I found a church in Newport Pagnell

Excuse the pun and, urm, backseat driving. This is a pointed question to the British Unitarians out there.

Why are there no Unitarian churches in Milton Keynes, a postwar “new town” with more than 200,000 residents? Not even one. And, given the usual caveats about growth, it’s set to double in population in the next twenty years, in part by growing the direction of the legally distinct but adjacent town of Newport Pagnell.

Now, except to change trains, I’ve never been in Milton Keynes, and all I know of Newport Pagnell is that (1) it’s next to the M1, (2) it has an offramp service center/road services/rest stop and (3) it’s mentioned in a Smiths song. But it’s 13 miles from the church in Northampton, and that’s the nearest one.

Is it really so strange for such a large residential area be targeted for a new church?

Emerging church 2011 update

A year ago, I reviewed the status of congregations that had been “emerging” — that is, in a state of recognized development — in the Unitarian Universalist Association since my original scan in 2008. Call it my version of May sweeps.

A few updates.

Since then, four congregation have been admitted to the UUA.

The first three of these were admitted at the April 2011 Board meeting. I’ve written about them before. Note All Faiths, Fort Myers: it’s a special case and one worth further examination. Interestingly, I don’t see that the McMinnville congregation was ever “emerging”, as as All Faiths, Fort Myers.

One new congregation has begun its emergence: Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Alameda, California, which already has 42 members and seems to be institutionally developed.

So much about the Fellowship Movement being over; it might be better to say we’re in its second phase or silver age.

Which, alas, bring me back to an earlier worry that some emerging congregations have died on the vine and there’s nobody to clear the husks away. All Souls, Summerville, S.C. has spent more time on the UUA site dead — gone since 2008 — than it was alive. The other Virginia emerging church called Blue Ridge — this one in Roanoke — has let its website lapse and a Google search turns up nothing about it. Others have a web presence, but one not updated in some time. I wonder how many truly emerging congregations there are.

A thought: emerging congregations owe some outside entity — let’s say the district — a brief report in lieu of a donation to the annual program fund (since few emerging congregations give anything to it now.) I’d make it quarterly, but would settle for semi-annually. It needn’t be long, and it might help intercept problems before they become unsolvable — or before the emerging congregation exists only as a zombie.

New church shall be born with …

Here’s my thought — it makes more sense to construct a plan (not unlike a business plan) as a basis for organizing a church than to try to gather people and see what you have in common, which in so many words is (or was) the conventional wisdom for forming Unitarian Universalist churches. And because I intend to reach out to people who don’t know a Universalist from a ukulele, I figured I’d better state some standards that we might otherwise take for granted.

The following is an outline. I’m going to fill in each plank, but I’m trying to make this process as open as possible so you get the see the work-in-process, too. Still trying to work up some language for a pro-environmental plank, plus one that means “jerks aren’t going to be encouraged”. The “membership and leadership” references I hope aren’t too coded, but are to describe full participation in congregational life.

Second Universalist Church shall be born with the following characteristics:


  • It shall be a Christian church.
  • It shall be a Universalist church.

Regard of persons

  • It shall be democratically governed and accountable to its members.
  • It shall regard women and men as equal in membership and leadership.
  • It shall regard bisexuals, gay men and lesbians, and intersexed and transexual persons as equal as others in membership and leadership.
  • It shall actively protect children and vulnerable adults.
  • It shall not abuse the religious beliefs of other people.

    Institutional culture

    • It shall expand its outreach and intends to help form new churches.
    • It shall use, promote and produce words, ideas and media that can be distributed and reused freely.

    A distributed project for both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific)

    There’s no place in the word saturated with Unitarians, Universalists and kindred faithful. The demographic (and existential?) crisis the British Unitarians and Free Christians face can and may be seen elsewhere, including the United States.

    Short of forming a new congregation — and that’s quite an ask so there’s needs to be a second task — what can a person do. You would expect me to say pray and give money; yes, these are needed, but they risk being cliche, and thus heard but unheeded.

    Other tasks, like inviting friends in other towns to visit their local church and offering to house visiting ministers, are good but include a non-trivial amount of effort, and particularly speak to extant churches.

    It would be good if there were a set of simple tasks that take relatively little effort and  could be farmed out to as many vounteers as possible. I’ve thought of two, and perhaps there are more.

    1. Sending welcome postcards on behalf of a new start congregation. I can imagine a new start with a somewhat sophisticated constituent management system where visitors or a welcome team would input offered information. It should be possible to pass off the postcard writing job — nice to do in house, but I’m thinking of how swamped new start life must be — to someone in the same region. Something of the old Post Office Missions semi-domesticated.
    2. Perhaps more practically, calling around or searching online for suitable meeting locations. These can be entered in shared spreadsheet, if not the heretofore mentioned constituent management system. Especially helpful if someone has local knowledge in an area that doesn’t have a congregation.

    But there have to be many, many more distributed projects waiting to be activated. What kind of things would you suggest?

    Where is that Unitarian church? Directions, please.

    I was going to reply to Unitarian minister and blogger Stephen Lingwood, who recently wrote “Church Planting and Church Renewal: The Way Forward” on his Reignite blog, with a very pushy and American alternative plan. (And shall still do so.)

    But in lining up my arguments, I researched where some British Unitarian churches were physically located and discovered that the addresses and directions given on the national and congregation websites very often failed the newcomer test. In other words, the address was adequate if you already knew the church was there, but wasn’t if you were coming over from another neighborhood or village, or were new to the area. (And people who move, at least in the United States, are more likely to look for a new church than those who have been there all along.)

    So I’m prescribing the following three solutions (and one action) that I would like for every church welcome publication like pamphlets or websites.

    • Clear directions for the worship location, including cross streets and landmarks. Bonus points for offering a phone number to call before the service.
    • Satnav coordinates — that’s GPS for us Americans — plainly shown. And where to park.
    • Likewise, the location and code for the nearest public transportation stop — or a plain disclaimer that there’s no (Sunday) service nearby. In which case, bonus points for taxicab advice, even if that’s only a goodfaith offering and not a genuine transportation plan.
    • And to act: take ownership of your congregation’s “business” listing on Google. This is only germane to congregations with buildings, but it will help your visitors when they look for you. Be sure to watch this video: it’s less than 2 minutes long. (And mull on the “sister restaurant” reference therein.)

    When you’ve done all those, I’ll move to inexpensive online promotion, and The Big Pushy American Plan.

    This is a good example of some of the points above; indeed, a congregation (that shall go nameless) meets in this hall.

    Loose thoughts about British church starts

    Please excuse these disjointed thoughts, but my parents are visiting and — plainly — they come first. I’ll put my ideas to paper, er, blog in this a couple of following posts and hope that comments help fill in the gaps.

    To recap: I think that the British Unitarians and Free Christians need to form new congregations to survive. Adding new blood to the existing congregations won’t do alone, assuming the truisms apply in Britain and the United States alike. In short, people are more likely to join a new church than an old one. Perhaps it’s just to much to expect people to align themselves with a centuries-old institution that they have no purchase in. And besides, no institution lasts forever. Some churches must need be formed to replace those that have died.

    Now, to consider the rules the British Unitarians have for recognizing new churches. It makes little sense to imagine some ideal mode of church starts — even if I could describe it, which I cannot — if it runs against the instituted rules. Perversely, there aren’t enough church starts to prove the  rules a failure, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (GA) is too newly revised to suggest a regular review.

    Thus, to organize a church, let’s review the GA bylaws:

    2) Conditions for Membership of the Assembly

    2.1 Congregations

    2.1.1  Applications shall be dealt with in accordance with the procedure laid down in Clause 5 of the General Assembly Constitution.

    2.1.2  A congregation must  have at least 12 subscribing members over  the age of 18 years, and must have existed for regular worship for not less than one year.

    2.1.3  A copy of the rules and/or constitution and by-laws must be supplied and these must be approved by the local  district association and by the Executive Committee.

    2.1.4 The constitution must embody a clause specifying that, in the event of the congregation ceasing  to exist, its funds and property  shall be transferred to an approved, specific body.  This will normally be the sponsoring district association or the General Assembly, as appropriate.

    2.1.5 Meetings for a religious purpose must be held at least once a month.

    2.1.6 An annual subscription must be paid to the Assembly and to the district association, if required.

    2.1.7  A copy of the annual report and audited/independently examined accounts as submitted to the annual meeting of members must be sent to the district association and to the Assembly.

    2.1.8 The application must have the support of the district association.

    2.1.9 Before the application is approved the congregation must be visited by a representative of the Executive Committee who shall make a report on the visit.

    American (and Canadian) Unitarian Universalists will recognize the shape of these requirements. The requirement of twelve adult members is close to the 10 member requirement that existed in the UUA before the 1990s. (It is now 30, and was briefly 50.) The one-year requirement is a prudent requirement, if informally imposed in the UUA system through its system of deadlines. The “annual subscription” — a term I prefer to the cloying “fair share” of the UUA — is £ 24: less than the UUA’s requirement, but comparable. Likewise, the monthly meetings requirement is close to the 10 times yearly requirement of the UUA. The audit requirement of 2.1.7 is particular to English and Welsh charities law. (I don’t know about Scottish and Northern Irish law, but I suspect it is so there, too.)  District support and a site visit maps to practice in the United States, if not UUA bylaws.

    All of which is by way of saying that I think we might have some resources, even if the UUA’s track record of new congregations is itself poor.

    But then there’s another option that is both enticing and odd. If a congregation of twelve wasn’t small enough, there’s a this provision:

    2.2 Small Congregations These shall be given recognition provided that they shall have been meeting regularly for 6 months.  They shall be admitted on the recommendation of the district association if they comply with the above conditions for Congregations except that the number of subscribing adults shall be reduced to 8 and the requirement for meeting shall be amended from ‘at least once a month’ to read ‘at least bi-monthly’.  Small congregations may send observers to meetings of the General Assembly but without the right to vote.

    So, I’m reading this as a recognized provisional membership. Eight adults, six services. Just enough of an institution to rise above the waterline of an informal and casual grouping. On the one hand, I can’t imagine a congregation that meets only every other month would grow or even survive.

    But here’s a thought. Leaving fifth Sundays aside — and assuming Sunday worship  — bimonthly services makes eight “slots” out of a full-time schedule, and since afternoon services are common in Britain, let’s say sixteen. Imagine organizing not one new church in an area not too far from other some ministered congregations — say, south London or around Milton Keynes — but several. Even sixteen. Say, associated with every other station on a rail line, or more objectively, about three-quarters the time of the average commute in the target area. Thick, by current standards. And close enough for members of one new church to seek out worship and fellowship at neighboring new starts as they move from bimonthly to more frequent services.

    You’d need a corps of lay ministers and perhaps the assistance of one or more experienced, enrolled ministers. The worship schedule would have to be carefully coordinated, but the congregations would be encouraged to take on their own local character. Some would fail, but without the risk of failure there can be little hope of success, and the relatively high density would provide a safety-net for the members of the failed church starts.

    A reasonable outline for good church growth habits

    Oh, the word scheme. American don’t like it: it connotes duplicity.  But I think we can read the British Unitarian growth scheme correctly. It is a self-grading plan that challenges congregations to become actively welcoming by changing their behaviors.

    I really like the game quality to it, offering incentive (to those so inclined) for greater activity and participation.  The annotations are compact and helpful and point to some of the better U.S. Unitarian Universalist Association resources.


    Three congregations admitted to the UUA

    Now this is the kind of news I like. Reported by the UUWorld online today, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees admitted at its last board meeting the following new congregations:

    There’s rather more to the story — confirmed by my memories of going back (I think) to 2003 — but the UUWorld has the details. Not mentioned in the story is that it large for a relatively young congregation: 195 members, per its reported membership and 206 according to its latest posted board minutes. (PDF) Also, I don’t think it was ever an “emerging congregation” but rather one that developed independently — again, read the UUWorld piece — and was admitted.

    Dirty numbers and the British Unitarians

    I’m about to wade into deep water. I mean no offense, nor do I plan to come off as a pushy American. But I’m thinking about the stated executive goal of the British Unitarians to grow by 20% in five years. I found their 2010 (current) annual report, which for the first time has membership statistics.

    The numbers, to me, say do or die. (The following calculations, while accurate, are naive of statistical analysis and independent confirmation; thus the title.)

    The 163 member churches in England, Scotland and Wales have a aggregate membership of  3,672. The largest church is Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London with 168 members. But the second largest is Dean Row Chapel, Wilmslow, with 80. Sixty-one congregations have 10 members or fewer.

    What would it take to get to 4,406, a twenty-percent increase? Well . . .

    • if each congregation currently with 60 members or more made a net increase of 5% per year, each year, and
    • if each congregation currently from 20 to 59 members made a net increase of 2 members per year, each year, and
    • if each congregation currently under 20 members made a net increase of 1 member per year . . .

    the General Assembly would increase by 34% after five years.

    But hitting stasis would be a laudable and difficult goal for some. As I’ve said in the United States setting, this plan calls for new congregations and an examination of where they’re missing.

    But you can run the numbers yourself with this comma-separated values spreadsheet sorted by home country, city, congregational name (where needed) and membership.

    Forming new organizations for service and fellowship

    It isn’t easy to organize people for fellowship or to engage in a common purpose, but there’s no reason it needs to be made any harder for lack of resources and perspective.

    This is the first part of an occasional series about the simple organization of religious groups: churches, but also support organizations for groups of churches and IRS “religious organizations” akin to the former Unitarian Universalist Association “independent affiliate” status.

    I carry two assumptions:

    1. It’s easier to work from a model — even if you have to revise or reject parts of it — than to start with nothing, and so I’ll be offering models, lists and directions. I won’t continuously say, “you can do this” or “your experience will vary” because I’m assuming you’ll use the parts you need and will reject or alter those you don’t.
    2. There are plateaus of ability and stability in organizations. A large, complex, staffed, sleek, well-funded (and funds-seeking) organization is good. A small, simple, rough-edged and bootstrapping organization is good. A large, complex, rough-edged and threadbare organization is not. One solution is making a bold leap from small, past awkward, to big — and good luck if you can manage it. Another solution, which is at least as practical and probably more reliable, is to plan to be small and encourage others to organize in order to build capacity. Think networks rather than monoliths. So I’m going to assume that these organizations will be born and kept small.

    Disclaimer: Lastly, I’m a minister and a nonprofit administration pro. But I’m not a lawyer nor an accountant and don’t give legal, accounting or tax advice. I’ll tell you what I would do, and where you can get facts and resources, but the decisions are finally yours.