Friday, 3 June 2011

Top ten tips for congregations that don't like change

Judging from the behaviour of congregations of many faiths here in the UK and elsewhere, there is a strong desire to avoid growth and vitality. As you know, I am ever obliging, so I want to offer such congregations a few tips to really make sure they are headed quickly to their goal of irrelevance and a slow conversion to historic relic status...

  1. Be sure to consider the tastes and needs only of existing members when planning
  2. Subject any new idea to tremendous scrutiny and give all members a veto - let old ways and programmes continue indefinitely
  3. Have more committees than you can possibly manage and make sure they talk a lot and do little - people just love committee work
  4. Let existing members be as disruptive as they like, but criticize newcomers for the slightest foibles
  5. All concerns and disagreements should be addressed by talking behind peoples' backs
  6. It is always a bad idea to spend any accumulated funds - money is for saving
  7. Don't ask members to give generously to the congregations
  8. Make sure you keep expectations of commitment to the congregation as low as possible
  9. Hide the building as best you can and keep things in poor repair - you want to make it look like it went out of business years ago. "The smell doesn't bother us, why should it bother anyone else?"
  10. If new people turn up, make it clear to them that they will be considered "new" for at least five years and will be welcome to have a say in "how we do things here" after ten, but they will always be considered new if they are not just like "us"


  1. Well done, sir. Unfortunately, many organizations are run like this, not just congregations. It is the fast road to irrelevance. This is sage advice to any congregation and should be heeded by all who do not want to fade into oblivion.

  2. Ha! Very good - could be applied to so many groups generally, don't you think?

  3. Can I have your permission to print this in our church newsletter? This speaks to our congregation.

  4. Trudy - of course you can! I would be honored.

  5. 11. Deny that any of Points 1–10 apply to your congregation.

  6. Henry - you've got that nailed!! Congregations that hate change are always ready to come up with reasons to claim they're doing everything right.

  7. Tragi-comedy: the points are exaggerated for comic effort but there's more than a ring of truth behind them!

    (I recently tried to join a church; the vestry and congregation were torn almost 50-50 as to whether they wanted to upgrade to a newer liturgy, involving separate meetings after the bishop's decision for go-aheaders and nae-sayers and some horrible kind of compromise; individually all wonderfully welcoming but their beliefs were amongst the worst kind of "traditionalist"/conservative/introspective I've encountered, which eventually pushed me away.)

  8. This is funny, and shows a ready wit. I fear, though, that it violates much said in your earlier, and excellent, post, 'A Unitarian Ten Commandments'.

    Lets go forward in joy, leading from ahead when we can, and eschew criticism from behind when we can't.

  9. It's also an issue of culture -- the American culture is one of the most risk-taking in the world. It's at the extreme edge of the global scale.
    Although in a comparison of about 50 cultures that have been studied on this dimension, the UK culture is more risk-taking than about 75% of other world cultures are, compared to the American approach to risk, change, experimentation, daring, going-out-on-a-limb, the Brits can seem very risk-averse.
    There is a huge focus in the UK on "precedence" -- if something has been done before, that's fine with everyone, but if it hasn't been done before or hasn't come up before, even if it's the most sensible, reasonable, win/win thing imaginable, many Brits will instinctively say "no" to it, push the decision up to another level in the hierarchy, or give it to a committee (often so that it can be quietly discarded).
    After 12 years here, I am resigned to the UK's fondness for tradition, allergy to new ideas, avoidance of seizing the day, suspicion of anyone who seems too gung-ho and forward-looking, and comfort with a slow, "decent", decline and decay of structures (physical and figurative) and processes. It is kind of sweet, especially when it's not impinging on one's own life! But when it does affect one's life or thwart wonderful improvements and new paths, it can be very frustrating.
    It's an advantage sometimes to be an American in the UK -- an American who is seen as shy and not particularly forthright or daring in the US can seem off-the-scale entrepreneurial and courageous here. It helps, I think, career-wise, if not socially....
    ...because your last point is the way Brits deal with all new people - it's not just congregations, it's workplaces, friend groups, neighbourhoods, etc. I've simply given up on this score -- I know now that I'll always be "the new person" and an outsider here. [They are "coconuts" rather than "peaches" in cross-cultural training parlance!]