Adding services can provide a wonderful, invigorating climate for growth of all sorts, both individual and institutional. But large-scale change without adequate planning not only may doom the change but also may create additional problems. Therefore,
planning well for this change, as for any other major change, is necessary to ensure that the process will be effective.
How Is the Decision Made?
How the decision to add an additional service is made can determine whether a positive move will occur. A good decision process can make the addition of a service a success; a bad process can create untold difficulties that survive well past the failed attempt. Yet no one right process exists. Rather, the best process varies, depending on the congregation’s history, governing documents, size, style, and culture.
Congregational polity means that every congregation is its own authority, with the members making decisions on the key elements of the congregation’s life. Some of the authority for day-to-day operations is delegated to a board and to committees, but the congregation members retain ultimate authority. Even though all UUA member congregations follow congregational polity as their governing structure, how it is lived out in day-to-day congregational life differs as much as do the individual thoughts and feelings of Unitarian Universalists. The size of a congregation has an impact, but it is not the sole factor in determining how leadership is mobilized effectively in the congregation. Effective leadership also is determined by individual ministerial style and the form of democracy the congregation has embraced. Some congregations make decisions through a “committee of the whole” process; others empower the board and committees to govern; and still others rely upon the ministers to act, in effect, as chief executive officers who determine what programmatic solutions will fulfill the congregation’s mission.
Regardless of the style and form of leadership, what helps most during times of major change is the involvement of, and communication with, the entire congregation. When the professional staff, elected leadership, and congregation members work together collaboratively, ownership of the change is widely shared, and the possibility for success increases.
This collaboration is especially important when adding a worship service. The worship life of a congregation is the one area in which all are welcome and invited, and it is in worship that the largest proportion of the congregation comes together in a visible way. Changing worship changes people’s sense of what it means to be a congregation. This transition can raise many concerns, logical or not, so managing the congregation-wide conversation, in an open forum, and including the relevant players are essential.
The minister or other worship leaders must be willing to participate, of course, but the list of areas of congregational life that are touched by the change is broad: religious education, music, choir, hospitality, membership, administrative, and custodial, to name just a few areas. For example, without the support of the religious educator and key religious education volunteers, a duplicate service with a full religious education program will not succeed. Without the support of the lay-people in changing their attendance patterns, the additional service may be attended only by those staff members who have to be there. Without the support of the administrative and custodial staff members, orders of service or heating and lighting for the additional service may be lacking. The leadership may be centered within one body (professional leadership, lay leadership, or the congregation as a whole), but to ensure the success of the change, everyone must be at least willing for the new service to proceed.
One of the easiest ways to bring together all the relevant people and committees is through the establishment of a task force to oversee the exploration and implementation of adding another service. The inclusion of representatives from the professional staff (ministers, religious educators, musicians, administrators, custodians, and so on) and from the relevant committees (worship, religious education, hospitality, membership, building needs, finance, and so on) immediately establishes communication about concerns and possible solutions. People who are at least neutral, if not enthusiastic, about the possibilities and who can articulate the concerns and the resources available in the process should staff this task force. (Naysayers have their place in the larger process, but if they have too great a presence on the task force, the work will be even
harder than it might otherwise be.) The members of the task force should be champions for the process. They should be people who are trusted and respected, and who can hear and deal effectively with the concerns brought forth. In addition, some task force members need skills in managing the anxiety that undoubtedly will arise within the congregation. If the members of the task force are too uncomfortable with anxiety, they will tend to move too quickly to a premature plan that does not truly meet the
congregation’s needs. The task force needs to be able to allow the anxiety to surface, to contain it by listening considerately, and to move the group on when the time arrives.
After the task force is in place, its first job is to design and articulate the process for involving the larger congregation in the decision-making. This process needs to include both education on the issue and a chance for congregation members to share their ideas, concerns, and questions. Some congregations may need to revisit or redo their mission statement and reconnect with the reason they exist before they are ready to see the need for a new service. Some congregations use a series of workshops with leadership and the wider membership, whereas others provide education through town meetings and newsletter articles. Surveys can help uncover concerns and questions.
Members of the task force who represent various other committees in the congregation are another valuable vehicle for communicating expectations, concerns, and questions between the subgroups they represent and the whole congregation. People need multiple opportunities to be involved throughout the decision-making process. It is especially important that the task force hear, explore, and respond to the members’ concerns. Many congregations said that the work done before the change made the actual change easy to implement.
The task force might find it helpful to contact other UU congregations that have recently added an additional worship service for guidance, mentoring, input, and advice. By using this lateral connection, committees and congregations can learn from one
another, thus decreasing mistakes and capitalizing on strengths. A regional staff member or local minister can help you identify congregations in your area that recently have added a service.
Plan for a Trial Period and Evaluations
A formal evaluation of the additional service is important for a variety of reasons. Every program in a congregation needs to be reviewed periodically to ensure that it is meeting the needs and objectives of the congregation’s ministry. In addition, adding a service often is easier when people know that they will get a chance to change things if the addition is not working out well. Resistance fades when people recognize a goodwill effort to ensure that their expectations are reviewed on a regular basis.
The addition of a worship service should have a trial period of no less than six months, and better still is a one-year trial period. As has been stated, change is not easy, and people (and congregations) need time to adapt to, and live in, any change. Attendance patterns and quality issues are best examined over a long period of time. Unforeseen “bugs” often need to be worked out, and their presence may give an artificially negative picture of the overall effectiveness and popularity of the additional service. Further, attendance may be unrealistically low or high at first, depending on the level of enthusiasm and advance promotion of the new service. Some congregations find that attendance is good from the beginning and just keeps increasing; some find that it starts out low and grows slowly; others find that it starts out great and withers away; and some find that it starts high, slows down, and then picks up again. The results assessed at the end of a year will give a much better understanding of what is working well and what is not.
If something is clearly not working well, however, do not extend the trial period for so long that it hinders the possibility of ever moving forward again. Tweaking the service and its contents, time, day, and the like might be necessary earlier rather than later. Fine-tuning the service requires a balance between a rash response and no response. Change during (and after) the trial period must be done only after good insight, consideration, and consultation.
Resistance to new ideas comes from a surprising variety of places. Sometimes the laypeople, sometimes the leaders, and sometimes specific segments of the congregation worry about being overburdened. Sometimes the people in the professional leadership share that worry or are concerned about the ways their ministry will change because of the addition of worship opportunities. This resistance is not always conscious or logical, but it is clearly a part of human psychology. Pretending it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away, so soliciting concerns early on in the process is key.
You may want to offer people the option of submitting questions in writing. Sometimes people will ask the important questions only if they feel safe in doing so, and written questions provide a degree of anonymity. Resistance is normal and a part of
most change processes. Analyzing resistance also can help you identify issues that might have been overlooked. It also can help you identify creative solutions to problems and illuminate new aspects of the situation.
Nostalgia is another concern that must be addressed. When faced with change, we often imagine an idyllic past rather than realize that the past usually seems better in hindsight. For example, people who look back to the 1950s as a wonderful time for families often forget that the dreams and desires of women and children were not allowed to blossom fully at that time. The same is true in congregational life. People remember that terrific feeling “when everybody knew their name” but don’t necessarily remember that they didn’t know everyone else’s name or that it was never possible to be friends with everyone anyway. They remember fondly the times when there were more people crammed in the sanctuary but fail to recognize the shifting (increasing) sense of personal space in mainstream North American culture of the twenty-first century. We long for larger airplane seats, wider theater aisles, bigger houses, and more elbowroom on Sunday mornings. Make sure that you recognize nostalgic notions for what they are and gently remind people that nostalgia may be playing too big a part in the decision process.
Implementing the Transition
Once you have decided that you will add a service, what kind of service it will be, and what you will do about religious education, the focus shifts to how you will manage the actual transition. Again, no one right answer exists, but you should keep in mind several keys to successful implementation of your plan.
At this point, if you have involved the congregation in the process from the start, you are ready to implement the change. If, however, you have not involved the congregation and the additional service is news to them, internal publicity needs to start many months before you implement the new service. You will need to provide information on the service, the reasons for it, the process followed, and what will be changing. You will need to provide opportunities for congregational members to react to the news and the anticipated change.
You will need to decide when to implement the change. Most congregations find that it is easiest to add a new service in September. Although January is touted as the New Year, September is the actual beginning of the church year for many of us. Children go back to school and move into new classrooms; organizations begin new recreational programs; TVs are tuned to the World Series, football, and hockey; and people make choices as to how they will spend the winter months. Jumping onto this bandwagon makes choosing between worship services just another part of fall’s transitions rather than a big deal on its own.
That said, it is still a good idea to make the addition of a worship service a big deal on its own, because it is! This change is a good opportunity for a congregation to celebrate all that it has accomplished on the road to adding the service: mission and vision clarification, collaboration, flexibility, and so much more. Holding a kickoff service, making banners and posters, writing media releases, hosting a special social hour for the new service, and having a congregation-wide party are just some of the ways to celebrate the good work that has brought the congregation to this point. Remember to thank the people who have worked hard on the task force, as well as the staff members who have changed their lives to enable the service to be added. Releases in newsletters to members and friends should remind people of both the starting date and time of the
new service and the change of time of the preexisting service; people don’t like to be reminded that they overlooked an important detail by showing up for service at the wrong time! And don’t be tempted to solve this problem by leaving the time of the preexisting service the same. Congregations have found that unless they move that time by at least fifteen minutes, they cannot shift attendance patterns enough to relieve overcrowding.
You may encounter resistance, so you will need to ensure that the service’s champions listen carefully to the concerns raised and respond to them fully. One question that may well arise is why more people were not included in the decision-making process. The answer to this question depends on the leadership and governance style of your congregation. For congregations that follow a more businesslike process with a chief executive officer, the staff may have the authority to make such a key decision, and little resistance may result. Yet for most of our congregations in the small to midsize categories, concern that “no one asked us” is expected. The best way to circumvent this kind of resistance is to make sure that you do ask the congregation by involving the members in the process from the beginning. It is also important to provide updates and summarize information regularly so that newcomers and others who are just newly aware of the process are informed of the details.
Several months down the road, make sure that you plan a careful evaluation of the service, whether or not you opted for a trial period. Listen to what people are saying, and not saying, about the additional service. Tweak the small things as you go along,
but don’t make major changes until several months have passed so you know whether an issue is a temporary glitch arising out of change or a long-term problem that needs attention.
If the new service is subject to a vote after a trial period, allow ample opportunities for discussion of the change before the day of the vote. You may wish to use formal evaluations or simply hold small group discussions and town meetings. Remember, the
congregation is not limited to a yes/no decision. By listening carefully, you may discover things that would improve the service; thus, you may decide to revamp it and continue for an additional trial period before making a definitive decision.
What If the Answer Is No New Service?
Sometimes congregations decide that the stumbling blocks and concerns of the congregation are so great that adding an additional worship service to relieve overcrowding is not an option for them. For these congregations, other options may
relieve overcrowding: rearranging the furniture, moving, adding on to the building, or starting a new congregation are all possibilities.
The sense of a full or empty worship space is determined more by the number of vacant seats than by the width of the aisles. Rearranging the furniture, or even purchasing new furniture, may go a long way toward alleviating space concerns for a time. This solution does not eliminate the problem of overcrowding in a growing congregation, but it might buy additional time for education and slower, planned change.
Congregations may find that moving or adding on to their building, even though time-consuming and expensive, may be more acceptable to the congregational members than adding additional services. An exploratory process that includes these options alongside the proposal to add a worship service will help clarify the real desire and solution.
Beware, though, that talk of a building project or move sometimes is only a resistance tactic. If the congregation is concerned that it is growing too big, it may find that spinning off a new congregation is a viable choice that disrupts life less than the addition of worship opportunities. Your district staff has information regarding spinning off or starting a new congregation.
What is increasingly clear is that crowded congregations that don’t address the issue directly will end up addressing it indirectly, through attrition, church fights, and other ways. When people feel that “there is no room for them at the inn,” the congregation
will find ways to shrink to a more comfortable size unless growth is actively encouraged and embraced. Rather than allow a congregation to dwindle through fear or lack of effort, healthy congregational leadership will address the issues directly, thereby
making a positive choice for the future. Not to decide is to decide. When congregations address issues directly, they have better results, even if the answer to whether a new service should be added is still no.