Membership growth in UUA slows down

Membership growth in UUA slows down

Latest figures show slight dip; UUA presidential candidates Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales comment on growth strategies.
Donald E. Skinner


After many years of slight but steady growth, membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations took a slight dip this year. The number of adult members in the UUA, including in its international congregations, declined by 74 for a total of 164,656 members, according to membership data collected by the UUA in February 2009. The total number of congregations remained 1,050.

Counting only U.S. members, membership increased by 28 for a total of 159,732. Adult membership figures in the UUA have typically increased at the rate of 0.5 to 1 percent for many years, even as most mainline Protestant denominations have been declining.

In the previous year the UUA grew by 0.7 percent, or 1,099 members, in the United States. In the past five years U.S. membership increases have ranged from 851 to 1,812 annually.

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s director of district services, said the slight drop this year in membership numbers is probably due to the fact that congregations, faced with economic challenges, are aggressively paring their rolls. Congregations are asked to pay UUA and district fees of around $75 per member each year. “With the economy as it is, congregations want to make sure their rolls are accurate,” said Limpert.

Registration of children and youth in religious education programs also declined across the Association. Congregations (including international congregations) reported 56,379 children and youth, compared to 57,146 last year, a drop of 767 or 1.3 percent. Historically, RE enrollment began to rise in the early 1980s, then began a slow decline after 2002.

According to the National Council of Churches 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published in February, only four of the largest 25 North American denominations are growing: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is up 1.63 percent; Assemblies of God, up 0.96 percent; Jehovah’s Witnesses, up 2.12 percent; and the Church of God, up 2.04 percent.

Membership in the Roman Catholic Church, the country’s largest, declined 0.59 percent while the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, declined 0.24 percent. Among liberal denominations, the United Church of Christ, one of the UUA’s frequent interfaith partners, had one of the highest rates of membership loss, down 6.01 percent. The Episcopal Church was down 1.76 percent. The UUA is too small to be included in this survey.

Limpert said he is more concerned with the long-term flat rate of growth of the UUA, and the continuing RE decline, rather than one-year figures. “What is significant to me is that we’re remaining flat rather than growing 5 or 7 or 10 percent, which is what we could be doing,” he said. “We are a natural religious home to interfaith families, multiracial families, multiethnic families. And we support marriage equality, making us a natural home for BGLTQ couples and families. I’m concerned that we are not being as mindful or as intentional as we could be in making that openness known to everyone.”

Congregations report adult membership and religious education enrollment numbers to the UUA by February 1 of each year. Congregations are asked to contribute $56 per member, or in the case of large congregations, 4.2 percent of their operating budget, to support the UUA.

The General Assembly office relies on certified membership numbers to determine the number of delegates each congregation may send to General Assembly. Beyond that, the numbers are used primarily as a way to assess the Association’s overall vitality, said Limpert.

The February certification numbers are not the last word on UU membership, however. “Some congregations ask during the year that their numbers be changed because they have more accurate information,” Limpert said. The annual UUA Directory includes data submitted through July.

Limpert has been analyzing the data in the February certification report. Fewer of the UUA’s 19 districts grew this year, he said. Eight reported membership increases, compared to 12 last year. The Thomas Jefferson District, including the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, was the fastest growing region at 2.3 percent.

Twelve districts reported that half or more of their congregations were growing, however. These were led by the Thomas Jefferson District, where 69 percent of congregations reported membership growth, and the Prairie Star District (Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas), where 68 percent of congregations reported growth.

Those districts where less than half the congregations reported growth were all in New England, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

The congregation that reported the largest number of new members in the past year was the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a congregation that serves isolated UUs through the internet and by mail. In the past year it added 208 members for a total of 3,509.

The Rev. Jane Rzepka, the church’s senior minister, said, “It seems to us that CLF’s membership growth is a result of our outreach to people who are typically underserved by Unitarian Universalism. We try to provide a spiritual home for isolated religious liberals—including young adults, prisoners, those in the military, and [people who,] for whatever reason, tend not to be in church on Sunday mornings.”

The Rev. Christine Robinson’s congregation, First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, N.Mex., has grown from 482 to 753 in nine years, including 38 added in the past year. “Part of it is that our city has grown during that time,” she said, “but also that we’ve had leadership that embraced the idea that we were now a large congregation.”

Other factors: Robinson’s 20-year ministry has allowed the congregation to spend less time and energy on transitions. Bringing on a second minister and doing a major building expansion also led to growth spurts. Focusing on young adults and young parents gave the church a boost as has a “Branches” program, which established strong groups of members in small towns 40, 70, and 300 miles away. “This is a congregation which is not afraid of growth and is energized by the idea of being of service to more people,” Robinson said.

First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City grew by 50 members this past year, bringing its membership to 441. The Rev. Mark Christian said, “A lot of growing is simply being prepared when the opportunity presents itself.” In his congregation’s case, that meant calling a second minister, the Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, in 2003, when that was a bit of a financial stretch. It meant remodeling religious education classrooms into “exciting and fun” sets and adopting a workshop rotation model, teaching the same lesson through drama, dance, and music, depending on the classroom. It meant something as simple as renaming the new UU class “Pathway to Membership.” Christian said, “People who showed up were anticipating joining the church.” And it meant having lots of small groups where people could make connections. “All of that just meant we had a better chance of connecting with people,” he said.

Limpert said the number of congregations reporting growth has decreased slightly. Of the 1,050 congregations in the UUA, 441 reported membership growth in this past year.

“A congregation that has a clear understanding of who they are and what their purpose for existing is, is more likely to grow,” Limpert said. “Congregations that have become clubby or family-like are more likely to remain the same or shrink. Also, congregations that have been able to avoid major conflict are more likely to have grown, as are those that have an outward orientation, that serve a purpose beyond the walls of their building, and those that have dynamic worship and changing worship.”

Each year for the past several years the UUA’s Growth Team has selected four “Breakthrough Congregations,” congregations that have overcome obstacles to achieve exceptional growth. “The Breakthrough congregations are growing six times as fast as other congregations,” said Limpert. “Overall in recent years we’ve been growing 1 percent. They have grown 6 percent a year.”

“If I were to summarize why Breakthrough Congregations have grown, a major factor would be that they took advantage of a transition, a change in ministry or a crisis, to reinvent themselves,” said Limpert. “They found their building too small and did something about it. They sought new leadership. They brought in people to inspire them and to help them talk about their mission.”

Four years ago the UUA asked congregations to begin reporting attendance figures, in addition to membership numbers. This year attendance rose by 1.2 percent, said Limpert. Attendance was up in 12 districts.

The attendance figure is not as meaningful now as it will be over time, said Limpert. “The number of people we serve is arguably more important than the number who sign the membership book.”

UU World asked the two candidates for UUA President, the Rev. Peter Morales and the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, how the UUA staff could best facilitate growth and what each would do as president to inspire congregations to be welcoming and receptive to growth. (The UUA General Assembly will elect a new president in June to replace the Rev. William G. Sinkford, who is completing his second and final term. See below for links to UU Worldcoverage of the campaign.)

Hallman said she believes congregations are generally welcoming. “The problem we have is not when people come in the door, but a year or two later when they are yearning to go deeper in our faith and don’t find enough to sustain them. They drift away and that’s what causes us problems. We need to look at how we are religious and what we can do to help people examine meaning and purpose in their lives. It’s how we are religious that we need to work on.”

On the role of the president in encouraging growth, she said, “The president’s role is to speak broadly to the Association and give permission to enter into religious discernment. Our focus should be not on growth, but on how we serve people and live in our communities. We need to make sure people can find us. It’s a question of spirit more than tactics. We want people to come to our churches and then come back because what we have is life saving.”

Morales said, “Growth happens naturally when congregations meet the spiritual needs of their members and when they make room in their hearts for newcomers. First, and most important, is the role of district staff. Our staff in the field must nurture long-term partnerships with our congregations. They need to be consultants who help determine the specific needs and potential of each congregation and then work, over time, to provide resources and coaching that fit the needs of every congregation. We will thrive when we learn to harness the passion, commitment and idealism of our people.”

He added, “I have been a passionate advocate for religious hospitality and growth for more than a decade. We will only revitalize our movement if we have a widespread sense of urgency—a sense that we are called to house the spiritually homeless. As president, I will be a tireless advocate for the spiritual practice of religious hospitality. The president must cast a bold, yet practical, vision of Unitarian Universalism as the religion for our time.”

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