The Or-Else Church, part 6

Well, I can sit up in a chair easier now — and it’s Sunday. This series comes to an end but there’s no way the church-in-a-jiffy is done. Or could be done. But I think we knew that. Churches, like all institutions evolve, even if they start well-formed. And I’ve said nothing about hiring staff, finding a minister (even as supply) or religious education. And I’ve said much too little about finding space to meet, even though that’s a terrible challenge for many young congregations. There’s time enough for that later.

Let me finish with a guiding principles: All the work done for the new church should be at the best quality possible, given the circumstances. Money may be tight and the meeting space uninspiring, but there’s no excuse for an unfriendly welcome, rambling announcements or a lack of signage to the bathroom, and I’m sure most of us have been in churches that did all three. Better to establish a management guidebook and train from it and stick to it.

I’ll be coming back to the Or-Else church later this year.

The Or-Else Church, part 5

So the back is a bit more tolerable today and the show must go on. Like the Christmas thirteen years ago when I preached and led worship with partial facial paralysis from Bell’s Palsy. No, I hope it’s better that that. But note any typos or eccentric grammar in the comments.

This is a make up from yesterday, and I was going to write about outreach and — lo, and behold — there’s a new UUA blog about social networking, New Media for Unitarian Universalists written by Shelby Meyerhoff. Check that first. (I intend to review it, when I’m feeling better.) You might also notice I’m using the same theme — SimpleX — on this blog as that blog, but I’ve not yet read the articles so I’m sure there’s going to be some duplication and probably some contradiction.

I’ve been reading about church starts for years and talking to others about them even longer. There were some things you just did when you got started,  like getting a post office box and paying for a business phone line so you could pay for a tiny one-line listing in the Yellow Pages.  These were sunk costs and unavoidable.  Today, getting a Google account for the new church is the new unavoidable service — at least at first when money and expertise is thin — and between Gmail and Google Voice, you can do without the old post office and business line.  But at least they’re free of charge. (What about mail, if there’s no fixed meeting address? I’d say “email me and I’ll send you my home address.”)  By homesteading on Google, you can also create a web site, share documents, create online forms, follow your web traffic, create libraries from public domain books, receive donations and many other things besides. Again, free of charge and that’s not inconsiderable.

But I’ll confess some uneasiness. Google’s rising monopoly on information bothers me. But in practical terms it would be difficult to reproduce the services they provide even with paid vendors and impossible to do for free. But if you got that Internet domain like I suggested on day 1, you’ll start to have a way out.

I would also get an account with Delicious (to store and share favorite web links), Facebook (for its super-wide social networking base) and Twitter (for short-format notices). And I’d get at least two accounts: one for the church as an institution and at least one for the point person or leadership team. This allows the personal and congregational writing to be distinct because sooner or later some participant will want to hand over responsibilities or even leave the church.  And I’d get those accounts with names that match as much as possible because once they’re gone they’re gone.

I’d use Delicious to gather resources for a leadership team, to share with a study group or both. But the use is largely internal. I’d use Facebook to attract newcomers and to give them a sense of your ministry. I’d use Twitter — indeed, follow me as bitb — to give short notices to people already connected to the congregation for announcements.

And here’s the kicker. While these technologies make communication easier and the service may be free of charge, there are opportunity costs. Bloggers know this already. The time you use to send tweets or Facebook updates is time not used for other projects, so it may make sense for your new congregation to have one person who makes this his or her mission — and recognize it as a vital and central ministry.

All for now —

The Or-Sleep Church

Threw my back out today, and on muscle relaxers and prescription pain meds. Not a good formula for blogging, so I’ll make it up tomorrow.

The Or-Else Church, part 4

So how big? How big the geographic catchment for most members — don’t want to get caught in too parochial a concept — and how big the meeting space?

First. So how big should the geographic bounds of the new church be? Conventional wisdom — I forget the provenance — suggests people will go as far to church as they will go to work, so Census records of commuting patterns would be helpful.

Consider Washington, D.C. workers. In this 2008 report of commuting patterns, 35.7% used transit — indeed, 23.8% of workers own no car; I don’t — and 43.6% of commuters take 24 minutes or less to get to work. This suggests to me that some will drive but many will take transit or walk, and you can expect to get people to come in about a half-hour radius. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good tool to suggest — say — a half hour’s reach from point X. Perhaps there’s some folk mapping tool out there. (I attended this workshop.)

I say this more to suggest that existing churches very often overstate how large their influence is, and miss out on opportunities for growth because they have to concentrate all their efforts in one building, when renting multiple sites — even for single occasional uses — would be more effective. Or alternately, be a clue that it’s high time to start a new church.

Back to rules of thumb — now for rental and purchased space — and I’ll save some thoughts for later.

11 sq. feet per adult for the meeting hall. The only really helpful and practical guide I found for this come from — of all places — the United States Air Force and its Religious Facilities Design Guide (PDF).

Got a copy of "Hymns for the Celebration of Life"

The eBay-ordered copy of the 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life, a.k.a the old blue Unitarian Universalist hymnal a.k.a. Hymns for the Celebration of Ken Patton arrived today.

I realized I wanted to say something about this — I felt a touch of nostalgia when I saw it offered on the auction site — but realized it was turning in my mind into too-lengthy a post for this blog.

So once I review it again and have a think, I’ll write something about it at

The Or-Else Church, part 3

So it’s been two days since I began my think-piece of gathering an “instant” church. And now a dose of heresy. Why do churches need membership?

In our own history, the parish or society had members based on financial sponsorship, and for a good swath of the history that meant pew rental or ownership. (It’s very easy to have a creedless system on that basis, even though the putative creedlessness of Universalism is grossly overstated. More about that later.) Both the Universalists and Unitarians were slow and often neglectful to nurture the core of the professed believers — the church proper, as opposed to the parish or society — and thus it’s easy to characterize the apparently secular mode of church government we enjoy. (This is most evident where there is a church that goes with a parish or society, or where they were at one point fused. Look for deacons as an institution. And as far as I can tell, the presence of the church proper, with a liturgy, are the best indicators of whether an older congregation stayed Christian.)

That said, I’m inspired — at least provisionally — by the distinction in membership made my the Uniting Church in Australia, which in its new (October 2009, pending approval; PDF) regulations distinguish between adherents and members. (The UCA distinction between baptized, confirmed and members-in-associationmay be less helpful in this context.)

1.1.22 In addition to a roll of members, a roll of persons who, though not members or members-in-
association, regularly attend the services of worship and share in the life of the Church shall
be kept. Such persons shall be known as adherents of the Church.
1.1.23 (a)    Adherents may attend and speak at meetings of the Congregation but shall not have
the right to vote.
(b)    Adherents may be appointed as members of committees of the Congregation.
1.1.24 In the event of an adherent moving beyond the bounds of a Congregation, the secretary of
the Church Council shall forward an appropriate letter informing the secretary of the Church
Council related to the new Congregation of the change.

Not a radical thought — many congregations have more or less formal “friends” — but the enrollment of adherents can be a useful social tool. First, “membership” has less of a hold on people than in generations past, and membership-oriented participation will surely discourage otherwise included people. Second, for membership-minded persons, it provides a manageable step towards membership without over-committing and without the risk of letting a person’s interest wither for trying to get the timing right.

Thinking both about historic Universalist polity of fellowship (though previously applied only to ministers and whole congregations) and Free and Open Source communities’ concepts of membership, I think this new church ought to have a fellowship committee, and that the membership it extends should

  • be limited to a term, and then subject to renewal, thus addressing the phantom member problem.
  • be based on a recognition of the support of the particular congregation — and thus a reason to extend policy-making power through a vote —  and not an endorsement of a particular spiritual state, which exists independently of church membership.
  • be extended on a basis of a “portfolio” of commonly-known community standards, including expressions of spiritual maturity and theological self-understanding, commitment of an appropriate level of financial support, a track record of participation and statement — I’d say “study plan” but that seems too academic — of faith goals the membership candidate wants to achieve under care of the church.

This means membership will be less common, but — I hope — more valuable, and should spare the new church from dilettantes with voting rights.

The Or-Else Church, part 2

Yesterday’s installment in my think-piece was all about as much as a threatened church planter could do in a day, only concerned the institutional set-up and was theologically-neutral. But very quickly you have to think about what your church stands for and how it stands for it.

This is where I think Unitarian Universalist church planting runs into the rocks. With our history of the geographical parish, there’s a presumption that there’s one parish that accommodates all the would-be Unitarian Universalists in its area. (You see it in our church naming conventions.) Which is exactly backwards to preaching the Gospel within a particular tradition and with a particular charism (gift) and gathering people to that church. Little wonder then that Boston — which was outside the parochial system — had and has a wider diversity of Unitarian and Universalist churches than anywhere else. Let’s consider Boston as “the metropolitan model” in contrast to the parochial model and work thence.

I was brought up thinking theologically that Maria Harris, the religious educator, could do no wrong. Her curriculum for a church’s self-expression is certainly a great place to start. (The Unitarian Universalist Association has, in fact, published a guide by Gaia Brown about Harris’s Fashion Me a People which may be downloaded as a PDF here. I do fault it for replaying the we’re-not-Christian-we’re-different saw again. Is it so hard to accept a Christian’s scholarship without reacting defensively?) This means I’d want to get a standard of worship down.

Easy peasy. I’d choose the simplified Protestant liturgy seen across the mainstream. “Emergent” worship practices — while hip right now — are likely to age as badly as parachute pants. Since hymnals are heavy and expensive, I’d forgo them in favor a hymn printing license from one of the larger non-“praise” licensees, like OneLicense. Because so much of the liturgical reform since the 1980s has worked under the unspoken rule of “more words is better” I would seek out slightly older, leaner texts to shape worship. In a move away from liberal Christian practice, this would mean looking before the Vatican II-inspired changes and also ditching the Revised Common Lectionary (and its assumption of church member who never miss worship and who can follow a three-year arc.) Give me, instead, the briefer traditional one-year lectionary and an opportunity to learn from the Old Testament in a more interactive environment.  And before you ask: yes Unitarians and Universalists did once use this lectionary and the vast majority of the matching collects. The Anglican church in Melanesia has a version of the collects (with that lectionary) in simplified but dignified modern English. And they’re in the public domain.

Playing with themes

I’m having theme heartburn and don’t want to mess with customizing something. Please forgive the rapid changes over the next few days.

The Or-Else Church, part 1

A mental exercise, in the spirit of a bad 1980s film. I must organize a church — the promise of a fairly successful church — by Sunday . . . Or Else.

The reason for this exercise is obvious. Unitarian Universalists (and other liberals) aren’t good at gathering churches, even though successive generations of new churches are necessary for a healthy ecosystem and are the best way of attracting newcomers. We treat them as the sort of thing we just have — little wonder; next to the Episcopalians we probably have the largest number of state-sponsored church foundations in the United States — or which spontaneously arise from groups of well-cultivated laypersons. The sun has set on both phenomena, and today we grow churches that limp towards a membership of thirty or forty, but rarely more. Indeed, those that don’t shrivel on the vine simply rot. So . . .

First, I pull out my address book and call my friends (many ministers; some not), asking for prayers, seeing if any would be willing to be an initial incorporator — no way I’m going to have an unincorporated church — and see if they would be willing to consult on the project. Then, as church organizer, I browse to the state- (or District-) appropriate page on the Legal Guide of the Citizen Media Law Project, to see what the incorporation and other requirements are. Fortunately, there are often more lenient options for churches than media organizations. So I work through the list and get the Federal Employer Identification Number and download incorporation details.

I brainstorm some names — running them past my friends for feedback, with a consideration of how it would be abbreviated — and register the appropriate .org of the best two or three using a domain registrar like NameCheap. I get a handy email address from Google, and with it email the UUA District Executive and an insurance agent like one from Church Mutual, and introduce myself. I use the email address to get accounts, using a short-format version of the church name, on Facebook and Twitter for later outreach use.

Next, I consider where the meeting Sunday will take place. On such short notice, I would pick the best I could afford: convenient in the mode of transportation I imagine people would use, and no farther than an average workday commute from the group I’m trying to reach. A hotel meeting-room will suffice.

And more tomorrow.

More on the reading list: for online community

I just found out that Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community — about creating and maintaining online communities — is now available free-of-charge (and under a Creative Commons BY-SA-NC license; it’s my favorite) as a downloadable PDF. Or, if you prefer, you can purchase a print copy.

I mention it here because I think healthy and robust online communities are essential for the revival of Universalist Christianity.

I’m quite excited about this. Jono Bacon is the Ubuntu Community Manager — I’ll not blog about Linux-y things at this blog, though; I’m keeping Boy in the Bands for that and other purposes — and knows his beans.

Since there might be others interested in this subject, I invite comments, especially for its use in religious community management.