Sabbatical Blog

...chronicling some of my projects and learnings during this time apart from parish ministry

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Starting Small Churches to Thrive

One of the axioms of church-size theory (the idea that churches of different sizes are not simply larger and larger versions of the same "animal" but are completely different "critters" with very different characteristics) is that you can't kill a small church. (small being fewer than 50 adults and children present on an average Sunday.) Small churches, like the cats they are often compared to, seem to have nine lives. They also have an independent streak, and usually appear aloof to people who don't know them. But even the largest cat only gets so big; and it is actually quite rare for a cat to change itself into a dog...or even want to. So, while our "cat" Fellowships usually stay alive for many, many years, very few of them are the thriving, vibrant religious communities that the towns they reside in need them to be, and often they are not the thriving, vibrant religious communities that their own members wish they were.

The many small congregations in our movement, stated in hope and promise, which have never managed to fulfill their potential in spite of all the work and good intentions of their members, has caused the UUA to stop supporting the formation of small groups and put its efforts into a vision of starting large churches which start with 300 of so people, skipping "cat" and "dog" and going straight to "Farm". Instead of independent cats which will never get over 20 pounds, the UUA wants to start a small farm, by procuring enough land, hiring a farmer, and supplying the plow. The first such farm (Pathways Church in the Dallas area) is struggling, but farms are not developed overnight, so we'll see. The second such farm will have its first season next year. (Philadelphia).

I applaud the vision and courage of the people working on those projects, but none apply to New Mexico, where I am, where there's only one even medium sized city, which already has a large church. So that keeps me wondering how to help groups start in small towns that won't fall into the "cat church" syndromes. Here's my idea. Instead of plunking a little cat out in SmallTownville, how about we try puppies? Puppies take a lot of care at first and a good bit of looking after for the first year (7 years) of their life, but at the end of that time, they are not cats. They are dogs. And dog churches (usually called collies by the inventor of this metaphor, Lyle Schaller) are much more likely to be noticed, attractive, and therefore healthy and serving in their communities. I've been involved in two new church starts in my career; one in a small town in South Carolina (which failed within the year, although I note that there's a church there 20 years later), and a church in suburban Albuquerque, which entered the Extension Program right away and has had a minister and a building for some years, but has failed to thrive in its booming neighborhood. In both cases, the groups were independent from the get go (good training for cat-hood) The "help" supplied by the "mother church" was negligible in one case and confined to money and a bit of moral support in the other case.

What would the puppy model be like, let's say, in the growing rural towns east of Albuquerque? The group would begin as a subset of the mother church (embryo stage?), a neighborhood social group, and a covenant group. If this group wanted to proceed further, they would begin to offer Sunday programming, in a public place, led by a trained worship leader and using a video feed from Mother Church for the sermon. These folks would continue to be members of Mother church, and the expenses of rental fees etc. would be absorbed by the church budget. (They would be a part of Mother Church's pledge drive, too, thus bypassing one of the most difficult "cat" problems which is that too many cats like to live on the cheap.) Ministerial services would be available to these folks when problems arose, when their was a death in the congregation, and for other rites of passage. Mother Church's RE director would invite their RE teachers to trainings, supply materials, and help them troubleshoot their programs for children. Covenant Group leaders would use the same materials as were used in Mother Church. Freed of having to resort to secular speakers to fill the pulpit, and regularly hearing UU sermons, these groups will be more likely to remain religious communities. As the growing puppy attracted new members to their site, those members would become members of the Mother Church. There might be some cases where the puppy graduated to adult dog status and went off on its own, but by that time it would be a sturdy group, large enough to own land and have its own professional leadership. Let's just say, in the best cases, 7 years. And in many cases, the puppy grows up to be such a small dog that it remains under the protection of Mother Church by choice...perhaps one of the "pack" of UU congregations which run together in a state like New Mexico, all (including Mother church) stronger, more visible, and better serving together than they could ever be apart.

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