Worship of Numbers

Perhaps the topics that are “hot” when you enter a professional field create the frame which follows you in your career. Not that we can’t adapt our perspective with new learning and changing times, but the orientation never fully leaves us and the may be default approach we might bring to our work. Perhaps not.

My professional entry was in the early years of this century when Church Size Theory was all the rage. From the UUA page on this topic:

“Congregations have been grouped by size by a number of congregational growth specialists who have found it useful to understand common characteristics among similar sized congregations.”

Church Size Theory teaches that behavior in a system is directly linked to the number of members of that system. There are labels for the sizes of congregations based on counting the people in the congregation: Family size (0 to 50), Pastoral size (50 to 150), Program size (150 to 350), and Corporate size ( 350 to 500+)

Every leadership training and professional conference I attended for about 5 years used Church Size Theory as the lens for approaching the challenges in our work. Membership numbers were tracked very closely. Articles and books counseled how to move your congregation up a level, placing a positive value on growing in numbers. A Program size church was better than a Pastoral size church and “successful” religious professionals were ones who served larger congregations or who had managed to bring a community up a category. Colleagues with larger congregations held high status and more often were invited into the positions of power in volunteer or paid service.

I remember wringing hands with colleagues because we couldn’t seem to get over a numerical hump. If we couldn’t bring a congregation along with the goal of being bigger and having the perks that come with a larger size category, we were frustrated and disappointed. I know talented, dedicated colleagues who lost their jobs over decreasing membership numbers, and it is still happening.

This worship of numbers harms our congregations and our spirits. White supremacy culture* values quantity above other forms of success. Things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot. We can count how many people show up on a Sunday morning. We can count how many people sign the membership book. White supremacy culture says that the church with a bigger membership is richer in complexity and deeper in spirit.

Tema Okun articulates the characterisitics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizations, such as “Quantity over quality” and “Progress is More, Bigger.” I find it useful to keep returning to this list, reminding myself that what the dominant culture tells me is normal or has value, is not the only way, and it is unhealthy to have one approach. We do not have to continue a devotion to quantity over quality!

There are antidotes to the primacy of size framework. You can read some in Olun’s work, and I have some additional thoughts from my fractal faith formation point of view:

  • Everything is process and all process is relationships
  • Success is scalable
  • Be exponentially impactful
  • Bronchi OR broccoli; you can’t be both

I’ll dig deep into each of these in later posts. I have much more research to do before this is clear enough to explain outside my head. If you’ll forgive my brevity, here are my thoughts today…

  1. Everything is process and all process is relationships: I feel like this concept is well explored by many other writers and activists. In a nutshell, dominant culture tells us that we can do things on our own, create ideas on our own, lead and learn on our own. Not only can we do these things in by ourselves, but it shows grit and strength to go solo!  This is a lie. There is literally no such thing as transformation in isolation. Process requires feedback and relationship. We are always part of a system bigger than just us.
  2. Success is scalable. Scalability is the ability to increase or decrease in size while maintaining function, usefulness, and accuracy.  I am searching for that ability in religious life. Everything that actually matters should be scalable no matter what size your congregation, group, or organization. System size does impact dynamics, communication, and power for that system, but authentic success is a core within any size range.
  3. Be exponentially impactful: When we are engaging with one person or one thousand we have an opportunity to make it an interaction that expresses our truth. By knowing the values we want to promote in the world, we must be aware of forwarding those values on individual, family, community, and global levels.
  4. Bronchi OR broccoli; you can’t be both: Looking to nature, we notice that the structure of a head of broccoli is visually similar to the structure of a lung. (Go image search “Broccoli Lungs.” I’ll wait…. Cool, right?) We could go into a whole discussion of nifty correlations of shapes and patterns in nature, and whether there is a spiritual dimension to these connections…. and I totally will want do that later, but in this moment I just want to hold on to the idea that just because they look alike it doesn’t mean diddly about how they each function. The fractal lesson is that the branching pattern is a successful shape and that exponential pattern of branching is what allows them to be successful, but the two examples have different purposes that are not interchangeable. We can have similarities of mission or values and those will help us be successful in all our size iterations, but there are going to be important difference in our relationships- our location or system- that will make success look different in different families or communities.

Like I said, I am just starting to articulate these ideas – let me know what resonates with you (or not!)

I don’t want to throw away Church Size Theory. There are some helpful frames for understanding how to work in systems when we notice patterns by size. But let us recognize that valuing larger sizes over smaller and rewarding growth just for the sake of numbers is damaging to our movement. We can be more complex than that.



*White supremacy culture from Resource Generation: “the ways in which the dominant culture is founded upon and then defines and shapes norms, values, beliefs and standards to advantage white people and oppress people of color. The ways in which the dominant culture defines reality to advantage white people and oppress people of color. The norms, values, or standards assumed by the dominant society that perpetuate racism.”

Self Similar Across All Scales

One of the barriers I have had to working on Fractal Faith Formation is a question that has plagued creators of all stripes since times immemorial, “Where to begin?” Thank goodness for friends who listen to my rambling thoughts and by doing give me space to realize that It Doesn’t Matter Where You Begin….Just Start.

It especially doesn’t matter where I start when talking about fractals. Why? Because fractals stay true to their core in their beginning, middle, and on into infinity. No matter where you examine a fractal, it will have the same defining expression which runs through the entire shape.

From the Fractal Foundation: “A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.”

(Check out a wealth of information on fractals and online tool and apps to play with fractals at the Fractal Foundation website)

With this truth in mind, I am free to explore topics with less concern about creating a linear narrative or going in some manufactured order…step one, step two, etc. However this project assembles is right and good. Let’s go!

Applied Math

Today I was bopping around on the webs and came across this super cool TED talk by Ron Eglash. He discusses the fractals in African architecture. If you have 17 minutes, I recommend it highly.

Aside from the interesting new thoughts of the video, I am left thinking how amazing it is when we are truly engaged in learning.

I have never loved math. It has been a struggle for me all through life. Yet here I am, hanging on every word of this mathematician…because he connected math with stories, with people’s lives.

I believe that in every subject there is a way to find the spark, the passion, that makes us want to jump in with both feet. I’ll have more to write about that later, but for today I am sleepy.