Trick question... "manage" is the wrong word.
I gave a presentation at the Midland Unitarian Association's AGM a week ago in Birmingham. [Kudos to the MUA leadership! They run a good meeting (even with building alarm bells ringing), they are doing a great job running the district, and they put on a brilliant spread for lunch!]
I talked about congregational growth [of course]. I talked about "letting go." (The whole slide set from the presentation is available online here)
Growing our congregations is not about getting more people like us to preserve what we have now and make it a little bit bigger with a little bit more money. Growing is about letting go of our grip on Unitarianism and the way it is today. This is a religion that was built to change and built to be in motion, so any notion of 'preservation' is not only ineffective, it is frankly un-Unitarian!
I wasn't talking about tactics but about something much harder - the fact that healthy, authentic, robust, faithful growth can really only happen when we are prepared to give our congregations and our entire movement away! Growth requires letting go. Grasping and clinging on to what we have today keeps it small and guarantees its decline.
There can be no message harder to hear than to let go of what you love. [I remember hearing that old line about "if you love something, let it go..." when I was a kid. I though it was ridiculous then! I'm not sure I buy it entirely now!!] Very few of us came to a congregation with giving on our minds. We were looking for something to sustain and nurture us. When we found it, we were sure that we didn't want it to change dramatically. To their great credit, the MUA crowd seemed to accept what I was saying.
[Of course, as I said to a someone looking for donations in the street the other day using my most American voice, "I don't speak British." It may be that they completely disagreed and the nodding and positive feedback was simply 'British' for what Americans would phrase as "get out of town now or we'll kill you." I checked in the mirror for knives sticking out of my back and there were none... so I remain hopeful.]
In my presentation, I suggested two ways we needed to let go. The first is to "them" - the people who seem 'different' and who will change Unitarianism if we let them. Let them! They are the future and even if we don't like it any more than the generation before us liked what we did to Unitarianism, letting go is what a faithful Unitarian, a faithful congregation, and a faithful movement does.
It was the second type of letting go where I felt myself get nervous. I was talking about letting go to leadership. While I was including all qualified and capable leaders in "leadership," I realized as I was saying it that I was certainly talking about ministers - of which I am one. I knew that in an audience that was almost exclusively non-ministers - many of whom have had bad experiences with ministers - that what I was saying could seem self-serving.
"How do you work with a solicitor, a doctor, a chef, a carpenter, or an accountant?" I asked. Do you tell a solicitor what words to use and what legal precedents to cite? Do you tell a doctor what diagnosis to reach and what treatment to offer? Do you tell the carpenter what kind of screws and glue to use and what saw to cut with?
The way you work with these professionals is collaboration. You do what you do best - which is say how you feel and the desired outcome. You let them - the expert - determine how to get there. It has to be the same with ministers.
And, I said, if you don't like the way your legal case is going, or your health is not improving, or your meal doesn't tasted good, or your bookcase is not shaping up in the way you asked, and if your feedback doesn't get what you want from these professionals, what do you do? You fire them. Yes, that's what I said... Give your minister the freedom to act as he or she sees fit to pursue the vision that the vision at which the congregation has faithfully arrived. Trust that they are the professional. If they don't do it - if they can't do it - get a new minister.
This is not obvious to everyone. Committee members often don't know how to work with ministers. They may take their cue from the world of management and supervision where they see themselves as 'the boss' and the minister is the 'employee.' This not only makes a mockery of our tradition - it is not only demeaning to a committed capable minister - it is just plain ineffective. I am convinced that many of our congregations are in such bad shape because they want to treat a ministers like an employees and manage them, rather than treat them like professionals and collaborate.
And then came the comment from the audience that threw me... I wasn't prepared and I didn't have a good response. The comment was essentially, "there aren't enough good ministers." What it meant was that we can't fire a bad minister because we can't get a better one!
There are not enough British Unitarian ministers at all, and not all of us are up to the challenge of taking a dying congregation and helping it become a growing thriving one.
I mumbled some sort of answer. It wasn't satisfactory.
I've been thinking about it. There is no answer that is politically palatable, so I'll just be my direct American self and say what I think. I offer two answers:
- If there is no adequate minister where you are, then import one. There are about 38 active non-retired British Unitarian ministers. There are about 1,000 American UU ministers. Yes, I know there is a cultural divide between the countries. There are vast cultural differences within the UK too. Would national origin really be an insurmountable obstacle for many congregations when their future hangs in the balance? I hope not. The immigration challenges are not a major issue! I'll be happy to explain about that to anyone who asks.
- Help your minister to become the minister you need. No minister knows everything. Most ministers trained in the British Unitarian system have not studied congregational growth. They have generally not spent much time working with a successful minister or with a growing congregation. The brevity and nature of their training leaves many important skills underdeveloped. If it's needed, insist on ongoing training for your minister. Arrange that training wherever the best training is available. It may be British Unitarian, but open your horizons to consider other British religious movements, secular training, and online training from other countries. Require continuing education. Give the minister the time to do this work. Pay the expenses. It is an investment in the future of your congregation and in your movement. We should be doing this for all ministers in any case. What serious profession does not have continuing education?