Follow-Up to Water Ceremony – Thanks to all of you who participated in this year’s Water Ceremony this past Sunday, particularly those who shared, in writing, words about where your own spirit is coming from. Wednesday night of this week, I meet with our Worship Arts team; we’ll make some decisions together about how best to share this info with the congregation. Stay tuned for more info.
Reporting Back on Findings (#1 of 4) – This past Saturday, I met with the board for its planning retreat. This included me sharing with them a summary of my initial findings, in meetings with approximately 55 individual staff and lay leaders of this church. And almost nothing I heard surprised me (with one exception, explained below.) Given…
– this congregation’s SIZE (membership between 275-290)
– its LOCATION (small, liberal city & state capital in a northwestern state)
– and its HISTORY (earlier: includes founding as fellowship, and long, successful tenure of Rev. Vaeni; recent: 21st century drop in church attendance, multiple changes in ministers in short time)
…the issues I see and hear you facing are precisely what one would expect from any congregation in your position. I say that, not to pigeonhole or dismiss your challenges, but to normalize them. There’s nothing wrong with you; you are responding to your circumstances in understandable ways.
That said, there was one surprise for me, and it’s a positive one. In fact, I mentioned it in a recent sermon, but there’s more to say about it. Overall, I saw four broad themes emerge from the particular observations I heard. I’ll address one each these next 3 weeks on this blog, and talk about the other one this coming Sunday from the pulpit. But as I mentioned a couple Sundays ago, the one thing that surprised me about OUUC is just how effectively you function at a higher level than I’d expect for a congregation of less than 300 members. Honestly, I’d expect OUUC’s level of programmatic and institutional effectiveness in a church closer to 400 in membership.
This relates to a distinction that I’m told is unpopular here at OUUC: the difference between a “pastoral” church and a “program” church. Perhaps it’s unpopular because you’ve heard people tell you things like, “If a congregation is your size, then it needs to function like a program church.” (“Your size” for a program church means an average total Sunday attendance of 150-400 people. That includes both services, and RE, combined.) My take on these terms is different; in fact, it’s the exact reverse of the quote above. My observations over the years are that if a congregation functions like a program church, then over time its average attendance will tend to fall out somewhere between 150-400. The structure does not follow the numbers; the numbers follow the structure.
What is the functioning of a program church? Primarily, people engage a program church through its ministry programs. Successful program churches are those that offer a large and diverse variety of strong, effective ministry programs that draw in a wide range of people. This is a struggle for many churches on the low end of the program church size range (like OUUC, with its approx. avg. Sun. attendance of around 200). But you have a large Adult Ed. program, strong children’s RE, well-liked music & choir, wide range of Faith in Action activities, small group ministry, dinners…I could go on. In short, you all have program church nailed.
Also, program churches have an infrastructure that supports these diverse offerings. They understand that, unlike the pastoral churches in which people engage more through a personal relationship with the pastor, and interpersonal dynamics become more influential than structured programs (and where attendance tends to fall out between 50-150), the pastor’s time in a program church requires a higher degree of attention to program oversight, and strong relationships are more likely to be found within particular programs. That does NOT mean there are no personal relationships with the pastor, no direct pastoral visits, etc. in a program church; of course, those still happen. But the overall emphasis shifts, so that pastor, board, and other leaders do what’s needed to make the programs successful. (This does suggest that, if a program church shifts gears, and starts functioning more like a pastoral church, attendance likely will drop over time to below 150. I’ve even seen it happen in one church. The process by which people left that church was painful for everyone.)
All this to say, I find it a real strength of OUUC that you function so effectively as a program church. It leaves you well suited to embrace more people into this congregation who need what our liberal religion of Unitarian Universalism has to offer. I look forward to discussing other findings with you over the next few weeks.
Rev. Eric Posa