Monday, May 7, 2012

Why UU churches are small - Part two

UUA member congregations are small not only because they have difficulty resolving conflict but also because they lack competent leadership. This may be directly related to fifth principle which is "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large." The attempts to arrive at consensus and the idea that all opinions are equal contribute to severe dysfunction. Democratic decision making has to occur within a framework of options which have advantages and disadvantages. The idea that all opinions are of equal value is fallacious and leads to anarchy and a lack of coherence in organizational values, beliefs, and practices. Without a framework within which to make decisions, organizations are left to flounder and fight.

Good leaderships is based on at least three factors: a viable vision of organizational development and operation based on the integrated requirements and expectations of organizational stakeholders, competent design, implementation and evaluation of key organizational processes, and the embodiment and manifestation of key organizational values. Good leadership facilitates the organizational production of good outcomes, cost efficiently that are customer satisfying. This leadership requires managerial skill and competence which is sorely lacking in most small congregations.

Organizational conflict is not resolved by communication techniques or mediation as much as it is by differentiated leadership. Having principled competent leaders who can communicate a vision, a sense of mission, and who have the courage to make decisions about preferred key processes and the allocation of resources fill the vacuum of ambiguity and indecisiveness that generates rumor, gossip, second guessing, and infighting. The failure of nerve which leads to the feeling that nobody is in charge is a toxic climate in any organization, but especially in a covenantal community such as a church.

Church leaders need to have competent managerial skills to design, implement, and evaluate key processes. "Running" church operations is a sophisticated task in this day and age for any church which has grown from a "mom and pop" operation and aspires to be a more stable community institution.

What are those managerial skills and how can they be developed and evaluated to assure professional quality management of UUA member congregations?

To be continued


  1. FWIW, I know a premise of this series is that 80 percent of UU congregations have less that 100 people, but I don't believe that's actually the case. Judging by the data:

    MAYBE 50 percent of UU congregations have less than 100 people. My church is considered a "Large Congregation" and is more than three times the size of the Presby church I went to as a kid and it isn't even in the 25 largest churches.

    Some UU churches are small, and than can be for a variety of reasons. A lot of people get nervous about growth, for one thing, and a lot of churches split off.

    While I've never been in a congregation with perfect leadership, I haven't been in one with leadership as poor as that you describe either, which isn't to say a few don't exist. That said, I am skeptical that your points apply as generally as your phrasing suggests you think they do.


  2. Dear CC:

    Thank you for your comment. I will dig a little deeper and research the data that lead to the idea that 80% of the UU churches have less than 100 members. I don't remember where I learned this. As a former Roman Catholic I am used to much larger congregations than the Protestant ones you describe. In the Rochester, NY Roman Catholic diocese congregations of less than 100 people would be consolidated and/or shut down.

    I do believe that the UUA is loosing membership overall especially young people. In my area, Rochester, NY, the independent, evangelical churches are sprouting prolifically and many have become quite large (thousands of members). I am trying to understand the reasons for this phenomena.

    First Unitarian in Rochester, NY is one of the largest UUA churches in the world with 1013 members however when compared to other churches in the Rochester, NY area this is relatively small.

    I did a quick scan of the UUA member churches in the St. Lawrence District where I am a member and there are 33 churches listed 19 of which have a membership of less than 100 which is 58% and 24 of which have a membership of less than 200 which is 73%. The St. Lawrence District encompasses large cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and the Albany/Schenectady/Troy area. These are metropolitan areas of New York State that have populations of well over 1 - 2 million people.

    With this kind of demographic data, the premise that UUA member churches are very small, as a rule, I think is valid as compared with other denominations and with the population in which they are situated. The further premise that I am working on is that the reason for the relatively small size of UUA churches is the governance model which the UUA espouses.

    I appreciate your input and good ideas. Thank you!

  3. You're welcome. That we have no central authority that can force consolidation on churches that don't want it is indeed another reason for this, though of course if I didn't like our polity I wouldn't be a UU. In the Mid-Atlantic region where I am now, I haven't heard of people getting upset with one decision and stomping off and forming a tiny new church, but such things happened in the south all the time and I've heard similar things in the midwest.

    I came from the Presbyterians, so I have a very "Work from within the church to change the church and if it takes a long time, well, it does" viewpoint, so I have always found that odd, but a friend told me Indianapolis has half a dozen UU churches or so, and the other five have all at various times been formed by people stomping off from the first!

    If every church made by these splits got a few hundred people and chugged on, that would be fabulous, but when I was looking at the numbers last night, I noticed that there were a lot of churches near bigger churches that got a few dozen people and languished. So that a few dozen people, or even half a dozen people, meeting in somebody's basement can fill out the paperwork and become a church certainly pulls down the average congregation size.

  4. Half a dozen people can't be a UUA congregation - you have to have 30 adult members. However, a few dozen people meeting in someone's living room (I don't like the scornful tone of basement) can be as spiritually meaningful as belonging to a megachurch.

    The evangelical megachurches have grown to the size they have by creating small groups within the larger framework. The number of people that a person can know in any minimally meaningful way seems to have been established as in the neighborhood of 100.

  5. Dear LdeG:

    Your ideas are excellent and I think you offer some very good insights to what a model of a covanental church should/could be. Small home churches or communities are the building blocks of what could be a larger social institution. The UUA is a membership association which has certain requirements such as the size of the local congregation for membership. It doesn't require, however, much else. What do you think about the UUA becoming an accrediting body and requring other minimal standards for organizational performance if the organization is to call itself a UUA congregation? For example, should it have minimal human resource management polices, annual and long term operating plans, certain standards for fiscal management, certain policies regarding sexual abuse, staff conduct, etc.?

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