Monday, March 17, 2014

A new frame on church membership

Stepping back from our customary ways of looking at membership, what if we used a frame that other non-profits use: "the ladder of engagement?"

Slide from a presentation by Farra Trompeter, Big Duck Consulting, presented at #14NTC.

Some definitions and an application to the congregational environment: 
  • Unawares are people who don't know about the congregation, but who should.
  • Observers are people who know about the congregation, observe it with friendly interest, but are generally uninvolved. They might come on Christmas Eve. 
  • Supporters are people who know about the congregation and support it. They are the rank and file members. 
  • Advocates are people who champion the congregation: they actively work for the congregation and its programs.

How this maps to our membership schemes.

Customary UU schemes of sorting people would map supporters and advocates into members/friends, a category which covers a wide range of engagement. There are a lot of misperceptions that come from lumping these two groups together. For example, advocates often think that if everyone pledged like advocates, our money problem would be over. Much of the current discussion about increasing membership commitment comes from lumping these two groups together. 

A tiny slice of observers would be classified as 'visitors' if they had made a visit to the church. 
But, most observers and unawares are off our radar. Our congregations don't consciously communicate or engage with them.

Congregational money problems cannot be solved by asking Unawares and Observers for money. This is obvious. Why should they give to the congregation?  So, right now, many congregations are trying to resolve their money problems by moving Supporters to Advocate levels of giving, through the annual pledge campaign. It is not keeping up. 

Unless there is a steady flow of people from Unawares to Observers to Supporters and Advocates, the natural process of attrition will dry up the income stream.  But since we have very few efforts to inform the Unawares and engage the Observers, that's what is and what will continue to happen.

So the the congregational money problem is the really the same as the growth problem. So the answer to the congregational money side comes down to one essential task: building a process of engagement with Unawares and Observers, to create a stream of future givers. 

The "ladder of engagement" suggests that there is one process of engaging with people, all people, all throughout their engagement with the congregation.  

Questions for future posts:

1. How could UU's apply a "ladder of engagement" concept to growth?
2. What systems and structures would be required?
3. What's the public theology and ministry (mission) behind it? 


12 comments:

Sarah Stewart said...

This reminds of of Peter Morales's campaign message of "repelling fewer visitors"; i.e., how can we move more Observers onto the path toward becoming Supporters? And Peter and the church in Golden, CO recommended useful membership practices, which we used with some success in my small New Hampshire church. But it still leaves the question of what is this community which an Observer would come to Support? A friendly group of people? A dedicated group of spiritual seekers? A liberal religious community committed in word and deed toward a better world for all? (Well, ideally, all of the above--even though there are those in our congregations who would not like the words "spiritual" or "religious.") I am thinking all the time right now about congregational identity and how we forge a compelling vision of who we are out of our pluralist community.

paulbeedle said...

My immediate reaction to applying this scheme to congregations is that it is likely to encourage the kind of thinking about churches and faith that led David Bumbaugh to complain that "the Universalists brought to the consolidation an unfinished theological project; the Unitarians brought a highly questionable set of marketing plans." While it is unquestionably important for churches to have an outward-directed mission, and therefore something (a project, a role) to be championed, we do have a habit of dancing around what must always be the church's core mission: encouraging and fostering and supporting people to engage their own spiritual growth and to engage one another by exploring and supporting one another's spiritual growth. I feel sure that a good chunk (not all, certainly, and perhaps not most) of the support for "beyond congregations" comes from those who prefer to dance around spiritual growth (regarding it as a by-product of missional engagement in the world, which it is for some but by no means for all) or for whom spiritual growth (or the "spirituality" framework) are out of their comfort zone and so they engage social issues to avoid it. The church doesn't need champions. Human wholeness (including spirituality, however a given individual frames it) needs champions. While social systems do need change, changing them does not produce human resilience. Resilience must come first, or how will social change happen? The old paradigm of unaware-visiting-affiliating-going deeper-leading is much more in tune with, and able to incorporate, the spiritual growth ministry of churches, which is, after all, their distinctive purpose (distinct from other non-profits, &tc).

Ryan Weeks said...

So...under this model, growth is achieved not from moving Observers to Supporters to Advocates, but by increasing the number of base Unawares, right?

It doesn't make logical sense to me yet: if every tier of the model is theorized to always be of a certain size relative to the adjoining tiers, and if we can assume a lower tier of (general population) who might or might not agree with Unitarianism, then is the model arguing that to have more UU's, we'd need to have a larger base population upon which to draw on?

Or am I overthinking this because there is no actual theorized size/proportion relationships between the different tiers?

But if that's the case, how can we know that this model is at all helpful or accurate? Are we imagining these proportions or could there be, for example, a great many more Advocates to Supporters ratio then the model suggests?

So my fundamental problem here is that either this model doesn't apply to certain congregations, such as healthy ones, or there is no room for growth whatsoever, at least as long as whatever underlying forces created these ratios to begin with remain stagnant.

In short, is it possible that in the US society of today Unitarianism has grown as large as it can?

If so, then the only way to create "growth" in Unitarianism is to either change Unitarianism or change the larger society, thereby changing the base impact which effects the base numbers to which these ratios might apply.

Or more simply, to grow we must fundamentally be different and must have at least a larger base of Unawares. Hoping that we can have a greater ratio of Supporters to Observers goes against the whole theory of the model (if the model is going to be anything more than pure hyperbole.)

Ryan Weeks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parsley said...

Paul, among the folks I know of who are deeply engaged in extra-congregational or nontraditional congregational projects (a la beyond congregations), I am actually hearing more frustration with congregations not providing avenues for ongoing deepening and growth - necessitating a shift to other forms of community - rather than a desire to avoid growth and depth. No scientific surveys here, and there are probably others who come at it the way you are saying, but for some at least it is a quest for deeper growth and more substantive faith, not running away from it.

Tom Schade said...

To clarify for Ryan: Yes, there is a numerical relationship between the groups. If a congregation introduces itself to 100 people who were previously unaware of it, maybe 50 will take a positive attitude toward and begin to observe it. Of those, over time, maybe 10 will join the church. Of that 10, maybe 3 will become very active. Given that, the church has to keep introducing themselves to 100 people in order to keep a steady stream of 3 new very active members. Good ministry and faith development can change those proportions, but can't change the essential sequence.

Tom Schade said...

Yes, Paul. This is marketing. It is the application of insights developed by marketers, as I understood them, and applied to the situation of the church.

Tom Schade said...

Ryan, US society is dramatically changing, which creates the opportunity for UU growth. I point to the turnaround on marriage equality between 2004 (33 states passed anti same sex marriage referendums) to 2014. Its not the whole thing, but it's an indicator of what is happening in the culture. The 40 year reign of the Right is coming to an end. But UU's assume that we are small, that nobody wants liberal religion, and that the very few who do, will find their way to us on their own.

Ryan Weeks said...

Looking back at my post, let me see if I can break this down further:

In this model, if it means anything (and here I am assuming the model was put forward by some semi-prestigious person that is an expert in nonprofits and is fairly accurate) then the key to growth isn't moving people from one tier to the next, since the size of each tier is relative to the tier beneath it. Instead, you have to change the lowest tier, sort of like trickle-up economics.

With that in mind, we can see that some nonprofits are very large (i.e. International Red Cross, Salvation Army) and some are fairly small (your local single-issue environmental nonprofit.) The difference in size relative to the base population tier between these can be explained by the axiom of their impact/presence/attractiveness/reputation within society. Why do people give more to the Red Cross than to your local nonprofit that advocates against building a highway or whatever?

So what I'm saying (and I think that Tom would agree with me here) is that the key to growth isn't to do what we have been doing as a denomination "better", but to fundamentally change what we are and therefore change what our impact or reputation in society is, and therefore the basic numbers we're working with.

Having said that, I think that we obviously need to find a way to move in this direction without throwing too many babies out with the bath water (horrible analogy, I apologize.) There must be a balance beyond where we're going and not leaving behind those we're serving now.

Seems obvious, all in all. Change things up and we'll grow, right? I guess all this logic is just to emphasize that we really really do have to fundamentally change what Unitarianism is if we expect to grow as a denomination.

Elz Curtiss said...

This is a BIG step forward. Lately, I've been getting memorial service calls for "Awares," that is, people who have a friend, neighbor, colleague who practices, articulates, and models a strong UU identity. So in terms of "where do Awares come from?" I want to give a shout-out to the covenanted, evangelizing folks in the pews. What they do in the community sends out exactly the shoots our UNITARIAN forebears expected.

My question is this: How can we shift those connections from the transient to the permanent? It used to be the C & E process, people who show up on high holidays and make sure we're all still connected. What's the new way to keep the Awares aware?

Elz Curtiss said...

Rereading Ryan's push on the same question, I'd say there needs to be much better and more articulate connection with community-based ministers like myself. A family that calls us first for a memorial service, a wedding, a baby dedication, needs to know when they can expect to see us -- or a minister with the same kind of commitment and style -- by showing up at worship. Or maybe, some special occasion. What Ryan says rings true. Maybe we need to quit trying to tighten everyone's level of covenant (oh, I cringe to write that!) and start offering linkages at the distances that are comfortable for them. The opposite of hospitality, a regular rhythm of showing up.

Elz Curtiss said...

Rereading Ryan's push on the same question, I'd say there needs to be much better and more articulate connection with community-based ministers like myself. A family that calls us first for a memorial service, a wedding, a baby dedication, needs to know when they can expect to see us -- or a minister with the same kind of commitment and style -- by showing up at worship. Or maybe, some special occasion. What Ryan says rings true. Maybe we need to quit trying to tighten everyone's level of covenant (oh, I cringe to write that!) and start offering linkages at the distances that are comfortable for them. The opposite of hospitality, a regular rhythm of showing up.