The UU year in review: 2021

Wow. It’s been a year of change. As 2021 winds down, I’ll briefly summarize the changes I’ve seen in Unitarian Universalist congregations — some positive, some not so positive, some neutral.


(A) Enrollments of children and teens appear to be falling precipitously. We don’t yet have official numbers from the year-end certification count, but I’m estimating declines of 33% to 100% across the board.

(B) Adult membership also appears to be falling in most congregations, though the declines are not as steep.

(C) There appear to be many fewer newcomers in most congregations. The lack of newcomers probably accounts for about half of the decline in adult membership. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have an annual turnover rate of 10-25% (due to moving away, death, lack of interest, etc.), and depend on a steady stream of newcomers to maintain stable membership.

(D) From what I can tell, most congregations saw a decline in revenues this year. The decline can be attributed to the general decline in membership, loss of other revenue streams such as rentals, and the end of the federal Payroll Protection Plan.

(E) I’d say that more peripheral people have gotten out of the habit of occasional participation in the life of the congregation. It’s still too soon to know if they’ll ever come back, but I’m not hopeful.

(F) This past year saw an epidemic of clergy resignations. In the spring, the Unitarian Universalist Association was begging ministers to come out of retirement to fill all the interim ministry positions. By all accounts, this past year saw a shortage of ministers.


(G) I expected more resignations by other (non-clergy) paid staffers in UU congregations this past year. But so far I’m not seeing evidence that that happened. This may be because so many other paid staffers are part timers, meaning they weren’t exposed to as much stress as full-time ministers. Or it could be that the resignations happened, but they’ve been less visible than minister resignations.


(H) Online adult religious education classes have proved to be more popular than in-person classes in some congregations. The convenience of attending a class while sitting comfortably at home turns out to be quite attractive to many.

(I) Moving online apparently has worked for many (not all) support groups, again due to the convenience.

(J) Congregations have adopted digital giving tools, to the pleasure of most people under the age of 50.

(K) Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed good to excellent online services. Online services have proved so successful that most of the congregations I know of plan to continue multi-platform services (i.e., combined online and in-person services) after the pandemic is over.

(L) Online does not work for everything. And most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed safe ways of having at least some in-person programs.


In a time of great change, it’s easy to get despondent, just because change can be so disorienting. But I have to say I’m feeling mostly optimistic. In a follow-up post, I’ll have more to say about how I believe we can address the not-so-positive changes productively.

But the positive aspects of this year of change are very positive. Even though our primary “product” continues to be in-person connections, it’s also good to be able to expand the ways we can connect with our congregations, by adding multi-platform services, online classes, and digital giving.

White Christmas

This morning, I went for a walk up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was expecting showers, and forecast warned me there might even be thunderstorms. But I was not expecting hail.

Hail covering the ground, with green leaves of Frangaria species emerging from the hail

In places, the tiny hailstones covered the ground, looking so much like snow that I decided it was a white Christmas — just like the ones we used to have at home.

About an eighth of an inch of hail accumlated on the rear windshield of a car

I was wary of driving down winding, twisty mountain roads covered with a quarter of an inch of hail stones. But I watched other cars drive by without any trouble, and decided to try. The driving wasn’t that bad — after about five minutes I got below 1500 feet elevation, and the roads were clear of hail.

Fishy carols

Peter Kasin, the coordinator of the monthly sea chantey singing from San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, sent out a holiday greeting filled with fish puns.

I love fish puns. Even though they give some people a haddock, and other people carp about them, and still others say that puns are crappie — I love fish puns.

What I liked best about Peter Kasin’s fish-pun-laden holiday greeting were the fishy Christmas carols: “Cod Rest Ye Moray, Gentlemenhaden,” “Shark, the Herring Angelfish Sing,” and “Koi to the World.”

I trout you can come up with any more fishy carols….

Scrooge would have loved omicron

Scrooge famously said: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

The omicron strain of COVID-19 is acting like Scrooge. If you go wish your family ‘Merry Christmas’ in person, you could wind up with omicron in your lungs. Bah humbug.

A month ago, we started planning in-person services for Christmas Eve. But as of today, it looks like we’re going to be moving to online-only for Christmas Eve. Omicron is present here in Santa Clara County. Omicron doubles every 2-4 days (depending on who you listen to). Vaccinated and boostered people are getting omicron. Everyone is expecting a major surge by mid-January. So in-person indoors meetings are most definitely Not A Good Idea. Bah humbug indeed.

I had been looking forward to seeing people in person on Christmas Eve — especially college students, many of whom come home for winter breaks. But honestly I’m relieved that we’re not going to have in-person services. I admit it — I don’t like the looks of omicron.

So — see you online….

Winter holiday songs

A few years ago, I started working on a book of songs and carols for winter holidays, pitched for medium voices (most Christmas carols are pitched for sopranos and tenors), arranged on simple lead sheets. I had to abandon the project because life got in the way. Someday maybe I’ll finish the book, but in the mean time to help you celebrate Yule and Christmas, here are three of the completed lead sheets: “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” transcribed from a 1942 Library of Congress recording; “A Christmas Caroll” by Thomas Ravenscroft; and “The Cutty Wren,” one of those songs about the weird winter tradition of the hunting of the wren.

Yeah, I know it’s still unsafe to sing in large groups, but you can sing these at home.


I apologize for the brief blog outage. My indefatigable web host moved this website onto a more secure server with additional hardening against attackers, and some minor glitches happened. That’s the price we pay for website security these days. (Some day maybe I’ll convert this entire site to static HTML, which would reduce energy consumption as well as making the site more secure….)

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925

Part Five of a history I’m writing, telling the story of Unitarians in Palo Alto from the founding of the town in 1891 up to the dissolution of the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in 1934. If you want the footnotes, you’ll have to wait until the print version of this history comes out in the spring of 2022.

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four

A Fresh Start, 1921-1925

In November, 1921, Elmo Arnold Robinson, known as “Robbie,” arrived at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto with his wife Olga and sons Kelsey, who was 9 months old, and Arnold, almost 5 years old. Robbie, ordained as a Universalist minister, had lots of experience in small congregations, plus he had just finished a two-year stint as the Director of Religious Education at a church in southern California. Olga was also licensed as a Universalist minister, although her time was taken up with her small children. It’s hard to imagine that the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto could have found a better match for their needs.

Not much happened in Robinson’s first year, except that Sunday school enrollment dropped still further. Emma Rendtorff had been the superintendent of the Sunday school in the 1920-1921 school year, and Sunday school enrollment crept back up to 31 children, but that was Emma’s last year as superintendent; her daughter Gertrude entered Stanford University in the fall of 1921, so Emma was no longer quite so invested in the Sunday school. In 1921-1922, Elmo Robinson’s first year, the church went through three Sunday school superintendents: Jessie Morton, who was William H. Carruth’s mother-in-law; William Ewert, a student at Stanford University; and Frank Gonzales, another Stanford student who served the longest of the three. With all that turnover, it’s not surprising that enrollment in the Sunday school dropped to 20, probably the lowest enrollment since 1908.

But Elmo Robinson had already turned his thoughts to religious education. In the summer of 1922, his essay “The Place of the Child in the Religious Education Community” was published in the Pacific Unitarian. This essay outlined a progressive philosophy of religious education that was tied to social reform:

“Every religious community believes that the future can be made better than the present. Every church, while cherishing certain ideals and methods of the past, must fire its young people with a vision of the future which will encourage them to devise new ways and means to realize it. Do you want world peace? World justice? The cooperative commonwealth?… All these things can be accomplished only by admitting children and young people to the full fellowship of the religious community as friends….”

Presumably, this essay repeated what had already been going on in the Palo Alto church. Bertha Chapman Cady was one of the teachers in the Sunday school in 1921-1922, and she involved the children in helping to run the class; one of her daughters, for example, became the class secretary. Children were becoming fully involved into the religious community of the church. The lay leaders seem to have found his vision a compelling one. The next school year, 1922-1923, the charismatic William Carruth agreed to be the superintendent of the Sunday school, and enrollment immediately shot up to 33 children.

Continue reading “Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1921-1925”

“Rigid methodologically”

In a 2004 interview with Christian Century magazine, progressive evangelical Brian McLaren compared conservative evangelical Christians with more progressive Christians:

“[Religious] conservatives tend to be rigid theologically and promiscuous pragmatically and [religious] liberals tend to be rigid methodologically and a lot more free theologically ….”

Although McLaren wasn’t talking about Unitarian Universalists (he probably doesn’t know we exist), what he says applies to us: we are indeed free theologically, but rigid methodologically. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be a little more “pragmatically promiscuous”….