Growth Strategies

From everything I was able to glean at GA, one can safely say that the UUA does not have a growth strategy. When asked that question directly, President Sinkford said that we are in "an experimental period." We should have lots of experiments. We do, of course, since many of our congregations are trying to grow. We don't have the management processes in place to learn from those experiments very well, but they are out there.

There is a large-scale church start being planned in Philadelphia.

Peter Morales talks about growth through better growth and member retention in the already existing congregations.

And then there is small-scale church-planting, which I would define as minister-initiated, congregational formation. Some would call it "entepreneurial ministry", or even "apostolic ministry." This is largely unexplored territory for the Unitarian Universalist Association which tends to work with the idea that church planting starts with a congregation that someday calls a minister, and not with a minister who someday gathers a congregation. In fact, there is a tendency to view that minister who is out trying to start a new congregation from scratch with some suspicion, a somewhat shady character engaged in self-promotion and opportunism.

Small-scale church planting is how most new churches get formed, and Unitarian Universalists don't know how to do it. I don't know how to do it either, and in some ways, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum, serving a well-established and handsomely endowed church.

But I think that all of us ought to do what we can to make the Unitarian Universalist Association a more nurturing environment for potential church-planters, whether they be either ordained or lay.

1. We should identify "church-planting" as a specialized type of ministry -- not community ministry, not parish ministry but something else. Let seminarians and ministers identify themselves by that aspiration, if they are called to it. Right now, it is "the love that dare not speak its name."

2. shake up the MFC so that the time spent in unpaid, or very poorly paid, church-planting ministry counts toward final fellowship.

3. Let's start talking about "UU Outreach Activists", or "UU Embeds", or "UU Missionaries." These would be lay people who are willing to devote some serious time and energy into grass roots congregational formation. Giving this a name might help some people realize that this what they are called to do. Whether and How this becomes a path into seminary and the ordained ministry are questions for later.

4. Let's be patient with what is being formed -- a minister starts to cohere a small network and community (a micro-congregation) around him or her -- it could be a UU congregation, it might be a generic Spirituality group, it might be a "religious left activist political group." It might be connected with a UU church or not.

5. Finally, we need to develop an institutional structure for this, which distributes denominational resources for church-planting, without succumbing to denominational control and sectarianism. Some portion of the money that is being raised and spent on growth needs to be gotten into the hands of church-planters, while maintaining enough accountability and covenantal relationships to keep the money coming.


  1. Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma (California) is a 4-year-old entrepreneurial startup congregation, founded by eight folks, now standing at around 60 members. We do know how to do it, but assuredly, some support from the UUA would be a nice thing. Just as we began our efforts, the UUA discontinued the Extension Ministry program. So the day when we might possibly afford even a part time minister is far off. We have a quarter-time DRE. We pay guest speakers. We rent space. It's the Bay Area--buyng a building or paying a salary is out of the question for us right now. But we are growing, and we have some good ideas, if not a full-blown "strategy," about how to continue to do so.

  2. thanks for your post Tom, or is it TLT? blogetiquette sometimes eludes me. A lot of good "seeds" there. I look forward to more people chiming in as more people discover your new blog. Hope some of them will wander over to
    if they want to see some additional and always developing stuff.
    My first quick response though is that having "growth strategies" might be what has killed such from happening and limited us. It tends to contribute to a climate of controlling versus permission-giving.
    Now...prayer and conversation and networking and boot camps and seminary classes and established churches thinking beyond the box and conducting their own classes and conferences and measuring their sucess by the number of their failed experiments?? which I think is underneath what you mean by growth strategy....and thanks for the diversity of your examples of "church" as I think that is key.

    and thanks for raising the "apostolic" nature of much church planting that has worked; it is a discussion that has been on the easumbandy churchplanting email list off and on for several years and is a thorn for those in episcopacy traditions especially as well as it will be for those of us in congregational polities who, if we take it seriously, might be better equipped to borrow some of its nature than those in bishop systems.

    speaking of systems, in lyle schaller's newest book "From Cooperation to Competition" he poses a semi-fictional scenario where the upshot question asked of church folks is this one: what is it about your system (not about your leader at the time) that has prevented you from growing, from planting, from multiplying, and as all healthy organisms do, reproducing? good question.

  3. sorry. that should have been a complete link.

  4. LT, I have revisited some of this today over on my blog under Growth Strategy Redux. Posting some stuff from Lyle Schaller about numbers we should shoot for, and a somewhat more realistic though still revolutionary response from me. Y'all take a gander.


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