At our recent Central Midwest District Assembly I found our Saturday panel of growing congregations absolutely fascinating. Six themes I heard that Saturday morning resonated with things I have heard many other leaders say about what they have found to be key to their growth:
Multi-generational congregations. Emily Gage of Oak Park, IL, Bill Sasso of Carbondale, IL, talked about how children and adults were involved together in social justice work. Thirty years ago when congregations were driven by the devotion and commitment of stay-at-home mothers, church was a place that mothers could go to have some space away from their kids. An entire structure was built around this from the separation of worship and religious education to how we structured the work of the church whether this be social justice or work parties. Today, increasingly, church is a place where parents come to connect with their kids and even their partners in an age of dual careers and endless activities where the role of parent is reduced to chauffeur and cheering section. As one young parent put it: “this place has got to help me be closer with my kids and my partner or I am gone.” It used to mean that a congregation was family friendly if it provided child-care. Now that is less clear: an event with child care is an event which expects children will not be part of the activity. How do we reinvent our religious life together so that it is more about doing things together than doing things apart for adults and children?
Incremental planning. Michael Brown of Peoria, IL, talked about planning as part of the ongoing life of all committees and task forces, not just an exceptional process to be done every few years by a strategic planning committee. In the 1990’s great stress was placed on how important it is for congregations to have strategic plans. While it is important, the overall lesson learned was that planning is most effective it is become part of the overall work of the congregation and of each group within it, rather than a rare and exceptional type of work done by a few.
Proactive about conflict. Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, WI, talked about their Healthy Congregations Team that works to resolve conflict and promote healthy communications. "Often through painful experience our congregations seem to be learning that they need to be more intentional about building healthy community."
Integral social justice work. A number of the congregations spoke about what might be called integral approaches to social justice work. This is social justice work as work of the larger congregations and not primarily work of either a social justice committee or of the minister.
Bite-sized involvement. A number of the congregations also spoke about the need to create more “bite-sized” opportunities for involvement, ways of getting involved in the work of the congregation without first volunteering for a committee and perhaps without ever going to a committee meeting.
Embracing diversity. Khleber Van Zandt of the First Unitarian Church of Alton, IL, talked of the shift in their congregation to embrace a greater range of the diversity of their surrounding community. In particular, Khleber talked about diversity being more than a black-white issue and indeed their challenge and opportunity has been to move to embrace greater diversity of social backgrounds and sexual orientations.
There is no such thing as a formula for growing a congregation. Yet these six things seem to be themes I hear from those who are growing.
Congregational Services Director