Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Whither/wither Unitarianism?

I am by nature a very optimistic person - sometimes absurdly so. At the moment though, I am deeply pessimistic about something that matters a great deal to me: the future of the Unitarian movement in Britain.

It is not Unitarianism itself that is the problem. Unitarianism has a tremendous gift to give to our society. It is the one faith I know of where people can be supported in their spiritual lives by a caring, committed community and yet still be free to follow their own path - wherever it may lead. It is the right faith for a pluralist, multicultural society. I know this to be true. I have seen people come to my congregation seeking what we have to give and I have seen the extraordinary growth there.

But, despite my usual readiness to ignore the obstacles and go full speed ahead, I can find little reason for hope that the kind of turn-around that happened in my congregation will happen in many others. There are two reasons for my pessimism. The first is related to attitude and the second to professional spiritual leadership in our congregations.

Attitude is essential, of course. To the extent that congregations wish to grow only for their own benefit, they will fail. Consistent, sustainable, and meaningful growth can come only out of a faithful desire to serve others and a deep readiness to give Unitarianism away to the future. [I talked about this in a recent presentation to the Midlands Unitarian Association's AGM.]  Until we can understand our mission as calling us to give Unitarianism away, we will not progress.

But even if this great shift should come to pass across our movement's congregations, it would not be enough. Most of our congregations are tiny. They are elderly. They have no professional spiritual leadership. To attract members in significant numbers, these congregations would need to be able to offer high quality programming that is relevant to their context. Without excellent professional leadership, there almost no chance that this will happen.

What we need is for superb ministers to appear as if by magical in the pulpits of each of these congregations and for the small groups of existing members to embrace change and fling open their doors to the world.  This magic will not happen. The reality is that many, if not most British congregations will have to shut their doors for good as their existing members become increasingly unable to keep things running.

But part of this dream is possible. How? We would need quite a bit of money to support additional ministers until the congregations could grow enough to become self-sustaining. Could that money be found? I believe that it could. I believe that if we united around this one essential objective rather than spreading our energies, we could do it. If a focused, coherent, compelling plan were brought forward, people would support it financially.

What about the number of ministers needed? There are not enough in the UK, but  ministers could come from the US if British Unitarian congregations would welcome them. [There has been a considerable discussion on the potential challenges of bringing US ministers to Britain in the comments to a previous post.]

Uniting around the goal of getting qualified ministry into many more of our congregations would not, I am sorry to say, save all our congregations. But it would leave a number of vibrant congregations dotted around the country from which a new generation of Unitarianism could grow. That seems to me a dream worth working for.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The elders and the rock band

At the 27 March AGM of the Midlands Unitarian Association [mentioned previously] I talked about how congregations need to change to create communities that are relevant to their context and to the people they hope to attract. Being faithful Unitarians, I said, is incompatible with the selfishness of keeping our communities to ourselves. As a religion, we are about generosity and service - not about preservation of what we have and tending only to ourselves.

That message seemed to get across. And the very difficult side of the commandment to 'give away' our congregations and our movement emerged - at least in the minds of some participants. One member of the audience - with a resigned tone in her voice - asked "do we have to have music we don't like when 'they' haven't even arrived yet?"

This question gets right to the heart of what many of our British Unitarian congregations are facing. They are small groups of older people who join together for a very traditional worship service led by paid visiting preachers. They have no minister. Sometimes, they have no accompanist and sing hymns along with a CD. The possibility of attracting and retaining new people other than those few with an affinity for small groups of older people and very traditional worship services seems vanishingly small.

The question posed to me makes the situation very real. Imagine 12 people - middle aged and older - sitting in their sweet old chapel together with a rock band belting out contemporary music. Imagine the cappuccinos being brewed, only to be poured out by this group of tea-drinkers. And all of this in anticipation that some young adult might just wander in that day.

Clearly, the way forward is more complicated and must be quite a bit more nuanced.

The first and biggest step is and must be readiness. A congregation that commits itself to readiness for change in response to the people who will arrive has overcome the largest obstacle there is. Yes, that readiness will be tested and tested again, but a true, faithful, readiness will make all the difference in the world.

Don't get the drum set and the electric guitar just yet!

The two essential steps after readiness are 1) directing your outreach efforts and 2) honesty to newcomers.

Do the work of learning about and understanding your congregation's context - the people within a reasonable distance of your location who might be attracted to the inclusive, accepting, saving message of Unitarianism. Choose the particular group you will try to attract and adjust every bit of your public communication to speak in their language. (This is described in the growth scheme posted previously.) Your outreach will be much more effective if it is directed in this way.

When the group you've targeted begins arriving - be it young adults, disenchanted CofE members, isolated pagans, empty-nesters, the recently-retired-and-looking-for-meaning, or any of a number of other cohorts likely future Unitarians - they are going to notice who you are today. Even if the rock band is blasting out the right tunes, those young adults will not fail to observe that the congregation consists of twelve people the age of their grandparents. The only possible approach is honesty. If you have truly done the work to reach readiness, then you can honestly and authentically say "Welcome! We have been waiting for you. We have been the guardians of a beautiful healing and saving tradition. We are ready to give it away to the world and we are ready to join with you to create the Unitarianism of tomorrow. We are ready to change. Will you work with us?"

OK, so you don't say exactly that the first time because they will think you are a bit mad and never darken your doorway again...  but the idea is to convey the readiness that is in your heart. Most newcomers arrive to find a very different kind of 'welcome' - a very clear  "don't touch anything sonny because this is how we like it and this is how it's going to stay!" message.

Readiness is hard. It means opening ourselves up to change and loss of what we know in exchange for a future that is deeply uncertain. And yet, this is why we're here. May the spirit of love be in the hearts and minds of us all and may it help us to be ready.

(And...  earplugs can come in handy if you do get the rock band...)

Friday, 2 April 2010

Managing your minister

How do you manage your minister?

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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?
Thanks again to the MUA for giving me the opportunity to speak to them and for their open-minded reception!  There is faith in the Midlands!