Over the past decade, 22 percent of congregations have shrunk by 20 percent or more.
Although the declines each year have been very slight, the multiyear trend downward, which began after the 2008 highpoint of 164,505 members, broke a slight upward trajectory going back to 1983.
The Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support, said that he finds the numbers challenging. “We have seen modest increases in membership almost every year for the past twenty years until the last few years, while other denominations have been decreasing,” he said. “It is concerning that we have first stabilized and are decreasing modestly.”
The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, director of Growth Strategies and Large Congregation Development, recommends watching for long-term trends in the data. “Variations of less than 3 percent in a single year are relatively common and not necessarily a cause for either concern or applause, unless the trend continues in a single direction for three or more years and the cumulative number exceeds 5 percent,” he wrote on the Growing Unitarian Universalism blog. “By contrast, variations exceeding 3 percent in a single year usually indicate that ‘something’s up,’ unless they can be attributed to ‘delayed housekeeping’.”
Of the 1,028 local congregations in the United States (excluding the global Church of the Larger Fellowship), 28.4 percent grew by more than 3 percent last year. Just over one-third shrank by more than 3 percent, however, while 37.4 percent grew between –3 and 3 percent.
Jonasson said that significant rates of decline were most common among congregations with 60 or fewer members or with 161 to 300 members. Significant growth was most common among congregations with 401 to 600 members.
Over the past decade, 22 percent of congregations have shrunk by 20 percent or more. Congregations with 60 or fewer members fared worst, with 43 percent reporting at least a 10 percent drop. Large churches, with more than 550 members, had the highest rate of growth, with 37.8 percent growing 20 percent or more.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (page 55).
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Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
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