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.