Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: "The Almost Church Revitalized" by Michael Durall

A publication date has been announced for my first book. The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality will be released by Skinner House Books on January 15, 2010. It is currently available for pre-order through the UUA Bookstore. Click here to pre-order.

Two years ago, in November 2007, I was one of the twelve ministers to participate in the UUA Growth Summit held in Louisville, Kentucky. The next spring, the UUA released the Listening to Experience DVD which featured the twelve of us engaged in conversations about leading growing congregations. A little over a year ago Skinner House Books approached me and asked me to write a book as a follow-up. I conceived the form of the book, wrote two chapters, and edited 8 other chapters. I am extremely proud of how The Growing Church came together. The book features an All Star line-up of contributors: Ken Beldon, John Crestwell, Liz Lerner, UUA President Peter Morales, Christine Robinson, Victoria Safford, Michael Schuler, and Marilyn Sewell. The Growing Church also features a foreword by Alice Mann of the Alban Institute and an introduction by UUA past-President Bill Sinkford.

As I approach the end of my sabbatical I have been working on a trilogy of essays that I plan to publish on my web-site. These essays, or “thought pieces,” address current-day Unitarian Universalist congregational life. “Having it Both Ways” is an examination of practices of congregational staffing. “95 Theses on Membership & Leadership” is what it sounds like. “Dancing on the Heads of Pins; Stepping on Toes” is an exploration of what lay members of congregations say and mean about the role of UU clergy.

As I have been working on these essays I’ve also picked up books on church leadership. The first book I decided to tackle was the newest release by church consultant Michael Durall, The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism, a follow up to his previous book, The Almost Church.

Back in 2004, Durall published The Almost Church. Five years later, he explains in the Introduction to his new book,

“This is an uplifting book. Most readers of The Almost Church found my challenges to Unitarian Universalism’s sacred cows engaging and thought-provoking. But others felt I was negative, not offering suggestions about how to do things better… [This book] is all new, not a reworking of the previous edition.”

I remember when The Almost Church came out. Some ministers and lay-people gobbled it up, thinking it was the best thing in the world. Others considered it little more than a rant. Still others read the book and were confused. To some, his prescription for Unitarian Universalism was so removed from the reality they were used to that they felt disoriented. A visionary chapter at the end of The Almost Church in which Durall imagined future UU worship as resembling a rave in a large warehouse with messages delivered in several different languages was just one example that made readers wonder, “What is this all about?”

Michael Durall is somewhat of a polarizing figure. Dozens of UU churches have used him as a consultant to help them realize their future. Others have been incensed by what he has written. While I do not agree with every idea that Durall pushes, he makes many points in his newest book that I heartily endorse. The most essential chapters in this book are his chapters on leadership, membership, and making the annual pledge drive obsolete. Of particular interest is his “Covenant of Leadership,” a prescriptive job description for lay leaders and his list of 8 characteristics of ministers who lead successful congregations.

Durall has been accused of being combative, of being prescriptive in a way that is perceived as bossy, and of having an axe to grind. I think that these criticisms are often projected onto him. At the same time, anyone who hopes to help others to change needs to do far more than have great ideas. They need to present those ideas in ways that are compelling and convincing. The truth of many of Durall’s points could stand to be introduced using compelling stories.

The Almost Church Revitalized still has too many places where Durall comes across as a loose cannon. For example, on page 23 Durall makes the sweeping claim that “when a board president’s term expires, he or she should not remain on the board as past president.” He justifies this idea by claiming that the past president probably introduced some new initiatives and that the new board will be hamstrung in altering and adapting those initiatives when the owner of those initiatives is sitting in the room. In the congregation I serve I’ve worked with 7 past presidents and this dynamic has never surfaced. And even if it did I’m not sure that the prescription would be the right cure. Rather, I could easily jot down a handful of pros and cons of having the past president attend board meetings. But that is not really the point. The point is that Durall seems to make some rather knee-jerk decisions on really small matters like this one and doing this undermines a dozen other points he makes in this chapter on leadership that I find to be extremely important.

One of those points – which I plan to make in a slightly different way in my "95 Theses of Membership and Leadership" essay – is that effective congregational leaders need to avail themselves of church literature. Durall is really making an impassioned plea for the continuing education of leaders.

If you are a leader in your congregation and you are interested in a piece of church literature to read for your continuing education you might find Michael Durall's The Almost Church Revitalized to be insightful and provocative. Or, allow me to present another suggestion.

[You can read about other books I've read in 2009 here.]