Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Churches are not immortal

This is sort of obvious when you say it out loud:

Churches are not immortal.

Churches (I mean local congregations) do not live forever. Why would they? Nothing lasts forever.

And yet we often act and talk like churches should be immortal, and that if they die it is an unqualified disaster.

Of course a church, like a person, dying prematurely is a tragedy. But a church, like a person, dying after a good long life may just be a fact of life. Sad, most certainly, but also in the natural order of things. And we can respond to this death with sorrow but also with gratitude.

But how often do we deny this reality? How often do we assume that a church can live forever or that it should? How often do we think of church that is something somehow ancient and eternal? How often do we think our priority should be ensuring that churches live forever?

Sometimes churches can be saved. Sometimes not. They just die.

It's not actually death that should worry us. It's reproduction. It's birth.

Think about an endangered species, such as the panda. Scientists and conservationists are concerned about the continuing existence of this species. But are they spending millions of pounds investing in research that will make pandas immortal? Are they searching for the panda fountain of eternal youth? No, of course they're not. They're putting millions of pounds of effort into trying to make pandas breed.

And yet, denominations often put all their effort into trying to make old congregations live forever. When in fact the priority should be to make sure new congregations are born. If old congregations are dying, maybe that's OK, maybe it's just their time. Maybe some congregations live for 5 years, maybe some for 50 years, maybe some for 500 years. But they all die.

But what makes a religious movement continue? New birth. New congregations. This has always been the case, but maybe it is true even more so today because the pace of change in society is so rapid. The need for new congregations to engage with a radically new culture is even greater.

Once we accept the undeniable truth that churches are not immortal we can stop beating ourselves up so much when they die, and give our resources much more enthusiastically to new birth.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Where is leadership?

When we think about the state of the Unitarian community in Britain, as I have been doing in recent posts here, our great temptation is to come up with a list of all the things "they" should be doing.

What do we mean by "they"? We tend to mean the General Assembly structures, the Executive Committee and the small number of paid staff at Essex Hall.

I'm sure I have done this before now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have. It is completely unrealistic to expect that "they" can do something about the health, vitality and growth of our movement. I've realised this now.

That's the truth of the matter: they can't.

Let's be realistic about what the Unitarian General Assembly structures can do. They can:

  • Coordinate the training and qualification of ministers.
  • Provide a few other resources, and pieces of training, like hymn books, good governance, children's work training etc.
  • Provide some publicity by maintaining a website, and providing a spokesperson when required to respond to the press.
  • Organise the Annual Meetings.

And that folks, is about it. We give them neither the power, the legitimacy, the resources or the money for them to do anything more.

And then, entirely unfairly, blame them for the (lack of) health and vitality of our congregations.

You may notice that the above list of things has only an indirect effect on the health and vitality of congregations.

To be fair, sometimes "they" give the impression that they are capable of more. The Executive Committee aiming for 20% growth in five years gave the impression that they had the power to create that growth when in fact they had no power at all to do that. It would, perhaps, have been more meaningful for them to ask congregations to pro-actively sign up to this growth aim. Then the congregations committed to this could have come up with their plans to create this growth, and after five years we could have compared what worked, and what didn't work, and how this compared to congregations who didn't voluntarily sign up to the commitment.

But that's the point. It's congregations and the grassroots who need to do this work. Not the centralised "General Assembly" structures.

Take one of this year's motions at the Annual Meetings calling on the Executive Committee to set up a "programme" to foster community cohesion. No no no! This is not the responsibility of the Executive Committee. It is the responsibility of individual congregations to work in their communities and with local interfaith/community groups to do this work. It's work we should already be doing. But instead of doing it, we're asking our central structures to do a set up what will be (let's face it) a committee and and few pieces of paper, that will dissipate their energy from doing the work they actually are capable of doing.

If you want to do something about the health, vitality and mission of the Unitarian community, then you do it. Don't ask the centralised body to set up a committee on it. Just do it, just get on with it. It's your responsibility, not "theirs." If it's a good idea, it might get off the ground, and work. Or it might not. But YOU do it. Stop expecting others to do it for you. Stop passing the buck.

Here's the point. The General Assembly structures, committees, Executive Committee, Essex Hall do not represent the leadership of the Unitarian community.

Leadership means that which will create change. The General Assembly structures, in that sense, are not capable of leadership. I don't mean that as a criticism in any way. That's just the way it has been for a long time. The General Assembly structures manage our national movement. It's good stuff. It's important stuff. But it's management, not leadership.

I believe leadership will come from the grassroots. From good folks doing good practices and good congregations doing ministry well.

We have it backwards. We think the General Assembly structures lead and congregations follow. That's wrong. The congregations lead. The General Assembly structures will follow. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

What does the Unitarian future look like in Britain?

I'm reflecting on the declining (perhaps accelerating decline) of Unitarian congregations in Britain.

The numbers are not good. Just over 3000 Unitarians and a drop last year of 200. You don't have to be too skilled at maths to work out that a continuing decline at that rate would give us just 15 years to total extinction. Of course statistics don't work quite that neatly. But when I look around at the age profile of many of us, it really doesn't seem impossible to be looking at death in less than 20 years.

I've always said things will get worse before they get better. It maybe that this "getting worse" is really starting to bite in 2015. This may be the the beginning of the end.

Unitarians may find this quite depressing. In many ways it is. It may be particularly depressing when we think of all the good work that Unitarians do on many projects.

It may be disheartening, because in many ways I think Unitarianism is doing quite well. In many ways there's some excellent things happening. The General Assembly structures are in some ways doing very well. The 2020 project is getting off the ground. UK Unitarian TV is providing some important new ways to do publicity. Lots of good things like this.

But none of this stuff is leading, right now, to growth. And that's OK, because it was never going to. The Executive Committee plan for 20% growth in five years, which it has now failed to achieve, was incredibly naive. We are in a steep decline and our tinkering around the edges is not going to apply the breaks to that decline.

I'm sorry to say it, but huge decline is inevitable. It really is. Let's stop kidding ourselves and fully embrace this reality. This is what we need to be thinking.

The future will not look like the past.

That's the main point I want to get across. If we think the future will look anything like the past, or very much like the present, we are completely kidding ourselves. If we think we can operate as a "denomination" doing anything like the same thing we are (just about) doing today, then we are wrong. The numbers just don't add up. It's not going to be like that. We can't find a President. We can't find people to serve on the Executive. Why? We're running out of people. We're in decline. We can't hope to continue as we have been.

We need to fully embrace this reality: really fully live it in our bones. We are dying. Death is inevitable. Let's grieve for that. Let's cry our tears for that. Let's be angry and fearful and emotional. Anything other than denial.

So, then, what?

Well let me be totally clear. I accept the reality of death. But I also believe in resurrection.

Death and resurrection is the only path that is open to us.

Unitarianism as a denomination of 170 congregations is dying.

We're not going to be a denomination of 170 congregations. Let's just accept that. So our first task is to find a properly pastoral way to minister to the dying. Let's be with the grief and the dying of our churches. They were great places. They were places of important moments in people's lives. They hold huge emotional resonance for us. But their time of death has come, as it comes to all of us. Let's not keep them on life-support machines. Let's not keep them in pain or a half-existence. Let's cry and grieve and say our goodbyes, and pull the plug. Let's have our funerals. Let's have our burials. Let's have our wakes and eat sandwiches and quiche and talk about all the great times we had.

What will be left? Some will be left. Some congregations have grown in the last few years. Some have grown quite dramatically. There is a future for some basically traditional congregations. They will continue. They will have hymns and pews and sermons and organs. They will do things well. They will have excellent leadership.

But there won't be that many of them. Maybe a dozen, maybe twenty, maybe less. That's it. I used to advocate for prioritising the biggest cities where I imagined these congregations would exists: London, Birmingham, Manchester etc. However I'm now of the opinion that this is a bit idealised and the reality on the ground is more complicated. So I don't know where they will be. They may be rather unevenly distributed across the country. That's OK. It will happen where it will happen.

In addition to this there will be a variety of other kinds of Unitarian community. I'm not entirely sure what these will look like. That's sort of the point. It will be an experimental growing edge. We may have a variety of house-churches, networks, new monastic communities, retreat houses, other weird and wonderful things. Their relationship with the established traditional churches will be mutually enriching.

We will do much fewer things. We will pray, mainly, and remind ourselves of deeper spiritual things. We will be activitist and social justice advocates, but not out of a grand sense of our importance, but our of a humble ethic of service and love, and a practical approach to networking and effective working with others.

This is my vision, for where we're heading. I think we need to stop resisting this and fully embrace it, and we will find ourselves a lot more joyful and a lot less anxious.

I have, and I am.

Growing, declining and stable Unitarian congregations 2014

Following on from my last post I am having a closer look at what the Unitarian membership numbers reveal about the state of the denomination.

Comparing numbers to last year it looks like most congregations are either stable or slowly declining.

The biggest decline is London Hampstead that has gone from reporting 134 members to 79 members. The Annual Report suggests this is the result of a tidying-up exercise on behalf of that congregation, which is fair enough and needs to be done. But this does rather suggest maybe a change in numbers over many more years which is now only being reported this year.

This change means the combined congregations of Newington Green and Islington are now the biggest congregation with a combined membership of 87. However this is down from 92 last year, after seeing a period of extended growth.

I haven't analysed every single congregation, but those that stick out for me reporting a decline are Cambridge, Croydon, Dean Row, and Eccles.

But also there is a modest growth reported at Kendal, Aberdare, Bangor and Glasgow.

Norwich has seen significant growth growing 8 members from 46 to 54.

And Birmingham Hollywood has seen the biggest growth of 9 members from 59 to 68.

As always happens, an overall decline in numbers reveals a variety of congregations in various conditions. A majority are declining, some are holding their own. Others are growing.

What should our response be to this?

I'll be thinking about that in my next post.

Monday, February 23, 2015


It's that time if the year again, when I crunch some Unitarian numbers. The Annual Report has landed heavily on my doorstep and I turn right away to look at reporting church membership numbers, and the total number reported.

And guess what? Numbers are down again.

3,179 members of Unitarian congregations reported. This is down 205 people from 3,384 reported last year. A drop of 6%, which is a pretty big yearly drop.

Here, again, is how the numbers look over the last few years:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672
2011: 3560
2012: 3468
2013: 3384
2014: 3179

This gives a decade drop of 773 people or about 20%. The Unitarian community is one fifth smaller than it was a decade ago.

There are of course more than things that could be said about all of this. But these numbers should not be ignored by any of us.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thematic Ministry

I'm excited to be doing a new approach to worship and ministry from next month.

It's an American practice to operate "thematic ministry" - this means having a monthly theme which all (or almost all) the worship and religious education revolves around.

It's most useful for our Junior Church as it helps them plan better, but as a preacher I'm also looking forward to how this will develop our worship practice.

So I've developed our themes, largely inspired by All Souls Tusla. There's an article about this here. 

I've tweaked these a bit, and I may still change them in the future as I go along. But at least theoretically I have settled on themes for the next three years (with the idea being they would then cycle around again).

Here they are:


Identity and Humanity

Peace and non-violence














Simplicity and Poverty




Science and Reason

Hospitality and Community


Celebration and Joy

The Now

The Kingdom of God

Equality and Humility


Vision and Beauty


Thursday, July 17, 2014

What are the theological commitments of Unitarianism?

I'm just back from spending a few days with ministry students and probationary ministers for an intense time of residential learning called Ministry in the Making.

One of the topics we discussed was whether Unitarianism had any theology beyond personal credos that we all share in common. Or whether it is only values we share.

I said I do believe that Unitarianism is a coherent theological tradition very definitely committed to a particular approach to the life of faith and to theology. There is a theology that holds us.

Some folks asked for one comment I made to be written down, so for them, and for anyone else interested, here is what I would say we are committed to as Unitarian theology. This is a lot more than I said at the time, but I got going with it.

Unitarianism is a theological tradition with commitments. This list could be improved, or put in different ways, but we really are committed to the following theological points:

1. There is a spiritual dimension to reality - though this should be understood as an existential claim rather than a metaphysical one. In other words there is a deeper, fuller, better, more mysterious, more alive way to live - and this is what the religions have been wrestling with for thousands of years.

2. Revelation is not sealed: the fullest truth about the nature of our lives and the universe has not once and for ever been revealed and codified at any point in the past. Instead we are part of our continuous process of seeking ever deeper, bigger and more complex understandings of this truth. We are part of a historical process of discovery.

3. The spiritual reality is imminently and fully present in the here and now. We do not look to the past for evidence of revelation or to the future for a time of fulfilment and completion. Neither should our attention be on the afterlife or some other place. Religious drives us deeper and deeper into this reality, not an escape from it.

4. Related to this is the affirmation that fundamentally reality, the universe, life is good. There is pain and tragedy, but ultimately "it was good" - it is good.

5. The human being (the human "soul" if you like) is a source and locus of spiritual reality. We are intimately involved in this: "the Highest dwells within us.... As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins." Emerson.

6. We are One - we are deeply intertwined with one another in an "interdependent web of all existence" or an "inescapable network of mutuality" (ML King). This may be point 5 above just described in a different way. The fundamental truth of our existence is that we are not separate but deeply connected with all that is.

7. Human beings have sacred inherent worth and value. For this sacredness not to be trampled human beings must be free. Therefore relations between people should be based on free consent and not coercion.

8. Related to this is the realisation that the human race is one. We have more in common than divides us. There is not one particular people who are superior. There is a foundational equality for all people.

9. We live in an non-optimal world where the oneness and equality of all is frustrated by various systems and forces. It is a moral obligation to seek to put this right and commit to justice. Or, to put it another way, love and spirituality cannot be separated. "You cannot love God without loving your sister." Religion must lead us to a greater compassion, and any religion that does not increase our capacity for compassion is a false religion.

10. Community is necessary. We cannot live out these truths in isolation, but must enter into the discipline of community-making to live out this calling in the world.

11. We are ultimately hopeful about this universe. Not immediately, "not without dust and heat" but eventually there is a reason for hope. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Growing Unitarian congregations 2013

More analysis from the Annual Report.

2010 was the first Annual Report to list quota membership numbers, so it's now possible to use this baseline to see what congregations are shrinking (most of them) and which are growing (some of them).

Keeping in mind that quota numbers are a poor reflection of the reality of congregations, I still think it's valuable to do a bit of analysis. Three years is also too short a time. Five would be better. Also an increase of 1 or 2 is probably within the margin or error for this kind of thing. But with all this in mind we can see the growth in the following congregations, comparing 2010 and 2013.

Increase in members
London Islington and Newington Green           
From 70 to 92
London Golders Green
From 41 to 54
Birmingham Hollywood  
From 48 to 59
From 0 to 8
From 60 to 68
From 26 to 33
From 35 to 42
From 38 to 45
From 18 to 23
From 20 to 24
From 20 to 24
From 45 to 48
From 5 to 7
From 7 to 9
From 5 to 7
From 16 to 18
From 31 to 33
From 10 to 12
From 37 to 39
From 17 to 19
From 5 to 6
From 19 to 20
From 50 to 51
From 24 to 25
From 6 to 7
From 17 to 18
From 3 to 4
From 8 to 9
From 3 to 4

*Bangor is a new congregation that was started in this period. 

3,384 or 3,900 and why "visibility" is not the answer

This is a delayed post of the usual post I do about Unitarian membership numbers reported in the Annual Report.

The number of Unitarian members reported in the Annual Report is 3384, down 84 people from 3468 last year. A drop of about 2.5%.

Here's how the numbers look over the last few years:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672
2011: 3560
2012: 3468
2013: 3384

Despite a short blip in 2008 to 2010, the numbers continue to fall steadily.

In addition to the official numbers this year there was a congregational survey that reveals a few interesting things. One of the outcomes was that the survey suggested that the number of regular people in our communities was more like 3900 regular people in Unitarian congregations. This is hardly surprising as official membership numbers are likely to be smaller than actual numbers for many different reasons.

The most interesting thing for me about the survey was the number of visitors. In one month the 80 congregations that responded reported 831 visitors. Scaled up - this would suggest 1300 visitors a month to all congregations.

Let's make that a bit more pessimistic and make it 1000 visitors a month. That is still an astounding number. That's 12,000 visitors a year. OK, let's err on the side of caution and scale it down again to 10,000 visitors a year.

This suggested that all we would have to would be convert 10% of our visitors to members and we would have 1000 new members a year. Even if we're losing a few hundred a year through death - all of this suggests we really should be growing.

If these numbers are anywhere near accurate it points to a very clear picture: all we have to do to grow is repel fewer visitors.

(With due reference to Peter Morales who came up with this phrase, as far as I know)

This is very clear: visibility should not be a strategic priority. We are visible enough to get 10,000 visitors a year. A priority should be healthy and hospitable congregations. Lots of people are visiting us, they're just not staying. They are not finding what they're looking for, they don't want to hang around.

Healthy and hospitable congregations need to be our priority. That's what we need to be looking into.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Resolutions are a terrible way to do social justice

So, how are you doing with your General Assembly resolutions then?

What are you, or your congregation doing about… what was it again? Ah yes: Thought for the Day, gold mining in Romania, the Red Cross and books in prisons?

Can I ask another question? What are you and your congregation doing about the resolutions passed in 2013? Um, let’s see. It was something about… drug reform was definitely one of them… no I can’t remember the rest. Can you?

How about how we’re getting on with the resolutions we passed in 2010? Can you remember any of them? Or the ones we passed in 2000? Can you remember any of them?

If, like me, you struggle to think what the issues were a couple of years ago, can I make a suggestion? Can I suggest that our current system is actually not working?

Every year I have the faint hope that there will be no motions at all at the Annual Meetings. I think it would be wonderful if we could not talk so much one year and find something more useful to do with our time. But every year my heart sinks as I open the post to find a whole long list of things we’re all going to yak on about again. The same congregations have put forward more motions that the same old people are going to get up and talk to and we’ll pass it with 99% in favour and then…

And then, what, exactly? “The Unitarian General Assembly has said we’re in favour of this thing or against this other thing!” So what? So what? Who cares? Who is listening?

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think engaging with current societal issues is a bad thing. I long for us to be a more justice-centred, radical prophetic religious body. My contention is this: passing resolutions is a terrible way to do social justice work. It’s not only that it’s ineffective (it is); I have a feeling it might actually be counter-productive because it is a distraction from the activism we should be doing. I think it is about our collective egos more than the needs of the world. “Oh we are good liberal people,” we think to ourselves, “We care about the world. Look! See – we passed a resolution and everything – aren’t we a good liberal people?”

OK, so, so what did we actually do? Was the pain of one person alleviated? Did government policy change? Did we actually reach out to be in relationship with people beyond our community? Did the world become more beautiful and good? The American Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka asks the question: “Do we believe that simply to think about an issue is the same as to live in a way which exemplifies our concern for the issue?” And that questions rings in my ears as I think about this. We think, we have opinions, we talk. And this distracts us from actually doing anything effective.

Meanwhile the vast majority of our congregations ignore the whole process. They don’t discuss motions before or after the meetings. They take no action. Some disagree with the positions taken.

And I don’t blame congregations for this. Not in the least. Most congregations simply do not have the energy to deal in any meaningful way with five or six different social justice issues every year. Dealing with one would be ambitious enough.

Our system is broke. It does not engage the grassroots congregations. It rarely makes any impact whatsoever beyond our little community. It is not an effective way of doing social justice.

So, what is the alternative? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions but these are some of the things I’ve been thinking about.

Firstly, let’s be clear what the purpose of a motion should be. A motion should either establish internal denominational policy or establish our communal response to a genuinely new issue in the world. “We believe in same sex marriage” is a genuinely new position, and establishes a unique voice for Unitarians. “We believe in human rights and freedom of expression” is not new. It has been said. It does not need saying again.

Secondly we need to understand something about definitions here. Resolutions say “This General Assembly…” Who is the General Assembly? We can tend to think that this means staff at Essex Hall or volunteers on denominational committees. It does not. It means all of us. It means you. It means your congregation. If we say “the General Assembly calls for this…” then we need that to mean all of us, or at least the majority of us. If you think your congregation is not able to address this issue then should you be saying the “General Assembly” is going to do or campaign for this or that? If your congregation isn’t going to do that, then is it meaningful to say that “the General Assembly” is?   

So, can I suggest something radical? We have one motion that we take three years to consider. That’s right: we take three years to consider something. “But this will slow things down to a snail’s pace!” – I hear you complaining. Yes, it will. But for our social justice positions to be actually effective and owned by the whole denomination I think this is what it takes.

An effective social justice process would have a number of stages. Firstly education – we would all take the time to really get educated about an issue; this could easily take a year. Next we discuss the issue in congregations, in districts, in societies. Any wording is hammered out to be much more meaningful at this stage. Next we actually take a vote as an informed, thoughtful and faithful denomination. The final stage is that we are empowered for our activism. We are provided with activist resources: sample letters to MPs, ways to protest, to network, to campaign. As I say I think this process could easily take three years.

So let’s take one example. In 1977 the General Assembly passed a motion that Ministry would be “open to all regardless of sex, race, colour or sexual orientation.” Well  great. How progressive of us, we think. And indeed it was. A stand still too radical for most Christian denominations.

But I understand that being an openly gay minister in the 1980s was still incredibly difficult in this denomination. There was a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination in our congregations still. Congregations did not actually embrace this position.

So let me suggest an alternative scenario – what if in 1977 the denomination started a deeper conversation that involved the grassroots and effectively dealt with homophobia and prejudice in every congregation? What if that motion waited until 1980 to be passed, but by then it was really and truly owned by the whole denomination? Would that not be more effective?  

For these big, new, complex issues a deeper, longer, theological conversation is needed. And yes, it needs to be theological. I despair at our embarrassment to speak a language of faith around these things. Take same sex marriage. We said, “the government should do this.” I wish we had said, “as people of faith who believe marriage is about this…. we believe the government should do this.” I wish we could take the time to root our positions in our faith, not just in liberal politics that could be said by any trade union or political party.

But many issues do not need a motion at all. Most motions coming before the Annual Meetings are unnecessary. The question is not what we think about something (that is already well established) the question is what are we going to do about it? More useful than passing motions at the Annual Meetings would be activist training. If we spent our time getting better educated, and then were sent back to our congregations with tools and resources that would be truly useful – what difference would that make? What if instead of being one denomination “having a position” (again, who cares?) we were four thousand effective grassroots activists? What sort of a difference would that make?

Or, if you think all my ideas so far have been rubbish – how about this one? Instead of debating motions at the Annual Meetings us three hundred delegates go to the nearest town to pick up litter for two hours? Because honestly, most years I think this would be a much better use of our time that would genuinely be more effective in making the world a better place.