Time to panic

According to a story released today on the UU World Web site, total membership in Unitarian Universalist congregations dropped again this year, from 164,196 members to 162,796 members. If I did my math right, this represents a drop of about 1.58%. (The story incorrectly states that these represent the numbers of adults, but some congregation allow legal minors to become full members; therefore, it is more accurate to simply say the number of members has dropped.)

Since U.S. population is growing at about 1% a year, that means Unitarian Universalism is shrinking even faster considered as a percentage of the total population. But there’s an even bigger reason to worry about the decline, because as UU World reports:

Registration in religious education programs fell for the fourth consecutive year. It dropped 2.1 percent to 54,671.

Religious education programs has been perhaps our most effective entry point for adults in their late 20s through early 40s — they bring their kids to Sunday school, then sometimes stick around after their kids grow up. Dropping religious education enrollments indicate that we are going to see dropping numbers of adults in the 25-45 age range.

If you’re not panicking yet, UU World also reports that:

Average Sunday attendance showed a decline for the first year, falling by 1,539 people. That’s a decline of 1.5 percent to 100,693 people.

A drop in Sunday attendance often precedes a decline in membership, since usually someone stops attending services months or even years before ending formal membership affiliation. The drop in attendance prompts me to predict that membership will continue to decline next year.

Why are we declining? I’d love to hear your comments first. I’ll summarize some of my thoughts on the matter tomorrow.

13 thoughts on “Time to panic”

  1. Denominationalism is a still powerful but clearly declining trend in North American religion. Most historic denominations are on the decline, and most of them of the UUA’s size and larger are not at danger of short-term extinction. There’s just so many other options out there both in terms of entertainment/distraction and in terms of other religious groups, and we’ve had three generations in a row that aren’t very institution-oriented nor wed to tradition for tradition’s sake. No matter how good your “product,” those are hard social forces to win against. It doesn’t help that UUism encourages constant seeking and makes few demands, aspects which make it likely that after darkening our doorways many folks will end up elsewhere on their journey.

  2. Dan,

    I think there’s plenty of reason for concern, but there are a couple of phenomena regarding data quality worth mentioning:

    * Congregations pay their UUA dues on a per-member basis. As annual fund pledging declines, a belt-tightening congregation has a strong incentive to go through its member database and purge it of people who haven’t been active in congregational life (or in some cases, actual biological life) for many years. Since a nationwide recession hits congregations nearly everywhere, the aggregate numbers at the UUA level will seem even more surprising.

    * When I worked in the LFD (formerly RE) dept at the UUA it was well-known that the RE enrollment numbers were ridiculously inaccurate, almost to the point of absurdity. Many congregations wouldn’t report it at all. Some congregations included adult RE enrollment. Some included youth as part of RE enrollment, some didn’t. Some congregations reported the exact same numbers every year for a decade. Looking at aggregate RE enrollment trends over a decade or two might filter out some of the noise and tell us something, but I wouldn’t give a one-year drop (or rise) too much weight.

    That said: I agree that our #1 source of growth in mid-to-large congregations is parents of young children who want their kids to have religion in their lives. If our RE programs aren’t running well, we won’t get the parents, either.

  3. I love UU. But my minister is out of touch and boring. When I joined my congregation, the Sunday services were 55-60 minutes in length, and the sermons including references to current affairs but also touched on psychological/philosophical/sociological questions or dilemmas and included advice for spiritual growth. Since September 2010, my new minister had made the services grow to be 90 minutes in length, including a 40 minute sermon by him. The sermons are terrible, unpolished, with no points, and no spiritual guidance. They are basically just him rambling about historical facts about American Unitarians and Protestants. And the opening words/meditations have become elitist and out of touch. In the 2009-2010 year, we had 14-16 “young adults” who attended regularly and love the congregation. By November, it was hard to catch 2-3 of us there. I have no attended since mid-February. Most of the others stayed away completely from January to Easter. The Easter service was enough to make 8 young adults tell me they’ll never go back. I’ve spoken diplomatically with our minister. I’ve told him about our concerns. I’ve directly pointed attention to the attrition of our young adults. And still, his sermons grew worse. My hope is that when I graduate university next year, I’ll end up in a different city in 2012 with a better minister.

  4. I agree with Jeff that there is a lot of secular competition these days – I know many families in our area that share our values, but fit the classic “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR)and just do other things with their weekends, and build community in other ways. If they were to join a religious community, it would be us, but they’re not going to.

    It’s sometimes a struggle for our family, too. We try to be in the outdoors as much as we can. When we’re not, we’re at church. I was raised UU, was deeply connected to my youth group and have a emotional connection to our faith.

    What would work for our non-church friends? Probably something like an outdoor adventure ministry. Ski trips, climbing, outdoor education plus spirituality for our kids, happening each weekend – a non-building based religious community. But they and we are largely doing that for ourselves already. Is there something that otherwise secular/SBNR families are yearning for but is not being provided by secular community, by schools, and but their local towns? I’m not sure. Can you think of something?

    Looking at our congregation, we’re down about 150 members over the last ten-twenty years. Part of that is because we’ve been taking a more realistic look at who our active members are. We’re losing our elders, and not replacing them at the same rate – it actually takes about 50 new members a year just to stay where we are. (That includes all attrition, not just deaths.)

    Our RE program and family ministry community feels pretty vibrant, but with about 120 kids, we’re around 100 fewer than we were 30 years ago. Part of this may be smaller families, but certainly there are fewer families as well.

    Maybe it’s time for another merger? UCC anyone? (UUUCC?)

  5. Ethan @ 2 — I’m glad you mentioned the forces driving congregations to drop members from the rolls — I think that’s very important myself.

    As for RE enrollment figures, yes, they are often wildly inaccurate — but RE enrollment has now been dropping steadily for several years, after more than two decades of steady increase.

    Modern Girl — Ouch. Hope you find a congregation that works for you. (Hey, if move out to the Bay area, come check out the Palo Alto church!)

    Paul — I like your idea of an outdoor adventure ministry. And I think it would be workable, and financially viable. Maybe I’ll write a post on that some time. In the mean time, check out the offerings of Ferry Beach Conference Center — I think there are some possibilities there, and I know that many people think of Ferry Beach as a primary or secondary affiliation with Unitarian Universalism.

  6. Ethan @ 2, Dan @ 5: I know that our reported membership figure will drop significantly by next year, due in part to taking better care with our data, and in part due to wanting to pay dues only for the members we actually have. However, no matter where that drop falls in the ten-year trend we looked at last night, it’s still a trend.

  7. You get what you pay for. Although it is responsive to demographic trends, RE for children has remained a staple because we staff it with independent professionals who by and large don’t face meddling from pulpit ministers and congregational boards of trustees. As a DRE in the late 1990s-early 00s, I had many colleagues who were given tremendous respect by the parish ministers as experts in a vital skill set using parallel skill sets. If we treated more areas of congregational life that way — including the marvelous idea of an outdoor ministry — we’d have a lot more members. This old “one size fits all” model of parish ministry is killing us, and it’s the denominations which share it, which are dying along with us.

  8. There is a lot of intolerance within our communities. Vitriol spews forth anytime the word “Republican” or “political conservative” is mentioned within UU circles. I even saw Libertarian bashing going on at the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth facebook page. The local UU church has an almost allergic reaction to the word “God” and most Sundays the sermons are little more than literary analysis (Seriously– Jung & Shakespeare and more).

    I belong in a UU community because I believe in the good of mankind. I believe in a “uni” or singular, mysterious god who may or may not have any care or interaction with Earth. I believe that all should be welcome who seek the truth and actively live for good.

    I belong. No matter that I am a politically fiscal conservative…and my fiscal conservatism trumps my social and religious liberalism because I feel like if our money isn’t managed correctly the other issues won’t matter because we will lose our ability to affect change in the world. No matter that I’m not afraid of the word god or Jesus or Buddha or Goddess. I belong.

    When we make enemies of so many, we end up making enemies of ourselves.

  9. Apparently most organized religions are declining in the US. I wonder why UUism is usually compared to mainstream churches such as the UCC or the Methodists. I would rather compare it to other marginal minority religions, such as Unity, or the Baha’is. Does anybody know how they are doing lately and if UUism differs significantly from similarly sized religious bodies?

  10. Jaume @ 9 — Probably the reason we’re often compared to mainline Protestant churches is that from a sociologist’s or demographer’s point of view, we look pretty much the same as mainline Protestant groups. However, the Pew Forum lists us under “Other Faiths”: see http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations

    As for numbers of other small groups…. ReligiousTolerance.org sorts through the numbers for Baha’is here, but it looks like there isn’t good enough data to indicate growth or decline. Neopaganism is assumed by most observers to be increasing, although the boundaries of neopaganism are very porous, and it’s hard to set up good criteria of who’s in and who isn’t. I can’t immediately find numbers on Unity, but as I recall they are tiny and getting smaller.

  11. My wife and I joined a UU church when our children were very small, and they all went through RE. We became more libertarian as the years went by, and we could no longer stand the bigotry and discrimination we felt from the intolerant Left who dominated the churches in our area (DC). When views we arrived at by careful thought and care for others were openly reviled by the minister, we walked out and never returned. I think many UU’s confuse liberal religion with the “liberal” political Left. I now consider myself a Unitarian in exile, and have been without a church community for a long 15 years. The UUA failed me.

  12. Individ, surely you do not mean to write “‘liberal’ political Left.” Liberals are not Leftists, and I know almost no Unitarian Universalists who are actual Leftists any more. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is dominated by political liberalism, as defined by the early 21st century Democratic party — but most U.S. Unitarian Universalists wholeheartedly support late capitalism, entrepreneurship, and free market ideals.

    As near as I can tell, Unitarian Universalism has always been politically centrist. A century ago, Unitarians were dominated by Republican politics, and up to fifty years ago most New England Unitarian congregations were solidly Republican. Now most Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by Democratic politics, although arguably that is because U.S. politics in general has slid to to right (remember Nixon instituting wage and price controls during the stagflation mess in the early 70s? — compare that to Obama’s approach to the recession of 2008), and I have heard it argued that now the Democrats occupy the political space once occupied by moderate Republicans.

    Political minorities have never been particularly welcome in Unitarian Universalism. I know of very few libertarians, anarchists, Greens, Reds, Pinks, etc., who feel comfortable in Unitarian Universalism.

  13. Frankly I had a life of toying with UUA, and each time I visited a local UUA group there was some issue ending it. In the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, the local group I visited hasn’t comfortable with out LGBT people. It seems that it is now. I did spend about a year and half with another, and experienced a group that had some crisis over its pagan group. The details – I never understood fully, but that had an influence in me leaving. However – I found the whole group rather cold and ‘phony’ about issues. When the issue was talked about it was good as theory. When it became something of actual interaction, people became less supportive. It was airy, and the actual showed persons who were not open or even ‘real’. And what was ‘real’ tended to be rude. Frankly, these issues of being open lead to the sense of vague on details. Their have no structure or meaning, and no individual is expected anything. The one thing that can be expected is that the person (s) most on the ‘in’ of the group will be supported. Don’t look for justice or even honestly with a UU group. It won’t happen.

    What is a source of concern – the new discussion of sexual abuse within UUA. Be very scared – very scared. With how issues are handled, this ought to create some real terrors.

    So yes – membership is dropping. Church in general is dropping for the modern world, but why would be different for the UUA? One video I saw has haunted me. A woman (probably a minister) was speaking about a UU church, and that it lacked words on why it was so wonderful. Really? Words seem to be in no shortage for the UUA. Maybe – there came no words to her, because the truth would have words that don’t work in a ad.

    As for me, I will never try UU again, and for myself – I know the reason. The UUA is not a place for truth and honestly. If you not ‘liked’ – you are out, but we will accept your money. Some church….

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