Tuesday, 9 March 2010

In praise of bigness

Vision matters. It is as simple as the fact that we can't get anywhere unless we have some idea where we want to go. Even though our destination will very likely end up different from the end we had envisioned, it still takes the vision to get us there!

I have a vision for my congregation. While the congregation has begun to cast a vision as a community, that work has, thus far, been at an abstract level - something like the vision for a car being 'fast' rather than 'a turbo-charged V8 so it can do 0 to 60 in 1.2 seconds.'  The elaboration of these high level visions needs to happen. In the meantime, my own vision continues to come gradually into focus.

The congregation is growing fast. We added 22 new members over the past year on top of a membership of 60-70. There is always turnover and we lost six people in the same time period. [don't worry - they're not actually lost, just moved on or away]  Thus, we grew by about 24% this year. It was similar the year before and the year before that.

If we continue on at this rate of growth, we could be 200 members in four years.

[Readers in the US: please note that everything in British Unitarianism is much smaller than you'd expect. You can generally divide US numbers by 10 to get a good estimate. About 5% of the population overall attends church regularly. Unitarian congregations average 15 members. Annual meetings include about 400 people. The largest Unitarian congregation in England has fewer than two hundred members.]

Is this growth a good thing? I think it's fantastic. I think so first because my sense of mission tells me that it is our moral responsibility to welcome people into a community that we have found so transformative. [Thanks to Peter Morales for the framing around an ethical obligation.] Thus, the fact that we are growing means we are doing the work we should be doing to help others and help the world.

I think it's wonderful also because of my vision for the congregation. My vision involves bigness - big bigness even! Why?

A Unitarian congregation is a very different beast from any other. Our ethos is to gather together people with very different viewpoints and perspectives - all under the same roof - and we believe that the intimate encounter with difference helps us all to grow in perspective, awareness, wisdom, and openness. We also recognize that different people can and probably should take different paths toward wholeness and meaning. What helps one grow more connected, centred, and deeply human is not necessarily right for another.

It takes big numbers to offer an environment with the variety of perspectives, influences, and experiences that can support a real diversity of paths. A very small congregation is able to provide very little more than Sunday services and the occasional social gathering. The truth is that - however good a preacher you've got - it is not possible to provide spiritual experiences in that setting that are both deep and broad. Thus, the small congregation has to choose between deep but narrow and broad but shallow - not a particularly appealing choice for a religious movement with aims such as ours.

With increasing numbers, we begin to be able to offer more programming and we naturally have the likelihood of including more diversity in their membership. We can begin to offer depth in more directions and support people along individual paths in a way that worship services simply can not do.

My vision is of a congregation big enough and diverse enough to offer breadth and depth. In this vision congregation, each person is introduced in worship and through discussion with others to a very broad array of perspectives. It is then immediately possible to drop into a wide variety of groups that are actively engaged in depth exploration in many different traditions, practices, and ways of being.

I imagine ten to twenty spirituality groups taking place at any one time. They may explore traditional and non-traditional paths. Some will tend more toward instruction and others more toward exploration. Some will be short-term and others will be ongoing established groups.  All will involve mutual support and the opportunity for authentic connection. Some people may remain in one group for many years as they settle into a path or practice that seems right for them. Others may move between groups more rapidly, as they continue to explore and also to change as their own needs change.

How big is big? I imagine that with 500 members [I hear gasps on this side of the Atlantic and yawns on the other], the potential is there to have depth in a very broad range of directions and approaches.

Of course, beyond the breadth and depth opportunities, such numbers bring many other blessings. A congregation of this size can easily support substantial programmes for children and youth, it can sustain support groups for a wide variety of needs, can have significant staff to specialize in different areas, can mount meaningful social action and social justice efforts, and can be a very significant voice for inclusiveness and justice in the larger community.

Yes, this vision is completely out of scale with what is currently happening in British Unitarianism. But, then again, everything that my congregation has done has gone dramatically against the flow...  That's how we like it!


  1. Great stuff Andy, very inspiring.

  2. Writing from the U.S. -- larger Unitarian and Universalist churches aren't endemic here, either. So you go and grow and lean on those who support growth when the inevitable sniping comes.

  3. It's already been said, but I'll say it again - great stuff Andy, very inspiring!

  4. You have really made the case for becoming a larger congregation (or at least large by British standards).

    There is some value in being a small community, and it must be said that some people will thrive better in it. Yet as you explain, being part of (or at least having access to) a larger congregation offers greater opportunities for spiritual growth, doing so with both greater breadth and depth.

  5. I think it's possible to have smaller groups within the larger group, provided these don't turn into cliques.

  6. Not only possible, Yewtree, but essential if a larger congregation is going to provide opportunities for spiritual support and intimacy. This is a part of standard thinking about congregational structure as it changes with size. See for example this online article from a former Alban Institute consultant.

  7. There's also an interesting article by Carl McColman on setting up a contemplative curriculum (Carl is a Catholic who used to be a Pagan, & he's interfaith-friendly). His idea is Christ-focused, but such a group wouldn't have to be. There are some useful thoughts on church for introverts here.

    Regarding shifts in size, Isaac Bonewits' book on ritual talks about doing rituals with very different-sized groups. I also have a lot of experience & ideas in this area, having done small-group rituals for 4 or 5 and large participatory rituals for groups of 30 or 40 - very different beasts.

    I also think that most people need 3 levels of spiritual practice: individual, small group, and community. The community level is mostly lacking in Wicca, which is one of several reasons why I went looking for a spiritual community.

    That article by the Alban Institute consultant is interesting, thanks.

  8. I have been attending a Unitarian congregation recently in Pasadena, CA that is somewhere from 600 to 800 members. Previously I attended a congregation that was close to 200 in Fullerton, CA. The change was not due to the size, but because I spend time with my fiancee near Pasadena. However, I do notice the size helps to get higher quality choir plus more volunteers. There are definite benefits. Check out my blog on Unitarianism at http://raphe1969.blogspot.com/2010/03/unitarianism-is-good-enough-for-me.html