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New survey of UU congregations shows growth potential

Faith Communities Today survey: Number of growing churches rising, but few churches see recruitment of new members as central.
By Donald E. Skinner And Christopher L. Walton
8.21.06

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You might call us Unitarian Universalists reluctant evangelists who love our thought-provoking Sunday worship services and yearn to do good in the world.

And now we know just how reluctant we are: According to a recent survey of congregational leaders, only 7 percent of UUA member congregations see “evangelism or recruitment activities” as a central part of congregational life. And although 96 percent of respondents said their congregations would support developing a plan to recruit new members, only 47 percent of congregations had developed such a plan.

Despite the minimal emphasis on recruitment, however, the number of growing congregations is rising—and other signs of congregational vitality are improving as well.

The October 2005 survey of UU congregations was conducted for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations by Calvin College using questions developed for the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey conducted by Hartford Seminary in 2000 and again in 2005. Results of the UUA survey, in which almost half of North American UU congregations participated, were released earlier this summer. Cross-tabulated with congregational membership figures and other data collected by the UUA, the survey results show an increasingly dynamic movement with clear potential for further growth. (See sidebar for links to the 2000 and 2005 FACT surveys and to several reports on the UU data.)

Among the findings:

More congregations have growing memberships than declining memberships. The number of congregations whose membership has grown by at least 10 percent in the last five years has risen to 416; in the five years between 1995 and 2000, 389 congregations were growing at that rate. Meanwhile, the number of congregations declining by 10 percent or more has dropped from 283 in 2000 to 242 in 2005.

Thirty-four percent of congregations showed little change in the last five years. The total number of adult members has gone up by 7,007 since 2000.

No clear pattern emerges to account for congregational growth or decline. The Rev. Charlotte Cowtan, a consultant who currently serves as interim minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, New York, has written a series of reports for the UUA based on the latest survey. (She also helped interpret the findings of the FACT 2000 study.) She said that both growing and declining congregations can be found in every part of the country, in cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and in regions experiencing population growth and population loss. More intriguingly, growing congregations were not necessarily actively seeking new members.

“What this shows,” Cowtan said in an interview, “is there is not a magic bullet for growth. And it’s not a matter of demographics. There are growing and declining congregations side by side.

“Growing congregations don’t necessarily see themselves as working to grow,” she said. “They’re working to serve. Growing congregations are also more likely to have a mission that they can describe.”

She added, “It seems that growth is an outcome rather than a goal for our growing congregations. You do things well and people will come.”

Fifteen of the UUA’s 20 districts have more adult members today than five years ago. The only districts with a net loss in members between 2000 and 2005 are the five New England districts. Cowtan said that the Faith Communities Today surveys have shown that older congregations are less likely to thrive across all faith groups. Since New England has many of our oldest congregations, that might be part of the reason for the northeastern decline, she said. Despite the losses, however, the region still accounts for 24 percent of U.S. congregations and 20 percent of the adult membership in the UUA.

The number of very small congregations—those with fewer than 50 members—has dropped from 327 in 2000 to 288 today. These congregations make up 28 percent of UU congregations, but count only 5 percent of all adult UU members.

Meanwhile, the ranks of small to midsize churches (between 50 and 349 members) continue to grow. Congregations with 50 to 149 members now make up 37 percent of churches and account for 22 percent of adult members. One-fourth of the UUA’s congregations have 150 to 349 members; 37 percent of adult UUs belong to these churches.

The number of congregations with 350 to 549 members, however, has dropped slightly in each of the last two five-year periods: There are now 55 such churches, accounting for almost 15 percent of the UUA’s adult members.

The number of large congregations (with more than 550 members) is up. Twenty-one percent of adult UU members belong to these 45 churches.

The financial health of congregations seems to be improving. When asked to compare their financial situation today to their situation five years ago, more congregations said “excellent” or “good” than when the same question was asked in the 2000 survey. In 2000, more than half of the congregations surveyed said their financial situation was “tight, but we managed”; this year, that number had dropped to 42 percent. Sixteen percent of congregations reported some or serious difficulty in their financial situation, down slightly from 19 percent in 2000.

Cowtan has looked especially at responses to the questions about outreach. She found that congregations that had growth rates between 10 and 19 percent in the last five years were more likely to have developed a new member recruitment plan; advertised on radio, TV, or the newspaper; and encouraged members to invite non-members to services. Congregations that declined by 10 percent or more were the least likely to have encouraged members to invite non-members or to tell others about their faith.

The outreach tool that UU congregations have almost universally adopted is the Web. Ninety-four percent of congregations have established or maintained a congregational website in the past year, the survey found.

In an unsurprising finding for a religious tradition that openly identifies itself as liberal, 84 percent of congregations reported that the majority theological outlook in their congregations was “predominantly liberal,” and another 12 percent said it was “somewhat on the liberal side.” The political outlook was very similar: 82 percent said the majority political outlook was “predominantly liberal” and 15 percent said “somewhat on the liberal side.”

When it comes to worship, congregations of all sizes and all rates of growth or decline say their worship services are “thought provoking.” Some characteristics are more likely to rate highly in different size churches, however. In her preliminary report to the UUA Board of Trustees in March, Cowtan noted:

  • Large congregations are more likely than midsize or small congregations to describe their worship services as “inspiring,” “exciting,” and having a “sense of God’s presence.”
  • Midsize congregations are more likely than large or small congregations to describe their worship services as “reverent” and “liturgical.”
  • Small congregations are more likely than midsize or large congregations to describe their worship services as “informal.”

And if evangelism or recruitment activities were rarely seen as “key activities” in the survey, other activities are widely seen as central: Religious education classes were emphasized by 87 percent of congregations. Choral and other music programs are central to 84 percent. About 60 percent of congregations said that social activities, community service activities, fundraising activities, and study or discussion groups were major emphases.

Cowtan said that the 2005 Faith Communities Today survey of all faith groups showed that Unitarian Universalism is uniquely positioned to attract members. “When it comes to social outreach work and interfaith work we are off the charts,” she said. The survey found that 73 percent of UU congregations participated in interfaith community service activities; 89 percent of respondents strongly agreed that working for social justice is important to their congregations. “When we do it well we have thought-provoking, compelling worship that lifts the heart,” she said. “And we’re way ahead in the use of technology such as websites and email.”

“We have an opportunity here to make a mark on the religious landscape,” she added, “but we have to seize the opportunity.”


See sidebar for links to related resources, including detailed reports on Unitarian Universalist congregations from the Faith Communities Today survey.

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