Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


The UU Religious Landscape: Growth and Decline in the UUA

More about growth, decline (and neither) in UUA congregations.

Size of congregation and recent growth and decline.

Our average congregation has 148 members.  That’s up by 4 people since 1998, but down by 3 from 2007.   That’s a resilient size number for many organizations, and we have many of them with about that many members. Yet as an average, it includes many churches with fewer than 100 members and a handful of those with 300, 400, 500, and just a few with 800-1,000 members.

Congregations send certified membership numbers to the UUA every January.

From 2011 to 2012, 28% of our congregations reported growth in membership of 3% or more.  Yet 33% reported a membership decline of 3% or more.  Most of the growth was in larger, program-oriented congregations.  The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, the UUA’s Director of Growth Strategy,said in the UU World that our recent losses are not indicative of much, but are more like “nibbling around the edges.”  Our gains, he said, may reflect only that a few members invited their friends to go to church with them, and some have joined.  I might add that our elders are sturdy people, by and large, and Medicare means that all of them have health coverage, so we have not had a major drop off in members, even though every year we do bid a prayerful goodbye to some of our beloved ones.  But our average ages are usually higher than that of our local communities.

Looking for a minister:  What the marketing documents show.

A quick study of the Congregational Records posted online by Unitarian Universalist search committees from congregations now looking for a new minister shows many vital UU faith communities.  Yet most of them have fewer members now than they did 20 or 30 years ago.  Many of them have 150 members or fewer.  Many of them are offering only 3/4 time ministry positions, even 1/2 time positions. [Such congregational search documents are visible only to credentialed UU ministers, not the general public.  It’s like computer dating.]

The histories depicted in some Congregational Records show a pattern of short-lived ministries:  clergy come and go every few years.  This may be an acceptable dynamic for some congregations, and no reason to panic.  They may realize that in their location and economic context, they will be a “first ministry” for a series of eager, energetic newly minted ministers, and feel okay with that.  Or they may enjoy a long-term but casual relationship with a 1/4 time minister who is past retirement age but happy to spend one weekend a month leading worship, holding pastoral meetings, or facilitating a board retreat.

Others may still be seeking the “right match,” the candidate that will love them and lead them to new days of glory.  Such hopes, when not met, can be costly.  That is, it can cost as much as  $10,000 to move a minister’s household across the continent, after spending almost as much to do a continent-wide search for a minister (with travel and lodging for the 3 or 4 preliminary candidates, plus the cost of focus groups, surveys, consultants, congregational marketing packets).

Next posting will cover more of the “driving forces” affecting congregational life and ministries in the coming decade.

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