Tuesday, 9 March 2010

How to grow a congregation

A guest post by Rev Andrew Pakula.

The congregation that I lead - the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians - has grown extremely quickly over the past several years. What we have done is not magic. It depends on a variety of well-known and well-tested strategies. It depends on steps also that change attitudes from self-centred to 'other-centred' - an absolutely critical culture change.

I want to share what I have learned and what works.

I have outlined a scheme below. It offers a clear step-wise approach to congregational growth. It is important to note that these recommendations do not define the 
only path to growth, but any congregation that successfully follows this programme has a very good chance of achieving their aims.

Some of the more advanced steps may seem daunting. Any journey must be taken one step at a time. When climbing a mountain, it is best not to start out by focusing on the peak - focus on the natural next step for your congregation. Achieving the next step will give you a sense of accomplishment that will energize you for more.

And so, I offer this programme to you to do with as you wish. The programme is organized into four levels which correspond to levels of accomplishment in working toward growth.

If you want to use them, your congregation may choose to make achieving a given level a cause for celebration. I hope you will! Groupings of congregations (e.g. districts) may choose to adopt the scheme and create ways of recognizing and providing incentives for congregations that complete a particular level. You may use it as the road map for a growth group or growth leader.

I will also be very happy to answer questions and offer guidance and advice to any Unitarian congregation that is interested. 


At least nine of the following:
  1. A friendly and welcoming person is always available to greet newcomers as they arrive or enter the chapel
  2. Signs at your building are clear and include welcoming language intended to draw newcomers
  3. Worship is held according to a regular, publicly-available schedule
  4. Newcomers are invited to attend at least one programme or event apart from Sunday services
  5. Instructions (e.g. when to stand and sit) are offered during Sunday services spoken from the pulpit and/or in writing
  6. Serve refreshments after services
  7. A welcome message to newcomers is given from the pulpit at each Sunday service
  8. There is a congregational web site, and it contains current, accurate information
  9. Keep records of attendance and visitor numbers. Make these available to the congregation.
  10. Evaluate the appearance of your building both inside and out with regard to how welcoming and attractive it is for newcomers.


All of the following:
  1. Launch a process for the congregation to explore its purpose/mission in the world (e.g. facilitated congregational meeting/meetings).
  2. Follow-up on the input from this purpose/mission process to move toward a clear, compelling statement or identify a consensus feeling from this process.
  3. Invite an objective person (or preferably two) to visit and attend a service and prepare a 'worshiper report' from the perspective of a newcomer. Share this information with the congregation and the leadership.
  4. Establish a growth group OR designate one growth leadership person to examine congregational practice and decisions with a view to promoting growth and to voice the perspective of the future members who have not yet arrived.
  5. Evaluate the appearance of your building both inside and out with regard to how welcoming and attractive it is for newcomers. Seek feedback from newcomers and make appropriate changes as feasible.
  6. Consider the impression given by your newsletter/calendar and make changes as appropriate so that it is attractive to, and inclusive for, newcomers.
At least one of the following:
  1. Begin to study the population within reasonable travel distance from your building with an eye to identifying a demographic segment that you will try to attract. List groups of interest (e.g. newly retired, young adults, families with children or University students)
  2. Examine your congregation's practices and literature and consider the sorts of people to whom are likely to appeal. Ask whether they are suitable for your context.


At least nine of the following:
  1. Develop a clear, compelling congregational purpose/mission statement with congregational approval OR prepare a consensus statement(s) of purpose/mission.
  2. Keep the purpose/mission in front of the leadership and membership (e.g. printed in newsletters, spoken at meetings and services)
  3. Place the challenges identified by the 'worshiper report' in order of descending priority. Take action on the top 5
  4. Select a demographic segment of the local population and compile a report describing this group (e.g. tastes, lifestyles, media used, and interests) OR estimate the number and location of the people in your vicinity who are likely to find your current message and practices appealing.
  5. Through a congregational process, develop and approve a set of expectations for how members of the congregation will be toward one another. Keep these expectations in the attention of the membership and leadership (e.g. in your newsletter and other appropriate literature)
  6. Develop and approve a process for dealing with disruptive behaviour in the congregation OR have key leaders trained in conflict management.
  7. At least one fourth of Committee members are new to the congregation (three years or less)
  8. Put a process in place to ensure that visitors newcomers are spoken to by at least three people before and/or after the service.
  9. Visitors to the Sunday service receive a welcome message (email, phone or post) by the end of the following Tuesday
  10. Committee creates and commits to a covenant for its own practices. The covenant includes the expectation that all decisions will be made in the best interest of the congregation and its future.
  11. The congregation is mentioned in the media at least four times in the preceding year.


At least eight of the following:
  1. Make a practice of asking new visitors for their honest impressions either in person, by phone, or using a written survey
  2. Begin at least one new programme/service/event geared specifically toward the preferences of newcomers
  3. Hold occasional newcomer orientation events intended to help them understand and feel more connected to Unitarianism and the congregation.
  4. Train welcomers to help newcomers feel comfortable and connect to the congregation
  5. Evaluate your congregation in light of your understanding of your target demographic group and list any identified challenges in descending order of importance. Take action on top 5.
  6. Identify and alter 3 long-standing customs that do not foster growth
  7. At least one third of Committee members are new to the congregation (three years or less)
  8. Hold at least one workshop directly addressing resistance to growth.
  9. The congregation is mentioned in the media at least six times in the preceding year.

(originally posted at Andy's blog, Throw Yourself Like Seed)

1 comment:

  1. What a great list! You should write a book! As another minister of a growing church I agree with almost all of it. However all of this is necessary but not sufficient. When people come to this attractive, welcoming place, they must find a message that speaks deeply to their lives.