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.”


Souffle: n. a low murmuring or blowing sound heard through a stethoscope.

Tonight we dine on eggs and cheese whipped up to a ridiculous tower of richness. It will be delicious. We will laugh together and share stories about our day. A rather idyllic snippet of family time, one that I cherish now that college and activities usually keep us apart for dinner.

And still-  with each soufflé created I am transported. Word associations send my mind flowing away from the present day to long ago sleepless nights holding an asthmatic baby, getting inadvertently speedy off the vaporized steroids held near a tiny, wheezy mouth. Alternatively, I am at the pediatrician, tentatively hopeful, asking if a heart murmur is still audible.

That’s what it is to be a parent or, really, what it is to care for others over an extended period of time. Our memories of worry and love are threaded in and among recipes for casseroles or fragments of songs. Smells and sounds attached to moments of intensity, we carry them around with us like burs in our coats.

It’s amazing how we caregivers can multitask this way. Experiencing past and present simultaneously, some senses are occupied with tasting cheese while others recall the phantom  weight of supporting an exhausted child struggling to breathe. Both felt senses are real. Perhaps a fold in dimensions allows me to be in multiple experiences at the same time? It delights me to think it could be so.

Whatever the explanation for the spontaneous arrival, when the memories show up I have learned to give them some time, maybe see if they tell me something new. What pieces are significant today? Where is my mind drawn? What feelings arise? Arise… Rise up magically like a soufflé.

P.S. I use Julia Child’s recipe which made me go looking for this gem:

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!

The Only Way Out Is Through

There is a moment in every Great Undertaking when I realize I can not go on.

I think to myself, “This Great Undertaking is a fool’s plan, unachievable, and just not going to happen no way-no how, stop the ferris wheel NOW I need to get OFF!”

When I was about eight months pregnant it occurred to me that this large wonderful Creature-Lump inside me was actually going to have to come OUT at some point. Up until then we had been having a lovely contemplative time together. I mostly read books and drank nourishing herbal teas. The Creature-Lump mostly hung out, grew, and mildly squirmed in an increasingly constrained space. We had a rhythm. It was just fine.

Then the comprehension happened. I was doing my normal evening routine, on a day like any other, and suddenly realized that this large Creature-Lump was going to come out into the world. It would come out. Out of me. That was just weird, freaky, and scary. And I couldn’t run away from this reality. I couldn’t wish it to be magically over or find an older sister to do it for me. I realized was just up to me and the lump-creature to make the change.

The only way out is through.

Turns out is wasn’t just up to me and the C-L, though. When we came to the moment of no return, a sizable network of people helped me, cared for me, encouraged me, and literally held me up when I couldn’t go on.

Life is often just plain hard. And hard is not always bad. The challenge sometimes leads to really great amazing stuff. That lump-creature became the most wonderful girl (now young woman) who made my whole life better.

But, facing the reality of knowing there is absolutely no turning back or hiding from the process…is a defining moment. Whether that stampeding process is childbirth, or another equally terrifying unavoidable truth ….the only way out is through. Equal measures of awareness and acceptance will save the day.

I wish I could say it has gotten easier to accept this truth. Somehow, it sneaks up on me every. damn. time.

Writing term papers. Getting a project completed. Telling the truth that needs to be told. Not telling the truth that doesn’t need to be told. Stepping away from what is known toward something new. The only way out is through.

SO I remember what always always makes the impossible possible. Surround myself with people who love me. Talk to people who have traversed this path. Feel the feelings. Read books about inspiring heroes. Dance to great music. Take naps.

And when the transition comes, because of course it will…Stay present. Breathe. Be curious and rely on the process to happen.






Intangible Things I Will Never Forget

  1. The softness of the brass number plaque on my childhood house front door as I polished it shiny. It was metal silk.
  2. The quality of acceptance from the Mack’s Clam Shack (bar) patrons that allowed eight year old me to walk in, pretend to play the submarine arcade game for a half and hour and walk out. At least once a week. Say what you want about the 70’s, some of it made sense.
  3. The actual physical pain of my first broken heart. I had thought it was a metaphor.
  4. How headlights moved across the walls of my room at night, entering in one window, bending on the chine of the ceiling, and exiting out the other window. Ethereal brief visitors.
  5. The stark awakeness of trying to imperceptibly remove myself from a bed without waking a nearby sleeping child
  6. The Satisfaction of picking up a delicate piece of Sand crust without breaking it
  7. The first time I heard my own recorded voice


Ooooh, I’m Missin’ You

Today we are at a professional conference. It’s the first RE conference I have attended that is not UU focused.

There are many cultural differences, which is exciting and energizing.

I have been immersed in the program whilst noting the ways my UU perspective travels in this space.

There are translations, to be sure! Yes, there are language differences, but those are not the most noticeable translations to make.

I’ll percolate on it for a longer post…but today I am left wondering :

Where are all the bright, passionate, innovative, Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators? Why is it not our practice to be at this conference? Why are we not a larger part of this conversation?

There is one UU identified on the program giving a paper. Hooray! ….And let’s join her!

Time Travel

Every day I imagine that things are different, that the thing I know is true is not true, that somehow we can all go back to 2 months ago…back to when we complained about having a busy day, how the weather was to hot or too dry or too wet….meaningless small annoyances that filled conversation.

But there is no changing time, no reversing, no matter how much we pray, plead, or wish.

That’s what feels hard today. Facing the starkness of knowing we have no control over how long we get to be with the people we love.

I want to go back to taking people for granted. I want to go back to not needing to touch my kids’ skin just so we can be a little more physically connected- as if just seeing them or talking to them is not real enough.

I want to stop listening to people so intently. I want to stop caring how their day went and appreciating that stranger who held the door open for me.

I would trade being part of this amazing loving community  in a millisecond if it would bring us back to Before.

Is this selfish? You effing believe it.

Pee for Two and Two for Pee

A collaborative post with Kim about pee:

One thing you may have not thought about this evening is pee. We have decided that it is fascinating! The subject of proper hydration started out innocently enough, but then took a decidedly different turn when another friend mentioned that in sports training center bathrooms, there are often charts, in full color, advising when a person needs to drink more water -based on the color of their urine.

Being lovers of learning, some google searching ensued* …. We determined that one of us (I wont say which of us or how it was determined) is a bit dehydrated. And one of us is doing just fine on the hydration front.

Here’s the chart so you, too, can do some comparison!

You’re Welcome!


*I certainly hope that no one ever wants to check my search history. Sometimes I just want to find out about things and then there’s a piece in one article that leads me to another odd random thing…..and on…. and on….. Let’s just say that my years as a Religious Educator have brought me to some really weird google searches ….and leave it at that.

The Devil is in the Details

The Devil is in the Details

Today we all had to read our outlines for the term paper. I was pretty excited about mine. I felt like I took some of the ideas from our readings and found a way to apply them to my current work in a new way. Once I read it out to the class, the professor responded (as she did to many others) “Wow, that’s really big. How about you take on just the first part?”

She was right, the proposal was too big for a 10 page term paper, and I am grateful that she helped me narrow down my focus to something I can get done more easily. What is emerging in my mind is how i interpreted the assignment – I had thought that I needed to not only do research on the course topic but ALSO create an original project applying the research.

I went back and checked. NOWHERE in the syllabus did it say we needed to do this extra work. Why did I feel the need to go way beyond what was required? So often I get stuck in a perfectionism loop where I feel like I need to do things to a super level of competency or detail.

“The devil is in the details” usually means that we need to pay attention to details so the work is good quality. I’m starting to think that perhaps the devil is in the need to go to the detail level even when it is not healthy, efficient, or even good process. The need to go above and beyond has served me well in many ways, but sometimes at great cost.

“Discernment” is the motto I am going to try. Discern when details need attention and when a broad overview is more suitable.

Looking for deer ticks after a day in the woods? Detail attitude for the win!

Enjoying a student production of a famous musical? Take that perfectionism down a few notches.

What if I told you you're overthinking this