Over eight-year period, UUA shows slight increase, as other American denominations post double-digit declines.
The Association reported 160,100 members and 1,048 congregations in 2013, a decline of 1,407 members and six congregations from last year. But almost all of that drop in membership took place in one congregation—the UU Church of the Philippines.
If the Philippines data are excluded, the 2013 numbers look different, showing a statistically insignificant decline of 181 members, or 0.1 percent. That translates into 159,086 members in 1,047 congregations.
UUA President Peter Morales highlighted trends in the membership data in a report to the UUA Board of Trustees during its April meeting in Boston April 18–21.
Morales’s report excludes membership data from one of the UUA’s largest member congregations, the UU Church of the Philippines, which posted a drop from 2,235 to 1,014 members this year. The church is an anomaly in the UUA because it is the only national church body directly affiliated with the UUA; it consists of 29 local congregations, and it changed its membership reporting rules this year to include only Filipinos who contributed at least 25 pesos a year.
The rate of membership decline in the U.S. mirrors the economic crisis, Morales said. Membership in the UUA showed its greatest dip in 2011 and is recovering parallel with the overall economy. The rate of decline has slowed, a sharp contrast to other denominations.
According to the National Council of Churches, significant membership losses have been reported by major American denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA, which was down 27.3 percent from 2004–2012, the United Church of Christ (down 25.8 percent), the Episcopal Church (down 19.6 percent), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (down 17.9 percent), and the American Baptist Church USA (down 13.5 percent).
Over the same eight-year period, membership in the UUA grew by 1.9 percent, not counting the Philippines.
Morales said several interesting trends lay within the numbers and that there were three distinct groups of congregations in the UUA: “We have a movement of thriving churches, typically growing in membership; . . . a group in the middle of stable congregations; and a group of congregations in decline. They have more or less offset each other.”
Smaller congregations are faring poorly. Congregations with fewer than 60 members are in serious decline. More than 60 percent of large churches are growing. “The growth is in the program and larger church,” Morales said.
Age of congregation can also be a factor, Morales said. Congregations more than 100 years old tend to struggle more than congregations that are younger, he said, noting that his staff was doing more analysis to determine how to address this trend. “We really need to look at how we can help congregations turn themselves around,” he said.
Overall, 426 churches grew, 434 declined, and 164 reported exactly the same number of members as the year before. “There’s no way that’s true,” he said, of so many congregations having completely static membership. “Our numbers are at best approximate.”
The Southern Region was the only one of the UUA’s five regions to show growth, gaining 346 members since 2009. The greatest decline was in the Central East region, which lost 1,142 members, and New England, which lost 1,057. The MidAmerica Region lost 655 members. The Pacific Western Region lost 392.
The Southern Region was also the only one to show gains in religious education enrollment. Three districts show dramatic decline: Joseph Priestley, Massachusetts Bay, and Metro New York. The explanation may simply be demographics, Morales said. “We are having fewer kids. In congregations nationwide, the generational mix is older.”
Not counting members in the Philippines, the UUA reported 159,086 members at the end of February 2013, compared to 159,267 a year earlier. Including the Philippines, UUA membership dropped from 161,502 to 160,100 this year.
Trustee Linda Laskowski, of the Pacific Central District, asked whether advertising would aid the denomination’s growth. “How would you respond to all those UUs who say, ‘Why aren’t we out there promoting ourselves?’”
Morales noted that UU congregations attract more than a quarter million visitors each year. “We get far more people coming to check us out than we have members,” he said. “The churches that are thriving lose fewer members and retain more of these people.” He emphasized the importance of genuine hospitality for visitors.
“If I attend a congregation for the first time and I’m treated coldly, it doesn’t matter what the marketing is that got me there,” he said.
Kay Montgomery, UUA executive vice president, agreed. She also emphasized the impact of the recession on congregations’ membership rolls. “We incentivize low numbers,” she said, reflecting that congregations’ contributions to the UUA are calculated per member. “If we can shift over to something that doesn’t incentivize decreasing numbers and help people with their fundraising, we’ll be better off.”
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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).
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