Morales: 'The culture is moving our way theologically, but not institutionally.'
Amid the downward-sloping statistics, however, the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sees reason for optimism. Declines in UU membership have been slight. Declines in other denominations, including evangelical churches, however, have been precipitous. “The evangelical slide is an amazing opportunity,” he said, noting that opinion surveys on social issues, such as marriage equality, indicate that more people are aligned with UUA values. “The culture is moving our way theologically, but not institutionally.”
Morales presented the statistics in his report (PDF; 18.9M) to the UUA Board of Trustees at its April meeting in Boston. The numbers reflect membership as of February 1, 2011.
Three of the UUA’s 19 districts showed a net increase in members last year. The Joseph Priestley District, which includes congregations in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, posted the largest gain, of 91 members. The Massachusetts Bay District, which includes congregations in eastern Massachusetts, grew by 41 members. And the Pacific Central District, which serves northern California, northern Nevada, and Hawaii, grew by five.
Membership fell the most in the Central Midwest District—which includes congregations in Illinois and parts of Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin—and the Southwestern UU Conference, which serves Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and parts of Missouri and Tennessee. Each of these districts lost 224 members. The Metropolitan New York District, which includes congregations in parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, lost 186 members.
Registration in religious education programs fell for the fourth consecutive year. It dropped 2.1 percent to 54,671.
Average Sunday attendance showed a decline for the first year, falling by 1,539 people. That’s a decline of 1.5 percent to 100,693 people.
“The numbers raise the urgency that we just ought not do business as usual,” the Rev. Harlan Limpert, vice president of Ministries and Congregational Support, told the board. “Small year-to-year changes are not that significant, because we are such a small faith. But what troubles me is the ten-year trend.”
Morales said that the nature of congregational life needs to change in significant ways to attract a new generation of churchgoers. “It isn’t about a drum set and some more modern poetry and dressing more casually,” he said.
He advocated nurturing the denomination’s base, particularly by promoting excellence in ministry. At the same time, Morales said, “we need to reinvent what religious and congregational life is a generation out.” The association has to find a way to “reinforce what is healthy and good, and also nurture something that is new and compelling to a generation that feels no obligation to go to church. And yet, it is deeply hungry for transcendence and depth.”
Morales emphasized two current UUA programs that he said are “modest initiatives . . . to make the best of our movement contagious.” One is the “Leap of Faith” program, a pilot program that helps successful congregations provide mentoring to growing congregations.
The second initiative is a growing number of meetings and connections that support multicultural ministers and congregations. “We now have at least 26 ministers of color serving congregations,” said Morales, “and we’re starting to see the transformational impact that is having in those congregations. We are learning to cross boundaries of class and culture.”
The president’s report also highlighted four “breakthrough congregations” that have been recognized for extraordinary growth. They are:
Each of the congregations will show a video at the 2011 UUA General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C., highlighting its successes in membership growth.
Morales’s report on membership trends draws on data that includes updated figures for the past few years, including figures that differ from numbers reported by UU World in 2009 and 2010. Using the latest figures, the UUA’s membership high point was 164,505 adult members in 2008, which declined to 164,448 in 2009, 164,196 in 2010, and 162,796 in 2011.
UU World has also reported U.S.-only membership data, excluding member congregations in Canada and other countries as well as the non-geographical Church of the Larger Fellowship. Using the latest figures, the UUA’s U.S. membership was 156,077 in 2008, 155,969 in 2009, 155,729 in 2010, and 154,255.
The slight decline in membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association occurred as many other denominations posted steeper declines.
The United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) showed the largest one-year declines, falling by 2.8 percent and 2.6 percent respectively. Membership dips were also reported by the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the American Baptist Churches USA; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod; the United Methodist Church; and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Bucking the trend, with large membership gains, were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which reported a 4.4 percent increase in membership, and the Seventh-Day Adventists, which grew last year by 4.3 percent.
Three other denominations reported gains, according to an annual report prepared by the National Council of Churches. They were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1.4 percent; the Roman Catholic Church, 0.6 percent; and the Assemblies of God, 0.5 percent.
Morales concluded his remarks to the board about membership trends by saying that over the next decade, the association needs to consider itself in the “culture-change business.”
“We are living at a time in history of unprecedented social change,” Morales said. “That’s supposed to be what we’re good at, and what our theology prepares us to embrace. We need to remind ourselves that we are capable of doing this—creative enough, clearly smart enough, and committed enough that we’re not afraid to move this into the future.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).