Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Simple Desultory Considerations...

Perusing things written here and there (thanks to the various UU blogs I've been reading at) about what's wrong with UUism, where the movement's (not) going, what to do, I've decided to devote a blog to it.

I don't promise to stay on topic.

I will try to keep wandering back to it.

Reading a bit of the history of UU growth here, it occurs to me that the lesson learned may have been the wrong one. It's not that the fellowship movement failed. Monroe Husband's efforts got plenty of congregations started--and most of them in places where no one would have imagined them appearing on their own. I know; I attend one of them, now. Circumstances change; places that 40 or 50 years ago were the boondocks are now sometimes inner suburbia... the exurbs... flourishing small cities with neighboring cities. My own congregation was one of the fortunate ones; its founding members were a steady, sober lot who sank their teeth in and made it happen. They were fortunate again; an early member gave the fellowship land, and today there's a building and the congregation's been out of debt for years (it's about to go back in, but that's because it's growing, and has outgrown its building).

Reading the article, it's got a downbeat. Sure, a lot of fellowships were created, but a lot died. A significant number reached a nice, modest size of perhaps 100... and have stayed there. Some, of course, have boomed. The focus seems to have been on all the ones that failed.

That strikes me as... unreasonably negative.

Stop and look at it; these were high-risk plantings, mostly in areas where there didn't really seem to be the population for a congregation. They were given some support--but to expect a group of randomly selected lay folk to build and maintain a congregation from scratch, without a minister? That's not a small feat.

If there's an idea that had to have been in mind, it had to have been the Biblical parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-8);

Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.
Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.
And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

I'm not suggesting that the program ought to just be restored and continued; programs ought to be reviewed and improved. But it seems to me that the success of the fellowship movement seems to have been downplayed... or forgotten and ignored.

From that same UU World article:
By 1958, Bartlett reports, 315 fellowships had been formed, attracting an estimated 10,000 members, of whom three-fourths were new to the denomination. Of that original 315, some 40 had already failed, while 26 had become churches (though not necessarily changing their names). No wonder she called the movement "the growing edge of the denomination."
Looking at the growth numbers Thom Belote posted at Philocrates, it's pretty clear to me that we'd... well, not kill... but be mighty excited by a program now that boosted UU growth by 10,000 members, with 7,500 of them new to the faith. Maybe that can be improved on. But the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.

It's clear to me that the UUA's scheme for planting new, big urban congregations that would be almost instantly large... has failed, and failed pretty miserably--particularly considering the amount of money spent to achieve its ends.

As a representative of one of the fellowships that's succeeded; grown, become stable and successful, called ministers, is building a new building, I find the conclusions of the sidebar assbackwards and offensive.
The lesson of the fellowship movement seems clear: Congregations that start small tend to stay small. Even those that experience a period of growth once they call a minister tend to hit a ceiling at the point where a larger staff is needed to maintain the growth momentum.
Just--as my son would say--duh.

Congregations that start small... in small, out of the way places... tend to stay small. Duh.

Bismarck doesn't have a small UU congregation because it's small. It's small--and it actually has a UU congregation because an effort was made to help create one there! Sure, sure, there are--sometimes--issues with fellowships where they don't really care to be very involved with the UUA, where some don't care to call ministers. So? The congregational model is bottom up; it'd be nice (and valuable, too, in my view) to get more engaged. With all the love I hold for several very talented ministers, one of the lessons is that it is possible to do our faith without clergy. That doesn't mean it's better, or easier. It's not. Not at all. But it is possible--and that's a good thing.

But notice this--having gotten a congregation to start... it was left more or less to its own devices. I know mine was. And when it finally got around to calling a minister... it had to struggle to do so. Having learned to pinch every damned penny until it screamed (thanks, we'll distribute most of our directories, surveys and other things in person, and only mail those we have to), having held bake sales and rummage sales to pay the mortgage (the mortgage that was backed with the personal assets of the founders!), there's a culture. And there's a real sensitivity to what money means, can do--and how hard it can be to get. In this, our fellowships are very close in attitude to our Puritan congregational roots....

No support.

Over time, people grudgingly accepted that a half-time office administrator was necessary, too.

We've no DRE. We've no Music Director. Not as paid staff. Fellowships learn--and live--the pick yourself up by your bootstraps and carry yourself lesson. We've done those things. Sometimes not so well, sometimes... brilliantly. We know we're at the point where our size really requires a DRE. A Music Director too--though we know we can't really do that at the same time.

We're growing. We've scraped up the money to build another building.

No support.

If the UUA had pursued fellowships as something more than seed scattered along the roadside; had come back, offered some gentle suggestions... offered, when the size and circumstances of a congregation needed, a leg up to get an administrator and a DRE in place, it would have been a god-send. (We needed that... three to five years ago.) It's no wonder that many congregations stall at a certain--small--size and struggle to get past it. It's been observed that the transition out of "small" is the hardest of them. For congregations in places that are outposts... it's a bit harder.

There's something a mite... bitter... in reading that the UUA has concluded that to launch a congregation, they need to set forth with a minister, a religious education director and an office administrator. I'm not saying they're wrong; it might work well (but it's not vital--look at the fellowship successes...). But I think that they've really done a disservice to the small congregations that are helping fund that effort. I'm glad that my fellowship, with its rather frontier "We can do it" attitude (and "We don't need Boston") isn't really aware of that program... because it would make it harder still to persuade the folks who are funding the operating budget and paying for a new building that they really have to stretch farther to afford a DRE right now. Consciousness that the current analog of the fellowship program plans to start with that support would really torque some people; particularly the ones who are Chalice Lighters, the ones supporting the UUSC, and so forth.

If the Association wants to help grow congregations past their current size, it needs to look at the circumstances of each one, and enter a dialog. Some don't care to grow--perhaps for good reasons. Maybe helping start a neighboring congregation would be a better project. Some would love to, but have a challenge. The funds spent on Pathways would have funded something around 50 half-time DREs. How many congregations could make some significant breakout growth if they just got a year's help over the hump?

I think it's time to undertake growth plans having already openly embraced the possibility--even the probability--that many of the efforts will fail. Some of the seed will fall on rocky ground. But scattering seed is opportunistic. Some will succeed. Some will find rich soil. It's a better scheme than putting all our eggs in one or two baskets.

Take another look at that article.

In 1974, someone asked at a General Assembly plenary session, "How many of you discovered Unitarian Universalism through the fellowship movement?" and half the delegates stood up. Twenty years ago, John Morgan estimated that a third of all congregations had at one time been fellowships — but he also noted that between 1937 and 1983, 300 Unitarian or Universalist congregations had closed.

So? Sure, it's sad that congregations close up. But if the price for adding a third more is that we have to accept that we'll see 300 not make it, that's a price I'd pay. If we have to see some of the seed wither, some of it eaten, some of it lost in the weeds--but we get half of the delegates at GA again members brought in through new congregations--it's worth it. There's nothing wrong with failures, as long as they're coupled with successes that justify them.

It's time for some risks, some gambles, some shots in the dark.

There are communities today that are big enough that they might just support one of those new, small, struggling fellowships. We ought to be fostering them. There are congregations now that could use just a small nudge to get over a threshold--and we ought to take the chance and see how many of them can stay over it. We ought to try seeding congregations in places where they clearly ought to exist, too. They don't need to start out as large or large mid-size. Given enough efforts... some will grow to that size--and some of them will be in surprising, wonderful places like Bismarck, and the movement will be better and stronger for it.

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