How many of our congregations offer programming that isn’t working, or has only a very small group of the “usual suspects” participating?  In a recent article in The Christian Century, LeeAnne Watkins.  Titled This Just Isn’t Working: When PeopleDon’t Show Up,  the article describes how her congregation has tried different ways of offering programming:

Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church. And every single time I’ve been disappointed. What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them. I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them. Great—as if what people really need is more shame about the status of their spiritual lives.

Finally, she realized that–instead of resenting the people she was serving–she needed to be honest with herself about the changing context of congregational life.  As much as she was attached to what her vision of programming should look like, the reality was that–in her church community–mid-week activities had gone the way of the dinosaur. In an earlier post I talked about how leaders need to pay attention to their mental models, and this is a great example.

Identifying and engaging with our mental models is only half of the challenge.  The other half is responding.

These challenges are adaptive challenges, that is, they are challenges that don’t have technical fixes.  (Ronad Heifetz explains the difference in the video below.) One part of an adaptive strategy is designing low-risk, high-learning experiments. If people aren’t showing up in the building during the week, perhaps they might be interested in a webinar format where they can participate from home.  Maybe they would like to have a discussion in a closed Facebook group.  Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.  And even when something does work, be prepared for the reality that it may stop working in a few years.

Note: Tandi Rogers talks about why the UUA “walked away” from the Breakthrough Congregation program in this blog post.

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.