Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Church Growth--Finally

My apologies for getting so behind on this. I promised you a post last week, and I didn't post at all last week. At long last, now, here it is, my further thoughts on church growth.

Red Sphynx said:

But I look around my metro area and see at least 4 UU congregations that are dying. Five years ago, all five had part time ministers. Now none of them do.

Do you recommend some readings or some wisdom for turning the tide in those congregations?
Red Sphynx, I'm not a growth consultant, and I hesitate to comment on any particular church's situation. And having read lots of growth literature and gone to dozens of workshops, I'm not sure that any of them really have helped me, personally, turn growth around in any congregation. So, no, sorry, I have no advice to give you, sadly. I'm somewhat familiar with some Texas congregations, having served in Houston for half a year, but that was already seven years ago. At that time, Jonalu Johnstone was the Growth Consultant for the district, and she was fabulous. I'm not sure from your district's webpage who is doing that work now, but I would suggest turning there for help. The district usually is the best place to turn for growth help, in my own experience.

Hugh asks about the city size of congregations in relationship to church growth and then asks:

How much does location affect the size of our congregation?
Good question, Hugh, and since I'm obviously more familiar with our congregation. Yes, obviously the local population size is a limiter, and I've never heard a good solid number of what percentage of a population we can expect to grow to. When our own church got numbers as part of an extension ministry training that a previous minister went to, the numbers suggested there were a lot of potential UUs in the area, and we could be thousands large potentially. However, no UU church in any geographic area has ever measured up to those numbers from that agency, as far as I know.

We have a number of limitations on our possible growth at our congregation:
  • Size of the local population (Jackson County: 158442)
  • Size of sanctuary (Full capacity, about 100)
  • Size of parking lot (Unknown number of spaces, but overflowing into cemeteries when sanctuary is packed)
  • Size of religious education space (already we're using the social hall)
  • Location (outside of the city, not on the main highway)
  • Natural Plateau Points (between 50 and 70 in worship is a natural plateau point between family and pastoral sized churches--see The In-Between Church)
  • Staff (to be staffed for growth we would probably need an administrative assistant, but I don't have the literature on that one to be sure)
To start with the one I've done the most analysis of, let's analyze sanctuary size. Now, conventional wisdom would say we have a lot of space to grow there. We're not packed in at all, right? However, our pew length is 118 inches, and we have 17 pews. According to Raising the Roof, seating area per person is 30-36 inches. If that pew were two inches longer, so let's round up, and going with 30 inches per person, that's four people per pew. And, in reality, some pews have more people sittting in them, and some fewer--people will sit closer to people they know, but further from ones they don't know or aren't family with. At any rate, that gives us capacity for 68 people to sit comfortably in the sanctuary--including the front row. (If you omit the first row on each side, which, let's face it, nobody sits in, our capacity is 60 right there.) Now, the literature, as I understand it, says a church will plateau at 80% of comfortable capacity. 80% of comfortable capacity for our sanctuary is 54.4 people. In 2006, which is when I did this analysis, our average weekly attendance, adults and children, was 54.14, or 79.6% of comfortable capacity. So are we at a plateau? You betcha. Has anything changed? Not really. Our average attendance fluctuates slightly, but it's still around that number.

So we do have a number of space-related growth hurdles to overcome. But then there's the bigger question of if we had the ideal space, and a willingness to grow, would Jackson sustain a larger church size? That's the answer I'm not sure on. We are a smaller city (seemingly getting smaller every day right now), and a fairly conservative one. How many potential UUs are in Jackson? I just don't know.

What I do know is this: there are more potential UUs out there in Jackson. We haven't reached the limit yet. And we have an important and timely message to share with our area and the world. More people than have been in decades are unchurched. The number of people in our country who don't describe themselves as Christian is growing. The number of people looking for something inclusive of racial and ethnic diversity, gay and straight identities, and multiple theologies, is growing. So I believe despite any and all obstacles, UUism can grow and ought to grow. Jackson needs us to grow. Now we just have to figure out how to make it happen.

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