Thursday, May 12, 2005

Reflections on Rekindling the Mainline

Reflections on Stephen Compton's Rekindling the Mainline
Ken Brown April 27, 2005

This past year Alban Institute published a book that addresses the issue of "New Life through New Churches." Stephen Compton is Executive Director of the Office of Congregational Development for the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Compton's perspective is that denominations do not grow without a commitment to planting new congregations. He suggests the following compelling reasons to start new churches:

1) New people are more likely to join new churches than old churches
2) Old churches are moved toward renewal by the presence of new churches in their communities
3) Old denominations are renewed as the percentage of new churches in their total number of churches increases
4) New churches are more likely than old churches to be open to all kinds of people (inclusive of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, nationality, gender, etc.)
5) New churches are more likely than old churches to call or receive female pastors, or pastors whose cultural background, race, ethnicity, or nationality differs from that of the majority membership
6) New churches find it easier than old churches to live out new models of mission and ministry (39)

In the book he provides statistics and stories to support these statements. My experience and observation supports his perspective. While our UU congregations have done very well in being more open to diversity when it comes to women and BGLT folks, we have had problems with other kinds of diversity including theological.

Further into the book he offers a ten point strategy for new church development:

1. Declare from the denominational center that new-church development is its priority task
2. Make new-church development normative, not a temporary programmatic fix
3. Begin new churches at rates that ensure that within 30 years, at least 30 percent of a denomination's churches will be less than 30 years old
4. Select executive leaders who are committed to the priority of new church development
5. Structure judicatory agencies to match the needs of advancing new-church development
6. Fill judicatory staff positions with people who are committed to new-church development and who have experience in new-church development
7. Change the focus of spending, budgets, loans, and the like to promote new-church development
8. Require that denominational seminaries provide at least one year of intensive congregational leadership studies in their curricula
9. Reward regional judicatories whose leaders, strategies, and goals reveal courage, boldness, and innovation to lead the church through change
10. Make closure of old churches a fundamental part of the strategy for new-church development (104-116)

Again we UUs have to deal with an organization that functions on a political level rather than theocratic. Thus people organize to get their issue a place on the table or a new UUA administration brings its perspective to how things should be done. Rarely, if ever, have we done a strategic plan that began by stepping onto the balcony to look at the whole system and how we might learn from such perspectives as the one presented by Compton. Further, seemingly agreeing with Roy Oswald's book "Transformative Regional Bodies" Compton focuses four of the ten strategies on supporting and developing staff at the District level and one strategy that speaks directly to ministerial formation at the theological schools. The other five strategies all speak to implementing a vision of transformation and growth from the whole system. Too often we seem to function at the level of the UUA as if we are a small church, rather than developing a strategy and hiring staff to implement it, we respond to the folks in the political mode. We need to begin to organize in a fashion that best serves our vision and our congregations, not just today but for generations to come. This may mean making hard decisions as Compton proposes in his list of strategies.

Further I believe that given our size we cannot hope to approach what Compton is suggesting for the mainline denominations. Yet, I expect we can learn from what he suggests needs to be accomplished to grow congregations. Compton says that first we need to stop the welfare that props up existing congregations. We are not in the position to give money to any congregations but we do give staff time to a wide range of congregational programs, do we need to make tough decisions in how we allocate our time? Compton goes on to propose that we need to create congregations within existing congregations if we are to meet the needs of generations now looking to come into our congregations. He offers five steps to accomplish this task:

1. Identify congregations willing to be born anew
2. Prepare leaders to guide churches into new life
3. Begin new churches within old churches
4. Reward Innovation
5. Leverage the economy of scale (128-137)

Compton offers a number of evaluation tools to find the congregations where leadership is really ready to be born anew. Secondly, we need to recognize that not every minister is suited to do this work, so training ministers and lay-leaders is a must; as well as real discernment among ministers interested in doing this work. By beginning new churches within old he is suggesting that new styles of worship and small groups can accomplish this action. I also believe that creating satellite congregations is another way to deal with beginning a church within a church. Giving congregations who have been innovative grants to take next steps and holding them up as models is a relatively easy way to help create an atmosphere of transformation. His last item in this list is more difficult for us, he suggests that the mainline denominations remain among the largest non-profit systems in this country and have the ability to leverage deals on equipment or by using their investments. I believe that these suggestions about how to work with existing congregations, along with the ten point strategy offer us some useful guides as we develop a vision for the growth of Unitarian Universalism.

Another interesting observation that Compton made that I believe speaks to our predicament is the following: "I contend that each of these historic infusions of large numbers of new churches into the ranks of many older churches caused a systemic change in the outlook and commitment of the conference leadership…" (102) In other words, the infusion of new congregations with new ways of doing things impacted the whole system. Compton speaks to this as positive thing if the congregations do indeed bring the perspectives mentioned above, but it stands to reason that such an influx brings other possibilities. If we look at this historically there are two periods in the post World War II era where the AUA and the UUA had a significant amount of new congregations. The first was the Fellowship movement which brought a large influx of congregations from the late 40s through the late 70s. The second was the Extension program of the 1980s and 90s. I would suggest that an analysis of the Fellowship movement would show it did bring in many new members and congregations but that the anti-authority attitude and style that became predominant within these congregations in the long run contributed to stagnation, not sustained growth. The Extension Ministry Program tried to get beyond the anti-authority stance by supporting congregations who wanted ministers. The results of this program have been mixed, some congregations were not ready for ministry, the majority hit the 150 member ceiling, a handful moved into midsize. Of course we might see more of these congregations grow, we probably need to give them another ten years to see the total impact. Yet, I believe that the effort to begin full-service congregations has had a positive impact on our system as I see more and more congregations seeking even part-time ministers. When I arrived in the PSWD in 1984 there were ministers in 25 congregations, today there are ministers in 44 congregations, with roughly the same number of congregations over all. On the other hand, it has been long enough for more in depth analysis of the Fellowships and I believe that the ongoing difficulty we have with a shared vision of a growing UUism is in part attributable to the attitudes prevalent in Unitarian Universalism. I do not want to beat up on the Fellowships in this paper, but I do think we need to understand the culture of our congregations and thus I do believe we need to take into consideration the impact that the attitude of extreme independence and anti-authority has had in our congregations as we develop support for transformative congregations. We need to be aware of the culture within our congregations, as well as regions and the UUA and develop programs that speak to where they are, even as we nudge them into the future. This will not work unless we move our congregations beyond a consumer mentality where they expect to get the approximation of services for what they pay into the system. We must create a vision of necessity for us to work together to serve Unitarian Universalism, to support sustainable growth that will ensure that there will be a significant Unitarian Universalist movement for my grandson.


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