The Zen of Growth by Mark Bernstein

The following is a guest post by Mark Bernstein, Director for Growth in the Joseph Priestly District of the UUA.  Mark also serves as a part-time consultant to other regional districts including Ohio-Meadville, St. Lawrence and Metro New York. Originally published in the JPD’s January 2010 “Membership & Growth” themed Leadership Notes newsletter.

Mark BernsteinThe Zen of Growth

By Mark Bernstein

After more than a year in my position as Director for Growth, I have come to the conclusion that the term “growth” as it applies to Unitarian Universalist congregations means nothing…and yet it means everything.

It means nothing in that the word itself does not suggest anything specific or point to any clear direction or activity.  It is a “catch-all” term; a convenient code word that can connote anything from moving to a larger building to putting up a bulletin board; from sprucing up the web site to varying the type of music played in worship.

And yet, the word “growth” means everything to a congregation.  There is not one activity or event or goal that a congregation engages in or strives for that does not suggest growth.  If one thinks of growth as more than just increasing the numbers; if one thinks of growth as also the deepening of our faith, the strengthening of the internal structure of the congregation, or the spreading of our principles in the world, than growth touches everything we do in our lives as Unitarian Universalists.

The abstraction of the word “growth” does, I believe, present a dilemma for congregations.  If members say that they want to grow but are not specific about what growth means or what it looks like, than the perception of lack of growth can be discouraging and defeating.  But if one does not define growth, than how does one know if growth is achieved?  It is not unlike stating that one wants to achieve happiness in their life without defining what happiness means for them.  How do they then know if they have achieved happiness?

In the past, when I would begin a session with a congregation, I would ask them why they want to grow.  Now I ask a more direct question: who are you as a congregation and what do you want to be?  The answer to this question is more revealing of the congregation’s current and future goals and aspirations and allows for discussion and ideas around what it would take to realize those goals.  It is then the implementation of those goals that enables “growth” to occur.

There is a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  As related to the topic of growth in congregations, permit me to modify that to read, “When the congregation is ready, growth will appear.”

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