I've asked my good friend, the Rev. Derek Parker to comment on the state of the much vaunted intended-to-be-large new-start church in Texas. I can't image he and I would have been talking much about it if it had been locally funded, or if the UUA had a more comprehensive new church start program. But neither is the case and it seems like fair game. Thus . . .
Greetings gentle readers. Those few who follow my low tech writings in The Universalist Herald, might recall a past article I wrote about Pathways Church in Texas. Here is chapter 2 in that saga.
When we last left Pathways it was the UUA's hyped new attempt at planting large churches with memberships between 300 and 900. The UUA had ended virtually all support to other kinds of new liberal churches, and put all its eggs in the large church basket. I suspect today that folks in Church Extension are preparing to eat omlettes. A faculty member at the Earlham School of Religion recently advised me that this kind of a church plant costs about $500,000 to get going. Now I don't know exactly how much the UUA spent to date, but it has likely been a lot. What did the UUA get for its large investment? A church with about 120-150 members, and which can not support its staff of 3 ministers, a musician, and a full-time administrator.
So what did the UUA do, because this evangelism project missed its vaunted 300-900 person target? With little notice the UUA has pulled the financial plug, effective at the end of December 2005. This in turn has resulted in the "release" of all paid staff except the senior pastor. Now while I've had very mixed feelings about this project, and see it as too expensive and poorly conceived, the UUA
approach of sudden withdrawal of support strikes me as destructive. The team of three ministers effectively had the rug pulled out from under them, with little time to adapt to a new funding structure. The message this sends potential future UU evangelists is that support from the Association is fickle, and could go cold turkey with very short notice. What we have
is a semi-viable and salvagable 120-150 member church, which could become sustainable with some careful financial weening. Without this care, the shock of sudden financial and personel losses might kill Pathways Church, and then those efforts will truly be for nothing. But time can only tell.
We would do well to learn from other non-creedal religious bodies, like the Disciples of Christ, who have had marked recent success in church planting. The Disciples process allows for multiple models of church planting, and multiple models of funding. They plant high investment large churches, and medium sized spin-offs of mother churches, and low investment house churches, etc.. And all church planting is in relation to the gifts and situation of the church planters (lay or ordained). But
alas, the UUA HQ often can not work with more than one model of anything at a time.
As an addendum, I would also add that research published by the Alban Institute and Abington Press has shown that any growing American religious movement has many of the following characteristics:
- A clear and articulate religious message which speaks to the
experience of the population (a difficulty for both Pathways and most
UU's, which have tried to be all things to all people)
- A willingness to grow new churches of many different sizes, for many
different contexts (rural, urban, and suburban). Pathways style large
churches can only be placed in fast growing suburbs and a few choice
- Worship where a Higher Power is often experienced by the congregation.
Often a challenge in UU contexts where any Divinity provokes theistic
verses non-theistic tensions and unwllingness to believe or disbelieve
anything specific (think back to the problem of trying to be all things to
- A permission giving culture that empowers the gifts of many, instead
of the leadership of a chosen few. The Pathways model is very top-down,
and guided by market demographics. The UUA chooses at HQ where to plant,
and who will do the planting. This is not a grass roots effort, beyond
what the church planter does with his/her own congregants AFTER they are
If I was planting liberal churches (and if I do it may not be for the
UUA), I would look into the inexpensive model of networked house churches.