Report From Rev. Dennis Hamilton
Presented at General Assembly, 2004


Dennis Hamilton is the senior minister of Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church in Carrollton, Texas. He has served that church since 1987 when he accepted a call as an extension minister. His assignment was to help them grow from a small group to a full service church. Their mission was to provide a liberal religious presence to the rapidly growing area north of Dallas, specifically to buy land, build a church and be a beacon of hope to that community. Horizon has grown from its original 34 members to about 350 members with a $350,000 budget, six acres of land and an 11,000 sq. ft. church building. It is poised to continue its growth to about 750 members.

This church is considered a success by UUA standards. It is the only UU church started in the last thirty years that has grown to mid-size. This is tragic for our denomination, but it is reason to look at how we were able to do this and to consider whether this can be replicated in other places.

As the so-called growth expert at this site, I have spent seventeen years studying the pros and cons of growth. I have also studied other UU churches that wanted to grow but were not able to do so and a few that have done pretty well. I have studied the rapidly growing churches from other denominations as well, and have taken notes. During our own history I have continually asked some questions:

Do we really want to grow?

Why do we want to grow? to meet the budget shortfall or satisfy a need to feel like a success? Or is it because we are called to serve this community, to bring the good news of a liberating religion to the people, and to deepen our own lives doing it?If we really want to grow, what are we willing to do to grow?Are we willing to change the way we do church?Are we willing to change the way we govern and do business?Are we willing to make this church a central part of our lives? Are we willing to fund it generously, and to invest in it for future generations?


There were several phases in Horizon’s growth. In each phase we were required to change. Sometimes it seemed easy. That was when we all could see a common goal and had all invested in its success. Sometimes there was a struggle. That was when the changes were more emotional, especially when they meant a loss of power by one group.

First phase, 1987-88 : Church in a box: Membership grows from 34 to 59 (18 to 30 children). We began with two grants, one an extension ministry grant from the UUA and the second, a gift from benefactors of $25,000. This kind of adequate funding was very important to our initial development giving us the opportunity to concentrate on our mission instead of fund raising to meet a shortfall. In the first year we subletted space on Sunday. Within six months we were faced with a faith decision. The people from whom we sublet moved to another location and we had to decide whether we could afford to rent the space ourselves. We needed some extra funding to do this and we were able to secure an additional gift of $15,000 to make the deal.

Second Phase, 1988-89 : We grew from 59 to 90 and needed to rent additional space. Again we got some help from a benefactor, $5,000 this time.

Third phase, 1989-94 : 90 to 150. In this phase we acquired more rental space and began our plans for buying land and building. It was also the time when we began discussions about the nature of a mid-size church. Previously I had been the central organizing force in the church. I began to withdraw from involvement at the committee level maintaining just a few ex officio. We began our first attempts at a council structure and at the board level began what became a constant mantra about not micro-managing.

Fourth phase, 1995-96 : 150 to 165. In this phase we bought the property that was to be our future home. We were able to buy the property only because we were given $200,000 by the same benefactor. We found an architect, developed plans and began the process of building. This was very exciting and the confidence level was high. We could not fund the building through grants so we raised money through church bonds. The advice we got from the UUA was contra to this, but we saw no other way to accomplish the task.

Fifth phase, 1996-97 : 165 to 250. We move into the new church building and experience immediate growth. At the time we have only two staff members, the 3/4 time DRE and me. The rest is volunteer. We hire an office manager and decide in the first six months to go to two services since the RE wing is too small for all the children we have acquired. The adult/child ratio has always been about 2/1. I continue to reshape my ministry consciously to do more training and teaching and less committee work.

Sixth phase, 1998-99 : 250 to 300. We are experiencing overcrowding and decide to buy a temporary building to help relieve the pressure. If we had been able to build another wing at this time we probably would have continued to grow, but at this time we began to level off and settle in to the size we are now. We add staff, an accounting manager and child care workers.

Seventh phase, 2000-2004 : 300 to 350 to 325. For the first time we experience leveling of our growth and even some decline. We call another minister, which stretches our budget significantly. At this time several things are happening. The church was built by 165 members. The next 250 join the church and because of turnover, the new members become the majority. They have joined a church they like and do not see it in the same light or with the same mission as the earlier members. The mission and vision becomes clouded. I begin talk of rejuvenation and insist that we have a mission to serve the community and not just ourselves. We have the land and the population. What we lack is the will and the money to build additional space.

Our Program Minister retires and we return to a 3/4 time DRE because the budget is not balanced. Recession hits the area and 25-30 families are out of work. Our pledge drive falls short and we experience our first shortfall. We get through the year but I begin to preach that we are at a crossroads. We either rejuvenate the church or we become stuck and eventually retreat to a pastoral size church. I let people know that I will be moving on if we do not bring in some help. Our benefactor dies and leaves us $50,000. We bring in a consultant, Michael Durall, and we begin the rejuvenation process. We re-focus on mission and vision, and I begin another phase of my ministry, as chief of staff. The thinking here is that the leadership needs to be ahead of the growth to accommodate the changing needs. The needs here are for consistent leadership, good communication, clear and attainable goals, and a mid-size church structure.

Roadblocks to Growth

Most of the UU churches that have been started and grew only to a pastoral size experienced roadblocks to their continued growth. Horizon managed to remove the roadblocks when they occurred and continues to do so. Here are the common roadblocks to growth as I see them.

Lack of vision. To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision.

Lack of a sense of mission. What is the reason for being for your church? Is it a small mission, to serve a small elite group? Is it just entertainment, a club house, a country club? Is it part of a social change in the community? What about being part of a global change? Is your church part of the solution or is it just a nice place to be? The mission of the church needs to be established through an all church process every few years. Alban Institute is suggesting a four year cycle for mission/vision and long term goals. Along with a clear mission should be a sense of urgency. In the Christian churches that are growing, there is a sense that if one is not a believer their immortal soul is in danger of eternal damnation. Our role in shaping the future of our civilization should hold just as compelling a warning. If we are complacent, our world will drift into chaos and fanaticism. Fear is not always a bad thing.

Lack of a direction for spiritual, emotional and moral growth. Unitarian Universalism has not had a central teaching since both denominations abandoned Christianity as the central story a century ago. While we have brought in eastern religions and western psychology, we have not embraced a central teaching for spiritual, emotional and moral growth. If we are more likely to say “We can believe anything we want to,” than to say “We are called to be moral leaders in the world,” then we are not centered in a powerful redemptive message. I have used James Fowler’s Stages of Faith as a model for faith development for fifteen years and I believe it would be a wonderful model for our faith. It is amenable to our varied theologies, to Buddhist teachings, modern psychology, Christianity, etc. It calls us to be not only fully developed people emotionally and spiritually, but an integral part of a world community of people at various stages of spiritual and emotional development. It calls us to examine our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, actions with a mind to becoming mature people called to a discovered purpose in life. I would like for a spiritual practice to be expected of our members. And I tell new members that this religion should demand much of them. It should change their lives and deepen their relationships with their friends and families.

We may develop a very different system as we process a developmental model, but without it I believe we are rudderless, directionless and ineffective as a personal religion. I believe faith development is the element that will make our covenant group process viable and meaningful.

Lack of leadership development. Too many of our small churches are unprofessional. Because they are almost entirely volunteer staffed, it is difficult to train and keep staff, and with boards changing with every election, it is hard to maintain professional process. There are several solutions. The most important is the role of the nominating committee. It should be considered the most important committee in the church since it is the one picking the leadership. When leadership roles are filled passively by those who volunteer it is inevitable that there will be untrained and eventually inappropriate leadership. The nominating committee needs to select leaders who are mature and who share in the mission and vision for the church. They need to promote leadership development through leadership schools, non-profit trainings, and in church training.

Before the incoming board takes office, there should be a board/staff retreat to set the tone for the year, to establish agreed-upon rules of behavior, goals for the year, and to review the organizational structure of the church, to make adjustments and to create a team spirit. A good leadership retreat will help avoid drifting into poor leadership practices during the year. It is also the place where a behavioral covenant is made and where everyone agrees not to micromanage.

Committee chairs should also have a retreat at which they set goals for the year, review the calendar and get clear on the difference between their roles and responsibilities and the board’s.

Attitudes that stifle growth:

Anti-authority. It is almost a definition of our faith that to be a UU, one must also be willing to doubt, to question, to be an individual and to discover one’s own beliefs. While this is a good start, if it does not lead to another way of being that involves trust and mature leadership, it will end in a state of anti-authoritarianism. Too many of our churches are plagued with what I call “faux democracy,” the unwillingness of the congregation to trust its leadership. This is at the heart of our movement. If you look at the successful UU churches, you will find they are quite democratic, but have excellent leadership and a clear delineation of authority and responsibility. Our less successful churches are jealous of their power, disrespectful of their leaders and rather adolescent in their attitudes. They say they are democratic, but too often they are held hostage by a small group of anti-authoritarian people who actually have absconded with the power. They have become an unelected rump board, and that is not true democracy.

Lack of trust. We can look at the issue of authority in another way. Successful churches have a sense of trust at their core. Conflicted churches and dwindling churches do not. This is also a theological issue. As Universalists, we ought to have trust as our basis, but as rebels, we do not.

Lack of accountability. A healthy church has well defined responsibilities, the authority to carry out those responsibilities and a system of accountability which is part of a professional model of non-profit management. In our less healthy congregations, because there is a lack of accountability and a lack of trust, governance ends up at the congregational level. This stifles leadership, change, growth and spontaneity. Newcomers don’t come to church for the politics or to micromanage. They come for community, for solace, for help with raising their children or taking care of their aging parents, for hope and for inspiration. How much of this do we offer compared with how much time we spend governing?

Anti-religious. Another characteristic of the unsuccessful church is the domination by an anti-religious segment of the congregation. Newcomers expect to find an actual church, but they find a club where no one prays, God (in whatever form) has been banished, Jesus can’t come in, and they eventually drift on to a place that may not reflect their theology but at least allows them to be reverent. If we are to grow as a religion, first we must agree to be a religion, and to affirm the several theologies embodied in our congregations.

Anti-change. Most people are resistant to change. It is a natural survival response. But only those churches that are spontaneous enough to respond to changing conditions that are willing to change the way they govern and worship are growing. Even such conservative bastions as the Latter Day Saints are modernizing, and the new Southern Baptist and Methodist churches are not your grandfather’s church.

Inappropriate behavior. Unhealthy congregations are not able to establish clear and respectful boundaries. They let some individuals act out inappropriately and undermine the health of the entire congregation. Healthy congregations need to be safe places for people who covenant to be respectful of one another.

Extreme informality. While informality may be attractive to some, it can be a sign of lack of preparedness, lack of respect, and an undervaluing of the power of the worship service. Celebration, joy, movement, great singing are not the same as informality. Apologizing because one is not prepared is. We need to do better and to take ourselves more seriously.

Consumer mentality. Roy Phillips brought this into focus for us a few years ago. Who and what is the church for? It all ties into the third point above. When the church is about the spiritual life of the individual, they will invest in it as a source of constant nurture. Consumers ask, what is in it for me? People on a spiritual journey ask, how can I help this church be a transforming force in our community? How can I deepen my own life by serving this church and this faith? What do I have to do to spread the faith? How can I articulate my faith?

Overfunctioning. This term comes from family systems theory as presented by Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman. It refers to how one member of a system can do too much for the rest of the system. The result is underfunctioning by other parts of the system. In church life there are two prominent places where this can limit growth.

Board micromanaging. When the board makes decisions that are rightly decisions that committees or staff should be making, they are not helping to develop good leadership in the church. They can actually disempower the church. The solution is to get underfunctioning committees to be accountable, to trust them with a charge and the authority to carry it out.

Minister who does too much. I believe that central to growth from the pastoral to the midsize to the large church is the role of the minister. When I came to Horizon I did everything from making coffee to writing the newsletter. I attended every meeting and ended up being the one that people came to for decisions. Although our bylaws did not make me the CEO, I was acting in that manner. When we reached 120, I kind of awakened to what I was doing and vowed to change the way I acted. I refused to make decisions that were not mine to make, to grant permission, even to be involved in every committee. I backed off and let the board and congregation know what I was doing. I say I have become less competent every year. The result is that the church has become more competent. In the meantime, I have steered my ministry toward the staff and leadership, toward team building and training, toward preaching and worship and devotion and away from hands on or micro-managing.

Giving. It is said that thriving churches have process as their problem, how to get things done well. Sustaining churches worry about programming, how to attract people and serve them. Failing churches worry about the budget, how to make ends meet. At the core of a thriving church is a spirit of generosity. I have been promoting the concept of the tithe for years. My wife and I half-tithe, giving 5% of our income to the church. It is a central practice in most evangelical churches. How many of our churches believe in the spiritual practice of giving? How many pledge according to a consumer mentality, the attitude being, “What am I getting from this church?” And how many well endowed churches have let the past generations of devoted faithful fund their present day church? How different are they from trust fund babies? The spirit of generosity is more than a way to fund the church programs. It is a way of life that says, “I believe in what we are doing, and I want to preserve it for future generations. I believe we are making a difference, and that we must if our world is to continue to evolve toward the human potential.”

Hospitality. How many of our churches advertise? How many do not have visible signs? How many truly welcome the stranger? When I visit churches I always look for signs of hospitality. Am I greeted at the door? Does someone make me a name tag? Is there a sign I can read from the street? Could I find the church in the first place? Is there a web site? Am I introduced to people? Is the church doing business during the coffee hour or is this a social time where newcomers are welcomed? Is the church clean? Does it look like a club house? Are there old couches and broken chairs? Is the RE wing really a place I want to leave my children? Is the worship service an in-house thing where people refer to each other by first name? Or am I included and welcomed? Is there follow up? Am I contacted after the service? Does it feel like the church has prepared for an important guest?

Facilities. Are they adequate, clean. Is the church cared for or is it neglected? What mood does the building promote? Is it peaceful, worshipful? Is this an important religion? Do they know what they are doing? Is it located in a public place? Is it large enough to serve the population? Is there room for expansion?

Programs. Here is where the full service comes in. Small churches are not able to meet the needs of young adults and teens. Staffing is needed and small churches are hard pressed to staff even the basic children’s programming. Mid-size churches do better but not until a church reaches 500 members does it have the resources and the staff to serve the entire spectrum of members. When we look at the programming in the mega churches it is easy to understand their attraction. It is not the Sunday worship that sustains them, but the mid-week groups and worship, the service projects in Latin America and poor America, the support groups for grief, divorce, addictions, unemployment and the like. The effort to institutionalize covenant groups in our churches is one way we move toward better programming in the small church, but it is not a substitute for a full service church.

Funding. Finally there is the ultimate roadblock, funding. Denominationally we have acted like the declining church, worrying about the budget instead of how to spread the word. As an association of independent congregations without a single mission (the Southern Baptists have congregational polity, but they also tithe, have a central mission, and act like a denomination) we have lacked the vision to be what we ought to be, the next evolutionary step in world religion. We do not act like we believe in our future. In fact we often act as if our greatness has passed. In our combined churches there is a significant endowment, but very little held in common denominationally. What does this mean for the future? It means we will need to change how we see our future. We will need to fund our future. We are without a doubt behind in the effort, but we are not without the means. We are without the will at this time.

If Horizon had not had a benefactor in Hardy and Betty Sanders, we would not have grown to where we are. If we had had adequate funding to continue our building plans in 1999 we would be a large church now. Instead we have plateaued at around 350 adult members.

For our new churches, there is not enough available funding at the denominational level to actually create a viable growth strategy. We will need to look to another strategy, an entrepreneurial strategy if we are to succeed in serving our communities. We know it can be done because Christian churches do it all the time. But if we expect to grow by continuing to do church the way we have been, I do not believe we will be successful. We need to change, to become more professional, more devotional, more global, less anti-authoritarian, more mission driven and far more serious about who we are and what a difference we could make if we were to do that.


This overview of the roadblocks to our growth is not complete. Churches are complex and, although they do have common patterns, are idiosyncratic as well. It is wise to look over your own church to see what roadblocks are in place, and it is just as wise to see what you are doing well. Successful, vibrant churches may not all be growing in numbers, but they are growing souls, growing in depth and changing people’s lives.