The First Parish of Sudbury is a congregation that is totally unique — just like all the others. Naturally, no two churches are ever quite the same, any more than two snowflakes can be one hundred percent identical. But when it comes to frostiness, whiteness, and star-shaped symmetry, there are some strong resemblances that exist among snowflakes. And indeed, there are also recurring patterns that churches exhibit, regardless of their differing histories, locations or denominational affiliation.
Many of these similarities have to do with size. While much has been written about mega-churches that attract thousands on Sunday mornings with rock bands and charismatic preachers, the typical congregation in the United States is much more like this one, with something under a hundred people sitting down to worship together. Numerically speaking, more devotees go to those big crystal cathedrals. But most actual sanctuaries don’t look like football stadiums or cineplexes. Instead, they resemble this one, holding a few dozen families and individuals who don’t come because of the half-time show or TV ministry, but because in these smaller gatherings they’re fairly sure of finding a friendly face, having a genuine human interaction, and capturing the feeling of both knowing and being known.
Churches on this smaller, more human scale are often called “pastoral sized” congregations, and are usually defined as having between 50 and 150 children and adults present on Sunday morning. The upper limit is important, so much so that author and social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls 150 a “magic number,” for there’s much evidence that Homo sapiens evolved to live in tribes of this particular size. One British anthropologist, for instance, did a worldwide survey of hunting-gathering societies for which we have solid information, from the Walbiri of Australia to the Ona of Tierra del Fuego. These cultures are again like snowflakes; no two are alike. They have different languages and burial customs and mythologies. But like snowfalkes, again, all of these societies tended to be very small. The average of number of inhabitants in these primitive villages was 148, seldom more (which perhaps coincidentally also happens to be the average size of a modern Unitarian Universalist congregation!)
The reason for this upper limit is that 150 seems to be the largest group that most of us can relate to interpersonally without beginning to forget names and faces. Among primates, we have the biggest neocortex, which gives us a larger social capacity than our animal kin. Baboons, for instance, live in troops of fifty or so. Chimpanzees, with a larger brain, may have 80 members in their extended families. People have the largest social networks, but even we have limits to what our cerebrums can handle.
Beyond 150, organizations become more anonymous and complex. You need policies, procedures, and protocols to help the group function and stay on task. Congregations at this larger, more complicated level are often called “program sized churches.” Often they have multiple paid staff and layers of reporting and decision-making. But the pastoral size congregation is simpler and less formal. It finds its counterpart in the business world in a firm like Gore-Tex, a big outfit that makes rain gear, dental floss and a variety of specialty fabrics, but that deliberately operates with a small company philosophy. Whenever a Gore-Tex plant anywhere in the world reaches the “magic number” of 150 employees, the plan is that the company always starts a brand new branch. When they build a new plant, they put 150 spaces in the parking lot, and when those spaces are full, they know it’s time to expand again. It’s a billion dollar corporation but, by dividing and redividing, they act more like a small, entrepreneurial start-up. In keeping with its “small is beautiful” ethos, there are no organizational charts at Gore-Tex, no bosses, no secretaries and no job titles. Everyone who works there is an “associate” and because everyone in a given plant knows everyone else, peer pressure and peer support are sufficient to keep productivity and innovation high. This is how small churches operate. Word-of-mouth and the power of personality and reputation are usually more important than by-laws in understanding how things get done.
Now I’ve served pastoral sized churches. My first congregation on the west coast had just about 150 members, some years a few more and sometimes less. About half that number might show up on any given Sunday, so the scale was a lot like what you find here at First Parish, and it was similar in this way too: it was among the warmest, kindest, most nurturing collection of people you’d ever want to meet. Ministers love these places because they’re so relational. “Pastoral sized” congregations are so-called because the clergy are usually central to the emotional system. As the ordained leader, you can enjoy a degree of intimacy and acquaintance with your entire flock (which is, after all, the reason many of us are drawn to this profession, not to manage budgets, but to bond with other people). A group like this is like a single cell or organism. It has a degree of homeostasis, its own internal equilibrium. So although we tried and tried to make that little church grow and turn it into something bigger, for some reason, the organization had its own ideas. It just seemed to find its zone at around 150. So from one perspective, you could say we were stuck. From another, you might say we were stable. In retrospect, instead of spending so much time trying to change our little church, maybe we should have spent more time appreciating what we had and savoring who we were.
First Parish of Sudbury might learn from this experience, I think. For one of the things that makes this congregation different from other UU churches in the area is your relatively small size. Like yours, those other churches in Stow and Wayland, Sherborn and Concord and Framingham are all old and historic. They too meet in aging, white clapboard buildings (and are mostly filled with aging white people). Like yours, they are Welcoming Congregations embracing people of all sexual orientations. And like First Parish of Sudbury, they practice principles of tolerance and religious freedom. But unlike this community, those are all large and medium-sized churches, with bigger budgets and slicker websites, food pantries, labyrinths and medical clinics. This has sometimes resulted in “steeple envy,” with folks here feeling “less than” those larger churches, an inferiority complex exacerbated by Boston, which is constantly beating the drum for quantitative increase. But you have something qualitatively different and special and valuable to offer, a degree of connection and camaraderie and mutual care that really does flourish best in tribe-like settings. Humans have evolved, we’re designed, our nervous systems are naturally wired to function optimally in village-style communities just like First Parish of Sudbury.
That’s one reason I’m not too worried by church growth experts who warn that the future belongs to the mega-churches, that small congregations are destined for the dustbin. You don’t change a million years of biology overnight. Despite talk of a global economy and the advent of social media, the human animal remains a clannish creature, local in his sympathies, loyal to her immediate in-group. And this is the real danger facing small congregations like this one, in my opinion. For the same traits that make smaller churches such friendly and supportive places also tend to make them parochial and
One example might be the ritual of “joys and concerns” which has become common in UU circles, especially among smaller congregations. Lay people, by the way, tend to love the open mic, the spontaneous, unrehearsed nature of the sharing from the pews, while ministers in contrast almost uniformly dislike this folksy dialogue. The reason being that remembering Betty’s hip surgery and learning that Charlie’s sister is visiting from Poughkeepsie can reinforce group cohesion, at least for those already inside the charmed circle. But for visitors and newcomers, the extended sharing of personal information on Sunday morning can feel off-putting and unwelcoming, like attending someone else’s family reunion. I actually don’t think this is true here in Sudbury, where your “Milestones” are usually short and fairly discreet. But it’s an illustration of how the same customs that feel inclusive to some may be experienced as exclusive by others.
So congregations like First Parish need to be especially mindful of reaching out to strangers, precisely because there are no strangers here. You have to realize, that it’s hard to be a guest in a church like this. If no one notices or talks to you at First Parish in Concord, with 800 members, that’s one thing. As a church shopper, you don’t expect to get much attention in such a crowd. If no one notices or talks to you at the coffee hour in Sudbury, on the other hand, that can be tough. Thus you have to work harder here to make sure this is a religious community that actually practices hospitality, that serves the larger world and is not just a social club that caters to its own members, for as people of faith you have a mission: to extend love and acceptance to all the displaced, rootless, often lonely and hurting people out there who could find a life-giving home in liberal religion if only they knew Unitarianism existed and were given half an invitation to join.
Why would people want to join this particular congregation? Well, there are points where First Parish shines. Two weeks ago, your choir did a Faure “Requiem” that was a match for any choral music in greater Boston, an amazing performance for a church this size. And last month, you produced a Sunday morning theatrical that had clowns, lion tamers, stilt walkers and acrobats cartwheeling down the center aisle in a carnival that filled this sanctuary with a cast of forty actors and actresses of all ages. The First Parish of Sudbury does not excel at everything. No organization does. But you do have a phenomenal aptitude for the arts in this congregation, with Morris Dancers, quilting groups, Coffee Houses, magic shows, costume balls, May Day festivals and holiday revels that celebrate the sheer exuberance of living. The First Parish of Sudbury is where creative people congregate. And rather than hiding that light under a bushel, you need to make it a limelight.
Of course, it’s the nature of a spotlight that it can’t illuminate everything. By concentrating on the main attraction, other parts of the stage fade into the background. In choosing to specialize, you necessarily set priorities and may have to decide that some activities here are peripheral. So related to the question of “what makes this congregation unique and different” is the question of “what programs and events are marginal to our identity here? What’s just sapping time and energy that could be put to better use?” I can’t answer that question for you. But I will observe that after all the hard work and long hours of producing “Under the Big Top,” Alorie Parkhill made the comment that “when I’m doing this, I don’t feel seventy years old anymore.” And that might be a good measure to apply to all of your endeavours here at First Parish. Does what you’re doing make you feel old and weary, tired and dreary? Or are you engaging in work that, despite the difficulties and challenges, feels purposeful and enlivening, that rejuvenates your spirits and invigorates your souls?
The Untarian ee cummings whose poem “i am a little church” provided our opening words also offered the advice to “damn everything but the circus.”
damn everything that is grim, dull,
motionless, unrisking, inward turning,
damn everything that won’t get into the
circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw
its heart into the tension, surprise, fear
and delight of the circus, the round
world, the full existence…
To sum up, celebrate yourself. Because First Parish isn’t like other churches. But also celebrate yourself. Have fun. Let loose. Click your heels. Sing hallelujah. Let your being radiate the flamboyance of who you are. If you just one among a million snowflakes, get in touch with your inner flake!
By Rev. Gary Kowalski
Published April 29, 2012.
Posted to Worship Services.