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.