The In-Between Church


The In-Between Church

  Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on January 18, 2015

Last week we talked about finding meaning in storytelling. I read to you several stories (five, actually) from the book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. One was the story of two brothers who shared a field and a granary, one living alone, the other with a large family. Each understood the needs and the orientation of the other.

The single farmer, sensitive to the fact that his brother had more family members to support, secretly added grain to his brother’s supply at night; the farmer with a family realized that his brother had no one to support him in his old age, so he secretly added to his brother’s grain supply at night– until one night they ran into each other and embraced in love. And at that place, we are told, God placed a church because such love forms the foundation of a church.

Over half a century ago, in this town, but not at this place, a church was born, a Unitarian Universalist church. But, wait. That’s not quite right. In 1961, was born a fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I was not there, of course– none of us were, but I’ve heard that the core reason (at least as it’s come down to us) for founding the church was to provide a “more reasonable religion” in Bowling Green.

Now “reason” may not have much to do with love, but I’ve met Jean Thomason, perhaps the most determined in that group to found a church, and I’ve talked with her several times in person and by phone. I had lunch with her and her family and the Steeles the day they joined us for our November Day of Remembrance service and she sent me a thoughtful card at Christmas.

And from these experiences, I know that love as well as reason lay in the hearts of those determined to nurture the growth of this church. Love and reason are pretty good companions, I think– and good reasons to want to establish a church.

This church, as I’ve been told, started out when a group of seven people, all associated in one way or another with the university, sat around a kitchen table and talked about what they wanted, what they needed, what was reasonable and what was not, and made plans. This is how a family works, a well-functioning family, anyway. And, in fact, when churches start with so few members as this and grow around that nucleus of founders, that is what those churches are called, actually– family-size churches.

It’s a term that useful to describe a church where up to 50 attend on a Sunday morning, including the children in their RE classes. This is according to those who have done the research in this field, people like Arlin Rothauge and Alice Mann who wrote The In-Between Church. She describes this kind of church as “a single-cell organism– a social system resembling an extended biological family in which ‘we all know each other.’” (p. 4)

“As in actual families, some members are added by birth or marriage, while others are incorporated rather slowly and carefully in a process of adoption.” Because of the small numbers, these churches (or fellowships) don’t always have a minister. When they do, “clergy are usually part-time and short-term…. The leadership that… holds these churches together comes from the matriarchs and patriarchs” — the lay leaders who do what’s needed when it needs to be done– or who delegate that authority.

Those who have earned a certain stature from their service over time. From what I understand, Jean Thomason was such a matriarch, and an excellent delegator. A minister in such a church does not provide leadership, really–at least according to these experts. He is more “permitted to function as (a) chaplain… to the family.”

So, a family-size church is organized in a particular way, the “single cell organism” model that Alice Mann talks about. This family style fits the family size well because it adapts to its patterns as well as helping to form them. It forms the patterns and adapts to the patterns in something like an evolutionary process. The church should be looked upon as a living organism because, after all, the social interactions as well as the institutional structures make up the church– this is especially so in the smaller churches, of course.

And if things go well, over the course of time, the church experiences growth. It’s no longer true that everyone knows everyone else, and the process of delegating tasks gets harder because the organizational structure is not in place for the increased numbers. There are lapses in communication, some things get postponed, some things never get done. Often, dissatisfactions set in.

The feeling of coziness that derives from knowing everyone on a Sunday morning starts to fade and that’s a real loss for some people. For others, the increase in size feels right and comfortable. Sometimes a church can grow in a healthy was into the next size, which is called “pastoral-size.” Committees form and function. A Board is elected and works with the committees to make sure that the work of the church gets done.

Usually, this is the time when a minister is called to serve the needs of the congregation if there had not been a minister before. Or the congregation understands that its needs can no longer be met by one of the part-time and short-term ministers, so it calls a full-time minister. If there has been enough preparatory work and the congregation feels ready, the minister is called to provide spiritual leadership to the community.

But, if the lay-led church has been in existence for two generations without a minister, as this one was, then the role of the minister is not very clear. Is that person a chaplain to call on in times of need, as well as a preacher for most Sundays? How does that person function with the committees? Is the minister expected to find a way to fit in, or is the minister acknowledged to have a leadership function, around which the culture of the church adheres?

“The pastoral-size church” has an average attendance on Sundays of from 50 to 150 (some say 55 to 175). Either way, it’s a term that has described us for a good many years now. The pastoral size church is described as a “multi-cell organism– a coalition of several overlapping family-friendship networks unified around the person and role of the pastor” (p. 4).

It’s the kind of church that we see most often in literature and films. Alice Mann says “At its best, this congregation is big enough to look to the visitor like a ‘real church,’ and small enough to feel personal.” I hope that’s us.

We take it as a “given,” I think, that the question of personal identity is one of the great existential questions for each person, at least in the kinds of societies we know best, those of the Western industrialized world. But groups have identities as well and churches, at least as much as any other kind of institution, need to know their identity.

If they (or we) are stuck in an “in-between place,” it causes us confusion, some destabilization, and it puts us in what is called a “plateau zone,” where some aspects of the family-size church still linger and some aspects of the pastoral-size church get established. There is periodically talk about the “program-size” church, which does not begin to take shape until there is a consistent pattern of attendance of 150 or more at Sunday services.

So, the issue I’m bringing before you today is a spiritual issue in that it has to do with identity. The identity of this church as both a spiritual community and an institution because we are both. And I hope that in raising this spiritual question, I will encourage a larger conversation– a church-wide conversation– about who we are, what we stand for, and why we matter. That’s the real question: Why does this church matter?

The book called The In-Between Church uses a very interesting image, I think, to capture the effects of church growth– the effects that we experienced when we grew from about 40 attending church on Sunday to 80 to 90 to 100 and sometimes more. It’s called “Weighing the Giant Fly.”

One of my math teachers in high school was also the football coach. Mr. Clark liked to liven up the classes with some sort of action, so he showed us part of a horror movie and asked us to estimate the weight of the villain, a giant fly about 12 feet tall. To create this towering insect, the filmmakers had photographed a real housefly and showed the enlarged image standing next to human beings apparently half its height.

“Look at those legs,” Mr. Clark said. “Could those legs hold up a twelve-foot fly?”

“Well, why not?” we asked.

The whole figure had been enlarged in exact proportion to the original. If the legs of the little fly were sufficient to support the body, why would it be any different for the big fly?

Suppose a real housefly is a centimeter long, a centimeter tall, and a centimeter wide. Suppose it weighs one gram. Wouldn’t a fly twice as big weigh two grams? In fact, if you double all the dimensions of the fly, you will quadruple the shadow it casts on the picnic table at noon and increase eightfold the amount it weighs. Our giant fly would need thick legs like an elephant in order to stand up, and it wouldn’t be much of an aviator.

When organisms change significantly in size, they must also change in form. That’s just the way the world works, and the rule holds true for social as well as biological organisms. [Did you know we are a social organism? We are.]

When organisms change significantly in size, they must also change in form. Kenneth Blanchard has shown how the number of possible interactions multiplies as a social system grows in tiny increments. With three people in a room, 11 different configurations of communication are possible: A speaks to B; A speaks to B in the presence of C; and so on. Add a fourth person and the number spikes to 54…

For the last three decades or so, students of religious systems have tried to describe the changes in form that must occur in order to allow a congregation to change (in an adaptive way) in size. While there is no single agreed-upon framework for describing size differences, there is a convergence of opinion regarding some key dimensions of size transition at some of the typical plateau points. These are the attendance levels at which a church, growing naturally in a conducive environment, will probably get stuck unless it undergoes a change of form. (p. 1-3)

And these we talked about:

  • up to 50 or so, a family-style form;
  • from 50 to 150, a pastoral-size form;
  • from 150 to 350, a program-size form.

Alice Mann says that “Churches almost always encounter difficulty when they arrive at a step– the boundary between one size and the next– because the culture of the congregation is in flux. Formal and informal relationships are being reshaped; key structures and processes are changing.”

I think it’s time for some examples. I’ll use myself as example one. As I prepared to move from Boston (Quincy, actually) to Bowling Green in the summer of 2009, I had to find places for furniture which had been in the family for decades, in some cases, as long as I could remember. One of my friends said he could use the dining room table, but not the chairs.

What do you do with extra dining room chairs? Donate them to the church, of course. For me, it was the perfect solution. The chairs, which held a definite sentimental value for me could be donated to the church in Jamaica Plain which, of course, had a special place in my heart. So I loaded the chairs– 5 or 6 of them– in the car and dropped them off at the church.

I never asked the minister or anyone from Buildings and Grounds if they were needed. After all, it was my church family; of course, they would want the chairs. You can always use more chairs, right? But the next time I visited the church or the time after that– not much later, anyway, I noticed that the chairs were no longer in the parish hall. When I asked someone about them, the answer was a shrug of the shoulders, and “I guess the church didn’t need them.”

I never did find out what happened to the chairs. But, It’s understandable, isn’t it, on both sides? The Jamaica Plain church has about the same number of members as ours, about 120. A pastoral size church where Terry Burke had been the minister for about 27 years at that time. My vision of the family-style church ran into the church’s own understanding of itself. There was probably a policy for accepting gifts which I didn’t know about.

And the same thing, almost exactly, happens here. A large old desk was donated a couple of years ago– really impressive. “Cool,” I would say. But such desks are less in demand in these days of laptop computers and electronic communication. So, it was dropped off, it stayed in the old office for a while, then it was moved somewhere else. Finally, I saw it by the trash barrel outside, transformed into a pile of scrap lumber.

That was sad. The donor did not take it personally, but for some people, this would have constituted a betrayal large enough to think about leaving the church. Do you know that we have a policy for accepting these kinds of gifts? We do, which is an aspect of a church that has embraced its institutional nature. But few people seem to know about it, which speaks to the lingering family style of operation where we expect these things will get passed around by word of mouth.

Policies. Even a family-style church finds that it needs some basic policies to operate. But, when a church grows to pastoral size, there are more things to consider and more policies to put in place. Policies for hiring staff, office staff and for our religious exploration program. Policies for background checks. Fire evacuation policies. And a policy for resolving conflicts.

Wherever there are people, there are sure to be conflicts at some time or another. In a family-style church where everyone knows everyone else, if there is a conflict between persons, often the matriarchs and patriarchs are entrusted with helping work things out or, if things can’t be worked out so smoothly, taking steps to address the issue so that the church suffers no more than a hiccup before resuming something like the normal flow of church life.

When a church reaches the pastoral size, there needs to be a policy to guide those entrusted with sorting things out. If not, the double task of inventing and implementing a policy at the same time has a cost in time, energy, patience, group cohesion and disruption of harmony. Things assume a greater dimension than they need to as the strain of living with things unresolved creates a tension that harder to contain.

Policies are containers– ways to hold together things that too easily come apart, vehicles to move through roadblocks and cul-de-sacs so that you don’t run smack-dab into a dead end. If we have grown past the family-style church model, we need to grow into the maturity of vision that acknowledges that policies are made to serve the community and worth the time it takes to craft them, submit them, get them accepted and implemented. These are things worth talking about.

If you are not convinced that it matters one way or another whether we take the time to ascertain our identity as a spiritual community– if you think that these distinctions are maybe interesting, but not very important, let me share a scenario that might change your view.

A few years ago– three or four, I’m not sure, at a meeting of the Board of Directors, one of our Past Presidents was bemoaning the fact, after a vote had been held on a particular issue, that he did not get a vote. He said that it made him feel useless, as I recall, and he did not understand how he could play a meaningful role on the Board without a vote. Well, no one had a good answer for him.

We talked it over, we acknowledged his value as a leader and as a person with wisdom to share. I think someone want to far as to look at the bylaws and to see if the non-voting status was enshrined there. No one could name a reason to deprive him of a vote so then and there, the Board gave a vote to our Past Presidents.

And it was not until several years later that something that should have been apparent to us all, but wasn’t, was pointed out: a Board member is elected to a two-year term by the congregation. The third year on the Board, the Past President stays on to provide some institutional memory, but not as an elected Board member with a vote. So, we have two church styles at work and in conflict with one another. Fifty-three years ago, seven people sitting around a table, family-style, were free to establish rules within that context.

The use of that same style 50 years later– with a more well-established institutional structure in place– can cause problems. Sometimes we like the family style and we support it and we want it to continue– it connects us with the past and the sense of stability that tradition reinforces. But, when it seems to some to subvert the will of the congregation, things can go from sticky to disagreeable very quickly.

A year and a half ago, at our fall “Getting to Know UU” session, one of the participants asked for a copy of the bylaws. Well, none of us on the Membership Committee, minister included, had ever thought of including this as a piece of our presentation. But, as that person so reasonably pointed out, “When I join an organization, I like to know what the rules are.” What a novel concept!

But, really, the Membership Committee wants to be welcoming, non-threatening, caring of individuals and individual circumstances, and doesn’t think of anything so formal and “institutional” as bylaws. And yet, bylaws are important. They are the documents that give us legal status as a corporation.

And you may say, along with me– who wants to be a corporation? Corporations aren’t people. And yet, this legal necessity is more than that. Bylaws help to hold us together. They contain policies or in some cases refer to policies that exist in a binder to be referred to when needed.

We’ve gone through a size transition, sped right past it without recognizing it and recognizing that when size changes, forms and patterns have to change as well. Who wants to be a 12-foot fly with legs like an elephant? That just won’t fly.

In terms of our size, we are a pastoral-size church. And like many, even most such churches, we have hit a plateau in our membership over the past few years, in the 120’s for most of that time. Perhaps that’s not surprising, as members associated with a university often have reasons to move that are beyond the control of the congregation.

Alice Mann says “Sometimes the pain of the plateau phenomenon is not widely discussed within the congregation. The pastor and a few lay leaders may be taking all the tensions into themselves, straining to fulfill two contradictory sets of expectations– and more or less succeeding because of unusual personal talents, overwork, neglect of families, or all three.”

The reason to study size transition and its effects and implications is to liberate the energy that is otherwise bound up in avoidance or discontent or just confusion. Alice Mann counsels that a church that takes on a study to identify better who they are– who we are– has an immediate benefit. It helps us see things in new ways, helps us get unstuck, reconnects us with one another as we come together in small groups to read, learn, discuss, and grow.

We want to be a church that does— that implements a plan to transform our landscape into something more reflective of our values; a church that works through a process that leads to a Welcoming Congregation designation. But, we will only be as successful in doing things as we are in knowing who we are. This is the spiritual question of identity. And the identity of a church is formed through our commitment to one another to know who we are.

So, I have suggested to the Board that we spend some time on this process as a church and they’ve agreed– that we take on a church-wide project for perhaps three months, from mid-March to June. How are we a family? How are we a community? How are we an institution? How is our culture created? How do we organize ourselves to best serve our mission? What is our vision for the future? Where are we going? And most important of all, why does this church matter?

Last week, I asked you to recommit to your church by, if you could, volunteering to help out once a month for 90 minutes, joining in with others to make sure that the church stays nice and clean. Sixteen of you responded. That was remarkable. I asked folks to pitch in and help out with after-church refreshments. A score or so of you signed up. A wonderful show of support. This project will take more time, but will be well worth it. Sign-up sheets will be passed around. I urge your participation.


  • The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations by Alice Mann. Alban Institute, Inc. 1999.

The book is available in our church library.

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