I’m a Universalist at heart, and Universalism is a hope-filled faith, so as I look ahead to 2011 I can’t help but seek out signs of hope within Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the things that give me hope for the coming year:
Community ministry: Most of our local congregations continue to stagnate and even decline, and they are not very good advertisements for our faith tradition. But our Unitarian Universalist community ministers are out doing all kinds of good work in the world; they serve as hospital chaplains, military chaplains, directors of non-profit organizations, social service providers, etc., etc. These are the people who are out there letting people know who we are. We have to figure out how to support these people without locking them into the weird narrow conception of congregational polity that now dominates us.
Three experiments in new congregation starts:
This coming year, I’ll be watching three very different approaches at starting new congregations. Each of these three new congregations does not fit the typical model of new congregation starts within Unitarian Universalism — no fellowships here, no existing congregation supporting a new congregation, no extension ministry, no support from the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is a project to revitalize a moribund church; another focuses on serving the wider community rather than members and friends; and one an entrepreneurial church start common in other denominations but not within Unitarian Universalism. Continue reading →
The year in Unitarian Universalist growth initiatives may be summed up quite simply: there continue to be fewer Unitarian Universalists, few local congregations seem to have any interest in taking the simple steps necessary to grow, and hardly anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit is stepping forward to start new and innovative Unitarian Universalist communities.
As an extreme example of Unitarian Universalism’s lack of initiative, let’s look at the San Francisco Bay area, where I live. The San Francisco Bay area comprises nine counties, 7,000 square miles, and 7.4 million people. A poll by the Pew Forum in 2008 determined that 0.3% of U.S. adults call themselves Unitarian Universalists, and therefore we’d expect there to be at least 22,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area. Since the Bay area population tends to be liberal, well-educated, and open-minded, however, I would expect there to be more Unitarian Universalists than the national average. Conservatively, I’d guess there should be something like 30,000 to 40,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area — yet there are fewer than 4,000. In all of California, the most populous state in the U.S. with a population of more than 37 million people, there are only 16,089 Unitarian Universalists (according to the 2010 UUA Directory).
If this isn’t bad enough, there is only one so-called “emerging congregation” (that is, a relatively new congregation not yet admitted as a full member of the Unitarian Universalist Association) in the Bay area, and that one new congregation is actually a group of people who left the Oakland church in the middle of a conflict over whether or not the music director should be fired. Because conflicts typically drive some people away from religion entirely, I’d guess that this emerging congregation actually represents a net loss of Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area.
I found the following in the executive summary of Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, prepared by the “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This paper seems to indicate that many of the things I value most — social equality, racial diversity, breaking down class distinctions, changing the world, etc. — are positively associated with just being a part of a religious community. Note that the paper is silent on the matter of specific beliefs. I’d hypothesize that what’s most important about religious community is not specific beliefs, but rather the fact that a religious community is organized around high ideals with ethical implications.
What is the impact of this religious engagement? Involvement in communities of faith among all goers collectively is strongly associated with giving and volunteering. Indeed, involvement in religious community is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering for religious causes as well as for secular ones. Religious communities embody one of the most important sources of social capital and concern for community in America. Religious people are great at ‘doing for.’
Moreover, religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Even holding other factors constant (comparing people of comparable educational levels, comparable income, and so on), religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends. Interestingly as well, Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71%) than they are to trust people they work with (52%), people in their neighborhood (47%) or people of their own race (31%).
Another distinctive feature of religious involvement is that it is less biased by social standing than most other forms of civic involvement. Poorer, less educated Americans are much less likely to be involved in community life than other Americans, but they are fully as engaged in religious communities. Conversely, religiously engaged people have, on average, a more diverse set of friends than those who are less engaged in religion. Holding constant their own social status, religiously engaged people are more likely than other Americans to number among their friends a person of a different faith, a community leader, a manual worker, a business owner, and even a welfare recipient.
I cannot resist adding a caveat: As always, it’s wise to remain skeptical of such studies; it’s especially important not to confuse correlation and causation.
So you’ve probably already seen the Youtube video where two cats are playing pattycake, and a couple of guys provide voice-overs (“Patty cake, patty cake… Dude, what was that? You bit me!…” etc.). I mean, it’s already had over 4 million views, and since you’re one of the hip people you were probably one of the first ten thousand who saw it.
What interests me about this video are the opening and closing credits: very briefly, six words appear on the screen: “Exodus First Baptist Sr. High Ministry.” Nothing more. No proselytizing, no heavy-handed message. This is what mainline Protestants historically have done best (and sociologically speaking, Unitarian Universalists look exactly like mainline Protestants): we sponsor cultural production that is not explicitly religious.
You mean you haven’t seen the video yet? Hey, I didn’t see it until today when Carol sent me the link. Dude, you have to see this….
Sociologist Robert Putnam, known for his sociological study Bowling Alone, and co-author Chaeyoon Lim have an article on the effects of religion on life satisfaction in the December issue of American Sociological Review [ASR]. The full article is hidden behind a paywall, but there’s an abstract of the article available on the ASR Web site:
Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam Abstract: Although the positive association between religiosity and life satisfaction is well documented, much theoretical and empirical controversy surrounds the question of how religion actually shapes life satisfaction. Using a new panel dataset, this study offers strong evidence for social and participatory mechanisms shaping religion’s impact on life satisfaction. Our findings suggest that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations. The effect of within-congregation friendship is contingent, however, on the presence of a strong religious identity. We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.
The research by Putnam and Lim is an interesting addition to the 2004 research by sociologist Mark Chaves (Congregations in America, Harvard Univ.). Chaves found that although congregations were not very effective at providing social services or engaging in political action, congregations were good at producing “worship events,” religious education, and facilitating artistic activity: “If we ask what congregations do, the answer is that they mainly traffic in ritual, knowledge, and beauty through the cultural activities of worship, education, and the arts….” Now we can add that congregation provide an increased sense of life satisfaction when individuals regularly attend services and build social networks in the congregation.
Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism
For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.
Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about possible reasons behind congregational decline, or at least the reasons behind congregations surviving but not thriving. Peter Stienke, a respected expert in congregational dynamics, has an article in the latest issue of Christian Century magazine titled “Buckle Up: Congregation Change Isn’t Easy.” In this article, Steinke defines what he calls “mission drift:”
…Some members say their congregation has a sense of mission because they have a mission statement. Sad to say, few know what it is.
Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people have forgotten what their objective is and are just going through the motions. To judge from my experience, congregations in mission drift will at some point:
engage in conflict,
suffer a malaise of spirit
decline in some statistical manner
adapt to their most immature members
fail to mobilize people’s gifts and energy
surrender to apathy or complacency
do little planning
become turned in on themselves
blame outside forces (or perhaps one another) for their depression, and/or
be unable to make effective appropriate changes.
Interestingly, I’d say that this list of symptoms also applies to congregations that are in a stalled transition from a pastoral-size congregation (average attendance of up to 150) to a program-size congregation (average attendance of over 200). This suggests that there might be some correlation between mission drift and a stalled size transition. I say “correlation” because I’m not willing to assign a causal connection between the two. While it seems possible that mission drift could stall a size transition, wouldn’t there be some kind mission in place to prompt growth before the stall happened? And it’s hard to imagine how that a size transition somehow magically makes a congregational mission disappear. Perhaps there’s an underlying cause, e.g., perhaps when a congregation gets up past an average attendance of 150, the old informal communications network breaks down — where everyone just knows what they need to know — and there is as yet no formal communications network in place to effectively pass on the mission statement to newcomers, and to repeatedly remind old-timers.
At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace, released last month. They reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”
There has been a corresponding drop in church involvement. According to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29….
This is not a new trend for us Unitarian Universalists — at a rough estimate, only 15% of the people raised as Unitarian Universalists stay with it as adults. Welcome to the club, conservative Christians! (Oh, and by the way, could you please send the folks who leave your churches our way? — some of our best Unitarian Universalists are people who were born into conservative Christian churches, and left as young adults.)
There are two common threads running through the first three post in this series on growth. While I never stated the first of these threads explicitly, attentive readers will have noticed that whether you want your congregation to stay the same size gracefully, or decline gracefully, or perhaps even grow gracefully, I believe you must (1) know what your congregation stands for, and (2) provide steady and consistent management for your congregation.
While some Unitarian Universalist congregations have a clear sense of what their congregation stands for, in my experience the vast majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations do not provide steady and consistent management over a period of years and decades. This is half of the reason why most congregational surveys are a waste of time — you go through all the work of doing a survey, and within months lay leaders have gone on to other things. This is also why it’s often a waste of time to bring in an outside consultant — you spend all that money on an outside consultant, and a year later the consultant’s recommendations have been essentially forgotten. More than once, I have found myself in a situation where, as a staff person, I’m still trying to implement the recommendations that came out of a survey or a consultant’s visit a year before, only to find myself taken to task by lay leaders and other staff people who want to move on to something new. “That old consultant was a waste of time,” they’ll tell me, “and his recommendations didn’t work. We need to do something new.” That old consultant’s recommendations didn’t work because no one actually did the long-term work to implement them.
This reality — for it is a reality in most Unitarian Universalist congregations — has to be faced before long-term, consistent, and graceful growth can take place. So why are Unitarian Universalist congregations unable to provide steady and consistent management for graceful growth (or for graceful decline, or graceful steady-state, if that’s the way you need to go)? I can think of several reasons: Continue reading →