Why we’re still in business (barely)

If you know anything about Unitarian Universalist history over the past forty years, you know that through the 1960s and 1970s, membership in Unitarian Universalist congregations plummeted. I was talking with a Very Wise Person today who contended that only two things kept Unitarian Universalism from complete collapse in the 1970s.

The first thing that kept us from collapse, said the Very Wise Person, was millions of dollars given by the congregation in Plandome, New York. When she died, a woman named Veatch had had left the Plandome congregation congregation some natural gas wells and other lovely investments that produced millions of dollars of income annually. Money from the Plandome congregation kept the national organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association, out of bankruptcy during the 1970s. (Maybe I haven’t got the details quite right, but you can read the whole story in the book The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, available through the UUA Bookstore.)

The second thing that kept Unitarian Universalism from complete denominational collapse, said the Very Wise Person, were the religious education programs in local congregations. Religious education is probably the only ministry we Unitarian Universalists have that actually draws large numbers of people to church. So parents would start coming to church when their eldest child got to be three or four years old. Then when their youngest child finally dropped out of Sunday school, usually at age 12 or 13, most of these parents would drift away from church. But it didn’t matter, because there would be new families coming in to replace the ones who drifted away.

And then the Very Wise Person and I talked about how Unitarian Universalist congregations are cutting back on professional religious education staff people these days. Churches that can no longer afford full-time ministers of religious education are hiring part-time directors of religious education. Churches that can no longer afford half-time directors of religious education are cutting those positions to one-third time, or quarter-time. And churches with quarter-time directors of religious education are cutting paid religious education staff altogether. (I have long contended that this is a result of Baumol’s cost disease, that changing economic conditions require churches to have larger and larger memberships to be able to afford level-funded staffing.)

While all this is going on, we’re in the middle of a new baby boom. The latest figures released by the census bureau show that as many children were born in 2006 as were born in 1961, one of the peak years of the previous baby boom. So here we are, we Unitarian Universalists, cutting religious education staff in our local congregations at precisely the time when we should be planning for a major influx of families with young children.

That’s about where the Very Wise Person and I had to end our conversation. Obviously, there’s lots more to say. I would love to hear your thoughts. Is this the beginning of the decline of Unitarian Universalism? Or what?

12 thoughts on “Why we’re still in business (barely)

  1. Ms. M

    you know I’m no optimist! if there is a future it needs to be centered on multiracial, multicultural and multigenerational worship that affirms life and inspires balanced living. While “RE” may be a draw in some communities – it doesn’t compare with soccer or iphones or all the other things the kids do on Sunday… especially without competently led program ministries! not to mention how much time/money risk management for work with kids requires these days…

    future vision: after school programs

  2. Tom

    When I was a kid 50 years ago, our Unitarian church was dominated by young mothers. Our volunteer DRE, my mom, and our volunteer Music Director, my mom’s best friend, were both in their thirties. While both had graduate degrees at the time and later went on to professional success, when we were little kids, they didn’t work. They devoted themselves to their children and communities. They had lots of time for church.

    Today, lots of people join our church when their kids are 4 or so, as you note. But they don’t put in anything like the time my mom put in. The moms almost all work full or part time. They just don’t have the time available.

    On the other hand, my church seems full of retirees who have lots of free time. They often have some pretty valuable professional skills as well. They basically run the church. They are interested in politics and music, but not RE. Their kids are grown.

    So I figure we are going to die that natural death that happens to all religions that aren’t interested in children. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something that happens.

  3. Jean

    Hi Dan –
    If you haven’t read this month’s O Magazine, and I bet you haven’t, there’s a great article on the UU program Our Whole Lives. And, if O Magazine features something, it usually takes off — the Oprah factor is impressive. So, OWL might just do it.

    Now there’s an after school program i would really like. And pay for.

    love, Jean

  4. Ms. M

    Exactly, Jean. Something like OWL could be the foundation for a community-educational-after-school-ministry. Still haven’t got this month’s O here in Cali, but it is ALL the talk!!! Now if only we can get Oprah to list “pee on earth day” as one of her favorite things!?!?!?

  5. Michael

    Very Wise Person is very wise, which is why my only budget request this year is for our growing small (almost mid-sized) congregation to increase our DRE’s time from 1/3 to 1/2. They did it–with full fair compensation benefits, to boot. And even the people whose wishes didn’t get funded understood that this was a better investment in our future than anything else on the list.

  6. Dan

    ms. m @ 1 — We need entry points such as excellent religious education, and then we need to funnel people from the entry points into deeper commitments.

    Tom @ 3 — I’d put it this way: the Baby Boomers are retiring and taking over our congregations, and they are continuing to live out their pattern of being totally focused on their own needs at the expense of the needs of others. That is not “just something that happens,” that is a morally bankrupt course of action and must be confronted head-on.

    I note without further comment that both candidates for UUA president are Baby Boomers.

    Jean @ 4, and ms. m. @ 5 — Several congregations in the Washington DC area are already piloting OWL as an afterschool program. And yes, there really is an opportunity for some swocial entrepreneurship here.

    Michael @ 7 — You rock my world.

  7. Timothy

    Traditionally, most UUs are comfortable with the label “Humanist”. The non-religious are the fastest growing group in America, and, I wager, most of them would also be comfortable with the label “Humanist”. But the UUA is pushing Post-Modern, New Age, anti-intellectual religious faith. It is not working. Unless they wise up, UU will continue to decline. Both of the people running for UUA president are UU ministers and more of the same. UU is on a kumbaya death march.

  8. Dan

    Timothy @ 11 — You write: “Traditionally, most UUs are comfortable with the label “Humanist”. ”

    I know you can’t get a lot of nuance in a comment, but please recognize that it’s more complicated than that. See, e.g., the 2001 Christian Century article archived on the UUA Web site at:

    “But the UUA is pushing Post-Modern, New Age, anti-intellectual religious faith. It is not working. Unless they wise up, UU will continue to decline.”

    So you’re saying it’s the responsibility of the UUA to keep the denomination from declining? I don’t buy that. It’s our responsibility to create a meaningful, living religion — it’s not the responsibility of the denominational bureaucracy. I also don’t buy that the UUA is pushing the kind of “religious faith” that you describe. It’s hard to make the claim of “anti-intellectual” when all the people I know who work at the UUA read a lot, value formal education, and care deeply about the life of the mind. And “New Age”? — I think the UU seminaries are a little New-Age-y, but the UUA seems less New-Age-y than most UU congregations I know.

    As for “Post-Modern” (which is more properly written “postmodern”), any organization that is not engaging with the postmodern challenges is in trouble. (Remember how the fundamentalists got started? — they were denying modernism.) If you want to deny the postmodern challenges, instead of engaging creatively with their critiques, you go right ahead, but you’ll find yourself on a path to narrowmindedness, anger, and oblivion. Personally, I choose to engage with postmodernism, and I’ve found that while some of it is crap, some of it resonates with Unitarian Universalism.

    You also write: “Both of the people running for UUA president are UU ministers and more of the same.”

    Oops, your anti-clerical bias is showing.

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