30 new congregations in 2008

At Reignite, Stephen reminds us of Lyle Schaller’s advice:

The single best approach for any religious body seeking to reach, attract, serve, and assimilate younger generations and newcomers in the community is to launch three new missions annually for every one hundred congregations in that organization. A significant fringe benefit of this policy is that it usually will reduce the resources for continuing subsidies to institutions that will be healthier if they are forced to become financially self-supporting.

For Unitarian Universalists in the United States, that would mean about 30 new congregations/missions in 2008. (But I estimate we’ll see less than ten new church starts this year.)

Coincidentally, the latest issue of UU World magazine came in the mail yesterday, and it contains a good article on the history of the fellowship movement. The fellowship movement, at its peak, resulted in over 50 new congregations a year:

The tenth year of the fellowship movement proved to be a high water mark for new starts in a single year. Of 55 fellowships organized in 1958, 33 have survived — more than from any other year. But from that peak, a slowdown began. The flagging energy and limited budget of the small staff were partly responsible. Munroe Husbands, the program’s director, had one assistant and a budget of only $2,300 in 1957, with which he was expected to start 25 new fellowships and service the existing ones. But there were also other reasons for the steady decline in new fellowships. Just as congregations reach growth plateaus, so did the movement as a whole. The program had already planted fellowships in the most promising com munities, leaving fewer targets for additional growth.

I’m inclined to question the conclusions of the last two sentences. While there’s no doubt that the movement reached a growth plateau in 1958, was that a cause of the declining number of new church starts, or a result? Inadequate funding for the major growth initiative of the denomination could be a big part of the reason for the decline that occurred in Unitarian Universalist membership from c. 1961, until a small amount of growth began happening c. 1980.

Rather than quibble about the past, though, I’m more interested in asking the question: what do we do now? Can we encourage grant-making bodies within Unitarian Universalism to stop funding existing congregations, and devote all their grant money to “missions” and new church starts? How about encouraging districts to re-allocate services from existing congregations to “missions” and new church starts (OK, given how self-centered many congregations are, that’s politically improbably, but a guy can dream)? How about allocating lots of funding for innovative “missions” like FUUSE and Micah’s Porch, instead of funding advertising in Time magazine? My district, Ballou Channing District (southeastern Mass. and Rhode Island) is going to have a Unitarian Universalist Revival this spring — should we be doing more of that?

What are your ideas? How would you encourage 30 new Unitarian Universalist congregations in 2008?

5 thoughts on “30 new congregations in 2008

  1. Kim Hampton

    Hi Dan.
    I would be interested in hearing more about your district’s Revival. The UUCF has been doing them for almost 10 years now and it would great to know how others are doing it.
    Also, the Disciples talk about doing 1000 churches 1000 ways when it comes to church growth.(Ron Robinson talks about this a lot) Maybe that’s something for we UUs to think about.

  2. Steve Caldwell


    I would relax the rules developed by the UUA Board of Trustees to implement Article III of the UUA bylaws.

    These rules can be found online here:


    Within Rule III’s guidelines, you find the following requirements for starting a new UU congregation:

    (1) A requirement to make “an initial payment in an amount of no less than the Fair Share contribution to the Association’s Annual Program Fund, pro-rated for the portion of the Association’s fiscal year remaining as of the date of application” — it would sound best to start a congregation a congregation near the end of the UUA’s fiscal year in order to reduce the initial up-front Annual Program Fund payment.

    (2) The membership number seems large for creating a recognized start-up group — “A new congregation, to be recognized as a member of the Association, must have thirty (30) of its adult members be members solely of the new congregation.” Please note that youth members (who would count for UUA Annual Program Fund computation if they are voting members) would not count as part of the first 30 members of a new UU congregation.

    (3) The UUA seems adverse to having vigorous competition in the religious marketplace — “The Association will neither initiate nor recognize such a new congregation until after the Association has consulted by mail or by interview with any member congregation or congregations located in the same geographic area. Such consultation shall include a request for letters from the presiding officer of the congregation’s governing board and minister of such congregation(s) stating judgment regarding the establishment and/or recognition of the new congregation.”

    These rules appear to me to discourage new congregational formation and limit competition.

    And in a community like mine that has a conservative and cowardly UU congregation, the UUA rules covering new congregations ensure that Unitarian Universalism appears to be timid and not very BGLT-friendly.

  3. Dan

    Kim @ 1 — The BCD Web site has nothing up as yet. I’ll email the District Executive and ask him what’s brewing.

    Steve @ 2 — I don’t have a problem with the money requirement, simply because I believe a new congregation should be talking about money from the get-go. The requirement for 30 members is silly, if only because membership is such a fictional number — better would be a requirement for minimum attendance at worship services (or equivalent gathering, in the case of outreach projects). The last requirement could be problematic depending on how it is implemented. As I read this, the only requirement is to consult with nearby congregations; there’s nothing about whether you have to listen to what they say; but if this is interpreted as giving nearby congregations veto power over any new congregation, that could be a problem.

  4. Lois Reborne

    I’m a member of an emerging congregation in a small town in rural Missouri. We average twelve people at our weekly Wednesday services, and 20 at monthly public issueforums. About half the sixteen members have long histories as UUs; half have never attended a UU church before.

    We have recieved support from the Central Midwest District and from the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I have to say however that without leadership from two of us familiar with the inner workings of UU and willing to be very persistent, we’d be nowhere.

    The support that is available is largely passive – you have to know who to ask, what to ask, and ask repeatedly.

    Here’s just one example. Our two year old group, listed as an emerging congregation with both our district and the UUA, is not allowed to recieve the emailed congregational packet. This means we do not have simple access to the very kind of information that would encourage our connection to the movement.

    The idea that fiscal responsibility is built on making the UUA payment is odd to me. We’re paying our own way here, and our fair share to the district. We’ve recently bought 25 hymnbooks.

    We want to be affiliated with the UUA. We’d like to participate. But frankly, the list of benefit services doesn’t make it a high priority.

    I believe there is ample growth opportunity in areas like ours, where the conservative and fundamentalist swing of other denominations has left more and more people looking for a liberal religious home. Why must all growth effort be focused in large cities and building giant churches?

    How about support for developing minister circuit riders? Annual or semi annual congregational retreat programs led by dynamic uus expecienced in the joys and challenges of lay led congregations and for that matter rural and small town life?

    Lois Reborne

  5. Dan

    Lois — Great to hear from someone who is actually doing it! I like your last two ideas. I know there are so-called “yoked ministries” where two or more small congregations share one minister (similar to a circuit rider arrangement); I also know of two innovative programs in the Midwest and in New England where student ministers and new ministers provide part-time supervised ministry to small congregations (I actually participated in one of those efforts). And the idea of regular retreats is a good one — I wonder if one of the established UU conferences out in your part of the world would add on such a program to an existing summer conference (thus saving lots of organizational time)?

    Weird that they won’t email you the congregation packet. But then, I had a similar argument with the religious education department a decade ago when I said that all UUA curriculums should be put online — they weren’t in the least interested, making a vague argument that they needed to be able to sell the books, which didn’t make sense — of course, now the new curriculums are supposedly all going online. So maybe the UUA will come around!

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