Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
Photo © summerbl4ck (Flickr)
  • Is your congregation’s attendance flat or declining?
  • Are the results from your stewardship campaign disappointing?
  • Are you dipping into an endowment to help cover your operating expenses?
  • Are you thinking about cutting the budget by reducing the working hours of your program staff (e.g. minister, religious educator, music director, membership coordinator)?
  • Are the same leaders and volunteers doing everything that they have been doing for years, perhaps even decades?

These are all signs of a congregation in decline.

There are many forces at play for today’s congregations, many of them outside of the control of congregational leaders.

  1. Fewer people belong to a church. In fact, fewer people feel the need to claim any particular faith tradition.
    The changing context of religion in America has been well-documented by the Pew Forum and other research agencies.
  2. The demographic bubble of the Baby Boomers is not bursting, but it is deflating slowly.
    Boomers are retiring in droves and have more time to volunteer, so they may not be making room for or accommodating the needs of the younger generations. Boomers are moving into a different financial phase of life.
  3. There are not many Gen Xers in our congregations.
    This is partly because there were fewer babies born between 1960 and 1980. When Xers did show up to church, they often got frustrated when the church seemed stuck in old habits. Xers had learned to be adaptable to survive in a contracting economy but those skills weren’t always welcome in our congregations. And that contracting economy has left Xers with more debt and lower wages so they are often not able to give at the levels that the retiring Boomers have been giving.

The Good News

The message that Unitarian Universalism offers is attractive to emerging adults and to those who have found the faith of their childhood hypocritical or just stale. We also have a lot of other UU congregations and leaders who are already imagining or experimenting with ways to renew existing congregations or to plant new faith communities. We have congregations who have grown in spite of the changing context.

What to do:

Although it may be tempting for leaders to go for the technical fixes (like reducing staff hours), the real challenge is adaptive, calling for the church as a whole to struggle with a process of renewal so that it can “give birth” to a new iteration of itself.

  • Start with some deep group spiritual discernment.
    What is your congregation’s “center?” What is your vision of the “Beloved Community?” What are you called to do in the world? How are you in covenant with one another and with the expanse of our interconnectedness with the universe?
  • Practice detachment when it comes to outcomes
    Find a way to ground yourselves during the process so that you make room both for the synergy and surprising possibilities of renewal and for the prospect that the congregation has run its course and the conversation should turn to ending well and leaving a legacy.
  • Find the courage to “Experi-fail” and make it a new part of your congregational culture
    Adaptive challenges require a lot of experiments and learning opportunities for the community as a whole.
  • Become a “learning community
    Learn more about the changing context and what is working for growing congregations. Look to nearby congregations for ideas, possible partnerships or sharing of resources.  Your UUA Regional staff can help connect you, if you don’t already have those relationships.

-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, UUA Central East Region

Resources:

Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism

Partner and Multisite Congregations

Love Reaches Out resources

UUA Resources on Mission

UU Leadership Institute

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.