Forever congregation?

I’ve been thinking — as I do, when the UUA certifications come in — about churches, especially small ones.

Imagine this senario. A small lay-led fellowship starts up in a market town in middle America. It has the usual problems of miscommunication, confliciting interests, and insufficient resources. Still, it develops the most liberal Sunday school in town, a reputation as the go-to place for being cooperative in civic interests (when others churches are being dogmatic), and a group of friendships that last a lifetime . . . and a feud or some other calamity that led to its eventual decline and death.

It never had more than thirty or so members, and often quite fewer. They only lasted five, ten, or fifteen years. Later, locally, the most anyone would remember of this congregation was the unusual books they gave to the public library, and a kind word from the YMCA manager about them always paying their rent on time. There are still people in their UUA district who thinks there’s a UU congregation in that town, but they never knew much about them anyway. Someone clucked, “well, they’re a fellowship, after all. What do you expect.”

Was this church a failure? I’m not so sure, even with this minimal hypothetical outline. Some would say yes. Others would say it was a waste of UUA resources, though I’m never sure what that’s supposed to mean.  If it created a community with a core ethos, and lived to that ethos with integrity, then it was not a failure, even if short lived.  We never know what need was met, what comfort was given, or what new direction was taken. (Or what use of passive voice was made. Sorry.) Some small churches, even short lived ones, have to have done amazing things.
Some large churches — of any denomination — are sometimes accused of being all show and no spirit. But again, I can’t help but think they do more good than is heralded. As with the smallest, dying churches, there are valid questions about the use of resources in proportion to the amount of ministry done.
One response is to create large congregations of spiritually mature people. But my experience suggest that there are more large congregations with a few spiritually mature people and a large padding of zealots, aesthetes, program consumers, or poseurs than such exhalted Commonwealths of God on Earth.

Another option is to go small and light. I’l be talking more about this.  But there’s a psychological (and perhaps ecclesiological) hurdle first: that a church, when constituted, must last forever.

The very notion of forever in human institutions is silly, but the line between of indefinite duration and forever can blur in unhelpful ways. (Ask the Restorationists.) Perhaps we have to be willing to experiment with churches that we know won’t last. And if they do last longer than expected, we can rejoice in an accomplishment (or divine gift) and not tsk-tsk away what might have been.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

8 thoughts on “Forever congregation?”

  1. But my experience suggest that there are more large congregations with a few spiritually mature people and a large padding of zealots, aesthetes, program consumers, or poseurs than such exhalted Commonwealths of God on Earth.

    Do these people not need UU community too?

  2. To be plain, I was actually referring to congregations of many denominations. Given the size I was envisioning on the big end, pehaps not Unitarian Universalists, given our rather quaint idea of what makes a large church.

    That said, on the whole, my answer is “no.” In part because their use is not “community” but receiving as much as they can. They stay with a church while it’s useful and flee when it makes demands. To quote Erasure, “Who needs love like that?”

  3. To echo Scott, I would argue that the zealots, aesthetes, program consumers, and poseurs do not really understand the nature of religious community. To my mind they are welcome to visit and explore, but I grow concerned when they become the membership; because for them the community is mostly a vehicle for their self-focused ends.

    Having served a few small churches, i will say that they have their flaws; but their blessings are too easily dismissed. It was a small church that saved my soul from feeling forsaken.

  4. Labelling people as program consumers, poseurs or by any other epithet is just counterproductive. Personally, I prefer two categories: those who can serve a fellowship, and those whom a fellowship serves. A congregation that can accommodate both types of people is in a good place.

    I agree with Derek that small churches can save one’s soul…true for me as well.

    Now, this zealot is off to Sunday service.

  5. I’ll grant these epithets are uncomfortable, but how counterproductive? And how better than your definition (which I say without hostility) which sounds like the definition of a social service agency?

  6. Cheers, and thanks for your reply.

    In a social service agency the line between server and served is not supposed to blur; true also for a minister or a paid professional in any church. In a fellowship or a church with co-ministry, the line is constantly blurred. As someone who spends a lot of time serving her small fellowship, I constantly find myself asking…whom am I serving here? Am I being served adequately? Am I doing too much/not enough? Does the work I’m doing honor a value of interdependence, or am I just forging ahead without consulting others?

    It’s like being a member of a church choir. Choir members are usually church members, and not paid. They are entitled to be served by your church experience through their attendance every Sunday, AND they have a responsible role in putting on a service. They have to serve and be served, both at once to fill your role well.

    Poseur and zealot are perjorative terms; counterproductive to building good dialogue or community in my opinion.

    Now, I really do have to dress & go to fellowship. : )

  7. Very well, come back after the service and reply.

    I agree with your give-and-take analysis of church life, and more, wouldn’t exclude ministers from it. (If you read your first comment, you may see why I thought your two categories were mutually exclusive.) Any minister who goes into The Giving Tree mode will end up a stump, too, and part of that is giving and giving and giving to people who think the church is public utility for their benefit. It amazes me how the people on my list of church misfits find small weak churches (those desperate for members usually, large churches don’t suffer this usually or can absorb them, but large churches have other weaknesses), rise to leadership, and throttle them.

    You’re perceptive that such terms — never used to the persons directly, I do have feelings — aren’t good for dialog, but dialog isn’t my goal. Preserving the church is, and unhealthy people in it need to be kept far from leadership. In our polity, that often means guarding the church itself.

  8. I have to agree with Scott on this. Behaviors that damage the church must be named, even if perjorative. Very few people seem to understand that the church is an institution whose health must be preserved mindfully, and that part of preserving that health means naming behaviors in clear, uneuphemistic terms.
    I have helped my church leaders let go of their sense of responsibility for a few people by simply saying, “they left because they were consumers and they found a better product elsewhere.” It’s true, I have evidence to prove it, they nod their heads in recognition, and we can let it go and minister to the health of the church. Of course I would be lothe to call someone a poseur or a zealot, but I do not hesitate to assign any Negativo (my word) some way to be more responsible for their church experience. Chronic complainers (and I only have one in my current congregation and s/he’s needy, not poisonous) are listened to for several times and then given an assignement, e.g., “I think you’re listening for certain messages and words. Next week, I’d like to have you listen to the other 90% of the service and tell me what else you hear.” Or “That sounds like a great idea. I’d encourage you to see if there’s any support for that in the wider congregation and if you feel there is, I’d be happy to work with you to make such-and-such happen.” (We don’t launch programs with Lone Ranger leaders)
    The sign of a true churchman or woman is that they understand that the church is grounded in a covenant and in relationship, and they will accept responsibility for such an assignment or request. A damaging type will refuse to. And when that happens, yes, they earn a perjorative label in my private mental filing system so that I can proactively meet the challenge of their involvement.

    I have noticed of late that Negativos don’t stick around. They see a bustling congregation where members are running the show, are responsible for healthy process, and seriously accountable to one another, and a minister who, while unconditionally available as a pastor, has boundaries and expectations as a church LEADER, and they make tracks. It helps a lot that we don’t feel desperate for members. We are seriously devoted to an ethic of hospitality and integration but we don’t project that “Please come and be a member of this church and a leader any time you want” attitude that I think is all too common and which leaves churches open to much abuse.

    Someone asks, “Don’t such people [Negativos] need UU community?” Sorry, but this question really rankles me. It is raised among us every time anyone sets a boundary or names a behavior or ideology as damaging. Community is a reciprocal relationship. It is not the church’s job to neutrally absorb every human being just because they need (or even deserve) a community. This is why it is so important to attend well to our newcomers and seekers: who are they? what are their gifts? how will they bring something new to the congregation or “fit right in?” How much instruction will they need in order to participate well and healthily in the congregation? Are they willing to receive such instruction? Are they happy to have found us? Why? Are we happy that they’ve found us? Or do we feel a visceral sense of danger or discomfort when they’re around?

    The church IS its members!! We act as though church community is an amorphous blob that should unconditionally and unreservedly integrate every single individual who walks through the door. NUh-uh, people. Church members don’t graduate after four years and move on. They are with you for life and greatly affect the organism that is Church. I consider it part of my stewardship responsbility to the future of the congregation not to shine a lot of sunshine on obviously dysfunctional characters.
    Since God/Fate will undoubtedly send profoundly challenging people to any congregation: mentally ill, chronically plagued, socially inept, burdened by desperate need, the church must not spend its energies trying to accomodate the merely obnoxious, narcissistic, crisis-addicted and entitled.

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