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.