I was sure that this year our growth would finally slow down. A month ago, it looked like it would, but a late swell of new members meant that we grew faster than ever before! Four and a half years ago, there were thirty-five members. This year, we are welcoming twenty-eight new members. After adding in the new members and removing a few inactive members from the roles - we have decisively broken the one-hundred barrier and reached 106 members. This is a congregation where - when my predecessor began some ten years ago - the total membership was about one dozen.
Each year, as we grew, we have heard comments from outside the congregation that the growth can not and will not continue. We have heard that our success is simply due to being in a good location. And most sadly, we have heard that with growth like that, we must not be 'authentic Unitarians.' Fortunately, that latter view comes from a small minority of very discouraged people.
Well, the growth has certainly continued. If I'm not mistaken, we are now the second largest Unitarian congregation in England as measured by membership.
Why have we grown? And why is our membership so young (we are at least half young adults, despite the minister being a decidedly middle-aged adult!)
As always, explaining congregational growth is extremely difficult - it is the result of so many factors. Some are the things we're doing right and others are simply the traps we've managed not to fall into.
Here are the factors I think explain our growth:
- Our services are not bad... They could be a whole lot better (and they will be!) but they are good enough not to repel visitors!
- We handle conflict reasonably well - people don't sense a lot of anger or hostility when they come in
- We are visible in the world - with signs, articles in the local paper, our web site, Twitter, Facebook, etc. we make sure that people can find us easily.
- We know what we're here for. My predecessor laid the ground work and a clear mission has emerged of a justice-seeking congregation that welcomes, accepts, loves, and thereby heals.
- We are not afraid. We've taken controversial stands on social justice issues and let the chips fall as they will.
- We have good lay leadership. Our committee members and other volunteers understand our mission and put that ahead of their personal preferences.
- We have focused on the people who need Unitarianism and are not yet among us. We strive to be conscious of their interests, tastes, needs, and ways of thinking. We have reached out to them with programming that addresses their life issues and interests.
- We set goals and then keep our eyes on them and work to meet them.
- Continuous improvement - we never cease to ask how we could be doing something better
- We are not afraid to fail - we fail often and know that this is the cost of trying new things. Experimentation is good!
This is the best I can do at this point in time. I hope it is helpful to others.
I would just ask us all to remember that it is not only religiously conservative congregations that can grow. If we reach out to the millions who share the open-minded, open-hearted, justice-seeking perspective of Unitarianism, we will experience dramatic growth, we will transform lives, and we will make a better, more tolerant, more justice, more peaceful, and more loving world.