Peter Morales’ “Repelling fewer visitors” can’t be easily dismissed — an endorsement

Thanks to Philocrites I noticed a blog post by Rev. Anthony David, who had criticized Peter Morales‘ growth strategy of ‘repelling fewer visitors’. On many levels, Rev. David’s post (here) is insightful and worth considering but his facile dismissal of the ‘repelling’ issue looks shallow to me when he paints it as a lifeless, mechanical exercise in contrast to a supposedly much more sustaining spiritual nurturing of our ‘deeper’ UU identity.  

This view ignores that almost all of those people had already thoroughly checked out UU online prior to their visit, had read beliefnet, listened to sermons on that church’s website, or called for details. They came through the church door because they had concluded that in principle, they should fit right in, spiritually, ideologically. So it must be something we’re doing wrong to make those quarter million people leave. 

How could we possibly justify to continue doing things wrong and shunning those who are actively seeking our community, denying them the religious home they seek?

Is this only about us lucky bastards who are already in the UU club?

A president who can shake up people to live up to their own stated desires (with growth at the very top!) will be a blessing for our movement. 

In his critique, Rev. David used the term ‘mechanical’ with regard to growth strategies in a somewhat tendentious way. Peter’s growth workshops have proven effective because they don’t rely on one-size-fits-all ‘mechanisms’ but instead lead a congregation to look soberly at their ingrained disfunctional practices and habits, and to come up with individual solutions themselves that work for them. Yes, there are ‘mechanisms’ to be dealt with and ‘mechanisms’ that need to be replaced by better ones. But done in the right spirit this can be a deeply meaningful, and, yes, spiritual, practice. 

In the context of growth, a vastly more useful term is critical mass“Growing our souls”  (what Rev. David and most of us aspire to) is much more easily achieved in a congregation that takes steps – any steps! – to leave stagnation and decline behind. A growing, rejuvenating congregation has more volunteers, more children, more task forces, more services of different kinds, (and, yes, eventually even more tenors and basses).

You need critical mass to be able to start more appealing programs or forms of service and action, and we don’t have critical mass for a lot of those (including, incidentally, youth RE and nurseries!) in the vast majority of our congregations.

I may be reading too much into David’s blog entry but I see there a call for the UUA president to preach, appeal and inspire us to strengthen our spiritual UU self esteem and sense of direction. I cannot imagine that his would have any effect whatsoever. Such appeals might even be counterproductive in that they might be received as an invitation to feel smug about ourselves because our religion is just sooo wonderful.

Rev Hallman says our faith is unstoppable. Is it really? What, then, explains our continuing decline?

Making us more inviting must not be misconstrued as shallow cosmetics. It is not, because those efforts will be sustained by our sincere desire to share our faith more deeply and to offer and nurture that connection that visitors and members both seek. What shape that faith eventually takes is not in anybody’s hand, least of whom the president of the UUA.

Back to that sense of smug optimism: it may have been that same kind of optimistic ‘inebriation’ with self-delight and hopeful vision that made a number of UUA high rollers, led by Laurel Hallman, choose the most difficult of all possible models for a church planting instead of a less bold but more achievable church planting model. I’m talking of course about what was initially known as the Pathways “Fast Start” Congregation. I’ve just reread the 2006 report about it and it looks to me like the planning was extremely poor: a long list of very predictable high hurdles had apparently only been drawn up after the events, instead of in the early planning stages when that same information would have been available for those asking prudent questions.

Why do I bring up this painful chapter?
Because it highlights how important it is to have leaders who to anticipate arising problems, ask probing questions early, and proceed using proven strategies that are within our means.

I see Peter Morales as just such a leader who has researched a sober analysis of very concrete problems facing UU. These problems don’t even seem to be on Rev. Hallman’s radar screen: the demographic shift that will tremendously shrink our historical core constituency, the need to replace half of our ministers shortly, the continued slide into statistical marginality and the resulting reduced effect of our faith as a force of good in society. 

Not only do I see problems ignored or denied, I see solutions ignored and denied.

I want a UUA president who can shock congregations into facing those realities and into tackling them with creative use of simple tools they already possess. Business as usual in conjunction with inspirational feel-good talk won’t do.

If you want spiritual growth I’m predicting it will come with congregational growth in a similar way in which increasing mental well being is related to getting off one’s butt and starting physical exercise: once you start doing things as opposed to just pondering possibilities or reveling in either self pity or self aggrandizement you’ll soon find yourself on a different, more fulfilled level. 

I’ve created a blog website where the two candidates’ positions are featured side by side, in a neutral framework.
While the posts on there are completely neutral (only what both candidates said, with the candidate forum at GA as its starting point), the comments are a free forum for discussion.  I invite you all to contribute with civilized critique or praise.

For balance, I included Aaron Sawyer of as co-moderator with equal rights, and we’re seeking an outside ombudsman so that readers have assurance that there are real mechanisms for fairness in place. (Details on our About page).

I think in time it will develop into a prime spot for discussion and will enable a conscious, educated choice in 2009 that is based on policy decisions rather than seniority or personal loyalty. I hope to read your comments there, regardless of your choices.

Martin Voelker, aka jUUggernaut



PS: I’ve recently received this praise from an East coast minister whom I’ve never met:


 I’ve just had my first visit to the excellent candidate forum you have established. Thank you for a truly useful site. We owe you a debt of gratitude – this will be a valuable tool in the months to come.”



6 Responses to Peter Morales’ “Repelling fewer visitors” can’t be easily dismissed — an endorsement

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I’ll leave comments on the rest of the post for a time when I can respond more thoughtfully, but I really don’t want a UUA president who is going to shock congregations into anything, including facing realities. There are other ways to handle things. Perhaps just a wording flub, but I sure hope Peter Morales isn’t a “I’ll shock congregations into anything” kind of president.

  2. juuggernaut says:

    It may well be semantics. Pick “confronting realities”. The trouble with realities is: they’re real. Ignore them at you peril. A leader has a different obligation than an individual who may choose to take a huge gamble or for whom a wait and see attitude may be justified for other reasons.

    I find those realities shocking because they promise harshly negative outcomes for UU as a whole that clearly indicate that strategic, well thought out action is required.

    More importantly, Peter Morales sees these impending changes as opportunities that will allow us to live up to our ideals. Crises can be empowering, with the right kind of leadership.

  3. Vilanova says:

    It is certainly strange that one of the visible faces of the Pathways fiasco is now giving lessons about how growth should be implemented and attacking those who, like Morales, have a very clear and impressive record of leading a successful and growing congregation one visitor at a time.

  4. juuggernaut says:

    I’m glad you qualified your remark about Rev. David with “most visible faces”.
    The planning for Pathways began in 2000, three years before Rev. David was even hired. The key decisions had already been made.

    The report is eager to point out that the impetus for Pathways came from several places. The money, however, came from “entrepreneurial UU donors in the First Unitarian Church of Dallas (Rev. Hallman’s) who were willing to underwrite most of the projected $1. million budget” as Rev. Hallman and President Sinkford write in their co-signed “Pathways transitions” letter and FAQ dated Oct. 21 2005.
    You only raise that kind of money if the donors not only trust you but if they trust that you will have influence over the process. It may be an overstatement, as I worded it in a previous revision that “it was Laurel Hallman’s project”, given how many people were involved but she was a member of the steering committee and members of her congregation participated in several roles. 

    Sure, the report offers useful lessons and perspectives, but its style and approach does not resemble something an emotionally uninvolved external reviewer would have produced. At the very least we would have seen a direct juxtaposition of goals and results, of advice available at the time of planning, and advice taken, etc. I would also think that a professional review would contain a section that did ask specifically whose decisions were responsible (if perhaps classified). The existing review stresses that this was deliberately not done for a number of good reasons, which they list. The one reason not listed is of course that it would harm the career prospects of its main player who at the time (Summer of 2006) had already decided to run for president of the UUA.

    Of course, a church is not a business, and much of the work of its enterprising ministers and lay leaders is unpaid and in addition to a long list of their core obligations. Nobody wants to stifle such enthusiasm. But when it comes to really big projects paid for with other people’s money, like leading the UUA which is paid for by all of us, better standards than being guided by an optimistic vision are required.

  5. Larry Ladd says:

    This is Larry Ladd. There are important lessons to be learned from the Pathways start-up. We should focus on those lessons as we chart our growth for the future. Personal attacks aren’t helpful in learning from the Pathways experience nor in a campaign for UUA president.
    I was not in a personal relationship with Laurel Hallman at the time I was asked to participate in an independent review of lessons to be learned from the Pathways experience. Had I been in such a relationship I would not have agreed to serve on the panel. I was appointed because of my long-term demonstrated commitment to UU growth and my established track record of independence from the administration. My other UU colleague on the panel, Rev. Stephan Papa, can hardly have been seen as “close to President Sinkford” at the time of his appointment to the panel. (Papa was later appointed, well after his Pathways review service, to the UUA development staff but that is coincidental.) All three members of the Pathways review commission acted in the best interests of liberal religion and need not have their motives questioned.
    Larry Ladd

  6. juuggernaut says:

    Larry, I deleted the paragraph wondering about your participation. I’m glad you issued this correction because others must have scratched their head about a possible connection here as well, in both cases, it looked odd.
    As for motives, I’m afraid we’re not in some spiritual vacuum but regardless of our overarching good intentions we’re still talking about institutional politics where motives on different levels will always play a role.

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