First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Getting Bigger by Getting Smaller
Rev. Samuel A Trumbore September 22, 2002

Have you ever been asked to "keep your fork" as the main dish has been cleared away?Holding on to your fork may just have a little spiritual significance.

A pastor went to visit a deathly ill parishioner.Knowing his time was short, he gave her precise instructions for his funeral—the hymns to be sung, the suit he wanted to be buried in.With his strength ebbing, he seized the pastor’s hand and whispered, “I want to be buried with a fork in my hand.” 

“I don’t understand,” she said. 

“In all my years of church socials and potlucks, whenever the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would say, ‘Keep your fork.’It was my favorite part because I knew that something even better was coming, like chocolate cake or apple strudel—something wonderful!When people see me in that casket they’ll ask you, ‘What’s with the fork?’And you tell them for me: ‘Keep your fork.The best is yet to come!’” 

I'm keeping my fork too, because I believe the best is yet to come for our congregation.I believe the decision to expand our building will be good for our health and vitality.Adding space will relieve the crowding we already experience and permit this congregation to accommodate an expanding membership.At a time when many liberal religious traditions are shrinking, I find it delightful to be serving a congregation that is growing steadily.

I fully expect that growth to continue because the Capital Region is experiencing significant immigration.On Tuesday, I met with the President of the Albany-Colonie Chamber of Commerce, Lyn Taylor.She spoke with several of us from our ARISE Executive Committee about the future of the region.Sematech coming here and the biotech initiatives associated with RPI demonstrate our region is coming to the attention of our nation as an emerging "Tech Valley."

The"Tech Valley" factor is not the only reason we’re growing. September 11th has people wanting to move out of the big cities.Big city dwellers want to stop commuting two hours a day and move to a place they can get to work in 20 minutes.Taylor talked about one executive crowing that he could leave work, see his child's school play and return in a couple of hours.He never could have done that in New York City or Boston.

Like it or not, significant growth is coming to our region.And the kind of highly educated people coming here as part of that growth are likely to find their way into Unitarian Universalist congregations like ours.

The current and expected growth of our congregation demands many changes.Change is difficult.In particular, I'd like to address one area of concern that has come up around our building expansion proposals.I've heard concerns expressed about our congregation getting too big.In particular, I've heard from some of our long time members a frustration that if we get too big, they will not know everybody anymore.

In my analysis, this concern has two dimensions.One is the depersonalizing societal trend of the last century.More and more we are treated as a social security number and not a person by a faceless bureaucracy.Personal mobility means people don't get to know their neighbors and don't feel connected to their communities.Too many feel anonymous and alone, like a commuter on a subway train to eternity packed with strangers all trying to avoid eye contact.People come here Sunday morning to be with others who know their names and care about them.The lettering above the bay window in Channing Hall says in Latin, "Here, let no one be a stranger".

The other dimension is the insularity that can happen in the aging process.People with established social networks of friends can stop reaching out and bringing new people into their network.As the years pass, they get to an age where they find themselves attending far more funerals than weddings and child dedications.Expanding one's social network to include those who could be your children's or grandchildren's age isn't easy.Each is experiencing different stages of life.Each generation is shaped differently by the great events of their times.But if those boundaries are not crossed, the aging survivor becomes more and more isolated and alone. 

Clearly, for the success of our congregation, we must continually embrace newcomers and integrate them into our congregational life, building new relationships and connections between our older and newer members.Yet at our size of congregation, we cannot all know each other's names.Besides a few like our membership chair, Kathy Hodges, and Dave Stone, our sexton, I probably know more people by name in our congregation than anyone else.I work at it very intentionally.And there are still a few names in the directory I can't put a face to.If you wanted our congregation to be a size where everyone could know everyone else, it's too late.It's been too late for 40 years.In fact, members of the congregation I served in Port Charlotte, Florida, regularly fretted about not knowing everyone - and they didn't even have a 100 members at the time!

I know very personally that feeling of wanting someone to know my name and feel part of a community.In the fall of 1977, close to 25 years ago now, I bought a rail pass and boarded a train in search of adventure and identity.This time of year brings back memories of my big adventure to--as we said in those days--"find myself."A week and a half later, tired and lonely, I ended up in a residential hotel next to a railroad station full of drug addicts, alcoholics and mentally ill outpatients inPalo Alto, California.The only person I knew there was a visiting professor at Stanford and his wife who were acquaintances of my parents.Otherwise, I was all on my own, running out of money and looking for a job.My first stop was the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.

The Palo Alto Unitarian Church has now and had then a much larger membership than my parent's Unitarian Fellowship.There were lots of people in attendance in the sanctuary my first Sunday.The church's excellent 25 member choir was led by a professional choir director.They had a big religious education program.They had an extensive bookstore.

I remember the size of the congregation wasn't a negative for me at all.I delighted in the quality of the service and the crowds of people.Rather, I experienced the congregation's larger size as a significant positive even though there were few people my age.I didn't need to know everybody.I just needed to make a few friends.

From my experience in nine small, medium and large congregations around the country, I would say that it is far easier to form relationships in larger congregations than smaller ones.This is one of the counterintuitive facts about large congregations.Larger congregations create larger pools of people with the same interests, facilitating the formation of small common interest groups.

One of the struggles we have yet to address in our congregation is the gap in our membership of young people in their twenties and thirties.We'll be doing a service about this gap next month as part of the Unitarian Universalist Association's initiative called, "Mind the Gap."The Unitarian Church I served during my internship in Rochester, New York, is our largest upstate congregation with about 800 members.They have a thriving twenties and thirties group called TNT that meets regularly.The size of the congregation permitted that critical mass of people to find each other and start a group.

All the church growth experts agree that the key to increasing people's satisfaction in congregations as they grow is to have lots and lots of small groups.Thankfully, our congregation already has quite a number of special interest committees and groups.Like quilting?Join the Projects and Quilts group nicknamed P's & Q's.Want to meet people in your neighborhood?Attend one of the neighborhood potlucks.Struggling with cancer?Join our cancer support group.Like to read?There are several book groups.Enjoy theater, opera, music?Go with people in our congregation who regularly get together to attend local performances.

These small groups are important ways for newcomers to feel connected to our congregation.Valuable as these interest groups are socially, they are not designed to fulfill a deeper hunger to go inward and examine personal beliefs and values and expand one's sources of meaning.

Last year, our congregation developed a way to address that hunger through Small Group Ministry.Small Group Ministry is an idea burning through our congregations like wildfire, serving a need we've never met very well before. 

I remember I was going through lots of inner turmoil when I moved to California.I wanted more out of life than I found in my home town of Newark, Delaware.Life felt like it had passed me by and I wanted to be right in the middle of it.The potlucks I attended at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church were great and I met interesting people.But there wasn't room for me in that setting to talk much about my search for truth and meaning.Small Group Ministry is designed to be just that kind of group.

Small Group Ministry breaks the participants down into manageable size groups ofseven to ten people.The twice-a-month meetings begin with check-in and then focus on a topic designed to encourage the sharing of feelings, values, and sources of meaning.The groups are designed to help the participants learn about themselves and each other. These groups have been particularly helpful for connecting the older and the newer members.These are not groups interested in analyzing and debating outer truth, rather, they are for pursuing inner truth.That inner truth reveals itself through the stimulating fellowship of conversation sharing feelings, thoughts, values and beliefs.When people share their inner truths with each other, they minister to each other.

Another one of the counterintuitive lessons of larger churches is that ministry is the job of the members rather than the minister.In larger congregations, the minister administrates, raises money and develops and strengthens the leadership.A minister can do a little ministry from the pulpit but this is a one-way communication.Even at our current size, I can't visit every member of this congregation on a weekly or even monthly basis.It is a physical impossibility (much as I wish I could clone myself).I feel good if I can make personal contact with everyone on a yearly basis.Small groups step into that gap.Small group ministry helps our congregation get smaller while it gets bigger.

Small groups can't do it all.Small Group Ministry will not appeal to everyone.There is yet another way for our congregation to get smaller as it gets bigger.That is by engaging in the habit of hospitality.Hospitality is a sacred duty with an ancient history that too few of us practice religiously.

I read recently about a man who visited 18 different churches on successive Sundays.He was trying to find out what the churches were really like.He said, "I sat near the front.After the service, I walked slowly to the rear, then returned to the front and back to the foyer using another aisle.I smiled, dressed neatly."I asked one person to direct me to a specific place:a fellowship hall, pastor's study, etc.I remained for coffee if served.I used a scale to rate the reception I received.I awarded points on the following basis:

On this scale, 11 of the 18 churches earned fewer than 100 points.Five actually received less than 20.

I sure hope if this fellow showed up here, we'd get at least 200 points since we do offer visitors a free cup of coffee in a white coffee mug.But how many of you make a point to talk to people with white coffee mugs?How many of you introduce a visitor to someone you think they might want to get to know?How many make sure they meet me?Or do you think that is somebody else's job?Remember-- next Sunday is bring-a-friend Sunday!

Small groups are vital to the quality of our religious community as are social events like our yearly karaoke nights or the fabulous UU Weekend at Silver Bay.But on a week-to-week basis, we are all responsible to help create what we dearly desire, a warm and loving religious community.

While I like larger congregations, I also like and value small congregational life and I like the size we are at right now.There are currently about a thousand Unitarian Universalists active in our congregations around the Capital Region.I believe there could easily be two or three thousand and still that would mean 99.7% of the population would remain non Unitarian Universalists!What is missing is the space for them.We are the ones who can make the room.

Japanese Carp or Koi are curious fish.These fish will proportionately grow to accommodate their surroundings.In a fish bowl they grow to a length of only two or three inches. In a pond they may grow to a length of three or four feet.This fishbowl you're sitting in right now comfortably holds a congregation of about 250 members.We're outgrowing it.We've been outgrowing for 40 years.I'm confident that if we expand our space, like the koi, we will grow to fill it.

Ultimately, all church growth is about hospitality.It is about sharing the meaning and value, the good news, if you will, we have found here with others.We can grow bigger and grow smaller at the same time.

Keep your forks - the best is yet to come.

Copyright © 2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.