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The Growing Church

The Growing Church

Keys to Congregational Vitality

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The Growing Church is an open invitation to experience the progress of some of our fast-growing congregations and to see ministry through the eyes of those who have led their congregations toward vitality and expansion.

Edited by: Thom Belote

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The Growing Church is an open invitation to experience the progress of some of our fast-growing congregations and to see ministry through the eyes of those who have led their congregations toward vitality and expansion.

Foreword by Alice Mann

Additional resources for this title are available at no charge on the Skinner House Companion Resources page.

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Foreword by Alice Mann

Introduction by William Sinkford

Transformation by Michael A. Schuler

Devotion by Ken Beldon

Mission by Thom Belote

Worship by Victoria Safford

Buzz by John T. Crestwell Jr.

Welcoming by Peter Morales

Innovation by Christine Robinson

Power by Marilyn Sewell

Love by Elizabeth Lerner Maclay

A Church Growth Inventory by Thom Belote

About the Contributors

Each author has chosen a facet of growth to lift up from his or her own ministry. Some essays deal with concrete ideas, such as how to make the message of your church relevant to the larger society and how to develop a mission statement. Some describe worship that touches the soul, ways to make a congregation more welcoming, and the importance of embracing innovation. Others are more abstract, considering the responsible use of power, the idea of devotion, the central importance of love, and the cultivation of that feeling of energy, spirit, charisma, and excitement known as "buzz."

As you read these essays, you will be struck by the ministers' distinct personalities. Some are deeply pastoral, some rigorously intellectual, and some passionately prophetic. Indeed, all of them are "stars." They are intelligent, well trained, highly skilled, compassionate, and committed. But that is the profile of the typical Unitarian Universalist minister. The facets of growth they write about point to the diversity of elements that can foster and support growth. That is appropriate, given our distaste for fundamentalism of any kind.

At the same time, powerful common themes stand out. I rememberso well sitting in the outer circle at the consultation with the other Growth Team members, while the ministers in the inner circle answered the facilitator's questions. The first was, "What is the saving message of your congregation?" I found the question itself surprising, and it was so helpful to hear in the answers a core of consensus. The language varied from minister to minister, but each told a similar story. "My congregation nurtures the individual human spirit and helps individuals find their connection to the holy, however they may name it." "My congregation is called to work for justice, to help heal the wounded world." In fact, "Nurture your spirit. Help heal our world" became a kind of mantra that ran through the consultation, so the UUA used it as its national advertising tagline for a while.

Our community places a high value on individualism, and every one of the four hundred congregations I visited as president believes itself unique. We invest a great deal of energy in dealing with the differences in our beliefs and our religious practices. Humanists and theists, liberal Christians and pagans, atheists and agnostics all find a home in Unitarian Universalist congregations. This big theological tent poses real challenges for our ministry. However, by focusing less on our differences of belief and more on what our congregations do, we might break through some of the dynamics that hold us back.

Love also emerged as a powerful theme in the consultation. Owing to the revelation of widespread sexual abuse by clergy in recent years, religious communities, including our own, have focused on necessary boundaries between ministers and congregants. Do not think for a moment that I would encourage us to undo that work. It is critically important. But an unintended consequence may be that we have given up the ability to talk about the appropriate love that must exist between a minister and congregation if the ministry is to thrive. It is clear that these ministers love their congregations. I would also venture to guess that their congregations experience being loved. We would be healthier if we could use that word more often. "Love is the doctrine of this church," begins one of our most commonly used statements of covenant. "Standing on the Side of Love" is one of our most popular hymns.

Another theme discussed in a few of these essays relates to conflict. Often, a period of sustained growth is triggered by the call of a new minister, so it would be easy to attribute such growth to that individual's skills and brilliance. And often, but not always, the period of growth follows a period of turmoil and conflict in congregational life. Conflict and turmoil are usually signs of a broken relationship. When a congregation and its minister have moved out of right relationship, sometimes the best solution is the call of a new minister. But perhaps we would be better served by developing a greater capacity to manage and move through conflict, by redeeming relationships and re-covenanting in ways that allow an existing ministry to move forward.

"Growing Unitarian Universalism is a moral imperative. It is the moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. These essays by ministers who have led some of our fastest growing churches share their passion and their wisdom. This is essential reading for everyone who wants to see our faith thrive."

—Peter Morales, president, Unitarian Universalist Association

"These essays are far and away the best guide to congregational growth and vitality I've ever read. They provide both practical and spiritual guidance for those of us who are secret or not-so-secret evangelists."

—Kathleen Montgomery, former executive vice president, Unitarian Universalist Association

"If you as ministers or as lay leaders want to see your churches get past the roadblocks, if you are willing to change a few bad habits and begin practicing a few good ones, read this book. Not only read it, but take it to heart. What you will find may surprise you. You just might like what happens to your church."

—Dennis Hamilton, minister, Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church, Carrollton, Texas

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