Groups must adapt to context, not give up.
If society means shared interest, goals and values, self-sacrifice and the greater good, there is plenty of statistical information indicating that we are becoming less community-minded.
The Church of Scotland Guild, formerly known as The Women’s Guild, has seen numbers decrease in recent years. There is a similar underlying downward trend in most Churches, although migration can have an effect.
And it is not only religious groups. Trade Union membership peaked at 13 million and is now 6.2 million, while Labour and the Conservatives have seen a subscription level of 4 million members drop below 400,000.
Beyond these “establishment” groups, golf clubs, charities and many others struggle to recapture a more vigorous past.
Statistics reflect particular scenarios, but they clearly hint at a societal move from the collective to the individual.
For membership organisations, the temptation is to look at those who are not joining and wonder why they can’t see what they are missing. The reflex is to huddle in the safety of like minds and kindred spirits.
But maybe we need to scratch the surface and look behind the changes to better understand their full significance.
Assuming that declining numbers mean declining relevance is easy, but it is hard to confirm – something which is perhaps supported by the recent census figures. They indicated the majority of people regard themselves as Christian, with more identifying with the Church of Scotland than statistics indicate.
For the organisation, constant accusations of anachronism and irrelevance can come to be taken as true simply because they have been made so often. Essentially, this is an abused reaction; tell someone they are ugly or stupid often enough and they eventually believe it as their confidence and resilience is eroded and ultimately destroyed.
The Guild, formed in 1887 to give women a place and a voice in the Church, now exists in an ecclesiastical world where women are Elders and Ministers. It is also a world in which transport, shopping habits and family patterns have changed beyond recognition and a world where people are more able and willing to challenge given practice and embrace different cultures, beliefs and practices.
If we see all of these influences as negative and enemies of our work, we are fighting a losing battle. But let’s turn the telescope around.
The Church of Scotland Guild has thrived for 126 years by being the best Guild it can be for its time: building a school in India in 1888; sending gifts to mothers in Germany in 1947; building a church in Barlanark in 1956 as Glasgow dispersed its population; supporting sex workers in Leith in the 1980s. The Guild has always allied itself to hugely important, often controversial, agendas.
Today, the Guild remains one of Scotland’s largest voluntary organisations, with 25,000 members in 930 groups. Between 2009 and2012, it raised £ 800,000 for charities at home and abroad. It continues to offer pastoral support and a place where individuals and groups can grow in faith and understanding of the world around them.
The Guild works for the poor of Rwanda and Liberia, homeless people, the elderly, self-reliant business groups and refugees washed ashore in Malta.
Groups seeking to retain relevance and a sense of purpose need to recognise the world in which they live rather than the one they half remember. They must adapt to a context rather than standing still. They must appeal to people in different ways, organise differently, be flexible and adaptable.
Organisations work best when they have a clear purpose that allows people to see what they gain in terms of personal growth and give in terms of action and common good.
It is easy to bemoan the situation and feel that decline is the future, but as Burns said “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”
Organisations are by definition organic and may come to the end of their lives but they owe it to their own traditions to be sure before they accept their demise.
If the message is clear and the purpose is strong, then people will come on board. Society DOES exist. Its structures and systems may change but the essential qualities of humanity, co-operation and spirit abide.
Perhaps we should take the fight to the individualists and re-affirm the idea of citizenship in an age where the term “do-gooder” has become derogatory.
n Iain Whyte is Secretary of the Guild, Church of Scotland.