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Half empty or half full

Reporting on growth efforts.
By William G. Sinkford
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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It seems like everyone is talking about the growth of Unitarian Universalism. Many are gratified that our numbers have grown consistently now for twenty years. The congregational membership numbers submitted this spring show a 1.2-percent increase over a year earlier.

Others see recent annual growth rates, averaging about 1 percent, as minuscule and forecast the demise of this faith that we love. The United States population is growing faster than we are, and therefore we are a shrinking proportion of the population.

Is the Unitarian Universalist glass half empty or half full?

In part, of course, it is a question of numbers. If our reported annual growth were in the 5-percent range no one would doubt the vitality of our faith. Or if our numbers were actually declining, we would all be wringing our hands and wondering where our children would find a welcoming religious home.

But the conversations about growth go well beyond the numbers to questions of why our numerical growth is so small. We all know how our liberal faith nurtures and supports our spirits. We believe and say that our congregations are friendly places. We believe that there are tens of thousands of persons "out there" who yearn for what we find week after week.

So what are we doing wrong? Does our great strength, our commitment to freedom of belief and the religious pluralism that naturally follows, leave us without a coherent center? Does the unwillingness of many of our congregations to use traditional religious language leave too many visitors unfed? Do our congregations mistake the friendliness they experience among themselves for a ministry that truly welcomes the stranger? Has the Association staff invested too much time (and money) pursuing ineffective strategies?

This column is far too short to attempt answers to all of these questions. But I can tell you that in the last four years, we've been trying new things. The Uncommon Denomination advertising test in the Kansas City area in 2003 has fueled membership growth totaling more than 20 percent there. More important, we learned so much. Friendly does not equal welcoming. Keeping track of numbers makes a difference. And keeping in contact with visitors is even more important.

As I write, Houston-area congregations are completing a campaign, and in San Diego, a different campaign is "on the air." Advertising will begin in Dallas/Fort Worth in a few weeks. The UUA is partnering with congregations in other metropolitan areas and clusters to support innovative growth strategies. The experimental new church north of Dallas and Fort Worth is up and running, aiming to grow fast into a major congregation. Other major new starts are in planning.

Will these initiatives allow us to break through to the higher levels of growth we need to strengthen our vitality and presence in the national religious landscape? The initiatives will help but they can't do the job alone. Happily, we have other resources: congregations that have broken through to sustained growth, from which we all can learn. They come in large, medium, and small sizes, from every region of the country. They have found a way to do Unitarian Universalist church in which growth is not only possible, but planned for, welcomed, and nurtured.

We'll be showcasing four of these congregations at the Fort Worth General Assembly, not in a small workshop, but before the entire Assembly. Yes, General Assembly, this year, will focus on congregations, especially those whose ministry has broken through to new levels. Because for the most part it is not the wisdom of experts nor the consultation of staff that motivate congregations to have a change of heart. It is the lived experience of other congregations in our faith.

Is the Unitarian Universalist glass half empty or half full? Only time will tell, of course. What I can tell you is that the UUA staff and I, rather than covering the glass to prevent evaporation, are on the lookout for water. And we are finding abundant sources right in our midst.

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