Growth and Decline: A brief “How To” from Daniel Harper


The following cross posts are from the Rev. Daniel Harper.  Dan has been offering  thoughts on “How not to grow gracefully” and “How to decline gracefully.” I love his suggested strategies for keeping a congregation hidden!  Peter

How not to grow gracefully

By the Rev. Daniel Harper

Let’s say you’re part of a congregation that has an annual year-round average attendance of about 150 adults and children. You and most everyone else likes your congregation at that size, and you don’t want to grow any bigger. What do you do?

1. Growing while not growing

Let’s further assume that your congregation, like most Unitarian Universalist congregations, has a steady stream of visitors, and if you retained even half of them you’d grow at a rate of better than 10% per year. But you don’t want to grow. So how can you stay the same size gracefully?

The first thing to remember, if your congregation has a steady stream of visitors and you don’t want to grow, is that it is actually difficult to turn people away. Emotionally, it can be kind of depressing when someone you kind of like shows up at church and there isn’t room for them. It’s also hard to turn away just enough people so you don’t grow, but not so many people that you start to shrink. It’s also difficult to turn away the correct people — the angry people, the dysfunctional people, the destructive people, the dishonest people — while letting in the right people — the people who will give freely of their time and money, who will make talented lay leaders, and who are caring loving people.

Without careful planning, congregations will come up with strategies for turning people away that don’t serve them well. The classic strategy to turn people away is to make it hard to find the congregation — you hide the building behind a lot of bushes, you make sure the sign is invisible, you have a crappy Web site, etc. While this is a fairly effective strategy, it can be difficult to find just the right degree of hiddenness that keeps out just enough people to prevent growth but not so many people that the congregation heads into decline. Another classic strategy is to ignore or be rude to visitors and newcomers. Unfortunately, what happens with this strategy is that too often a greater percentage of nasty, dysfunctional people find their way past all the barriers erected to keep people out. Another class strategy is to make sure there isn’t enough room, but that runs the risk of inconveniencing everyone; and (speaking from experience) overcrowding also tends to promote behavior problems.

In short, it’s actually quite difficult to develop a good strategy for keeping just enough people out that your congregation doesn’t grow. You run the risk of keeping out too many people, or letting in too many of the wrong kind of people, or making the whole experience unpleasant for everyone.

A better strategy to keep from growing is to spin off new congregations when you get too big. One way to implement this strategy:– when your congregation starts getting too big, a new group starts meeting in a new location while using the staff and volunteer resources of the parent congregation. Thus, the new group uses the parent congregation’s administrative staff, consults with the religious educator, and perhaps even meets at a time when the preacher can come and preach to them. The goal is to spend a couple of years growing the new group to the point where they can afford to support themselves financially.

There are many variations on this theme, but the basic principle is the same: a parent congregation nurtures a new congregation until it is self-supporting. It is not an easy process, and requires careful management and planning, but it avoids the negative aspects of the earlier strategies for not growing. It’s also less depressing than the other two methods I mentioned earlier — it’s depressing to be rude, and it’s depressing to turn people away without coming up with an alternative UU home for them. It’s even more depressing to let in too many nasty, dysfunctional people.

Whichever strategy your congregation chooses, I suspect what’s most important is careful planning and management. If you hide your congregation, planning and constant attention to management can allow you to increase your visibility when you see a significant drop in attendance, and hide yourselves more when too many people start showing up. If you choose the strategy of being cold to visitors, careful management can allow you to become a little warmer when you see a drop in attendance, and a little cooler when too many people start showing up. And of course splitting off new congregations requires careful planning and management all the way through.

Next: When growth isn’t an option, how can you shrink your congregation gracefully?

How to decline gracefully

By the Rev. Daniel Harper

In two earlier posts, I talked about compelling reasons for a congregation to grow, and I talked about strategies to not grow and remain about the same size. But what if you’re convinced that your congregation has no real possibility for growth? What do you do then?

I can think of three types of congregations that are truly in decline: (1) The congregation is in a place that has seen declining population for some years, and all forecasts point to continued decline. (2) The congregation shares its service area with another Unitarian Universalist congregation that is growing, but the surrounding population is stable so the congregation faces ongoing loss of market share. (3) The majority of people in the congregation don’t want to change the way they do things in order to respond to changes in society around them. (You will notice that the second type of congregation could be considered a subset of the third type of congregation.) Of these three types of congregation, the third type is the most common, followed by the first type.

How do you determine if your congregation is truly in decline? It can be difficult to determine if your congregation is truly in decline, so it pays to study the matter carefully. Here are some ways to determine whether decline is actually taking place:

  • The first thing to do is to study census data for your congregation’s service area, and see if population is declining in the area around you.
  • The second thing to do is to look at ten year trends for the following: (a) year-round Sunday morning attendance; (b) pledge income adjusted for inflation; (c) number of non-zero pledge units; (d) dollar amount of deferred maintenance adjusted for inflation. The last item is very difficult to determine, but I include it because declining congregations usually hide financial decline by funding current operating expenses through underfunding maintenance. (Because criteria for membership often varies widely within one congregation from year to year, I do not believe that looking at membership provides any real insight into the numerical strength of a congregation — better to look at total number of non-zero pledge units.)
  • The third thing to do is determine if your congregation might be in the middle of a stalled size transition. If your average annual year-round worship attendance, including adults and children, has been between 150 and 200, you are probably in a pastoral–to-program-size transition; if your attendance has been between 40 and 60, you are probably in a family-to-pastoral-size transition. If you have been there for more than five years, you are probably in a stalled transition. If you are in a stalled transition, you may find numbers that indicate slow but steady decline for as long as twenty years. However, a stalled transition cannot be said to be true decline until your average attendance drops below about 150, or below about 40 (depending on the transition). One of the characteristics of stalled transitions is a pattern of increase and decline that stays within either 150 to 200, or 40 to 60 average attendance. A stalled transition requires a very different strategy than true decline, so make sure which one you’ve got.

If you have gone through the three steps above, and are quite sure that your congregation is in decline, you can now begin planning for graceful decline. You now have enough data to determine the rate of decline, and you can probably make a fairly good prediction of where you will be in five years. Then you can estimate pledge income for the next five years, and plan where you will cut your budget.

Since staff salaries usually take up about 60% of a congregation’s operating budget, if you are going to cut expense to meet declining revenue you will obviously have to figure out what staff positions to cut. Most church growth experts believe that a minister is the most important staff member; second most important is probably custodial staff and bookkeeper. There is debate about the third most important staff member, with some experts advocating for a music director and others advocating for a religious educator; if your demographic researched showed more families with children in your area then you’d probably lay off the music director before the religious educator. Based on these priorities, you can begin planning which staff positions to cut.

Since the next greatest expense for most congregations is building maintenance or rent, you will also have to figure out how to cut this expense. If you own your own building, deferring maintenance is a terrible way to try to cut expenses in a declining congregation:– when you defer maintenance, the cost of eventually fixing a maintenance problem generally increases in cost much faster than inflation, so deferring maintenance means passing higher costs on to a future when you anticipate lower revenues. Therefore, a plan for graceful decline must anticipate at what point the congregation will either have to sell the building, or lease significant portions of it to someone else. If the congregation decides to lease, you absolutely must be honest about the costs of leasing — too many congregations get less rent from the lessor than it costs in administrative time, maintenance costs, and custodial time. All declining congregations should make long-term plans for selling the building — it can be incredibly difficult to sell a building, so best to start planning now.

Having considered all the above, the key ingredient in a graceful decline is careful and consistent management over a period of many years. However, decline can be depressing, and it can be extremely difficult to stick with long-term consistent management that allows for graceful decline.

If you have read this far, you should realize by now that it is more difficult for a congregation to decline gracefully than it is to grow a congregation. If the only reason your congregation is in decline is because the majority of people in the congregation don’t want to change the way they do things in order to respond to changes in society around them, it will be easier to change to majority of the people than it will be to manage a graceful decline.

Congregational growth is difficult and tiring, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than congregational decline.

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