Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

Principles under construction — somehow it seems fitting.

I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.

So when released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.

I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group.  But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.

What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.

But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.

And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?

Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway.  Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.

And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.

I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.

But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans.  I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.

Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.


For more on the principles:

28 thoughts on “Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

  1. I don’t have the answer either, but I think we worry too much about defining our beliefs and not enough about looking at the culture of church. I know a lot of folks in the “none” camp as far as religion goes, and they love the Idea of the UU church. They just don’t have a culture of going to church, and they want to sleep in and read the paper on Sunday mornings. So the question for them is, “what would I get by being part of a church community that I don’t get on my own?”.

    • Sara, I agree that the absence of a culture of church on Sunday morning works against us. I’ve been in meetings where that challenge is batted around. How do we bring people in who don’t want a traditional Sunday-morning experience? The Sunday morning model an old one, and it seems growth as a denomination will mean moving beyond Sunday morning.

  2. I feel like the numbers are out there, ready for taking, if we knew how. My husband and I both say that we’ve been UUs our whole life but only recently realized. Mostly, I think there is just a lack of publicity. Had I even heard of it early, I would have joined much sooner. More publicity and social networking might help get the younger generation.

    I also think congregations need to work harder to not make certain kinds of people feel marginalized. And, whatever we can do to encourage younger couples and those with kids to stick around will be important. Other religions have the child rearing to help bring in the next generation of congregants.

    • More younger couples and those would kids would be delightful. I adore and appreciate our more wizened members of the congregation, but the lack of new families saddens me. Keeping young people is another struggle, although we’re not alone in losing members through college and early adulthood.

  3. I believe that Unitarian Universalism will always be a minority church. One reason is that it demands more of its adherents than other churches. Christians have bought into a package deal. The Bible has all the answers for them. UUs don’t have the answers and we believe that the answers will never be known because they don’t exist. To be a UU, a person must be able to live with uncertainty, and that can be very scary.

    I wish I knew what can be done to bring new people into our churches. I think that publicity will at least give us some name recognition. But we will only appeal to those who realize that the certainty they think they found in other churches is a mirage.

  4. As a friend of your minister, and as the minister of a very small UU church ( always struggling for more members) in New Hampshire (membership of about 15) the question you raise is always on my mind. The UU church offers no easy way out of the hard work it takes to find one’s own path. Anyone coming our way needs to want what we have to offer, because short of our principles, we offer little that can not be found in other ways. And when we then urge people to love nature and their neighbor and to focus on justice, our members become distracted by those things that they find along their path that satisfy their longings for deeper spiritual commitment. Kind of a double edged sword.

    It is not the church or the religion that will attract new members, nor is it your minister (though you have a powerhouse)–it is the people. Other faiths are successful because everyone believes in the same thing–UU’s do as well; in principle though not in path. The irony is that to build our membership we have to be as evangelical about who we are and what we believe as the most dedicated Pentecostal, or the most committed Mormon Missionary. Ironic because it is very hard to say to someone, ” You should be searching…” while not being able to say what it is they should be searching for. We offer the paradox of the spirit, not answers–a tough pill for a lost or searching soul to swallow.

    • Evangelize. Seems we had a sermon around that topic a few years back. It is hard to sell someone on a church where seeking is the point (and makes me wonder if “Not all who wander are lost” wouldn’t be a fine slogan for UUs). I do think having less “group think” to hold us together makes the retention of members that much harder. Ah, to embrace the paradox of this church and spread the word that to seek and wander is a fine life’s path.

      • There are plenty of people to reach, though. We have a central message, and an ethical code: 7 Principles. I like to think of them as a fence, that they tell us how far afield we can explore safely, without demanding how high we climb or deep we dig. They don’t require a lot of faith, but they allow for an almost infinite amount.

        As pointed out, there are a lot of people who don’t see a church where they feel welcome. We have a faith that welcomes almost everyone. We just need to tell them who we are! They’ve heard that we don’t believe anything, and that’s not appealing. They need to know that we believe in people, and in democracy, and in them. They need to know that we act out those beliefs, not to earn a supernatural reward, but in order to make life here on Earth a little better for everyone.

        In short, we need to show the world that we have a faith that energizes lives and changes communities, and that there is room in it for anyone who can put their faith in the human spirit. There are people who are happy as seekers. They want a place where they can be challenged to do and be better. They don’t know that this is what we are trying to offer.

  5. As a life-long UU (actually, I guess I started as U), I think about this a lot, but have no answers, only thoughts (how typical, right?). One is that anytime we talk, as UUs, about outreach and encouraging others to look into UU or attend our church, I get very, very queasy. My mother and aunt joined the Unitarian church in Cleveland back in the 1950s in part because there was no pressure, no hard sell, and this was something (the lack of evangelizing and proseltyzing) that my mother was most proud of, in many ways. It took me decades to even consider putting a UU bumper sticker on my car!

    My second thought is this. I am an anthropologist, and when I talk about Religion, broadly speaking, with my students, I point out the general functions that religions fulfill:
    1. religion explains the unexplainable (death, another’s wealth, illness);
    2. religion helps one accomplish specific goals (often prayer is envisioned as goal-directed);
    3. religion reduces anxiety in the face of a crisis (helps establish control);
    4. religion increases the sense of community and solidarity its adherents feel for one another
    5. religion acts to set forth a guide for the accepted social and moral order of a culture, and reinforces it through ritual – in this way it acts as a method of social control and
    6. religion relates a culture’s ‘origin story,’ whether it is the origin of the world, the people, or supernatural beings (for example, myths that tell about the origin of fire are by definition religious in nature)

    When I think about why UU is not more widely embraced, I always come back to these ‘functions’ which at times have made me question if UU is a religion at all, or rather perhaps a philosophy of life. We certainly fit some of the functions, such as #4, but if people are are looking for something that fulfills some of the other functions, UU does not necessarily do that, and that is ok – that is what brought many UUs to it. But if I am honest, I know there have been hard times in my life that I have railed against UUism for not giving me more in terms of #1 and #3. But then it wouldn’t be UU, and I’d be asking, “How do you KNOW?” I guess that what I like best about UUism (lack of certainty) is actually what unnerves me at times, and not everyone is going to sign on for that particular journey.

    • Thanks for sharing that perspective, Suzanne. I’ve chosen to view UU through the religion lens rather the philosophical lens, and I wonder if we chose the latter if we’d have anyone in our pews on Sunday morning.

      UU does not explain #1 and #3 in traditional, theistic terms (although certainly a moderate number of UUs are theists). It instead offers a buffet of ways to answer those questions. In our secular humanist-heavy congregation, that may meaning finding answers in science, “trusting the universe,” and looking inward. Are these as quick and easy (if one believes) as shooting a prayer to a deity? Nope. But they are valid responses to those needs.

      Certainly if one is searching for a controlling, guiding force with black and white rules, UU is not for him or her. I still wonder how to reach others, like those who cannot abide by traditional religious paths or find a blending of paths more in step with their gait. As a faith or philosophy, we’re not succeeding at that. The numbers say there are far more people who identify as UU than belong to a UU community. I wonder if that’s the place to start — how do we appeal to those people? I’m certain we need to look beyond Sunday morning and often wonder if our focus on Sunday morning is what keeps us from growth. Ah, so much to wonder while wandering and not being lost!

    • I don’t think that it is as important to answer each of these as it is to ask them. We don’t tell you about the afterlife, but we will explore the possibilities with you. We should be comfortable having discussions, and maybe someday, there will be a UU vision (though I don’t see how). I don’t think we are any less a religion for only talking about it, as even Christians don’t actually know or agree on what Heaven consists of. Their explanations really aren’t much more reasonable than ours, it’s just that the little bit they claim to know looks like a vast expanse when there is nothing to give it perspective.

      We have goals (Justice, Compassion, Peace,Liberty), we have community to support those in need, we certainly have a clear, if broad, moral code. We don’t have an interesting origin story, but then, we are too young for mythology anyway. We can appeal to those who are more concerned about where we are going than where we came from, and that’s what I want in a spiritual community, personally.

  6. Personally, I love that we offer people moral ground and community without forcing dogma or superstition on them. I love the meme that you come to a Unitarian Universalist Church to have all your answers questioned. We are a place, not for people who believe nothing in particular, but for people who are looking for truths too big to fit in a holy book.

    We can’t really reach these people until we figure out how to hang on to the members we have. We have to understand why they are dissatisfied. A lot of the stories I read are from people who are upset, mostly, because we are more worried about growth and appearance than we are about helping people and seeking truth. We may not have answers, but until we start figuring out which questions really matter, we are going to continue to shrink as a movement.

    • Nicely said, Thomas! One way to reframe the question of should we or should we not search for new members is to consider the values we share. I’ve head the admission that people don’t want to grow because they like the church they are in just the way it is. If we are truly enthusiastic about Unitarian Universalism and the values it espouses, we should be excited about sharing those values and bringing more people into the fold. Yes, we need to work on retention, too, but I doubt these are mutually exclusive. What brings people in can be part of why people stay. What that is may vary from congregation to congregation and community to community. The very niche-like nature of retention and new membership are part of the challenge.

  7. Yes, yes, I wasn’t CRITICIZING the fact that UU doesn’t fit the anthropological model of “religion” nor that it doesn’t force answers on us about the big questions in life. I personally am quite happy and at peace with UUism’s approach, whether we call it religious or philosophical (I tend to think it is both). Obviously it is the right choice for ME – I have been one for 53 years, and have NO intention of being anything else. It fits ME to a “t”. But if the vast majority ARE looking for answers and not questions, we may not be their cup of tea. Thus, I think Sarah’s point about how to reach those that identify as UUs but don’t belong to a UU community is right on the money. On the one hand, I see your point about looking beyond Sundays. On the other hand, with people so overbooked, overscheduled and overwhelmed these days, Sundays might be the only day left “relatively” empty for many.

    • I wonder, Suzanne, if we miss part of our potential congregations by being Sunday-morning focused. While I’m grateful we have services at that time (as it is a free spot), I’m wondering if for some it smacks too much like the traditional churches people have left or fear. I think “overbooked, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed” are kicking many liberal religions in the rear. Church just isn’t high on the priority for many (liberal) young families anymore. It’s the extra, the “if we have time,” and “if we agree with everything being said” place to go. I have no solution to that, but it impacts the efficacy of our RE classes and, I’d maintain, our sense that UU fulfills some of those functions of religion your mentioned previously. I don’t think this problem is unique to UU. Liberal religion is in decline, likely for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you’d be the best one to explain why, Suzanne.

      • One thing I’ve thought for awhile is that we relinguished hold of the dialogue, the language of religion. In this country, at least, it got hijacked by the conservative/right and they co-opted the language, the dialogue, the issue. Now, it almost seems awkward to say a “liberal religious” or a “religious liberal”. THEY defined what religion and religious meant in this country, and in many ways we got written out of the picture. So I end up feeling like I jump up and down like the Whos in Horton Hears a Who, saying “we are here, we are here!” The idea of who controls the language, the dialogue, the discussion has always seemed key to me, ever since I saw us lose “copyright” on the term “feminism” in the 1980s-90s and saw it being redefined (by the conservative right) into something many younger women today won’t identify with (but are). So I guess I just explained to myself why outreach and evangelizing ARE important….Hmmm!

  8. Thanks for your blog. As a kind of former-wannabe-would-be UU, I agree with your sentiments. At minimum without some commonality of religious language (e.g., God as representing that which is extra-self) and/or spiritual practice, I cannot see UU attracting many of my and younger generations. Information, knowledge, religious literacy, even spiritual insights, these are easily obtained with a google search or on Twitter feeds . If UU offers merely these things, then it is not going to grow. What most people I know want/need is to feel belonging in a thriving spiritual community. And a thriving spiritual community has a shared language and a shared spiritual practice. Most UU congregations have neither.

    Anyway, not to plug myself, but I am writing on similar things in a blog:

    • Thanks for sharing! I’m not certain of your age, but the issue of attracting a younger (let’s call that under 35) cohort receives plenty of attention in UU churches. If a church were simply offering information, religious literacy, and spiritual insights, it very well would be hard pressed to compete with the internet. Churches of all sorts offer something more — similarly-minded community. The UU church I attend excels at offering that, in many forms for many ages, which attracted me to UUCF (UUFarmington on Facebook) several years back.

      At least, we offer it on Sunday morning. Yes, we have a few events outside of that time (a camping weekend, various special interests group, adult religious education on other nights, etc). We’re working on a greater internet presence. And we have plenty of discussion about what folks in your demographic want from a church.

      I do, I believe, belong to “a thriving spiritual community.” No, we don’t share the same language for what is beyond ourselves (community, the universe, God, etc). We do, however, through our principles and desire to have and allow others to have a free and responsible search for meaning. As others have mentioned here, those commonalities are enough for them. I’m not as pessimistic as you. I think we can grow with those shared values. How to do it in today’s society is the question.

      • Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. Anyway, I realize that as a “quasi-outsider” my words may be hard to hear — as a family member one is free to speak negatively about their family from within, but grow protective when a non-family member says the similar things. And maybe I should refrain from saying them. But I think it is important to have an outsider’s perspective for a tradition that has so much potential but cannot seem to get over the hump… That said, I really want to be positive about UU. I think the task of realizing e pluribus unum on a spiritual basis, which to me is essentially what UU aims to do, is one I really want to see realized too. As this implies, I am okay with the lack of a sole religious language (though I will say six is a lot for most to be adequately proficient in, language understanding being necessary in a spiritual “family” of six). My tradition of Buddhism I was brought under includes two – Zen and Pure Land. But when there is a lack of a single religious language, i just don’t know how a spiritual community can grow if there is not at least a uniting spiritual practice (e.g., prayer, chanting, meditation). What else is there to unite a spiritual community and at the same time differentiate it from a secular community? As you imply, the 7 principles are fine and good, but there is nothing inherently spiritual about them. They could easily be a set of principles for a UN charter. The statistic that most alarmed me and, as a father of a 4 year-old, convinced me that UU as it now stands is not sufficient is the rate of retention. If only 12.5% raised-UUs remain that way, it says to me there remains a missing piece to the puzzle. What gives me hope is the examples of UU congregations that assert a particular religious language as a source of commonality, and are growing. I think of Wellspring outside of Philadelphia. I just wish it were in my town…

      • I think we may not be holding the same view of UU, as we’re looking for different things in a spiritual home. I’ll write a separate post about the sources, addressing your issues with them there. Remember that what draws people to Unitarian Universalism is the freedom to search. Were UU to pick a set of spiritual terms — a religious language — the pews would empty. The ambiguity and spiritual variety are a draw. In short, adopting a specific religious language would make UU not UU.

        Many UUs don’t consider themselves spiritual. They’re fully satisfied using language of justice and reason and have no desire to pray, meditate, or the like. Making UU more spiritual doesn’t necessarily make it more desirable, and could, in fact, make it less so. Our minister has inserted a good amount of spiritual language (of many sources) into his sermons. Other minsters steer away from it entirely. I’m thankful to live in an area with several choices of UU homes, and chose the one I did because the community was welcoming, the religious education program was robust, and the preaching was a fine mix of intellectual and spiritual. It works for me. It is true that, more so than denominations sharing more common spiritual beliefs, UU congregations vary greatly in character and flavor. If there were more UU congregations, this diversity within the larger UU body could reveal itself in more communities.

        I share the concern that we don’t retain members from childhood to adulthood. That said, I know plenty of life-long UUs. I do think we have to give our young people enough background in Unitarian Universalism and support to find their own path. In truth, if we’re encouraging a search for truth and meaning, people are going to leave if they find their truth and meaning are better met elsewhere. I suppose this letting go is part of the UU package.

      • Yes, I agree we have different views of UU. If it isn’t a spiritual venture, then what’s the point of the search? Physical strength? Political power? And justice to me is innately spiritual. And I think what draws people to UU is drawing some but not a lot as the number indicates. Lastly, and then I’ll bow out of this conversation, the growing UUs seem to be teaching doctrine, as Harlan Limpert in the new UUWorld states. The best model I know of this is:

        Its been great to discuss this with you. And look forward to reading your blog.


      • This has inspired my post for next week. Thanks for the great conversation, and I hope that it continues. Our real growth will come at the expense of some of the people who currently show up. The question is, do we want to run off the spiritual or the non-spiritual people? If we don’t choose to be one or the other, then we will never be more than we are now. If we choose the wrong one, then we will always be less than we should be.

  9. Bringing people to Truth & Meaning…well…..the Truth is the universe is meaningless. If you “Make” a “Meaning” you may as well make a god/devil thingy(s) with heavens and hells galore.
    Tor Hershman’s videos have help me much with the realization that life has no point BUT…that’s okay.
    Some YouTube videos an Atheist, with a sense of humor, may enjoy
    (video links removed by Sarah, owner and author of Finding My Ground)

    • Sam, you’re welcome to your opinion on the matter. I’d not equate a search for personal meaning with a belief in good, evil, or anything else. However, Hershman’s videos aren’t the sort of material I’m comfortable with here. This is a respectful space for theists and nontheists, and those cross the line. I’ve removed them and noted so above.

  10. Pingback: Rational and Reverent | Finding My Ground

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