Saturday, January 28, 2012

Consistent priorities

I have been waiting for inspiration - sometimes it's a long wait.

Having been at a Unitarian district meeting on Wednesday and heard people expressing dismay at the significant focus and financial investment that the Executive Committee is giving to establishing new Unitarian congregations I was nudged into looking again at the strategic priorities presentation given at last year's (2011) annual meetings.  Nowhere in this document, which was the sum total of the General Assembly's strategic priorities, was there any mention of starting new congregations.

Let's look first at this presentation - it starts with

Economics and Ideals

• The Annual Meetings in 2009 proposed developments which proved unaffordable
• The EC referred the difficulty back to the Annual Meetings in 2010 through the
‘Difficult Choices’ presentation
• UK Unitarians and Free Christians were able to prioritise our needs for the future

These proposed developments in 2009 were (from two separate motions) to have two workers focusing on information and social justice. Certainly if they were part-time workers it would have cost about £50,000 or perhaps a little less.

We were also told in the 2011 presentation that the General Assembly would 

... ensure that all Unitarian congregations can have access to professional Ministerial or recognised lay leadership and support.

Now we are being told that we will be having a 2020 Congregational DevelopmentProgramme.  This has come out of the blue and has no business plan to support its prioritisation. This is what this programme will do.

The 2020 Congregational Development Programme was given the go-ahead along with the establishment of a 2020 Board. It includes a range of possible models with lots of room for creativity locally; new planting, restart, side-by-side (parallel congregation in the same location to existing one), satellites and spin-offs and social responsibility starts. 

The report on finances was considered which looked at the likely costs and possible funding opportunities to start and grow the programme. The financial modelling indicated that to establish a total of seventeen new congregations the net cost would be approximately £1.3million. There were several options outlined for raising this considerable sum. The programme would work alongside current initiatives such as the Future Ministry pilot in Scotland. 

It was also recognised that in the eleven year time period it is likely that some current congregations may close and that the support to the General Assembly from the Bowland Trust will then be at an end. This was therefore a "window of opportunity" to promote growth to arrest the serious numerical decline of the Unitarian Movement.

We are also told that from a £45,000 legacy, matched with Bowland Trust monies bringing the amount to £90,000, the Executive Committee agreed to allocate  £50,000 to the Congregational Development Programme (as start-up grant).  It just so happens that this amount matches what it would have cost to implement the motion that was passed in 2009. This latter was actually agreed by us, the former has not been.

What are we to make of this?  First we are told there is no money to support the implementation of motions which were adopted democratically; we are then told that following consultation these are the GA's priorities; we are told that existing congregations will be prioritised so that they will have access to professional Ministerial or recognised lay leadership and support; and then not twelve month's later we have something not identified in the priorities being allocated significant amounts of money - seemingly given much more significance over those priorities which were presented to us in April 2011.

I am not sure what to think but fundamentally this feels all wrong.


  1. Further evidence of the EC's rambles through Fantasyland, I feel.One new 'small fellowship',Bangor, was recognised at last year's GA - largely,the result of the initiative of ONE retired minister! One wishes it well, but it should be remembered that a similar fellowship in Durham formed around 2000 folded after a short while.Unitarian causes in large university towns - Bournemouth and Exeter - have folded in recent years, with no attempts to restart them.Unitarians need to look at the 'Fresh Expressions'and 'Messy Church' initiatives of mainline Christian denominations for some more creative ideas of how to develop new groups ,before they expend large amounts of finance on doing what has proved unsuccessful for the last few decades.

  2. Thanks Kenneth - I am not quite so pessimistic - with some financial support things may take off. However my concerns are two - first the process. A board of trustees should not be giving us one set of priorities one year and then slipping another one in without any consultation, promising to invest time in finding money just for this priority. Where does this 2020 group sit within the structure and how does it relate.

    And second as I wrote a few years ago on Stephen Lingwood's blog on the same issue - who is going to do this planting - who is responsible? I can foresee those districts and congregations doing well stepping in to do such things whilst those struggling get less rather than more support. This may work for those areas doing well but what of the rest?

    Overall I would like to see some strategic thinking going on - whilst people may say that church planting is the quickest way to grow - this presumably comes from the US or from another faith community. Do we actually know what makes Unitarian communities grow? Until we do it will all be based on guesswork and an idea or two borrowed from somewhere else. With best wishes, Louise