Growing Pains @uup 12/4/16

I have held a lot of different jobs during my life, but after that reading, maybe I should add spiritual bartender to list. Like many bartenders, ministers are listeners and we try to provide what our congregants need in terms of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment.

So, what kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for here? 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 every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task.  It is also very easy to trigger someone’s bad memories with a word or phrase.  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. If you hate it, no one will force you to drink it, but let other people have their caffeine in a way that works for them.

It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here.  Some people may want clear cut answers to all their questions and a set of beliefs that exactly match their own understanding of the world. Those folks might need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.

Enough with the bar metaphor!  I want to talk about church growth dynamics.

This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence.   The easiest definition of a family church is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services.

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. Family churches can be wonderful.  Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. The board has very little actual power in a family church, but a few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group.

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.

In a family style church, people that show up, do the work, and who often also donate a lot of money have the most real say in what happens.  Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the entire congregation at heart.  But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote.” Families just aren’t very democratic, something Anne and I made clear to our kids, but new church members can take a while to understand how decisions are really made in family sized churches.  It takes some time to be adopted and even longer to be known as a valued member of the family, someone whose opinion and feelings matter to almost everyone else.

As I said earlier, UUP has been a family church for years, and is, in fact, a very healthy one. You have had smart and dedicated leadership.  You have had vision and courage. You have also taken some steps toward growing larger.  Moving to this location was one such step. You also increased Rev. Mary’s hours until she was half-time and you gave her some authority as your minister.  You hired me, also half-time, to help you decide what you wanted to do about the future.

I have said to you before that there is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.

I have now changed my mind about that.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was anything wrong with deciding to stay a small close knit family church, tending mainly to the needs of the current members, and just inviting in a few new people every so often, people that fit in and that like the way you already do things.

But our world has changed.  We saw that when our attendance at worship right after the election doubled.  Many people in our wider community are looking for exactly what Unitarian Universalism can offer.  If we can have a truly open and inclusive theology, if our worship services are usually both deep and spirit-filled, we can help people renew their energy and soothe their souls so they can go back out into the world to do the work of justice.  We could actually be a center, a focal point, for justice making in this community, and a real-life model for what the world could be if we all really lived according to our life enhancing principles.

I don’t think deciding to stay small would be an ethical decision in these times.  Our town and our world need us too much now.

And I know that if I asked each of you, the vast majority of you would say that the growth of Unitarian Universalism is important to you and to the world at large.

But growth brings change and also requires change.

Continuing to function as a family church just won’t work if you want to grow.

The reason is a simple sociological truth.

The maximum number of people who can all know each other relatively well is roughly 50.  If you want to grow much beyond that then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.  Your membership is in the 90’s but the average attendance at most worship services has been well under 50.

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

“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.”

In this representative style democracy, the influence of some individuals will decrease, especially for those who are not on the board or on a committee. At the same time, the influence of newer members can increase because when the board of a pastoral church gets input from the membership, everyone is invited. It is one person one vote.

The board holds the vision of the congregation and works to fulfill its mission. The minister is both a member of the board and in an equal partnership with them in both caring for and leading the congregation.

In a pastoral church, the minister usually full-time, preaches at least 3 times a month and is granted full authority over all worship services so that there is consistency both in quality and grounding in our faith tradition.  New 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 also change, some people will inevitably become marginalized.  There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people will leave.

Change is not easy.  All change involves some loss.

For those of you who have really loved being part of a small church that feels like family, where you know almost everyone, where you are comfortable, the idea of growth can be frightening.

So, what will need to change if you really want to grow?

Worship is one area.  You have a fine worship committee, they understand worship and they work very hard.  But some of the services you have can work against growth.

Sometimes you pass the microphone around during the service and everyone gets a chance to comment on the topic. Services like that can be great for a small group of people that all know each other well.  It can increase intimacy for people that are already part of the family system.  Even a less than stellar lay lead service can be heartwarming for the members that know and love the individual presenting.  Both of those types of services, however, can be very off-putting and alienating for many new people.  If you want to grow, services like that won’t work well anymore. Chalice Circles, our small group ministry, can fulfill some of need for intimacy, but not having it in worship would be a loss that most of you will grieve.

And then there is content.  I have been asked if using “God” language is necessary for growth.  The short answer is “yes.”

No one expects that everyone in the congregation will want to pray or will find meaning in the language of reverence, but excluding the spiritual, not talking about the great mystery of life in all kinds of different ways, including prayer and “God” language excludes people that are looking for that very thing in an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity of beliefs.  If you want to grow, your worship needs to feed the spirits of people with a wide variety of beliefs.

We can’t turn hungry people from our doors, people that need us, people that we need.  We need to offer them bread that will feed them.

None of us are here to hurt each other, but it is hard work learning how to be in a really diverse religious community. If we can accept and be gentle with one another here, we can heal some of the old hurts of our individual pasts, while finding the courage to really embrace diversity.  It is part of how we can bring more hope and compassion into the world.

There is one more change I have to mention.  At our last congregational listening circle, no one said their name before they spoke.  The assumption was that “everyone knows everyone.” It wasn’t true that day and it definitely won’t be true if we continue to grow. Please say who you are and wear your name tags.  You may know everyone, but everyone doesn’t know you.

The board will be scheduling a meeting after the first of the year to discuss issues of growth and some of the possibilities for a future minister after my time with you is done. I hope most of you will attend, to listen and learn from others, as well as to express your own opinions and preferences.

It was hard for me to do this sermon today, focusing on issues that don’t seem to have much to do with what is happening in the world.  I do believe, however, that it is all connected.  I believe that love is deep and love is wide. I will end with this poem I read at the gathering last Thursday, where people gathered to begin the work of creating safety for Petaluma’s diverse population.  It is by Denise Levertov.  I will read it twice,

For the New Year, 1981

I have a small grain of hope–

one small crystal that gleams

clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment

to send you.

Please take

this grain of a grain of hope

so that mine won’t shrink.


Please share your fragment

so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,

will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower

unless you distribute

the clustered roots, unlikely source–

clumsy and earth-covered–

of grace.


May we all share our small fragments of hope, may we all find the grace to meet fear and hate with grace and love.  Always love.  Blessed Be.

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