Emerging, alternative groups at UUA's growing edge

Emerging, alternative groups at UUA's growing edge

Total membership falls 1.2 percent; UUA counts 51 emerging groups, handful of experimental communities.

Donald E. Skinner
Singers at The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C.

Singers at The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C.

via Facebook


It's not a secret that the Unitarian Universalist Association is not growing. In the past decade membership numbers have fluctuated from barely perceptible growth to slight decline. But UUA leaders do see some promising signs.

The UUA's latest membership figures count 154,707 members in 1,024 congregations in the United States, a decline of 1.2 percent from last year. Another 3,479 members belong to 23 congregations in other countries, for a total of 158,186 members in 1,047 congregations worldwide. Children's religious education enrollment dropped 4.6 percent last year in the U.S., to 49,191.

The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, director of growth strategies, said that more than half of the U.S. membership decline occurred in three large churches that undertook "a radical paring of their membership rolls."

Although the total number of U.S. congregations in the UUA has hovered around 1,024 since 2009, new congregations continue to form. In October the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA's program and strategy officer, told the UUA Board of Trustees that there are more than 50 "emerging" UU congregations across the country. She reported that the UUA is developing new ways to encourage and track them.

The UUA is also working with a variety of more experimental UU communities that may represent alternative models of congregational formation—or that may point to new forms of affiliation.

Susan Wasilewski is a founder of the UU Congregation of Kinston, N.C. Organized three years ago, the emerging congregation meets twice a month for worship and a covered dish dinner. It has 17 members, although attendance has been as high as 28.

"We're having a good time, but it's also hard," she said. "Everyone is wearing several hats. We want to move faster than we are, but at the same time we're trying to be very deliberate. We believe that in a couple years we'll get to 30 members."

The UUA consider a congregation "emerging" when it is relatively new and does not have enough members to allow it to apply for UUA membership. A congregation must have 30 members to become a UUA-certified congregation.

What would help? Although ministers do come to lead services, Wasilewski said it would help to have a minister who is focused on helping the congregation grow. She acknowledged the congregation has had a lot of support not only from the UUA, but also from other congregations and the Universalist Convention of North Carolina.

Wasilewski said she is an eighth-generation UU who grew up in a congregation in Kinston that was first Universalist and then UU before it closed during an economic slump. "This is missionary work for me. It brings a sense of fulfillment. There's a need for us here."

Other emerging groups look less like a UU fellowship or small church. The UUA's newest congregation, Original Blessing, which was granted membership in October 2013, meets weekly at a spa-café in Brooklyn, N.Y. It has a house band and says about itself, "We are a spiritually ambitious movement seeking God through creative worship, social justice, and compassionate community."

Original Blessing's founder, the Rev. Ian White Maher, said he felt called to create a congregation that was built on a foundation of "communal transformation, rather than individualism."

"We see ourselves as being externally focused rather than the caretakers of people within the walls of our community," Maher said. "We are called to transform the world rather than to see our own spiritual development as the end in itself."

The Rev. Tandi Rogers, the UUA's growth strategist, identified 51 congregations and small groups in "emerging" status. But she is also closely following a variety of other groups organized around even more experimental models.

These "alternative congregations" include The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C.; The Sanctuary Boston; Beloved Café in Berkeley, Calif.; AWAKE Ministries in Annapolis, Md.; Create Meaning groups in Denver and Los Angeles; and First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Second Life, a virtual congregation in the online world Second Life.

Many alternative groups have a high percentage of young adults and are more racially and culturally diverse than UUA member congregations. Several emphasize arts and music. The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C., led by the Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, created three "neighborhood community" groups last year and plans to launch six more.

AWAKE Ministries, sponsored by the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., offers a Tuesday night service that feels in turns like a talk show, workshop, concert, and worship service. Its focus is providing life coaching for personal growth. "AWAKE believes that all humans have a purpose, that we must all walk in our greatness by serving others and striving for excellence," said AWAKE's founder, the Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr., who is also associate minister of UUCA.

"These groups fill me with hope," says Rogers. "We can't even put some of these on our map because their gathering space moves or they are virtual communities. I like to think about what an association filled with these communities might look like."

New attention to emerging groups

Last winter Rogers surveyed emerging UU groups. Of the 34 groups that responded, about a quarter said they intended to apply for membership with the UUA in the next two years, Rogers reported. More than half expressed interest in being mentored by another congregation that might serve as a fiscal agent for them, help with leadership development training, and offer them pastoral assistance when needed. About half of the congregations expressed a desire for coaching and networking with other emerging congregations.

Asked which UUA resources have been helpful to them, around 40 percent said they used the UUA's WorshipWeb worship resource library and Tapestry of Faith religious education materials. Some emerging congregations also use worship materials and get other support from the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which has provided resources to small groups of Unitarian Universalists for many decades.

Rogers found that "community" was by and large the primary reason given by leaders of the groups for coming together. A search for spirituality was another prime reason. Four specifically mentioned Jesus or liberal Christianity as part of their purpose for coming together.

A majority of the responding groups said they had a Facebook page and a website.

Rogers said leaders of many of the congregations, especially rural ones, worry that they will never grow enough to join the UUA. "Many are tired and burned out and feeling abandoned, but they want us to know they love their faith and each other," said Rogers. One question that needs to be answered, she said, is how long an emerging congregation can exist without coming into relationship with the UUA. Some of the congregations surveyed have been in existence for a decade or more.

The groups are distributed across the country. Eleven are clustered in the Carolinas and Virginia. There are 12 in the western U.S. and six are in the upper Midwest.

UUA staff are working with the Board of Trustees to officially, or at least administratively, recognize these groups in order to raise their visibility among seekers and to make other congregations aware they exist. Recognition would also help them feel connected to the association, Rogers said.

Additional reporting by Christopher L. Walton. Photograph (black and white, above): Singers at The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C. (via Facebook). Photograph (color, on UU World homepage): Worshipers gather in the upstairs chapel at First Church in Boston for a Sanctuary Boston service (via Facebook).

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