I'll admit to being a ginormous fan of the Rev. Christine Robinson. Once when I was working at the greeter table greeting people at my little church on the hill, some folks mentioned that they were visiting from First Unitarian in Albuquerque and I think I actually scared them with my gushing praise for their senior minister. Brilliant writing, fabulous, warm, insightful and a wonderful web presence, too.
The Rev. Robinson's article in the winter edition of the UU World, "Risk Blessing" had me nodding at my computer this morning. Yep, yep. Uh huh. Oh yeah.
I hear the call "avoiding decline"--it's not even really about growth, just avoiding decline! In the little church on the hill that I serve, more than once our RE team has waved a white flag and called "UNCLE" because we've grown so fast. Last year we had to add not one but two age group classes. We grew something like 30 kids in just a few months. This was nothing new--really, yes, we're competing with the given day for birthday parties (why, Sunday morning of course) soccer games, swim meets, Girl Scouts and yes.... a quiet family morning just hanging out in jammies---but our RE Program has been on super charged vitamin fueled chalice water for six years.
Until this year. We had braced for more big growth, we had a plan in our back pocket of a class for active kids that would actually go down to the wooded park near by every Sunday when these current classes busted out, because unless we pitch a tent in the parking lot, there is no more space for us to hold classes (and yes, when we rented space we DID have preschool class in a tent, it's kinda fun). We trained our teacher teams about how to deal with crowds. We prepped our congregation that two services were inevitable, and soon.
But--no go. Last years "new folks" are not coming back. Yes, we're getting the regular influx of visitors who fall in love and join three committees and the choir. We've got the same kids who were born to us and we've known since they were just a wish, or maybe a little older. But that old-new group is not coming back.
People who work with church kids know this group, they visit in the fall, in the Pacific Northwest, maybe you lose them for ski season, and then they are pretty regular for spring, fall off for summer and come back in the autumn with a gleam in their eye of "we're gonna do this church thing for real now...."
So, here we are, our little church on the hill, with a half decade long history of about 15 new kids every year, with-- a flat growth line. But you know, we really are on a big hill. There are signs that go out on icy days "Road Closed", because you will slide for a good half mile before you get to about sea level and stop. And that's what has me worried. Is there something slick out there that I'm missing? Why are people not sticking? What happened?
I'm not sure exactly how church goes every Sunday, I'm usually running the weekly RE half marathon up and down the three levels of our building, checking on classes, making frowny faces at kids who are throwing sculpy at each other, running for missing supplies. But I think we do the things Rev. Robinson thinks we should to stop declining. There is a deep spiritual energy and when I lead our services I sure feel it like a huge wave of loving spirit from the congregation--these folks are going deep. We have a happy population of folks like me who grew up UU and feel that hunger for ritual and spirit, and they seem to be getting fed.
But something is up. And maybe there's reason to look closely. Is it the classes? Curriculum? Or is it just that push-pull of the weekly rush of family life and the creep of the schedule into what used to be a Sabbath? What? I don't think these folks are afraid of change any more than any human, maybe weary after so much change.
Maybe I'll go out and see if someone has put signs up that say "Church Closed"....not real signs, but those secret signals that you can't see anymore after you've been a part of a group for a while, I guess they are real, but not in a wood and paint kind of way. "go away, you don't fit in here, go back to the Sunday morning paper and a nice, spiritual-but-not-religious life."
For now, we'll just enjoy manageable classes with great kids and a nice, long holiday break from the RE half marathon. Except, who was it that thought that three multi-gen services in a one month span was a good idea? Please!
Um, yeah. That was me.