Size Transitions and Preparing for Growth

As our congregations grows, we change not only in size but in the nature of the congregation, how we relate and function. Read more about that process here.

Size Really Does Make a Difference!

Prepared for Leadership Council Retreat, March 24, 2012

ByRev. Stefan Jonasson UUA Director for Large Congregations

Here are a few readings to give you some background about growth and how the size of church attendance affects church dynamics. Food for thought as UUP intentionally plans to grow in numbers, spiritual and organizational maturity and contributions to the wider world. UUP is in transition from being a Family Church to becoming a Pastoral Church.

The Family Church : averaging fewer than 50 people in attendance, is so named because it behaves remarkably like an extended family! As with human families, individuals we describe as matriarchs and patriarchs tend to dominate life in the family church. This is not a value judgment, its just what is found most often in this size of church. Family churches tend not to have their own ministers but, when they do, the minister is rarely at the center of congregational life. The ministers tenure is usually too brief to develop the influence necessary to hold that important a position. The board is generally not much better off than the minister, since important decisions are mostly made either by the matriarchs and patriarchs or by the congregation as a whole, through a town meeting approach. This is the only size of church where it is really possible for each member to know every other member. More than one in three UU congregations is family sized.


The Pastoral Church:averaging 50 to 150 people on Sundays, is what most Americans have in mind when they think about churches. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The pastoral church is no longer one where everybody knows your name, as in the television series Cheers, so the minister becomes a sort of spiritual bartender, since maintaining relationships becomes a full-time job. As steward of the relational system, the ministers influence grows. The boards responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases, as does the sense in which board members function as volunteer staff. Part-time paid staff is added. Stronger committees begin to develop and their members round out the volunteer staffing needs of the church. Nearly half of all UU congregations are pastoral churches.


The Program Churchwith an average attendance of 150 to 350, is known for the quality and growing variety of its programs. The minister may be joined by another full-time professional and other staff positions also increase. Boards begin to focus on policy-making and oversight of congregation-wide matters, divesting themselves of the liaison responsibilities that are typical of pastoral church boards. A program council will often be created to coordinate the work of the congregations various program committees. Some experts maintain that the program church will be the most vulnerable to decline during the first quarter of the 21st century. Perhaps one in six UU congregations is a program church.


The Corporate Church, averaging more than 350 people attending each week, is the most varied category of the four. Some can be characterized as super-program churches while others look more like mini-denominations! Few congregations of this size can get by without a second minister (or more) and other professional staff members will typically be part of the team, assisted by a growing support staff. Boards must shift dramatically toward a policy-setting emphasis of governing the congregations affairs; otherwise they will soon be overwhelmed by their work. Board members are now the churchs legislators rather than its managers. Under the leadership of the senior minister or executive team, the staff assumes responsibility for the churchs day-to-day operations. Program councils typically give way to staff coordination, while committees are reduced in number, and most of those remaining become accountable for their activities through the staff. While there are only a few more than 40 large or corporate-sized churches in the Unitarian Universalist Association, they collectively account for more individual UUs than the 500 smallest congregations put together!

2006 Unitarian Universalist Association. All rights reserved. Religious organizations and congregations are free to duplicate and distribute this essay within their institutions. Commercial distribution is expressly prohibited without permission.


The Membership Journey, Growth Services, UUA, 2010