The Growing Church

Churches talk a lot about growth, but there are many ways for us to grow.

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


I don’t know the precise numbers, but since I began to serve this church in August, I have had hour-long conversations with about three dozen individuals, and there have been (I think) nine “cottage meetings,” each of which has included around a dozen people or so. I call them “conversations,” but of course mostly what I’m trying to in these encounters is listen. When I meet people in these settings, I want to know about their relationship with the church — what they’re proud of, what’s been most meaningful, what they’re concerned about, what their disappointments have been, what their hopes are for the future, and what obstacles they hope we can overcome together. Naturally, I also meet with many of the church’s committees and other groups. I do a lot of listening and I chime in in ways that I hope are challenging as well as encouraging. These kinds of conversations are “standard operating procedure” for interim ministry. After all, we interim ministers are “faster pastors” and have really very little time to get to know a congregation; what else would we do, what else could we do but listen? How else would the minister or the congregation figure out how they are going to be partners in fostering the continued vitality of the church?

One thing I have learned about this church in the course of these encounters is that there seems to have been a lot of talk over the years about growth — about growing the number of people who join the congregation. What I hear in this church is a very familiar refrain: if we had more members, we would have more contributors to the church budget, and that would enable us to pay for things we can’t currently afford to do. I call this a familiar refrain because I have heard it expressed by many people from many, many congregations.

I began my divinity school studies in the fall of 1997, so this fall I have been doing some personal reflection on the past twenty years of my life. One thing I ponder is what aspects of the calling of professional religious leadership have really engaged my imagination and my intellect and have quickened my heart. And as I’ve thought about that, I’m aware that I am passionately interested in the ways we human beings organize ourselves in order to do what we want to do or feel we must do. One aspect of that question that really fascinates me is how people fund what they’re organizing. Maybe it’s not fashionable for godly clergy types to be interested in money, but that doesn’t seem to provide much of a deterrent to me. So when I hear people in church after church saying, “If only we had more members, we’d have more money,” I am really interested in what is being said. I’m interested in the intersections of money and organizing and spirituality and group dynamics and individual and collective psychology and a lot of other things, but certainly I am keenly interested in the question of how the heck we pay for the things we want to have and want to do, because nearly every organization needs money in order to exist and function effectively.

Here’s the thing: in my twenty years of thinking about these very issues, studying them, and working with congregations on them, I have never at any time become aware of a congregation that solved its financial troubles because the number of participants in that congregation changed. Churches of every size have financial troubles, and churches that have balanced budgets come in every size. The simple fact of the matter is: the more people there are in a church, the more expensive it is to run the church. More members means more income, and it also means more expenditures. I have never seen an exception to this. I have heard some folks in other churches, when confronted with this, say, in effect, “Oh, we’ll be the exception!” If that exceptional church really existed, surely we would want to ask them, “If you’re so exceptional, why don’t you just balance your budget as you are right now?” Congregations are more likely to solve their financial problems by talking more openly about generosity and giving, by prioritizing their spending more effectively, and by being willing to say no to expenditures and/or by being willing to let go of expenses when they are no longer sustainable or relevant. Congregations may have to make hard choices and give up on things they would like to do because they can’t afford them, but can we expect that a mature and thoughtful group of people can at least sometimes find the courage and the wisdom to make those hard choices?

There are two concerns I often have when I hear congregations talk about numerical growth. One is that these expressed desires for more members sometimes seem to assume that there is something essentially wrong with the size of the congregation as it currently is. The other is the implicit notion that there are strangers out there, people we don’t know now but who will soon come in here and join us, who will save us. In other words, aspirations for numerical growth can couch unexpressed feelings of inadequacy: we aren’t enough as we are now; we’re inherently defective with this number of humans, so we need more. If there are any persons in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring who believe this church to be inherently inadequate as it now is, I respectfully but emphatically disagree. I have gotten to know the people of this church, and I can say with a clear conscience that this people, this community is wise enough and strong enough and good enough right now. Without a doubt, there are challenges. Every church is a humans-only club. Fallible mortals dwell here. Like any collection of human beings, there are plenty of flaws and mistakes we can own up to. We can — we must — learn more and understand more and love more than we now do. And if more people or fewer people or the same number of people are learning and understanding and loving together in this church, that is all well and good. To grow in consciousness, to grow in the hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, to grow in faith, to grow in lovingkindness — all these forms of growth are more vital and frankly, more important than numerical growth.

Let me be unmistakably clear: I have not the slightest objection to this or any other church growing numerically. I’m all for it; sounds great. I don’t intend to help this or any other congregation get more members in an effort to get more money. That is not a project that interests me, mainly because, as I’ve said, I don’t think more members means an end to budgetary woes. I am keenly interested in helping this congregation grow in faith. I am deeply interested in helping this congregation grow in generosity. I am exceptionally interested in helping this congregation grow in organizational acumen. I am definitely interested in helping this congregation grow in trust. I am heartily interested in helping this congregation grow in love. This congregation is already strong in all these things; what will it take for this community of faith to continue to grow those strengths? Those are the kinds of growth that should be our primary focus now — and always.

In many of the conversations I’ve participated in in this church, this question of numerical growth often comes up in questions about Sunday worship. Many people are pondering and discussing the question of how this congregation worships and what that says about the identity and goals of this community. Many have asked in my hearing if having two Sunday services is a practice that is suitable for this congregation as it currently is. I think this is an important question. I do not know the answer to it, but I think we should find out. I have been having discussions of this very question with many in this church, including the Worship Committee, the Board, and the staff; my colleague Catherine Boyle, the Director of Religious Education, has had conversations about it with the Religious Education Committee, and my colleague Michael Holmes, the Music Director, has discussed it with the Music Committee. What we together have decided to do is something which I started off calling an experiment, though I have been persuaded that that might not be the most engaging or helpful term, so I’m not sure what we should call it. Perhaps “a period of communal exploration”? Well, we can use whatever language we like, but what the aforementioned leaders and I have decided to try is for this church to go to one Sunday morning service for a set period of time, and I’ve proposed that we do it for fourteen consecutive Sundays, beginning on Sunday, December 24 and going through the last Sunday in March. The question of one or two Sunday services is an important one; I regard it to be of secondary importance. Of primary importance is a harder question to answer: how will this shared experience help us to grow — not numerically, but grow in understanding of ourselves: our identity, our aspirations, our fears, our vulnerabilities, our deepest loves and our shared sense of purpose? As the exploratory period draws to a close with the coming of spring, I would be delighted to hear about the growth and learning experiences of congregational leaders — including, but certainly not limited to, the Worship, Music and Religious Education Committees, the Board, the staff, and I’ll be glad to hear from many others as well. At some point we will need to decide whether to continue with one service or go back to two in April, but I have every confidence we will figure that out together in a way that feels right. I expect we will learn a lot as we grow together through this shared experience of thinking and exploring and discussing and listening and learning. I do not have a preferred outcome on the question that I have deemed to be of secondary importance; I’m just as glad for there to be one service or two. I have no stake in this undertaking but one: I want us to learn and to grow together.

One thing I have heard many times in my conversations with congregants here is that in the midst of the challenging and often painful changes that have taken place in this church in recent times, people in this church were sometimes unkind to one another. If that is true, that is an opportunity for growth: growing in our understanding of how we are to live this faith together, growing in our understanding of what we ask of one another in our relationships, growing in self-awareness and in forgiveness, growing in courage and in compassion. Let’s focus on those kinds of growth. There are plenty of challenges and opportunities in those kinds of growth to keep us engaged with zeal and with joy. And if more people or fewer people or the same number of people are growing with us, how much will that really matter? There are many ways for us to grow.