Thursday, April 28, 2011

Church Planting and Church Renewal

Where should we concentrate our ministry and mission as British Unitarians? Ever since I started this blog I have been calling for church-planting. Five years ago I wrote this post doing some analysis of the largest population areas without a Unitarian presence, therefore where you could plant new churches.

It's probably time to do some updating. The following is a mixture of analysis of populations and gut instinct.

There are large areas of the UK where people could not get to a nearby Unitarian church even if they wanted to.

There are very isolated towns such as Carlisle and Peterborough where we could plant new churches.

The other place I would aim is the large urban area of south Yorkshire, planting in either Barnsley or Rotherham or looking to grow the cause in Wakefield.

The Blackcountry is another large urban area with tiny churches. You could either look into resurrecting the Unitarian communities in Dudley or Wolverhampton or plant something new in Walsall (my hometown).

I would also look into big towns in the south of England: Swindon, Milton Keynes, High Wycombe, Basildon or Aylesbury.

Given the population density in London itself there is a huge potential for church-planting and church renewal. Any church in London has a huge population to reach out to, and any neighbourhood in London could potential sustain a Unitarian church. There is a huge amount of potential for growth in London.

Then there are cities, very large urban centres, with very small Unitarian communities. These are places where there is a real need for renewal. The Unitarian churches in Newcastle, Glasgow, Coventry, Cardiff and Liverpool should be much bigger. They should have full time Ministers. None of them do.

What to start with? I would begin by looking urgently into the small congregations in large urban areas. What do they need? How are their finances? Do they want a Minister? I would put a lot of resources into those big cities: Newcastle, Glasgow, Coventry, Cardiff and Liverpool. They need Ministers. This may be the kind of place that American Ministers may be the most use.

I would see how we could plant new churches (or go into churches with almost no members) in the Blackcountry and Yorkshire. I would ask wealthy districts and local churches to support this.

I would look into planting or reviving in London. Given the dense population you could look into all kinds of different church planting in London: youth congregations, house churches, particularly distinct theological congregations, particularly distinct musical congregations. London is the best place to experiment with evangelism and church planting.

Do we have the political will for this? Hmm. I might leave that question to my next post.

Monday, April 25, 2011


In one of the early episodes of Batttlestar Galactica (2000s series) the President carefully writes down the number of surviving humans on the band of surviving spaceships on a whiteboard. She adjusts the number with each news report of loss of life.

That reminds me of the situation we're in now in British Unitarianism. We passed a resolution in 2006 calling for growth, and it's taken five years before we have publically published what our actual membership numbers are. So here it is: 3,672.

Even that number has not been officially published, but added up by someone in America. If any British Unitarians are not paying attention to what Scott Wells is writing, particularly here, then you should be. We all should be.

And we should realise that our situation is exactly that of Battlestar Galactica. We are a surviving band. There is much too much complacency still. The next ten years will be vital.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

AV Voting is just like the X Factor, it's not complicated

Back in January I posted about the AV referedum with a reasonably open mind. Since then I've become more convinced that AV is a far superior system than first past the post. I don't mind publicly saying so.

AV will mean fewer safe seats, and more marginal seats which means elections won't be fought just in a few isolated places. True, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. But it is an improvement. MPs will need to work harder to secure the public's vote.

AV will also mean more genuine choice. You won't be forced to vote for only two or three main parties. You can vote for who you really want, knowing the vote won't be wasted. No more tactical voting. If you're happy with the bigger parties, this might not convince you, but if you could imagine voting for smaller parties (or you at least want the option) then AV will allow you too.

AV will mean that extremist parties will be less likely to get into power, because the vast majority oppose them.

And AV is not comlicated. Even if it was, it's hardly a good argument. A one-party state is simple, a dicatorship is simple.

But AV is not complicated. It's the same as we use in the X Factor, or Britain's Got Talent. It's not simply the person with the most votes on week one who wins. It's the person who gets the least votes who's elimated, (OK they do make it a bit more complicated that that for dramatic purposes involving judges etc, but that's the basic system).

AV is just like a number of rounds of elections (weeks on Britain's Got Talent), when the person with the least votes is eliminated. It's just instead of it happening several times, it all happens at once so we don't have the cost of several rounds of elections.

Putting a "1" by JEdward and a "2" by Diversity is just like voting for JEdward but they get elimated so in the final you vote for Diversity. It's a simple system, a system used by most organisations I belong to, a system that MPs use to elect their leaders. If it's good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for us?

Oh, and, this is cute too:

Monday, April 18, 2011

Strategic change and culture change

I was very tempted to call this post "Why the Unitarian Executive Committee's growth strategy will fail" but I don't want to be quite that negative.

Actually I want to say that I think a lot of what our national Unitarian leadership is doing is absolutely right. I completely agree with what they have prioritised and most of what they're doing to get there. It is good to aim for growth. 20% growth in five years is very ambitious. It's pretty much what we're aiming for at my congregation, but aiming for it in one reasonably healthy congregation is very different from aiming for it for a complete denomination.

The EC have set out a vision, and told us where they want to be, and what changes will have to take place to get us there. Now, of course, is where the resistance to change kicks in. They need to keep communicating, communicating, communicating, as much as possible what the vision is, why we need to get there, how we will get there. They need to keep explaining to us why it's in our own best interest to get us there, how much better "there" will be.

They are doing a lot of good strategic stuff, but I think what is needed much more fundamentally is a culture change. And I fear that the strategic change will not work because we are not creating culture-change.

What culture change do we need? First and foremost we need to become more religious. We are a religion. If we're not that, then there's not really a point to us. We need to really take seriously that deepening spiritual life is our very reason for being. As my congregation's mission statement says, "our purpose is to inspire spiritual journeys."

As much as I enjoy the Annual Meetings, as much as there are things that are interesting, and as much as I very much enjoy the company of so many people there, it is not a spiritual experience. If you think it sounds strange to talk about the Annual Meetings as a spiritual experience, then my point is made. Our primary purpose in everything we do, yes, everything we do should be to find the Spirit. Until we start acting like this is the case, we will be in trouble. This is pretty much the point made my Art Lester in his Anniversary Service address in 2008. When we expect to find God in business meetings, we will have made that change.

The other change we need is a sense of urgency. The Annual Meetings still do not feel like the meeting of an organisation in crisis - at a critical time. Until we feel that sense of crisis - that realisation that this generation is when we will go extinct or come into our own - we will not have a big enough appetite for change. I think things will get considerably worse before we realise we are in that crisis.

And finally we need the culture change that sees us living for others. We need to see the purpose of our faith is to give it away (as I believe Andy Pakula has said before). I ask the question I've asked before: did Swansea know we were there? And if not, why not? The purpose of the Annual Meetings themselves should be missional. If we had all spent an afternoon picking up litter, would that not have been a better use of our time than most of what goes on at Annual Meetings? If we live for others, and not concern ourselves with institutional maintenance, then we will, ironically, become a healthy institution.

These are the things that will need to change is real change is going to happen in the Unitarian movement.

Undodiaid Bangor Unitarians

I'm still blogging about (but not at anymore) the GA. I'm keeping an eye on the Twitter feed.

This morning Undodaiaid Bangor Unitarians were welcomed into the General Assembly as a new small congregation. This is great news, in many ways the best news to come out of the these meetings.

If I had been there this morning I would have stood up and said that this is the kind of thing we need to be supporting as strongly as possible. Essex Hall should prioritise support it gives to new and emerging congregations. The number one way any denomination grows is by planting new congregations. We should be giving financial grants for development, and finding ways to help the evolution of such groups to become healthier and stronger.

The last time I remember this happening was Durham Unitarian Fellowship in 2003. And where is Durham Unitarian Fellowship now, eight years later? It's extinct. We need to work hard to make sure this doesn't happen again. Emerging congregations have to be supported.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

General Assembly Annual Meetings 2011

The Annual Meetings are still on-going but I am home now, and can report on the first half of the meetings that I attended. Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer is also blogging from GA on his blog.

The Ministerial Fellowship conference was good, and included a live video link up from a consultant in Seattle who lead a workshop on social media and communication strategy.

The only other thing I can really report on is the main Business sessions. This seems to be a larger than usual Annual Meetings as the venue for the business sessions felt pretty full, and quite a bit hot, dry and stuffy. The way they are doing business has also changed and Chairs of Commissions did not give verbal reports this year. As it's written in the Annual Report, this seems like a good way to cut down on the time it takes for business. I did ask a question about reporting membership numbers and was told that the total number of Unitarians would be reported in Annual Reports in future, so five or six years after agreeing we would prioritise growth we have finally started recording whether we are growing or not.

The key piece of work reported on by the Executive Committee was the development of Strategic Priorities. I just looked for them on the website and couldn't find them. They have been emailed out on Uni-News. They are:
  • Developing Ministry
  • Supporting local leadership
  • Raising our visibility
  • Improving the way Essex Hall delivers services.
To the end of achieving, over the next five years:
  • Membership growth of 20%
  • At least 50 active Ministers
  • Access to ministerial support for all congregations
  • Ensuring all volunteers have access to training and support
To achieve this they are proposing a complete overhall of the structure of Commissions. It's this that is causing concern to some. It isn't that long ago that these structures were put in place, and some say they are doing just fine. But then again it is a very complicated structure for a tiny denomination, as you'll find if you follow the link. This is where the disagreements are going to be.

The other business was the Stipend Review document when once again one delegate tried to change the proposals for different recommended preaching fees for Ministers and lay people. We've had this debate several times before, and the outcome has always been to keep the different fee. I'm bored of it to be honest. It was agreed, after a very confusing debate to keep it as it is. At such times I'm increadilbly jealous that we don't have someone like Gini Courter that the American UUs have to Chair meetings. The President only is in place for one year, and so we always have someone chairing the meeting who doesn't quite know what's going on. No one ever gets a chance to get any good at chairing these meetings, and it really shows.

I wasn't there for any motions, but I've heard on Twitter that we've passed the one calling on the government to deal with the problem of destitute asylum seekers, and that was the only one with any real substance so I'll bet you any money that we'll pass the ones celebrating Amnesty International and signing up to the Charter for Compassion.

Taking place just about now is a Future Annual Meetings Workshop and from the advert for that I can see that there are proposals for significant changes in the future, including moving the Meetings to the summer. I'd support that as this year they have clashed with Easter services. I came back this year to take the Palm Sunday service and next year the meetings are taking place in Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you're in a congregation that marks these festivals, (as I am) then it's a bad clash. There is a proposal to move them to the summer by 2014.

So not a world-shattering meeting (not the first half I was there anyway). But some significant progress.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

General Assembly Preview

The Unitarian General Assmebly Annual Meetings are on this weekend. The Minister's Conference starts tomorrow and then the main meetings on Friday. I'm not staying for the whole conference this year (I'm not staying away from my congregation on Palm Sunday). So I'm not going to be live blogging exactly. I'll do some reporting when I get back. Anyone else want to do some live blogging? Anyone?

I'm presuming some people will be Twittering hashtag #GAUK?

To be honest I'm not sure there's anything terribly exciting going to be happening. I don't know if it's just me, but GA's feel more boring than they used to. I might be suprised.