“The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism”

Here’s a link to an important paper by Rev. Christana Wille-McKnight on how few of our Unitarian Universalist children and youth we retain once they grow up — “The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism.” Here’s the first paragraph of the paper, to get you interested:

Over the last 40 years, Unitarian Universalism has emerged as a transformative movement in the United States. Our denomination has become a haven for people from a variety of faith backgrounds, well regarded for its acceptance of people regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental ability. Despite our success in welcoming people from other faiths into the Unitarian Universalist fold, we have not been as successful retaining as adult members people who have been raised from childhood as Unitarian Universalists. The cost of losing so many of the adult children that are raised in our faith is staggering….

This is for participants in the Renaissance module on ministry with youth that I am co-leading with Betty-Jeanne Rueters-Ward at Ferry Beach this week. Christana is now working on a UU church start in Norton, Massachusetts.

5 thoughts on ““The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism””

  1. We mustn’t beat ourselves up too much about this — UUs are no worse (or better) than other denominations. IMO, it’s indicative of a shift in the culture, rather than some institutional failing. I blame media overload, replacement of cultural obligations with unlimited alternative choices (in almost every aspect of life), youth-oriented marketing and its attendant cultivated alienation.

    A search on “church youth retention” yields lots of interesting reading.

    But here’s another take on why fundamentalist churches have higher retention rates than “mainline” churches: http://ordealbymoleskine.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/mainline-youth/

    Do the ends in fact justify the means? And if not, should we wring our hands if we don’t get the results we want by using ethical means?

  2. I’ve often thought that UUs fall into two groups, using an educational paradigm. Being a religion of learning and discovery, the first group is those who Learned and Discovered. They then graduate, often never to be heard from again.

    The second group are the slow learners. They’re doomed to taking their classes over and over again.

    I’m guessing that not everyone is going to buy into this model, but it has a bit of truth to me.

  3. How do we compare to other denominations and associations? It is us, or is it religious institutions as a whole?

    My guess would be that Mormons and Jews are among the highest retainers, and otherwise that everyone else falls in the same low range, including us.

    Any idea?

  4. Vance @ 1 and Paul @ 3 — REad Christana’s paper, and you’ll see that Unitarian Unviersalists do much worse than other denominations. Our closest church cousins, the United Church of Christ, retain 48% of people who grew up in the faith, as opposed to less than 15% for Unitarian Universalists.

    Paul @ 2 — Yes, I think your model is a fairly accurate description of where we are. However, as someone who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, what I have found is that if you reframe things, the process of learning and discovery can continue for at least half a century — and for my mother who was raised Unitarian, the process continued until she died.

    Some of us like a spiral model of learning — you can spiral back to the same topic at different stages on your life journey, and that same topic can be quite new, allowing for new discovery each time you encounter it. So if we reframe our educational paradigm from a linear, unidirectional model, to a spiral or web, or a circling around and getting nearer and farther from a center (Gabriel Moran’s model) — then we could conceive of welcoming newcomers and retaining lifelong UUs within the same paradigm. This is one serious problem with the UUA’s adoption of a faith development paradigm for its religious education programs — faith development tends to push us towards a linear model.

  5. Having grown up UU, and having worked for the last decade and a half in just about every strata of our faith, UUA district staff, GAPC, congregational board, I have to say, there are many days when there’s only one reason I stay:

    UUism is the worst form of faith, Except for all the others.

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