance to speak. Sometimes what they say can be deeply offensive. In a small family church, inappropriate behavior is often excused. Oh, that’s just Joe, he always talks about the same thing. We know him and love him anyway. Mary always sounds like she is angry with the whole congregation, maybe the whole world, but we know her and know she is doing it from a place of love.


If you have experienced joys and sorrows in this or other Unitarian Universalist congregations, you likely have your own examples of things that most likely should have been better left unsaid.


My sense of this congregation is that while some people would like to return to that practice, there are others who are quite relieved that we aren’t doing it anymore. Anyone?


But the truth is, even if most people like it, it is a practice that tends to keep a congregation small.


It can work OK when “everyone knows everyone” and excuses can be made when individuals get carried away, but if you have more that 50 people in the room, there will be some people who have no idea who the speaker is and it can be a real turn off and embarrassing – especially for an introverted newcomer who is looking for a safe and meaningful Sunday morning experience.


The shift from family church to pastoral church, trying to break the 50 member maximum is what the board and I have been working on as a way of “Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”


Even if we can accomplish this change, and the jury is still out although I believe much progress has been made, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep the feeling of being a family. We can be warm and welcoming to everyone who enters this space, whoever they are. We can love each other. We can forgive each other. We can honor our past and move boldly into the future. May it be so!


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