What’s in store for UUs in 2021?

My crystal ball is cloudy, so once again I’m unable to predict the future with any accuracy, but I have some guesses about what the new year has in store for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

(1) The pandemic will continue to affect Unitarian Universalist congregations through summer, 2021. Dr. Fauci says we’ll see widespread roll-out of the vaccine by May, but not only will there still be plenty of unvaccinated people in June, most Unitarian Universalist congregations will be heading in to their summer slow-down. And I’m expecting a big slow-down this summer for many congregations. Making the transition back to in-person worship and programs is not going to be easy, as staff and volunteers have to be mobilized in different ways. Key volunteers and staff are also likely to feel a little burned out, and will want some down time in the summer. I’m betting most Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t make a full transition back to in-person worship and programs until September.

And when congregations do return to in-person worship and programs, how many people will come back? On the one hand, people will be eager to see their old friends again face to face. On the other hand, we’ve all slipped in to now routines and habit; how many people will take the time to get up, get dressed, and drive to their congregation, when for the past year and a half all they had to do to attend worship was roll out of bed and turn on the computer?

So I predict we’re never going back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I’m not willing to guess what the future holds.

(2) Money will be tight. Financially, I’m expecting the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations will be in worse shape after the pandemic than they were before the pandemic. Many congregations that own buildings depend on rental income to some extent, and a year and a half with reduced rental income will wreak havoc with budgets. All congregations will doubtless experience some reduction in income due to the depressed economy. For congregations with staff, I’m expecting staff cuts, layoffs, and/or salary reductions.

For staff, this has the potential to get ugly. Some hypothetical scenarios: Instead of seeing their position get slashed to part time, parish ministers will convince congregations to cut religious educators and administrators instead; good potential for inter-staff conflict here. Employees will watch their benefits erode; potential for conflict between staff and lay leaders here. Custodial staff will get laid off, and contracted cleaning services brought in to partially replace them; the loss of hands-on services provided by dedicated custodians could prompt conflict between lay leaders and members of the congregation.

So I predict we’ll see cuts in programs and services, along with an associated increase in the number of congregations in conflict.

(3) Generational conflict looms. Baby Boomers (my generation) have been running most Unitarian Universalist congregations for the past decade or two, after they took over power from the G.I. Generation. It’s been a good run for the Baby Boomers, but increasingly I’m seeing the Millennials questioning the way things get done in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Here are two obvious ways to question the Baby Boomer way of doing things: We all have a growing awareness of just how white our congregations are, and the old familiar answer we Baby Boomers gave for years — “There are so few people of color who live near our church” — just doesn’t seem adequate any more. We Baby Boomers have been dragging their feet about livestreaming worship services and other programs, and now that we’re all livestreaming it’s become obvious just how backwards we were.

Here’s a less obvious way we should all be questioning the Baby Boomer way of running our congregations: We Baby Boomers watched as second-wave feminism reshaped big chunks of American society. Unitarian Universalism got radically reshaped by second-wave feminism — with the seven principles and the flaming chalice and two new hymnals — and we Boomers were right in the thick of that reshaping. But now we’re all beginning to realize that second-wave feminism, while admirable in many ways, was also an elitist movement driven by a myth of hyper-individualism and a racist movement that left out women of color. We’re also beginning to realize that second-wave feminism sometimes has transphobic tendencies.

Will we Boomers be able to address the deep flaws of second-wave feminism? Given how defensive we are as a generation, I have my doubts. I’m looking to an alliance between Gen X and the Millennials to find creative, productive ways to move forward. But given how we Boomers cling to power (e.g., every U.S. president since 1992 has been a Boomer), I’m not expecting that the creative solutions proposed by the Millennials and the Gen Xers will suffer from either passive or active resistance by us Boomers.

No prediction here; in my view, this is a long-term trend to keep an eye on.

(4) The number of children and youth will continue to drop in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. The number of UU kids has been dropping steadily since 2005; and denominational and district/regional staffing and support for children’s programming has been dropping over the same time period. As children and youth programs shrink, congregations feel justified in cutting funding, leading to a nice strong feedback loop. Pandemic-induced budget cuts will only accelerate this trend.

There’s a bigger problem here. Families today want more options for their kids. Because of this, one-size-fits all programs are a non-starter. Yet that’s what Unitarian Universalist congregations mostly offer: one-size-fits-all programs for kids. The “conservative” congregations offer Sunday school, the “progressive” congregations offer intergenerational worship; but really both these approaches are hopelessly conservative, because they’re both the kind of one-size-fits all program that worked in the 1990s, but won’t work today. If we don’t offer choice in programming, fewer families will bother to show up.

So I predict the number of Unitarian Universalist children and youth will decline even more steeply over the next couple of years.

(5) Livestreaming worship services will continue. This is my only positive prediction this year: most congregations are going to keep livestreaming once the pandemic is over, and that has the potential for extending the reach of Unitarian Universalist in some really interesting ways.

I predict that congregations that devote some serious effort to continuing and improving livestreaming of worship and programs are going to reap major — but unpredictable- benefits.

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