Year in review: Unitarian Universalist growth initiatives

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.

And if that isn’t bad enough… …from what I see here in the Palo Alto congregation, there is in fact a large number of people in the Bay area who would seriously consider attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I estimate that our congregation alone sees well over a hundred newcomers each year — and this with essentially no marketing on our part. Yet our estimates are that we retain only about a fifth of these newcomers over the long term.

If you think the picture can’t get any more bleak, you’re wrong — it can get more bleak. Unitarian Universalism is in decline, but we are unable to focus our attention, energy, and limited resources on growth. A perfect example of this is religious education for children. The U.S. birth rate in 2007, just before the Great Recession, was the highest it had been since 1961, at the peak of the Baby Boom. Yet enrollment in Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools has been dropping since before 2007. Denominational authorities have finally begun publishing a new curriculum series, but it is less than inspiring — much of it is a rehash of older curriculum ideas dating from 70 to 25 years old, recast in “teacher-proof” curriculums, with a veneer of multiculturalism. It has little to attract or excite newcomers with children, especially in an era when religion is increasingly optional. Nor is the situation any better at the level of the local congregation, where we see the same old tired Sunday school programs of twenty and thirty years ago.

In another example of our inability to confront the real issues that face us, we Unitarian Universalists focus our social justice efforts in areas that are not attractive to the kinds of people we need to attract. A few Unitarian Universalists went to Arizona once in 2010 to get arrested in what turned out to be a fairly inconsequential immigration protest, a protest to which basically no one paid any attention but for a few other Unitarian Universalists. But mostly our local congregations continues to focus their local efforts on social justice issues that appeal to the individualistic educated middle class white people who are already members. Thus we put lots of energy into middle class environmental issues like solar energy and hybrid cars — concerns typical of our current members and friends — while ignoring the real distrust that communities of color have towards white middle class environmentalism, and ignoring environmental issues like toxics in the environment, food security, etc., that are of interest to people who aren’t educated individualistic middle class white folks.

I’d better take a deep breath and stop there. I could rant on for hours about the many ways Unitarian Universalism is following a path to irrelevancy. I’ll just mention in passing the way we emphasize social justice to such a great extent that we tend to ignore what many people outside our congregations crave: guidance and support in living sane and humane personal lives that are in accord with principles of goodness and truth. I’ll barely mention the fact that our theology is practically moribund, and many of our religious leaders don’t seem to be aware that we have a serious theological tradition of our own, a tradition which predates the so-called “seven principles,” and (unlike the “seven principles”) contains some real intellectual content.

At all levels — denomination, districts, local congregations, independent UU groups — the trend in Unitarian Universalism continues to be one of digging in our heels and refusing to change, even though by now it’s obvious that if we don’t change things Unitarian Universalism will die off.

More bad news tomorrow — Year in review: Unitarian Universalism in general