Congregation Sizes

by Stephanie Dohner, former chair, AEU Membership Committee

What size congregation is your society?

Most people think of their societies as small, medium or large, but more than numbers are involved. All societies, of whatever size, contain one or more primary family units or small groups into which the new member gains acceptance. This acceptance is crucial tor integration of new members. Moreover, the way in which members share power and responsibility with their lay and professional leaders is just as significant as the length of their society’s roster or the number of its family units or small groups.

The primal unit is the group from which the new member will make the connection between the “assembly of persons” and the “organized body” and will understand that they are the same. If there is no group identification, the relationship between the new member and the congregation probably will be superficial and transitory.

The Alban Institute has concluded that congregations can be classified by comparing the size and activity of their membership with the relationship of their membership to their lay and professional leadership. Arlin Rothauge’s Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry is the standard. He introduced the concept of “family”, “pastoral”, “program” and “corporate” congregations. Since Rothauge published his study in the early 1980s, so-called “mega-churches” with thousands of members have appeared. They may be a subdivision of the corporate style or be a separate new category.

Most Ethical Culture societies fit the description of “family” or “pastoral” congregations. The largest societies fluctuate between “pastoral” and “program” types in their functioning. The chapters discussing stages of new member development will emphasize the first three types, and, also, societies in transition. These are societies that are either shifting from one type to another, changing leadership, or moving to new quarters. Their status quo is being disturbed in some way.

Rothauge’s models have been slightly modified over the years. The descriptions which follow are adapted from Steven E. Burt and Hazel A. Roper’s Raising Small Church Esteem.

Family or primary societies

These are groups that are small enough for everyone to know everyone else, or at least to know who everyone is. “small-enough” can mean a membership of 50, or 250. The salient number is attendance at platform — usually under 50.

In the family size Society every member is needed to keep the organization going. Two short books that are excellent introductions to family societies are Carl Dudley’sUnique Dynamics of the Small Church and Anthony G. Pappas’ Entering the World of the Small Church. Pappas’ book is especially enjoyable, because he was a pastor in a very small church. The reader learns along with him as he tells how he discovered the way to serve a family congregation.

Family societies maintain themselves by adopting people to fill historical roles that have been vacated. They may unconsciously or consciously resist growth because it would mean that it would no longer be the case that everyone knew each other and that people could maintain their traditional roles. Family Societies generally are on “make-do” budgets and make changes very slowly. However, because they are so tightly-knit, they can be very long-lived.

If these societies have professional leaders, they are usually part-time. Leaders of such societies serve as “chaplains” to what Rothauge call the “matriarchs and patriarchs” of the congregation, that is, members who represent the history and culture of the society and who decide whether newcomers will fit in. The word “chaplain” is used to suggest that the leader’s major role is to perform specific services, such as delivering addresses, teaching classes, doing some pastoral work (although the matriarchs and patriarch do most of that), and conducting life ceremonies.

Other members, serving as “gatekeepers”, determine if newcomers will fit in with the current membership and suit the matriarchs and patriarchs. They do the actual recruiting. Leaders must do everything else –speak, relate to everyone, teach and sometimes administer, (Stephanie, I have discovered that in our small societies, the leaders rarely do the organizational administration. It is usually handled by parcelling out jobs to a single person with some talent for that task who may keep that role for years and years.) but they are not responsible for creating a vision of the future for the society. The future is to be like its past.

Unless the leader of a family society is a generalist who really enjoys the culture of that congregation and sees his or her rote as nourishing it, instead of fixing it, there is often trouble. Family societies give wonderful support to their members, but they cannot absorb large numbers of people, or provide extensive programming.

This does not mean they are “dysfunctional” or have no impact on their larger communities. They continually renew themselves as communities of people in relationship, which larger societies often forget to do. They can also have a very positive effect on the larger community by providing some ongoing service or ethical action as one of their traditions.

Pastoral societies

In pastoral societies, it is the full-time professional leader who becomes the embodiment of the Society’s vision for its future. The choice of a leader and the compatibility of vision is crucial. The leader is central, recruiting and training members to carry out the vision and mission which the leader may articulate and stimulate. The leader is still expected to speak, relate to everyone, teach, do pastoral work, provide ceremonial functions and be the head administrator of the Society. An effective board and functioning committees are important in a pastoral-size congregation as there is more work to be done to create, maintain, support and staff the organization and its programs. The benefit is that the members of a pastoral-size Society have more opportunities for growth and mastery, more activities and programs available to them, and that the Society can have a stronger voice in and impact on the larger community.

In short, the pastoral Society will have a slightly more sophisticated structure with a clear leader and a few key, lay leaders who know what is going on and are the center of the organizational structure, committees of several people headed by these lay leaders and advised by the leader to carry out important organizational tasks. Around this simple one layered structure the members build relational groups based on common tasks or interests. (I believe that most of our pastoral size Societies are functioning “with” a leader as center rather than “under” a leader.)

There is still one assembly of persons, in which the leader/pastor knows everybody. What has happened is that the lay leaders of the society now look to the leader for articulation and direction, instead of directing the leader in the society’s preservation. The lay leaders function as a team around the leader who usually has much hands-on involvement in creative ideas, supervision and quality control. However, a successful pastor soon reaches a dilemma. Building on the pastor’s vision usually requires more work from both staff and volunteers, and more money. The presence of an energetic full-time leader who carries a strong vision for what the Society might accomplish puts pressure on all concerned. At some point, usually when platform attendance rises to about 150 or more, the leader no longer can relate to everyone directly. He or she must share leadership by delegating responsibility and hiring more staff in order to avoid burnout. If this takes place, especially if there are several staff members sharing responsibility, the society is becoming a program congregation. Many congregations vacillate between the pastoral and program type of congregation.

A congregation with a full-time pastor has committed to a staff. It probably pays (part-time) a secretary, Sunday School director and maintenance person, as well as the leader. Such a staff may be the first step towards delegation of responsibility on the part of the leadership, especially if the board and professional leader direct it.

Since the relationship with the leader is paramount for all members of a pastoral society, understanding the role of the pastor and how to support it is crucial. There are resources to help the leader develop a support system, and resources to help congregations deal with sabbaticals ana the transition from one leader to another.

These will be discussed later. It is harder to find resources that help the leader and the congregation agree on their respective roles. Unfortunately, the relationship between the leader and the congregation is assumed to be understood by everybody, but is rarely spelled out. When there is conflict in the congregation, this assumption is strongly challenged. One book that may help us to better understand how congregations function as a system is Edwin H. Friedman’s Generation to Generation. Family Process in Church and Synagogue, a hefty book but worth the effort. Friedman thoroughly describes the congregation as a family system, that is: how the members of the congregation relate to their families, how the congregation itself is a family, and how the professional leaders relate both to congregations and their own families. His less technical approach to human foibles is Friedman’s Fables stories which illustrate delightfully how we continually misunderstand each other.

Program Societies

In program societies, the leader is still central, but with a difference. There is more than one assembly of persons, or family. The leader is no longer expected to know everybody and do everything, but he or she must know the leaders of each family, which may be either lay leaders or staff, such as the choir director. Integration of new members will be through a formal process and begin with acceptance of the new member by the matriarchs or patriarchs of special interest groups within the society. The entire congregation no longer attends everything. Members no longer know every other member, nor is there an expectation or desire to. Small groups develop that have lives of their own, such as couples’ clubs or social action committees. There may be more than one platform, several social groups, and a variety of adult education classes. There usually are other full-time staff besides the leader, who now may have a personal secretary who is not also the society secretary.

The members and the leader both delegate responsibility to other staff, a board of directors with specific functions and layers of committees, which have budgets and are held accountable for their use. There is a much larger choice of programs, run by people other than the leader, and the public is attracted to them as much as to the leader. The leader may still stimulate the formation of and articulate the vision but he or she no longer sees to every detail of how it is to be carried out.

A resource for societies moving toward the program style is Kennon L. Callahan’s Twelve Keys to an Effective Church. It articulates 12 important elements of a successful congregational organization and gives direction to planning and implementation in that arena. An Ethical Culture study guide for this book as well as multiple copies of the book and leaders guide are available to be borrowed from the AEU Growth and Development Library.

Organizational structure in family Societies is minimal and in pastoral societies is simple and straightforward because delegation is relatively simple. In family and pastoral societies, the members know the board and committee chairs personally and expect to be in consensus with them. In a program society, they might not know their names. They will know the people in the small group that is the Society for them: the choir, the parents’ group or the caring committee, for instance. Such groups can actually be more intimate than family or pastoral societies, since the member does not have to fit his interests and personality to that of a few people, or the leader. There is a choice of association.

Interest Groups

Often interest groups form within family or pastoral societies. The difference between these and small groups of persons in program societies is that they do so with permission of either the matriarchs and patriarchs or the leader, respectively. By “permission” is meant the understanding that these groups will not challenge the authority with the leadership of the society. A new member may be most at ease within this social group, but he or she still must be accepted by either the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family society, and/or the leader, in order to develop fully as a member.

In program-size societies members may form new groups with permission of either lay leaders, staff or the senior leader, respectively – usually after presenting a well-documented proposal which explains the goals and objectives, organization, resources needed, and responsibility chain for the group. “Permission” is granted when the program fits within the vision and mission of the Society and provides a viable plan. These new groups take their place under the appropriate umbrellas in the larger structure. A newcomer or new member may be most at ease within one or more of these smaller social groups and is related to the larger Society through platform, celebrations, and all-Society events which happen during the year. It is important to have such all-Society events frequently enough that members do see themselves in a larger context, relate to the larger vision of Ethical Culture, and develop fully as a member within the Ethical Community.

The Corporate Society

In corporate societies, there are many more small and medium-size groups (assemblies of people) within the larger Society and its constituent sub-congregations. There will be several leaders in the Society, each of which has a staff and a congregation. This occurs when there are regularly 350 or more people at platform. We now have both an assembly of assemblies and an organization of organized bodies. The senior leader, who represents the Society in the community, and whose major function is a dynamic and powerful platform experience, speaks on occasion, may know closely the leadership staff, officers of the Society, central board members and key lay leaders and possibly a smaller percentage of the wider membership than in a pastoral or program-size Society. The Sunday School director and the assistant leaders for Youth Services, Adult Education, Music, Social Action, etc. are pastors to people with those interests, and they do know all their parishioners. The board of trustees has gone beyond delegation. It is now mostly a policy making body. There is an administrative staff to take care of the buildings and grounds problems and other matters that boards deal with in smaller societies.

Many books on congregations are organized as if the object of membership development were to create corporate societies, as if they were the pinnacle, the most desirable of congregations. They are seen as rich, successful and sophisticated, a sign that the ideals its membership commit to are the right ideals. The new mega-churches that draw thousands seem to support this idea. However, a larger Society need not be intimidating to a newcomer because, as soon as a person is a regular attendee at a mega-church, he or she is connected with a small group. Also, as pointed out in Martin Saarinen’s book, The Life Cycle of Congregations, congregations with complicated organizational structures can take on a bureaucratic character and lose energy unless there is continual renewal and challenge. We will emphasize, over and over again in this handbook, that the size of a society has nothing to do with its effectiveness, only the style in which it is effective.

Societies in Transition

When societies change leaders, move to new locations, make conscious decisions to grow into larger types of societies, change their emphasis from ethical education to social action, or cut back their programs to deal with a decrease in membership, they are in transition. Societies have identifiable life cycles, which Martin Saarinen has described in The Life Cycle of a Congregation.

Saarinen believes that congregational life stages can be identified by measurement of what he calls energizing, programming, administering and including functions. The last function, “inclusion” refers to how welcoming the congregation is. Saarinen’s observation is that congregations may go through several stages in which energy is high, become self-satisfied or frustrated and then start losing energy, members, financial support, and effectiveness. His major message is that such societies try to substitute control for ideas and enthusiasm and can become so inflexible that they are dead in the water.

When societies have a sense that they are gaining energy, they build buildings, add staff, change programming, and reorganize and renew structures and practices. When they have a sense they are losing energy, they do the same things, or they cut back, particularly by changing or eliminating staff. (Football coaches are familiar with this practice — what does this add here? what does it mean for us?) Of course, staff members and lay leaders also go through energy changes and decide to leave on their own, causing the society to evaluate its energy level in order to decide whether to replace them.

Societies in transition present special challenges for membership committees. Programs may be “on hold until we get a new leader”. Members may be so involved in a building campaign, that the newcomer may think nothing else is going on. (Stephanie, what is your source for this? I believe that the research shows that building a new building is a very exciting time and a time when congregations usually grow.) There may be obvious friction among the membership. Maintaining a welcoming presence under these circumstances may be difficult, but it is still possible.

Conclusions and summary:

When a newcomer shows interest in the Society the task of those focused on membership growth varies according to congregation size.

In a family society, you are a gatekeeper for the matriarchs and patriarchs. Your task is to determine whether there is a good match between the newcomer and matriarchs, patriarchs and the current membership. It is important that the newcomer is comfortable with the values and emphases of the group and wishes to maintain the status quo of the society without too much change. You can help match his or her talents and interests with some ongoing program that the group is engaged in and eventually, when trust is built, with a job that has been vacated by an old member.

In some ways, you are very like a personnel manager for a family business. One of your jobs is to make sure that someone coming in becomes familiar with the identity, traditions and patterns in the group and does not get the idea that this is a vulnerable group whose mission can be changed to the agenda of the newcomer. It is only when a person has become a trusted core member that he or she may be able to stimulate significant changes in the Society, fellowship or circle.

In a pastoral society, you work with the leader and the matriarchs and patriarchs, who are a team, to welcome newcomers and make sure they are introduced to . Your task is to help the newcomer have experiences so that he or she can determine whether Ethical Culture and specifically this group are compatible and an appropriate community to belong to. The newcomer needs to enjoys the company of the current members and accept the leader’s role. Since a full-time leader tends to create roles and jobs, you will have more flexibility in matching the new person’s interests and talents with available roles. Instead of a family business, your analogy may be a small private school, with the leader as principal. Newcomers are often matched with a mentor who will help them become acquainted and build a sense of belonging.

In a program society, you are a gatekeeper of gatekeepers. Your task is to determine which family within the society would be most suitable for newcomers, and steer them accordingly. You are now functioning something like a college guidance counselor helping someone decide on what courses to take and a path for becoming more deeply membered in the Society. There is probably something for almost everyone who finds him/herself in general agreement with the principles and purposes of Ethical Culture, whereas in smaller Societies the community itself and the leader will determine whether the newcomer finds a home there.

In a corporate society, you are no longer a gatekeeper. You will not have to decide which internal congregation the newcomer should investigate. Yours is one of many specialized roles organized into a system that newcomers pass through. The system is the gatekeeper and is designed to place newcomers appropriately. The system assumes there is a role for anyone interested. It is probably under the management of a professional leader for membership services in what we might see as analogous to an intelligent beehive.

In a transitional society of any size, leadership roles are often changing, as well. Sometimes they are vacant. If the matriarch and patriarch have moved, a leader has retired, or the congregation has spun off a new society, personalities are missing and important roles are unfilled. In a corporate society, this should make no difference in your job, since it is the system that accepts newcomers, not specific people. In smaller societies, your job in these circumstances is either to be a gatekeeper for the leadership pro tempore, or, if such leadership is wanting, to match the newcomer with the most forward-looking, enthusiastic people. Newcomers should see the changing society as positive.

The next two chapters are intended especially for leaders, lay leaders and committee chairs. But, even if that is not your role, it will be an eventual role for many newcomers you bring into membership. You may want to read them anyway to expand your understanding of how congregations work.

The materials in the next section have been adapted from materials from the Alban Institute. They may be used to help your members and lay leaders understand the concept of congregation size and how it affects Society function.