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UUA membership and attendance declined in 2011

Over last decade, membership has increased, but religious education enrollment is dropping.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
5.21.12

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UUA Vice President for Ministries and Congregational SupportHarlan Limpert

"About 40 percent of our congregations are growing and growing quite significantly," said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support. (Nancy Pierce)

Over the last year, membership in Unitarian Universalist Association congregations and attendance at Sunday services dipped slightly, although over the last decade, membership has risen 3.1 percent and the number of UUA congregations has increased.

Enrollment in religious education programs, however, declined for the fifth year in a row, and is down 11.2 percent over the past 10 years.

UUA membership as of February 2012 was 161,502, down from 162,796 in February 2011. The highest membership figure in the past 10 years was in 2008, when UUA congregations reported membership of 164,505.

The number of congregations affiliated with the UUA grew from 1,046 in 2011 to 1,054 this year. Ten years ago, the UUA had 1,038 member congregations, a net change of 1.5 percent.

Attendance at services dipped to 98,483 in 2012, compared to 100,693 in 2011. The UUA began tracking attendance numbers in 2006, when congregations reported an average attendance of 80,937. There have been gains since then, with a peak attendance number of 102,628 in 2009.

Enrollment in religious education programs dropped to 53,776 in 2012, down from 54,671 in 2011. Ten years ago, 60,540 people were enrolled in RE programs.

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s vice president for Ministries and Congregational Support, said that he finds the numbers challenging. “We have seen modest increases in membership almost every year for the past 20 years until the last few years, while other denominations have been decreasing,” he said. “It is concerning that we have first stabilized and are decreasing modestly. It challenges all of us to explore how we remain relevant in American culture as a religious movement.”

Nationally, membership in mainline Protestant churches has been on the decline. According to the National Council of Churches, membership fell last year in the United Church of Christ (2.83 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (2.61 percent), the Episcopal Church (2.48 percent), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1.96 percent), the American Baptist Churches USA (1.55 percent), the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) (1.08 percent), and the United Methodist Church (1.01 percent).

Limpert called the decline in religious education enrollment a “discouraging sign.” “It probably reflects the fact that attendance at churches is in decline throughout America,” he said.

Limpert said he was not troubled by the declining attendance figures, calling the numbers somewhat unreliable. They are based on figures reported by congregations that average weekly attendance over a year.

Overall, Limpert said the UUA is shifting its focus from counting members and attendance to how many people are served by congregations. “We speculate that there are more people who are choosing to not physically attend church, but are listening to sermons online,” via podcast or video, he said. “We don’t know how to measure that.” He also noted that many congregations provide services and support to people in their communities who are not counted on the membership rolls. Expanding services to people not counted as members is a focus of the UUA’s Congregations and Beyond initiative.

Membership grew in some UUA districts, including the Florida District, Joseph Priestley District, Mountain Desert District, Ohio Meadville District, and Pacific Northwest District. The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, director of Growth Strategies and Large Congregation Development, cautioned about drawing too many inferences from the district growth data. “The changes are incremental,” he said. “It’s hard to say there’s a huge swing in a particular region or a particular decline in a region. Where we have declines we’re being nibbled away at, and where we’re having increases it’s of the magnitude of where two or three people invite their friends to church.”

Jonasson analyzed membership data on the UUA’s Growing Unitarian Universalism blog. He noted that small numerical changes were not significant, and that a 3 percent change is a good benchmark for comparing annual fluctuations on a congregational level. He identified several trends within congregations:

  • The average size of a UU congregation’s adult membership is 148. That is down from a peak of 151 in 2007, but higher than the baseline figure of 144 in 1998.
  • Annual increases in adult membership exceeding 3 percent were reported by 28.2 percent of congregations in 2012. During the same period, 32.9 percent of congregations reported declines in excess of 3 percent.
  • Declines of more than 3 percent were most common in fellowships with 60 or fewer members and in midsize churches of 161 to 300 members.
  • Growth exceeding 3 percent was most common in large program churches of between 401 and 600 members.

Looking at decade-long trends, Jonasson found that 22 percent of congregations have declined in adult membership by more than 20 percent over the past decade. And 37.8 percent of large churches, with more than 550 members, reported increases in adult membership exceeding 20 percent during the last decade, followed by small churches, at 29.1 percent.

“About 40 percent of our congregations are growing and growing quite significantly,” said Limpert. “We can identify what it is that is helping them grow: it is a clear mission, vital worship, relevant programming, and an outward orientation.”

Jonasson said that growing congregations share three things. The first is clarity about their mission. The second is “a willingness to admit that we actually do have a doctrine,” he said. “We may be non-creedal, but we have teachings.” The third is generosity of members in supporting the congregation in terms of financial resources and time and energy. Members of those successful congregations provide the resources they need to make a difference, Jonasson said. “It’s the classic time, treasure, and talent.”

Limpert said that to grow, congregations must maintain an outward focus and remain relevant to members and the community at large. “We have to ensure we are engaging others and are avoiding simply being a club.”

Jonasson agreed, adding that for a congregation to grow, it must express “a sincere love of people and a warm welcome for them. To that extent, hospitality is part of our doctrine.”

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