Size doesn’t matter. Really.
That’s why the Unitarian Universalist Association is changing its model for honoring Breakthrough Congregations.
Since 2005, the UUA’s Breakthrough Congregation program has recognized a handful of UU congregations each year that have demonstrated significant membership growth. Acknowledging that numerical growth is no longer necessarily the best way to measure the health of a congregation, two Congregational Life staff members, the Rev. Sharon Dittmar and the Rev. Dawn Cooley, have come up with a new plan to identify congregations that are doing outstanding things.
“The new model recognizes congregations that have done something innovative,” said Cooley, “some new way of doing and being church that can inspire other congregations.”
The decision to change the Breakthrough Congregation program is motivated in large part by the recognition that, as Dittmar said, “numbers are not everything.” Some of the most successful UU congregations are not necessarily those that are increasing in membership on a consistent basis. While it is certainly true that, to be sustainable, congregations need members who can make financial contributions, that is not the only way to measure their value to a community. Perhaps they have an innovative social justice program or a creative way to reach out to the larger community. Maybe a congregation has found a cutting-edge way to take advantage of its physical facility.
“How,” Dittmar asked rhetorically, “does a congregation adapt?”
That is the question that congregations can answer with the new Breakthrough Congregation program. With the spotlight now focused on these adaptive congregations, others will be able to learn from their examples and potentially replicate that experience.
UU World profiles each Breakthrough Congregation, and Congregational Life provides resources to help other congregations learn from their experiences.
Although Breakthrough Congregations under the new model have yet to be selected, a good example might be the Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota. A relatively small congregation, with around sixty members who are isolated geographically from most other UUs, the congregation was at the heart of the movement last year to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“Their size or their growth didn’t matter,” Dittmar said. “They’ve done something to make a substantial difference in standing with their neighbors. The way Bismarck adapted to the changing requirements of their community with Standing Rock was just fantastic.”
Cooley explained, “We care about participation more than membership. The focus on numerical growth caused a lot of unintended consequences to our congregations. Over time, they have taken it to mean that, if they are not growing numerically, they are not a thriving congregation.”
The Breakthrough Congregation program is an opportunity for congregations to look at themselves and ask: What have we done to prosper and thrive? And what advice might we offer other UU congregations?
Congregations can nominate themselves at UUA.org/growth/breakthrough. The deadline for this year’s nominations is September 1.