Playing the numbers game, pt. 2

Which is really the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation?

With the majority of congregations reporting membership and attendance figures, I looked at the online list of congregations to see which are the three largest congregations, measured in terms of average attendance (although Unitarian Universalists tend to measure size of congregation by number of certified members, experts on congregational growth at the Alban Institute recommend measuring average attendance).

Here are the top five congregations as measured by the size of their membership:

(1) First Unitarian Church (Portland, OR), 1068 average attendance, 1041 members.
(2) All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa, OK), 914 average attendance, 1900 members
(3) Unity Church Unitarian (Saint Paul, MN), 774 average attendance, 859 members
(4) First Unitarian Church (Rochester, NY), 687 average attendance, 955 members
(5) All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, DC), 646 average attendance, 878 members [corrected from original post]

Thus, by the standard definition of a mega church (average weekly attendance of over 2,000), there are no Unitarian Universalist congregations that even come close to mega-church size. Just to remind you, there have been Unitarian megachurches in the past — the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society in Boston in the 1850s, Theodore Parker, minister (possibly the first megachurch anywhere); the Liberal Religious Fellowship in Prague in the 1930s, Norbert Capek, minister; People’s Church in Chicago in the 1920s, Preston Bradley, minister.

For the record, here are the top five Unitarian Universalist congregations in terms of membership (note that two of these congregations have not reported average attendance, which I find very curious):

(1) All Souls Unitarian Church (Tulsa, OK), 1900 members, 914 average attendance
(2) Unitarian Church of All Souls (New York, NY), 1529 members, no reported average attendance
(3) First Unitarian Society (Madison, WI), 1463 members, no reported average attendance
(4) The First Unitarian Church of Dallas (Dallas, TX), 1097 members, 457 average attendance
(5) First Unitarian Church (Portland, OR), 1041 members, 1068 average attendance

A list of Bay Area congregations, listed in order of average attendance, appears after the jump.

San Francisco Bay Area congregations listed in order of reported average attendance:

(1) Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church (Walnut Creek, CA), 371
(2) Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (Kensington, CA), 314
(3) First Unitarian Church of Oakland (Oakland, CA), 260
(4) Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa (Santa Rosa, CA), 235
(5) First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA), 205
(6) Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (Palo Alto, CA), 191
(7) Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo (San Mateo, CA), 180
(8) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City (Redwood City, CA), 143
(9) First Unitarian Church of San Jose (San Jose, CA), 127
(10) Unitarian Universalist Church in Livermore (Livermore, CA), 106
(11) Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church (Hayward, CA), 95
(12) Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin (San Rafael, CA), 95
(13) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale (Sunnyvale, CA), 88
(14) Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Fremont, CA), 84
(15) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos (Los Gatos, CA), 74
(16) Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists (Berkeley, CA), 60
(17) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of North Bay (Napa, CA), 60

One thought on “Playing the numbers game, pt. 2”

  1. 12 comments recovered

    Anna Snoeyenbos says:
    February 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm
    Also, looking at the data from the UUA it appears that most congregations are reporting significantly higher membership rates than attendance rates which by modern (a la Rick Warren) standards seems backwards. Rick would tell us that this is an indication that membership and covenant at those churches is watered down or meaningless. Seems like some churches need to rethink what membership really means and do some editing of the books.

    Scott Wells says:
    February 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm
    In the first list, am I seeing double? (#4 and #5)

    Steven Rowe says:
    February 3, 2011 at 5:37 pm
    I note First Unitarian of Rochester is in the top 5 twice.
    Quite a feat!
    I know members who don’t attend, and I know regular attendees who aren’t joiners. Since the non-attending folks in UU circles are usually pledging folks, everybody must get their needs met in different ways.

    Christine Robinson says:
    February 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm
    Since there is not a standard way to calculate “average attendance” that number is not as meaningful as it should be. Some churches only count the school year in their averages and others do.

    It does not concern me in the least that our definitions of membership are more inclusive than Rick Warren’s. The “high demand” church implies a very specific belief about the meaning of membership which is imposed on everybody. That’s not what we do.

    Judy Gutierrez says:
    February 4, 2011 at 6:03 am
    The churches with low attendance rates could be listing only the adults actually in the worship service. Others may be reporting all the people in the building during the worship hour. We just starting counting the later way a few months ago. It makes a big difference. It is now my understanding that we are to count all the people in the building during the worship hour.

    David Markham says:
    February 4, 2011 at 6:06 am
    Thanks for posting this. It is interesting. I am a member of an emerging congregation in Brockport, NY and we have 25 people signed up now for Charter Sunday which we will be holding in May, 2011. We have an average Sunday attendance of about 20 – 25. We have only been meeting since September of 2009.

    Thanks for your blog. I like it a lot.

    Masasa says:
    February 4, 2011 at 7:28 am

    My congregation found out over the last couple of years that membership counts are often complicated by whether or not a congregation is giving “fair share” to the UUA. Those congregations that don’t give “fair share” have less motivation to be conservative about membership. Instead, since the UUA counts congregational size by membership rather than attendance, there can be an ego-based motivation among churches that don’t give “fair share” to count membership as broadly as possible.

    We had a consultant come in from the UUA who noticed this phenomenon in our congregation. We are not yet “fair share” (a fact about which we carry some measure of institutional feelings of “guilt” or “remorse”). Our bylaws for membership required almost nothing of members, and the membership roster was only purged every three years. Someone could move away or even die and not be taken off the membership list!

    After talking with the consultant, the congregation was determined to change this. We changed the bylaws, created a process of membership with multiple steps, and required an annual purge of the membership roster (in order to remain a member, each person must reaffirm their membership annually in writing by submitting a pledge card, even if they are unable to give at the time and the pledge card says $0). Our membership numbers fell dramatically that year (nearing half) without any change whatsoever in numbers of people actually associated with the church from the year before.

    We were very impressed to see this year, our second year with the new bylaws, that our membership numbers have grown significantly! Our attendance number is still smaller than our membership number, but by far less…and membership means a lot to our congregation.

    Chris Walton says:
    February 4, 2011 at 9:38 am
    I recall being a canvasser at First Unitarian in Salt Lake City many years ago. Of the five members I visited, only one regularly attended church services—but all five valued their “membership” and supported the church financially year after year. I suspect this phenomenon is widespread in Unitarian Universalism. I’m not sure that congregational vitality requires a drop in the number of people who participate in this limited way. Maybe it simply requires a higher proportion of people who also participate in congregational life.

    Chris Walton says:
    February 4, 2011 at 9:39 am
    Surely one of the Rochester congregations in your Top Five is the *Universalist* church.

    Patrick McLaughlin says:
    February 4, 2011 at 11:36 am
    Hmmm. I wonder if Warren’s definitions are directly transferrable–and at the same time, I’m not trying to deny them.

    My home congregation has membership/attendance numbers that are very similar (or were, last I knew). It’s slowly growing, but the ratios seem to run close to 1:1 and have for over a decade. And the enrolled children to adult members is about 1:2.

    The church I’m serving as an intern seems to not have quite the same attendance, but still pretty good (~.8 attending for every member on the books), and significantly fewer children.

    Just as an aside, I’ll observe that membership numbers in our largest congregations aren’t controlled for in the same way that they are in our smaller congregations, which may tend to skew the data. There are bragging rights in being among the largest–which discourages removing members who aren’t really meeting membership standards (whatever those are, and that varies). Coupled with that, large congregations pay UUA dues as a percentage of budget, so there’s no particular financial pressure to keep “clean” membership rolls. Smaller congregations are assessed what is effectively a head tax, and thus tend to prune those not meeting membership standards.

    Thus, it is *possible* that the large church membership numbers are inflated because there’s a value to them and no cost to them being overstated.

    And I’m betting that one of the Rochesters listed is First Universalist, not First Unitarian. Interesting that their numbers are so similar. Do the parallels keep them on their toes, “competing” as it were, and thus relatively healthy? They’re not that far apart. That dynamic might suggest that the ’sitting on the franchise’ dynamic is quite unhealthy for the movement….

    Patrick McLaughlin says:
    February 4, 2011 at 11:47 am
    Just dove into the data; memory is superior to perception. My home congregation posts a 96.1% attendance. But my internship site is just over 56%; I thought they were doing better than that.

    Dan says:
    February 4, 2011 at 2:41 pm
    Anna @ 1 — I would fully agree with you. I would also say that because so many Unitarian Universalists are convinced that the membership figure is the most important figure, it can prove very difficult to do anything that will tend to lower membership numbers.

    Steve and Scott at 2 & 3 — Corrected in post.

    Christine @ 4 — Actually, there is a standard way of calculating average attendance, which the UUA sends out to each congregation as part of the certification process. Do all congregations use that standard way of calculating average attendance? Probably not, but even so this should be a far more standardized number than membership, where every congregation’s bylaws and practices are going to lead to different criteria for membership.

    Judy @ 5 — Probably true. But again, the UUA tells us how to calculate average attendance.

    Masasa @ 7 — Great story, thanks.

    Chris @ 8 — Good point — there are different ways of participating in congregational life. Having said that, for someone like me who likes hard data, I’m at something of a loss of how to measure such alternative participation in a way that could be consistent across congregations. Any ideas?

    Chris @ 9 — Nope, I just double checked — congregational ID 6522, First Unitarian. Figures for First Universalist as follows: congregational ID 6523, The First Universalist Church of Rochester, 157 members, 93 average attendance.

    Patrick @ 10 — You write: “There are bragging rights in being among the largest–which discourages removing members who aren’t really meeting membership standards (whatever those are, and that varies). Coupled with that, large congregations pay UUA dues as a percentage of budget, so there’s no particular financial pressure to keep “clean” membership rolls.”

    Thanks for this analysis — it helps me to understand some patterns I’m seeing in the data.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *