UU Growth Undergoes Dramatic Shift

I grew up in probably the most anti-growth congregation. Whenever more members would come, crowding our small sanctuary, bursting our busy RE program, taking every last coffee mug off the trays in Forest Hall, folks would shrug, and say that we don’t care about growth. Efforts at being intentional about growth encountered serious resistance. Accusations of evangelizing, breaking with our tradition, and just being downright “evil”, would ensue, and nothing would happen.

I experienced these sentiments at the district level, and continentally. I experienced it within YRUU, C*UUYAN, and among the congregational leaders I interacted with as a congregational board member for 3 years. It took me years to develop a pro-growth analysis, and part of it was directly related to my anti-racism training. But I have to applaud the administration of Bill Sinkford for really taking the lid of the growth debate. It sure doesn’t seem like a debate anymore!

I’ve loved the high profiling of growing congregations, the use of stories, and the efforts at supporting innovative ministries and ministers in their organizing and growth efforts. I don’t think it is perfect, and I’ll save my criticisms for a UUA survey for the time being, but there has clearly been a dramatic cultural shift in the mindset of many UU’s. It makes me think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”, a great read (check it out in Google Reader). A serious amount of cash has been infused into these efforts, and I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Seeds have been planted that will have influence in years to come.

I talk with UU’s who don’t cringe at the idea of planning for growth, at collaborating with area congregations, at taking to heart the pastoral and ministerial needs of newcomers as well as old-timers. There are so many issues that growing will bring up, not just diversity issues, but theological issues. One of my favorite ministers from my youth days, Rev. Barbara ten Wells, wrote a great UU World article that we should keep at heart as we grow, A Stranger In My Own Hometown (2006).

Her response to why so few young UU’s stay UU as adults:

The main reason, I believe, is this: The primary metaphor that UU adults use to describe our faith is one of exodus. We hear story after story of people who left the church they were brought up in. Too often lifelong Unitarian Universalists are left out of the story of our religion. We are made to feel that if we lack an experience of exile, we are not truly UU.

As we grow, may we keep this in mind. It is something that influenced me greatly in my last year of young adult and campus ministry work.

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2 responses to “UU Growth Undergoes Dramatic Shift

  1. Nice thoughts, Joseph. I came into the ministry when things were just starting to shift in favor of evangelism and growth, and I was also a generation of ministers who were casualties of our association’s first tentative efforts to nurture growing congregations. What I think I learned most by that experience is how easy it is to underestimate the long time and ongoing effort it takes to create and sustain growth. Too many of our projects have involved making a short-term financial or staffing investment, and being surprised that a permanent attitude for growth didn’t emerge. It may even take more than a generation to instill that kind of enthusiasm into a congregation’s makeup, and it would be a real institutional commitment to stand behind that kind of long process. I think we’re learning, but it hasn’t been without its costs.

  2. Scott McNeill

    Ya know, in talking with congregations about the difficulty of doing young adult ministry or campus ministry, I’ve had people actually say, “They should leave if they grew up UUs – it’s the only way to know what they really believe.” I think if we did a better job of creating an identity of being a UU, then we wouldn’t need to force the exile behavior. What would it mean to have UUs grow up as UUs and know that their faith was real and solid instead of saying, “Go and try something else and if you don’t like it, come back.”

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