Smaller churches are so important to Unitarian Universalism. Two-thirds of all our UU congregations have under 160 members. What’s more, the best features of smaller church are often just what seekers and the religiously curious are looking for these days. Small congregations can not only survive, but thrive and be the best of what Unitarian Universalism offers our world. But to thrive, you may need to think of your small congregation a little bit differently:
What To Know About and Emphasize in Your Small Congregation
- Congratulations! You’re Already Doing the Next Generation of Church. Healthy small church is authentic, nimble and intimate—just what 21st century unchurched people are seeking. You’re well placed to bring in the next generation of religious community.
- Small is Special. You are not a undersized version of a larger congregation. Smaller churches need a different model that’s just the right size for your resources of people and money.
- Do What You Do Best—and That’s It. Your congregation doesn’t need to do everything. You can focus on the things you’re great at and leave the rest behind. Give yourselves permission to thrive doing what you love. Stop exhausting yourselves straining to cover all the bases. (See below for help with how to find your new focus.)
- Work with Others to Create the Whole Enchilada. Pick the “ingredient” you have to offer, and partner with others who are good at things you’re not. You’re better together. (see the video in the sidebar)
- Rebooting is Healthy. There’s no shame in deciding to go back and take a look at what resources you have and what the community needs are, even if it means feeling like you’re starting over. The best church happens when energy and relevance is high. Every congregation should try to be nimble and courageous enough to reboot when needed.
Learn More About Doing Great Church in a Smaller Package
Take my Online Class on Small Congregations! Visit UU Leadership Institute to sign up for just $15.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel! Here’s Help
- Join Soul Matters! Soul Matters Sharing Circles deliver a monthly packet of worship materials, small group conversation topics, and help for your religious education program—a huge help for church leaders.
- Need preachers? Train some of your own, using the book The Shared Pulpit, by Rev. Erika Hewitt. This is an all-inclusive course guide to developing your own sermons. It’s a great way to get lay leaders preaching-ready.
- Need some resources for your worship service? Check out UUA Worship Resource Pages.
- The Central East Region has a Guest in Your Pulpit program to find guest preachers.
- Is your congregation overwhelmed by its Religious Education offerings? Time to re-evaluate how you integrate kids. Read this paper The Death of Sunday School and check out these offerings about multigenerational programming. Learn from a congregation who did it: Breakthrough Congregation, Ogden, Utah.
- Want to find out what your congregation’s calling is, and broadcast it to the world? Look through Love Reaches Out (PDF): A study guide of outreach and branding strategies for Unitarian. Universalist congregations and communities.
- The best thing you can do for your congregation is to have an appealing website. We have a template for you to start from, with attractive layout and language for you to use. Check it out at: UUA WordPress Theme for Congregations.
- Want some leadership training without leaving your couch? Check out our offerings at the UU Leadership Institute. From full semester courses down to micro learnings on everything from how your Board might function better to UU history.
- Do you have dedicated leaders, but can’t afford professional clergy? You may want to look into our Commissioned Lay Minister program.
The most effective thing you can do as a small congregation is figure out what your purpose is and to act on it—even if that purpose is small! Don’t be a smaller version of a full-service congregation. Become impactful and sustainable through focusing on an appropriately sized mission that matters to you and to your community.
- Here’s a good starting place: Is Your Congregation Feeling Contractions? by Renee Ruchotzke.
- For a congregation wide approach, check out Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change. This book has ideas and scripts for your congregation to learn what really matters and what it wants to focus on next.
A Good Goodbye
Congregations are human institutions and, like humans, they have a lifespan. Your congregation may discern that it’s time for a good goodbye, rather than to continue on. This is no failure! It takes courage to recognize and admit this truth, and better to end well with your remaining resources poised to continue your good work in the world.
Good endings include:
- Using your remaining resources in a way that feels hopeful and fulfilling to your community. The Unitarian Universalist Association can assist you in making a donation – whether it be a building, an endowment, or another resource - that feels consonant with your congregation's values. You can still have a mighty impact in Unitarian Universalism with your goodbye. Leave a legacy that matters.
- Grieving, Remembering, and Celebrating. Once you’ve decided to close, take plenty of time to mourn and to tell stories and to party. You’re an important institution closing an important chapter. Your story matters, and you should be sure to tell it. Spend lots of time celebrating being you. When it’s time to be sad, feel it, and when it’s time to be joyful and grateful, feel that too—together.
- Planning for continued relationships. A closing church does not destroy friendships. Make sure you create opportunities to gather with your church family frequently, even if you don’t do so in the familiar patterns.
- Even if you aren’t sure if a good goodbye is right for you now, you may want to sit down for a conversation with your CER Primary Contact to talk about your options. We’re here to help you explore, celebrate, grieve, and make good decisions.
These books can help you in a number of ways! Why not gather a team together to tackle all of them over the year?
- Dwinell, Jane and Ellen Germann-Melosh, Big Ideas for Small Congregations: A Friendly Guide for Leaders. Quintessential UU guide for smaller congregations; very helpful.
- Hewit, Rev. Erika, The Shared Pulpit
- Ray, David R. The Indispensible Guide for Smaller Churches. Tons of great ideas.
- O’Brien, Brandon J. The Strategically Small Church: Intimate, Nimble, Authentic, Effective. Helps to show how small churches are strategically effective in this day and age.
- Willis, Steve. Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path. More evidence of the mightiness of the smaller church.
Tips and Tricks to Follow
- Membership and Growth in Family Sized Congregation Tipsheet (Word)
- Coffee Hour Caution: Advice for Greeting Young People at Church (PDF)
- Welcoming Versus Othering: Basic Intercultural Sensitivity Tips (PDF)