Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Entrepreneurial Church: Weddings by Cindy Landrum

Our narrative is often that our churches are strapped for resources.  We can't do more, reach out more,
because we have limited staff time and energy and dwindling membership.

But there's a resource we have that truly has a lot of unused potential: our buildings.  They sit empty most of the week in most of their rooms.  Our sanctuaries, social halls, and RE classrooms largely, across the country, sit empty.  Of course most of us are happy to take in more renters, but renters needing the kind of spaces we have are hard to find.  We'd be happy to use this resource more if we knew how.

Another thing I think we could be doing more of: Weddings.  Many churches, particularly our large and beautiful ones, get more wedding requests than their ministers want to handle.  Maybe they turn people away, maybe they have a list of clergy they refer to.  But we're not out there seeking out more business, even though there's business to be had.  We're not marketing ourselves as a wedding business.  We're not building gazebos on our extensive grounds for the outdoor weddings.  We're not largely hiring wedding coordinators, and I don't think many of us have a box of stuff that couples might like to rent for weddings, from feathery pens for their guest books to clips to hold bows or flowers on the pews.

Yes, there really is more business to be had.  One need only look to the thriving wedding business Erika Hewitt is doing in Maine.  She reports that she has 30 ceremonies scheduled for this year.  But she has to take this business seriously, which means time and energy to put into it, as well as marketing.  And full-time ministers rarely have the time to do 30 weddings a year.

A lot of people who don't see the need for a church in their lives still see a need for a church for their wedding.  There's a big wedding business to be had, if we wanted to tap into it.  But part of it is that we've held on tightly to the idea that weddings need to be performed by our clergy, and our clergy want their Saturdays off, if they're paid sufficiently by the congregation.  Meanwhile, the larger culture has moved on, and is happy to have their wedding performed by their best friend who has never done a wedding before and has gotten ordained online for the occasion.  Our slack is being picked up by nondenominational wedding officiants with no training and a Universal Life Church ordination

Joey performs Monica and Chandler's wedding in Friends
Truthfully, there's little religious function left in your average wedding ceremony.  But just as truthfully, a lot of the weddings that are done by friends of the bride and groom or other amateurs are done poorly.  It doesn't take an M.Div. to know how to perform a good wedding, but it does take training.  And this is training that our ministers know how to provide.

So what if we clergy each trained one or two entrepreneurial people to become our wedding chaplains, and to aggressively market our churches for weddings?  We train these wedding chaplains, equip them with resources, and set a going rate for the whole wedding package including officiant for the church to charge, out of which the chaplain is paid, on a per wedding basis. Our churches get used, get income, and get hundreds of new faces through the doors.  Maybe they'll see something they like and come back on a Sunday, too. The wedding officiant can also do offsite weddings and these, too, can be structured to financially benefit the church as an outreach ministry.  But if we started thinking of our grounds as potential wedding sites, building the gazebos and trellises and having the hundreds of fold-out chairs available, over time we'd find ourselves going off-site less and less.  We have the beautiful locations.  We have the gorgeous grounds and the beautiful buildings and the extensive halls.  And we have the knowledge of how to do a truly wonderful wedding ceremony.  We just need to use these things in new and creative ways.

The Entrepreneurial UUA

The UUA created a successful, self-sustaining, surplus-creating health insurance company.

I don't know all the details of the story, but I have heard it recounted by Jim Sargent and others who are close to the history. The UUA risked a portion of its endowment, sought out top-quality experts in the health care insurance business, devised a sound business plan, hired competent and professional staff and sold it aggressively to UU congregations.  It has been successful, even though the health insurance business is notoriously difficult.  It falls short of a national single-payer health plan, but it works.

The work solved a problem that posed a significant risk to our ministry, congregational staffs, and many of our local congregations.

Today, there is much talk about other needs of local congregations that could be more efficiently met. My colleague, Cindy Landrum, calls for a "relentlessly useful UUA." She and others talk about the UUA providing back office services to congregations: centralized payroll, bookkeeping and accounting, member databases, web services, graphic resources, and more. Such centralized services could be sold to congregations and help focus their volunteer energy and other resources on their ministries.

But such improvements seem like impossible pipe dreams. After all, money is tight and the staff is stretched. Never gonna happen.

But remember, we created a health insurance company that works for us, when no other health insurance company was willing to cover us. And that should give us a model and some confidence that we could do what we need.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Cause is Not Enough

The cause of Unitarian Universalism, as we now understand it, is not sufficiently compelling to generate the resources to continue itself.

There are not enough people sufficiently motivated to give the time and money needed to sustain our liberal religious institutions, as we now think of them.  Stuck in survival mode, we cannot gather the capacity to grow. The evidence is the declining pledge levels in many congregations.

Our cause is too small and too safe to ignite sufficient passionate engagement, the kind of commitment that we need. On the one hand, our cause is too big: all things to all people. And on the other hand, it is too small: this particular little organization in your town, this building, this minister, these people in all their particular ways.

To put in terms of our survival, the only thing that can make the difference is the passionate engagement of more people. 

We have to look beyond the people who are presently passionate about Unitarian Universalism. There is a much larger group of people we would reach IF they could see that we would directly connect them to the transformation that they are anxious to see in the world.

It means that our congregations must be more clearly purposeful. I recently wrote a series of posts on alternative growth strategies to the present "community building" strategy. Each proposal I floated was a variation on the theme of creating more purposeful congregations.

A lot of the recent conference of ministers in the MidAmerica Region (a name that sounds like a chain of tire stores) focused on multisite ministry and new start ministry. Those methods do not address the question of purpose. Multisite, especially, is a vision of stretching our resources by eliminating duplicate expenditures. It makes us more efficient; it doesn't help us grow.

Can we imagine a multi-site church which contains satellites with very different purposes and appeals? A parent church where one satellite is a young adult oriented new start? One satellite is an Earth Church? One satellite is a Co-Op Children's Church? One satellite is an activist church? One a missional project in a particular neighborhood? All robust network connecting them? A single back office, performing all the financial and database functions


Monday, April 13, 2015


We may be entering a divisive time for the Unitarian Universalist movement. UU ministers are responding to the great issues of the day: racism, climate change, reproductive justice, the religious counter-attack against GLBTQ people now that marriage equality seems inevitable. 

But then there is "congregational pushback."

I think it makes a difference that we are in a different historical era than the era that most of our experiences have come from.

Most of our thinking about congregational life was shaped during the period of conservative hegemony in US Culture.  Now, I think that we are living in new era as the more liberal and optimistic Obama era evolves into an era of more radical and militant social movements.

If we are truly the early stages of a major social movement, we face an inevitable time of shedding and growth in UU congregations. I hope that we are able to see that the soul of our denomination depends on gaining those who are most truly aligned with our values, and losing those less so. 

How that will develop will depend on how ministers negotiate the triangle between themselves, their congregants and "history",  which is my shorthand for the demands that our faith makes upon Unitarian Universalists in the present day. 

The three legs of the triangle:

  1. There is the relationship between ourselves as liberal religious leaders and "history."
  2. There is the relationship between our congregants and "history."
  3. There is the relationship between ourselves and our congregants. 

When social movements are quiet, the relationship between our congregants and "history" is less pressing. More people are concerned with other things: their jobs, their hobbies, their children and their education, sports, their own personal spiritual development, their intellectual pursuits, popular culture. Many UU's with significant relative advantages in the world can keep a distance for the demands of the day. 

When social movements are quiet, the relationship between ministers and "history" is less robust, as well. But UU ministers tend to be more aware of the demands of history then many of their congregants. So the clergy tends to be teachers, alerting the laity to issues that many are not aware of.  Prophetic preaching tends to be trying to get our congregants to care about something that they don't have on their horizon.

But the situations are different when social movements are active. Congregants have their own relationship to what I call "history."

Everybody has their own relationship to the
Black Lives Matter movement.
There are not many people in our congregations who don't know about the Black Lives Matter movement. They have seen the news coverage; many have heard contending opinions about it; most have an opinion, or a leaning for or against. Those opinions are all over the map.

They have their own relationship to it; and one of the first rules is that 'you can't fix a relationship that you are not in.'

I think that our role, as ministers, changes in a period of heightened social movements. We move from being teachers, informing our congregants about the issues, to being models, showing how we are responding to the demands of history. Our ability to persuade people is less; our ability to inspire people is greater.

UU ministers have to lead out of their own convictions, placing their primary emphasis on their own relationship to the social movements. We have to do what we are called by our faith to do; we have to lead by example.

The temptation is to focus too much on the relationship between the congregants and their minister.  What that does is bring all their (the congregants') confusions about the social movements into the pastoral relationship with them.  The minister becomes where they project their anger and discomfort at having their relative advantages named and challenged. They then think that minister has brought the social divisions "out there" into the "peaceful circle" of the congregation. The minister is at fault for not "balancing" the needs of all the congregants.

All of their discomfort, anger, fear and resentment would still be there, even if they were not members of the congregation. White people are being disturbed now everywhere.

The minister needs to be keep turning the question back to the congregants: "how are you going to relate to this social movement? This isn't about me, and it isn't about the church, and it isn't about the number of prophetic sermons I preach in a month. This is about how you respond to this social movement.  I can tell you how I am responding; I can explain my process, but in the end, this is about how you respond." 

Rev. Dawn Cooley's Four Challenges

Rev. Dawn Cooley, who serves the UU congregation in Louisville, KY, has written a series on "removing barriers to congregational participation." She challenges the conventional wisdom in four areas:

1. Congregations need multiple worship services with different styles and at different times to make it more possible for more people to worship with them.
2. Congregations need to provide more avenues for participation in the work of the church; attendance in worship should not be the only path to membership.
3. Congregations need to extend their reach with technology and social media.
4. Congregations need to develop more ways to ask for money than the annual pledge campaign.

Any of these would be a tall order for many congregations. Unitarian Universalists stick pretty close to one model of organized religious life: Building + Minister + 1 Liturgy + Congregation that does many small projects and programs.

Implied in Dawn's 4 challenges is a vision of a different kind of liberal religious movement: a network of people that engages each other and the surrounding community in many ways, but is held together not by a building, but through social media, and which provides many ways to participate in the functions of worship: gathering, inspiring, sustaining, dedicating, holding.

Reading through Dawn's series, the question occurs to me. What if we asked ourselves this question: What are the barriers to our congregation participating fully in the life of our wider community?