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?