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UUA membership declines for second year

Numbers show slight decline, less than Mainline Protestant churches.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.12.10

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Harlan Limpert

The Rev. Harlan Limpert (Nancy Pierce)

Adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States has declined for the second consecutive year following many years of positive though nearly flat growth. Enrollment in children’s religious education programs also dropped this year, continuing a slow decline that began in 2002.

A year ago UUA membership declined by 132 members for a total of 156,015 adult members. This year membership dropped 267, a decline of .16 percent. Total adult membership this year is 155,748.

The numbers for both years are based on data submitted by congregations by February 28.

In the five years prior to last year the UUA’s adult membership in the United States increased every year. The amount of increase has ranged from a low of 851 to a high of 1,812.

In the UUA’s five regions, membership was flat—up or down by less than one percent in every region. Religious education enrollment dropped 1,262, for a total of 55,846 children and youth this year. A year ago it dropped 809. In 2002 it was 60,895.

Average Sunday attendance, a number the UUA began collecting in 2002, declined 396, after rising in each of the three previous years. Congregations reported 102,232 people attending services and RE on Sundays on average. The decline is almost four-tenths of one percent. The number of UU congregations held steady this year at 1,048, up 14 from a decade ago.

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support, said that not a lot can be deduced from the small drops in membership in the past two years. “We’re really holding our own, which is no small thing. After 20 years or more of small but steady growth we’ve gone down by a hair two years in a row. We hear anecdotally that in difficult economic times congregations do trim their membership rolls as a way to save money.” (Congregations pay an annual “Fair Share” amount to the UUA for each of their members.) Limpert said he suspected that some people might be delaying joining congregations in order to also postpone the commitment of pledging in the current economic climate.

Limpert said about half of our congregations are growing and half are shrinking. “When you look at the congregations that are growing, it’s neither urban nor suburban, big or small, it’s all size congregations. What we know is there is a real desire and need for what we offer, but we have to offer it in a way that’s accessible to people."

He called the RE decline “the most depressing of all numbers. If we don’t have more young people our future doesn’t look too bright.”

Many Protestant denominations also reported declines this year, including the Southern Baptist Convention, -.24 percent; United Methodist Church, -.98 percent; Episcopal Church -2.81; and United Church of Christ -2.93. Five denominations reported increases. Jehovah’s Witnesses is up 2 percent, Church of God 1.78, Latter-day Saints 1.71, Assemblies of God 1.71, and Roman Catholic Church 1.49. These figures are from the National Council of Churches 2010 yearbook.

The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, the UUA’s director for Large Congregations, did an analysis of the numbers reported by congregations of 350 members or more. He found that the UUA’s five congregations that have 1,000 members or more grew the most—gaining 2.7 percent in membership. All other categories of our largest congregations grew by less than one percent or declined. The greatest declines were for congregations of 550 to 649—down 2.2 percent, and those 450 to 549—down 2.4 percent. Overall the 96 congregations that Jonasson analyzed declined in membership by a tenth of one percent—losing 70 members from a total of around 55,000.

The drop in adult membership reported this year for last year is at variance with the number reported by UU World last year. In our story last year we reported that adult membership had actually increased by 28 in the United States. Limpert explained the difference by noting that starting this year, the UUA is calculating membership numbers based on the number of members reported by congregations as of the last day of February. Previously the tally was made as of February 1, the date that congregations have to report membership in order to certify delegates for General Assembly. The extra month includes those congregations that report later in the month. Some congregations also update their numbers several times a year. In those cases the most recent number is used.

UUA President Peter Morales, in a report to be presented to the UUA Board of Trustees in April, calls the membership and religious education declines “troubling.” He wrote, “The modest growth we have enjoyed for a generation has stopped. The number of children in our religious education programs is declining. Where our faith was once strongest it is now in steady decline.”

In his report he lays out five steps to counter these trends:

  • Create and sustain a sense of urgency “based on a shared vision of what is possible for our movement.” He cautions: “Urgency is not panic. Urgency is a sense that we can and must change if we are to create the congregations and movement we seek.”

  • Stimulate growth by learning from our growing congregations.

  • Focus on improving ministerial quality and diversity.

  • Help congregations become engaged in social justice work in their own communities.

  • Use social media to break down barriers among congregations and to reach out to seekers.

Morales concludes his report, “These are challenging times filled with possibility and peril. In order to move toward the realization of our shared ends, the very culture of Unitarian Universalism must change . . . . If we are to thrive, we must reframe our past as a story of a people who saw new possibilities in every age and who embraced those possibilities.”


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