Reasons for decline

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the numerical decline of Unitarian Universalism, and asked why we are declining. Readers left thoughtful and interesting comments giving their ideas of why we’re declining. In tomorrow’s post, In Thursday’s post, I’ll suggest some ways we might reverse our numerical decline. Now are some of my thoughts about why the numbers of certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations are declining:

(1) During the Great Recession, congregations have been facing budget shortfalls, and one obvious way to cut costs is to reduce the number of certified members. Congregations pay dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and to their local district for each certified member; fewer members means less dues to pay.

(2) UUA salary guidelines are pegged to congregation size, so a congregation that is hiring a new staffer may have motivation to have fewer certified members in order to drop down to a lower salary range in the guidelines.

(3) People who come from no previous religious background may see no benefit in becoming members of a congregation, or may not understand membership.

(4) Membership is declining because there are fewer people in our congregations — more on this in this next set of comments.

Now, here are my thoughts on why Sunday morning attendance is declining:

(1) The target audience for most Unitarian Universalist congregations is upper middle class white people living in wealthy suburbs. This is a declining group. Whites are headed towards being a minority group in U.S. society. And younger white people are returning to live in cities, and often can’t afford to live in wealthy suburbs.

(2) Patterns of religious participation are changing. Instead of participating in a traditional congregation, people in the U.S. may be doing something else. They may choose to attend occasional weekend workshops in spirituality; or may choose to adopt a home-based “do-it-yourself” approach to spirituality; or may be experimenting with alternative religious communities such as intentional communities, the so-called “new monasticism,” etc.; or may choose to participate in two or more religious communities simultaneously (possibly with a lower level of commitment in each); or may be experimenting with the various forms of online religion; etc.

(3) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have become de facto ethnic churches — white upper middle class enclaves. Such ethnic churches are increasingly unattractive to younger people who are accustomed to living and working in multiracial, multicultural environments.

(4) Sunday is no longer a day when no one has anything to do (except for real estate agents). Many people work on Sundays; children have sports and extra curricular commitments on Sundays; adults have sports and extra curricular commitments on Sundays; etc. On top of that, people these days are used to 24/7 shopping online, gyms that are open until late, etc. — we are a society that wants to be able to do what we want, when we want. This is one reason why voting by mail has increasing so quickly. yet most of our congregations offer only one service on Sunday mornings.

(5) Services in many Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have particularly high production values. Opera singers are having to learn how to act — no more planting yourself center stage and singing as loud as you can — so that opera can survive in competition with TV, online videos, video games, etc. Just so, those who lead Sunday services need to incorporate stagecraft, visual excitement, etc., into their skills — it’s no longer enough to plant a preacher behind a pulpit.

(6)Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have lessened their commitment to providing programming for families with children — more on this in this next set of comments.

And here are my thoughts on why religious education enrollment is declining:

(1) Professional religious educators are a dying breed. The economic situations of most congregation has led to cuts in religious education staffing. Positions calling for a minister of religious education are being downgraded to director of religious education, or associate or assistant minister. Full-time positions are disappearing, and part-time positions are losing hours. Sabbatical leave for religious educators is almost unheard of. As a result, religious education as a profession is not attracting many high quality candidates; many religious educators are part-timers who take the job because it’s convenient, not because they are actually inspired to do religious education as a career. Furthermore, the number of career religious educators (trained professionals who plan to make this their career) is dwindling; in the past, career religious educators helped support the untrained, part-time and temporary religious educators.

(2) UUA and district support for religious education is down. Many districts have replaced district religious education consultants with district program consultants. Staff and funding for the religious education department of the UUA has been cut.

(3) The UUA religious education department is inward-focussed and seemingly unaware of wider developments in the fields of religious education, and education more broadly. The UUA’s religious education department has insisted in recasting itself as the “Lifespan Faith Development” department; but religious education is a well-recognized field with an international professional organization, scholars doing relevant research, and many practitioners in other liberal denominations and faiths; whereas “faith development” is a field restricted to a few developmental psychologists following in the footsteps of James Fowler. Two examples of the inward focus of the UUA when it comes to religious education: while the rest of the U.S. prioritizes assessment within education, the UUA still focusses on curriculum; and while the broader educational world grapples with all the new insights from cognitive science, UUA materials show little or no influence of cognitive science insights.

(4) Current congregational leadership is often drawn from empty nesters and retired people, some of whom don’t want to spend money on kids. In more than one congregation, I’ve actually heard older people advocate that their congergation be a sort of “over-55 community.” Even one or two people like this can be enough to scare away families with children.

(5) The religious education programs of too many congregation are woefully out of date. Our best curriculum guides are from twenty or more years ago — and in any case, today’s families are accustomed to educational programs that are driven by assessment, not by curriculum. Youth groups still mostly operate using a model that became popular about 1970. Sunday school facilities are typically outdated, and often have a lot of deferred maintenance.

16 thoughts on “Reasons for decline”

  1. And suburbs are beginning to show both economic diversity or decline, and ethnic diversity. The ones around D.C. are hardly uniformly white or rich.

    I agree with your take on production values.

  2. I agree with you as well on most these points. Particularly the issues of Sunday attendance (I said similar things at my blog).

    However, I have done quite a bit of community organizing in the area where I serve and have seen slightly different settlement patterns. The case here at least is that young families (including white families) can afford to live neither in the traditionally middle-class white ‘burbs nor in the city. The city is becoming trendy amongst the empty nesters and they have driven costs up quite substantially in many areas.

    Instead these young families are moving to other (often extremely diverse) suburbs. The same can be said for immigrant groups. A lot of these younger towns are quite dynamnic places. However, many of the interesting suburbs either lost their UU franchise years ago or the UU churches there serve as “ethnic” white middle-to-upper class boomer enclaves.

  3. Adam: a map of these locations would be useful. I bet a local knowledge in the thirty largest metro areas would find them. Or a data project to find the intersection of better than average rated schools and the clustering presence of restaurants — a more timely measure than census — of recent immigrant ethnic groups.

  4. The target audience for most Unitarian Universalist congregations is upper middle class white people living in wealthy suburbs.

    Whether or not they’re a target, that Pew study showed UUs as an outlier… high education with lower than expected income given the level of ecuations.

  5. I’d love to find a way to map the demographic changes in a particular state. Adam, have you seen data on how this is playing out in Massachusetts, for example?

    Dan, are you sure that the number of upper-middle-class white people in wealthy suburbs is actually declining? I’m not questioning the need to broaden the UUA’s demographic base; I’m just curious about the notion that it’s the upper-middle-class that’s in decline.

  6. We used local info mostly. Natick was going through a rather massive self-evaluation which mostly had to do with education and housing. Framingham was much more interesting, with large Brazilian, Spanish-speaking, and African-American communities. Natick, as it turns out, is around 90% white with both property values and income increasing, pricing out many, many families. Which is to say that the uppper-middle-class white demographic is alive and well in these parts. If I didn’t live in a parsonage. I probably wouldn’t be able to live in town…

    Here is the “Natick 360” report:

    It is pretty dry reading…

    As for declining membership, it is worth noting that there are other denominations in decline that normally attract different demographics. The problem seems more global than the typical UU demographios…

  7. Scott, back in Maine Community Development-type folks would drive through the designated “centers” of towns and do a store-front analysis. How many store fronts are vacant? What are people selling? Are there any chains? What languages are the signs in? Often the information would be at least as useful as the more “scientific” info. Restaurant demographics would, I think, fit into that model…

  8. Great discussion, all; and excellent points, Dan. One demographic caveat: some of your points above are in reference to *percentage* trends rather than *absolute* trends. For example, white suburban living is declining as a % of total population, but is it declining in absolute numbers? If we’re looking at *absolute* declines in UU membership, worship attendance, and RE enrollment, (as opposed to declines relative to total US population) then US demographic trends that are fractional and not absolute would not explain it.

    I might be tempted to say that “The baby boomers’ kids are all grown up and done with RE.” which is somewhat true — there was a birth rate peak in 1991 followed by a decline, and we didn’t come back to those levels until 2006 (those kids should be hitting RE by now.)
    [ ]
    But I think the qualitative factors you mention are more important than the demographic ones. And besides, shouldn’t we have a message that is so saving and powerful that we grow by 10% a year?

    As a stray datum: My congregation (Cambridge MA) is growing rapidly in membership, Sunday attendance, RE enrollment, and in congregational diversity. We’ve always had strong young adult participation. Both absolute and per-member pledging is up. We’re also increasingly publicly engaged with the community around us, have more diversity and dynamism in worship, and recently expanded our senior staff. So it’s not all doom and gloom!

  9. When my wife and I joined our church 30 years ago, it offered lots of opportunities to broaden our knowledge of philosophies, a great music program, and mostly lay leadership.
    Our kids were already grown and away from home. It is worth noting that in all those years the church has lost two ministers due to conflicts arising in the RE area. In recent year, some of the members have become infatuated with a book written by a Unitarian minister that promotes the minister as a CEO who supervises a staff that exercises ultimate control of things. As a result, we have had to hire an assistant minister. Under the new arrangements, all members have to do is volunteer once in a while if they feel like it, and give the bureaucracy our $, While the music program is still good and diverse, a recent survey indicated a broad diversity of views about the music program, which bothers some people who seem to prefer consensus. The word “philosophy” is now seldom mentioned, having been replaced by “spiritual”. While all these changes may have the effect of making us like many other denominations (that are declining) why should any prospective members want to bother?

  10. Wow! More wrong you could not be. I am 44 years old. I am married with two children, eight and ten years old. I am the chair of the board of trustees at my UU congregation. My spouse is on the Religious Education Council at our church. We are a congregation of 350+. We have 150+ youth registered in our RE classes. Our Board make-up ranges from parents of infants to teen to adult. Through the economic downturn we have seen our annual stewardship campaign increase congregational giving by at least 1/3. We have increased staff pay and benefits. Our RE classes are staffed by volunteers who are parents of the children AND retired people with grown children. Our nursery has paid staff with volunteer parents, and older members with grown children. We have a vibrant community of all ages who are committed to the mission covenant statement of our church. Maybe you need to get involved? A church is what you make it. Your blog seems to be informed by your own biases. You offer no evidence for the statements you make. I found this piece to be cynical and self-serving. I wish you were in my congregation.

  11. Andrew Scease — I’m a little surprised you don’t believe the trends I’m reporting; they have been widely reported both within our denomination, and even in the national news, e.g., the rise of the “nones” has made the national news. The general trend is clear: UUism is in slow decline, as is organized religion in general in the U.S. I’m very glad to hear that your congregation is doing well — yes, there are exceptions to the general trend, and if your congregation is doing well, why mess with success?

    But I do think it’s a little silly to ask me to get more involved, and a little mean-spirited to tell the hard-working lay leaders in my congregation that “a church is what you make it.” For my part, I work more than full-time trying to make my congregation the best place it can be, and I volunteer many hours at the district and denominational level; if I got any more involved, I would have to stop sleeping and spending time with my spouse; it’s just silly to ask me to get more involved. For my congregation’s part, the lay-leaders here are working their collective butt off to make this church be the best it can be; these are talented, caring, hard-working people; to say that our financial challenges and lack of growth is all our fault seems pretty mean-spirited to me.

    Again, I’m glad that your congregation is doing well, but please don’t dismiss those of us who are working our butts off, desperately fighting the general national trends, without getting the kind of results that you’re getting. Every congregation in the Bay Area is doing about the same as we are, with the exception of one congregation that is growing. Maybe this is why I seem “cynical and self-serving” to you — here in my church, we’re probably doing more work than you are, and not getting the results — and if I have to vent a little, I would hope that you could be a little more sympathetic to our plight.

  12. 7 reasons
    1. Your not a church you are a social group. Church means Christ Alone!
    2. You have birth controlled your way into demographic oblivion.
    3. You embrace the culture of death. Abortion and Sodomy
    4. You are socialist liberals who have a pretend church.
    5. You do not believe in anything so why complain?
    6. You are not Christian but think of yourselves as a TRADITION.
    7. Unitarian Universalists by its very nature will end in a whimper, to believe in everything is to believe in nothing.

  13. Jack, once I filter out your assumption that everyone who does not follow your creed is automatically wrong, and once I ignore your lack of knowledge of Unitarian Universalism, I find a couple of interesting things in your comment.

    Your second point is true, though not quite the way you state it: low birth rates are indeed correlated with numeric decline in mainline Protestantism. I would suggest that this is because we believe that overwhelming God’s creation with too many human beings is a great evil; having dominion over the earth doesn’t mean we get to destroy it. I hope you’re not advocating high birth rates, because then I would have to conclude that you are willing to abet the great evil of overpopulation, and I would prefer to assume that you are someone with higher morals than that.

    Your sixth point contains a partial truth, though not quite the way you might think. You would say that we are not Christian because we do not agree exactly with your definition of what constitutes a Christian. However, Unitarian Universalism is in many ways a logical working-out of the Protestant revolution: we have cast all the graven images and idols out of our churches, including the cross (which, in case you didn’t know, was not used at all by Christians for the first thousand years of Christianity); we believe not just in the priesthood of all believers (Martin Luther), but the prophethood of all believers (Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams); etc. Thus you might more accurately call us “post-Christian” or “post-Protestant.”

    I’ll offer only one correction to the many inaccuracies in your comment. As far as us being a tradition, we would see you as being part of a tradition, rather than as being someone who is broadly Christian: we would see you as part of a relatively recent tradition, dating back only a few decades, that selectively ignores much of the broader Christian tradition (e.g., help for the poor and downtrodden, mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible) in order to focus on what matters most to you (e.g., what you call “Abortion and Sodomy,” which are barely mentioned at all in the Bible). In other words, you are inaccurate in thinking yourself as being part of something that is not a “tradition.”

    Finally, might I suggest that in the future you spend a little time fixing grammatical errors before you post your comments? If you had done that, you might have corrected “your” to “you’re” — such elementary typographical errors tend to diminish the force of your arguments.

  14. Dan,

    Do you really think that concerns over overpopulation are the primary reason for low birthrates among Mainline Protestants and Unitarian Universalists? Most people who choose not to have children at all or have one-child families usually cite the freedom that being childfree (hence the term) brings in terms of being able to maintain adult interests. People who have 0-1 children because they want to have the freedom to remain avid travelers and restaurant-goers, or who raise their only children in spacious houses, don’t come off as deep green environmentalists to me.

    Anyway, many people who end up having small families often say they wish they could have more, but they didn’t have the time because it took them so long to finish their educations and establish themselves in their careers. Since UUs are a highly educated group, you would be on firmer ground if you cited UU educational attainment as a reason for low birthrates.

  15. Jacob, all I have is anecdotal evidence. Many people do not want to speak about their reasons for having whatever number of children they may have — and I suspect that for many of us, the reasons are complex, and not easy to summarize in a sound bite.

    But as a partner in a child-free couple myself, I have talked with other religiously liberal couples about their decisions to have or not have children. It’s my impression that overpopulation has come up on a regular basis, in such forms as “The world doesn’t need any more human beings.” Other things that I have heard from religious liberals: financial insecurity and/or lack of income; concerns about global climate change (linked to, but not the same as, concerns about overpopulation); from some persons, a feeling that they would not make good parents (e.g., persons with trauma or other psychological problems in their past); and many other reasons as well. And people may have more than one reason for not having children.

    Honestly, I have not heard any religiously liberal couples claim freedom to travel as a reason not to have children — amongst religious liberals, I am more convinced that moral concerns about overpopulation are the motivation for having few or no children than hedonism or selfishness. Nor have I heard anyone saying higher education delayed having children beyond their mid- to late twenties. I guess I’m just not convinced by your examples.

    I have heard well-educated women talk about how they felt the need to emphasize their careers until they were late in their child-bearing years — and that probably correlates with the higher educational attainment that you cite above — but the women I know best who say that also say they never wanted more than one or two children. But does more education cause women to want career advancement before having children? — or is it the other way around? Causation is tough to prove. So I’m not going to try to cite educational attainment as the cause of lower birth rates among religious liberals. And I know Unitarian Universalists with only a high school degree who feel committed to having only one or two children, which makes me more cautious about citing educational attainment as anything more than a correlate.

    I suspect that for many generations, there have been plenty of people who were at best ambivalent about having children — but economic necessity (needing cheap labor) and lack of access to birth control meant that in the past, many people found it difficult to act on their ambivalence. Mainline Protestants and Unitarian Universalists are comfortable using contraception, and that probably has a large effect on birth rates as a function of religious affiliation in the U.S. (As I recall, higher educational attainment also correlates with higher use of contraceptives, but even if that is true, once again correlation is not causation.)

    So — based on anecdotal evidence (which is notoriously unreliable) — I’m willing to go on believing that moral concerns about overpopulation do indeed convince many religious liberals to have fewer, or no, children. And I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but what you have said thus far doesn’t convince me.

  16. Dan,

    Thank you for your response. Since discovering your blog I’ve read a lot of your posts and enjoyed your thoughtfulness and earnestness. I am a different liberal religious group, but I can relate to your posts about shrinking congregations and low retention.

    I think/worry that there is something in the nature of liberal religion that creates low retention rates and low birthrates. Liberal faiths emphasize independent thinking, exploration of non-religious interests (or even other religions), and deny any exclusivity of theological correctness. Liberal faiths teach their children, but they don’t indoctrinate them.

    Kids raised in liberal religions thus question their parents’ beliefs and lifestyles more than kids raised in more traditionalist faiths. Even if they don’t consciously need to rebel against their parents, they may be so passionate about their non-religious interests (be it music, hiking, travel, soccer etc) that they have no time for organized religion. They might believe in Heaven, but since any good person can go to heaven they can be “spiritual, but not religious.”

    As kids raised in a secular lifestyle they never experienced the immense social capital that people enjoy in traditional, high-commitment faiths. For a person raised in evangelical Christianity or Orthodox Judaism to become secularized is a give up a very warm network of friends and nurturing sub-culture; for a child raised in Episcopalianism or Reform Judaism to become secularized is not much of a personal sacrifice. Is it any wonder that the most distinct groups, like the Amish and Hasidic Jews, have retention rates above 90%?

    Anyway, evidence for this is that the religious group with the lowest retention rate of all is Atheists. (only 30% of atheist children remain atheist adults. Of the defectors, only 20% become agnostics or Nones.) Atheists basically have no religious education (they confuse religious education with science) and have zero social cohesion. Perhaps humans are biologically hard-wired for faith and that works against atheist retention, but whatever the reasons, kids of atheists rarely want to be atheist adults.

    But, as we both know, liberal faiths have been dwindling not only because they tend not to retain young people, they also struggle because there are so few young people to begin with: the birthrate of all liberal faiths are way below replacement level.

    The birthrate question is more correlative than causative. The only causative factor I can think of is that the encouragement of individualism, finding one’s purpose, developing one’s talents means that for a many members of liberal religions, maintaining adult interests and advancing a career come before having a large family or even parenthood at all.

    Most of the factors are correlative though. Having a religion is a traditional value and religious people are more likely to hold other traditional values, including having their own families. When people hold traditional gender roles their families tend to be very large too.

    Again, atheists/Nones serve as a useful counterpoint, since they have the lowest birthrates of all. Even if a liberal religion has tenets that are considered heretical by the orthodox and welcomes non-conformists, joining any religion, including Unitarian Universalism, and going to worship, is still a traditional practice. If you are willing to throw it all away and be an atheist then you are willing to give up other irrational practices of your ancestors, including the irrationality of having children.

    Hence, very religious people have more children than moderately religious people, and moderately religious people have more children than the thoroughly secular and atheists. Although UUs, Mainline Protestants, Reform Jews etc have low birthrates, atheists and Nones have the lowest birthrates of all.

    I’m moving into more controversial territory here, but people who accept the obligations of religion may be more likely to accept the obligations of parenthood. Being a member of a religion denies one certain freedoms and imposes certain obligations, where the more religious a person is, the less freedom/more obligations he or she has. People who are able to make those sacrifices in lifestyle may be more willing to accept the burdens of having children.

    In summary, I think that the respect individualism inherent in liberal religion (and atheism/Nonism) may make liberal religions unsustainable in the long term. If not unsustainable, then certainly liberal religions are at a growth disadvantage relative to conservative, high-commitment ones. When, around 2040-2050, we wake up and read that there are more Amish than Presbyterians we should not be surprised.

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