In my years as a transitional ministry specialist, I discovered that there were far more people who had stopped participating in the ministries I came to serve than were currently attending. I know this to be the case for many other Unity ministries today. What’s going on?
About three years ago, Unity Worldwide Ministries (UWM) set an intention to be “the fastest-growing transformational spiritual movement in the world.” Why did we set that intention? Isn’t it because we believe that the Unity experience can open people to their capacity to bring positive change to their lives and to the world? And, don’t we believe, as more people awaken spiritually, that we can fulfill our vision, “Centered in God, we co-create a world that works for all”? Could our dilemma be that we lose sight of our higher purpose as our ministries age?
In their book, Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times, authors Beverly and George Thompson Jr. identify four stages in the life cycle of churches that may provide a way of understanding and addressing the challenges of declining ministries.
Stage One: The Start-Up Phase—What
Start-up happens when visionary individual(s) see the potential for a ministry and secure a meeting place, supplies, equipment, etc. The question asked is: “What activities, events and programs are needed to serve the people we seek to attract?” If this question is successfully addressed the ministry moves quickly into stage two.
Stage Two: The Growing Phase—Why
In this phase, the Why of the new ministry becomes the focus as it attracts, engages and supports new people. Being new is the norm. People are welcomed, usually with the encouragement to get to know others and to take part in the ministry. Serving and retaining new people is a high priority. Through effective services, classes and programs the ministry presents a message that encourages new people to get involved. The ministry hums as participation and support grow.
Stage Three: The Established Phase—Who
Over time, people who were once newcomers become established congregants. Comfortable activities, established relationships, and habitual practices replace the flexibility and newness of the earlier era. Established members—the Who of the ministry—gain increased levels of ownership and influence. Gradually and often unnoticed, the focus shifts towards meeting the needs of the existing community of congregants and less on new people. Growth slows and often stops. In this phase, groups, cliques and alliances form among those who have a stake in the ministry. Conflicts related to influence and control often develop. These conflicts can further weaken the ministry through loss of congregants and a diminished capacity to attract and retain new people. The result is decline.
Stage Four: The Declining Phase—How
In this phase the focus is how. How will the ministry continue its programs in an environment of declining resources? Strategies intended to address the decline are often based on the questions: “How do we get increased participation and support from the existing community, or how do we grow?” Stress, blame and fault-finding can spur further conflict, especially if the ministry and its leadership are unable to see that shifting the focus inward and away from addressing the needs of new people is the problem. Unless something drastic happens most of these ministries eventually die.
In the declining stage, growth is often seen as a solution. However, growth motivated by the need for the additional resources that new people bring usually doesn’t feel right and almost never works. Because of that, the idea of intentionally pursuing growth is often rejected. However, if we believe that awakening more and more people to their oneness with God and all creation is the greatest need of all humanity, shouldn’t Unity ministries focus on bringing more and more new people into that experience? Isn’t that really why we are here? Could that now include a commitment to re-focusing on new people, helping them find meaningful ways to participate in culturally-relevant, evolving Unity ministries committed to changing the world?
So, if that is why we exist, maybe new how questions should be: “How do we refocus on new people? How do we make joining Unity the right choice for anyone seeking a life-changing spirituality that has the potential to change the world?” Maybe that why could re-excite our movement and our ministries, moving us into a new stage of sustainable growth. We’re here to change the world, aren’t we? And, aren’t there more people like us who want to help? I say yes! So, let’s keep our eyes on the vision, focus on how best to meet their needs and do it!