Back to reviewing UUA membership stats

Earlier this year, as congregations were getting certified for General Assembly, I organized a spreadsheet with each member-congregation’s stats. I came up with some very illuminating conclusions.

Then, I had a major computer meltdown. I was sure I had backed up that file, but was unable to find it. It took a long time to compile, but since then my skills with spreadsheets have improved. Time to reconstruct it, I thought.

I don’t have the raw data for 2003, so the new edition is strictly 2004 stats for 1070 congregations. That means I’m missing one, and try as I might I can’t identify it.

Even so, some interesting facts. There are twenty-seven emerging congregations, but some of those have been “emerging” for years. Did you know the one hundred smallest congregations (including federated ones, reporting the Unitarian Universalist share of a large membership) equal a mere 1,287 adults. Compare that with the largest local congregation — First Unitarian, Madison, Wisconsin — with 1,315 members.

Or take the smallest 25% of congregations. They make up a total of 6,406 members, or every congregation with 42 or fewer members. As I said in February or March, I can see why the powers-that-be would want large-membership church starts, but the reality is that we are a small church denomination. Rather than ignore this reality (or fight it), can’t we strategically target our resources to making them as strong, efficient, and faithful as possible.

Why? Because the new congregations enter the UUA and then tend to hover at less than fifty members. (All Souls Community Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan is an exception at 114 members, but it has a clever and gifted organizing minister — my internship supervisor, the Rev. Brent Smith — and an identifed liberal church core in town, making it quite exceptional.)

Well, back to the point: if you’d like a copy of the spreadsheet, in Excel format, email me at blog at

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott, this is interesting, and it got me thinking. As you say, we are a small church denomination. I wonder if we’re also at least partly a non-churched denomination. For instance, I’m a lifelong UU, and my wife is an adult convert to UUism, but neither of us currently has a home church. And we rarely go to services, other than Christmas Eve. Yet we’re certainly Unitarian-Universalists. Part of our reason for not going to church is the time constraint on a double-grad student household. But we’ve never been really strong churchgoers, even when we belonged to a church that was nearby and we had more leisure time. Anecdotally, I know other UUs (all young adults such as ourselves) who also dont’ go to church much, but hold an explicit UU self-identification. I’ve never heard of UUA attempts to include the non-churched in the denominational statistics. But truth is, church membership undercounts the number of UUs in North America. Just a thought stimulated by your research.

  2. It’s true, Jeff, that the UUA doesn’t measure non-churchgoing but otherwise deeply self-identified UUs. It would cut against our polity to let the denominational bureaucracy count people that individual churches don’t count, but that may not be sufficient reason to continue to neglect them! Wouldn’t it be interesting if congregations came to think of themselves as serving constituencies beyond their local memberships? It would take an investment of money and administration, perhaps even a quasi-membership category, but there’s no really good reason why a congregation couldn’t continue sending newsletters, UU World, and other materials to far-flung parts of their larger community. Especially for young adults, resources like this could help maintain a tie to a community that might remain tentative or occasional for a decade, but the tie would still bind. And wouldn’t it be something to have a magazine aimed at such young people: a UU World or Quest for young adults?

  3. It’s funny that you mention congregations serving constituencies beyond their membership, Chris, because in a way I already have a sort of parish understanding of UUism. For instance, I’m currently living in Chapel Hill, NC, not far from the Eno River UU Fellowship. My wife and I have never been members, and at best we’ve attended services two or three times a year, in part because we found the services too “low-church” for our tastes. Yet in a way I think of myself as part of the local UU community, with ERUUF as the center but the actual fellowship (small “f”) extending to cover all UUs and UU-sympathizers within the area. I wonder if it would be useful for UU churches to adopt this sort of thinking: that rather than ministering to a select dues-paying membership, they actually accept stewardship for a certain geographical area. Thus they would recognize a level of responsibility to, for example, minister to students at the local universities.

    Likewise, I think it would be positive to move denominationally in directions that de-emphasize church attendence as the norm of UU activity. I envision at least a couple of possibilities. One is home-based UU services, where families have a certain set of rituals that they perform at home as a family. For instance, lighting a chalice and giving thanks before dinner every night. Not so practicial when the family is already pulled to eat in separate places and at separate times, but heck, maybe a home UU ritual could help steer away from that trend. Another idea might be UU events that take place outside of the church, such as Unitarian-Universalist film festivals at a local theater, book readings at a local venue, etc. There are people who don’t go to church very often (for a variety of reasons) who would participate in community-based UU events taking place in shared public space. I’m not trying to replace the church, but to augment it in ways that might strengthen ties to UUism as a denominational identity and introduce UUism into uncharted areas of the community. Basically, create a sense that UUism is a religious way of living that can take place equally at home, in the public sphere, and in the church building proper.

    Some churches do just what you suggest, but the way: for instance, when Kristen and I moved here, we remained on the rolls of Community Church of New York (UU) for more than a year, continuing to receive newsletters and UU World. We were only removed when I requested it, out of guilt over making the folks in NYC pay for us. I can tell you, getting that newsletter and magazine had a measurable impact on my feeling of connection to the wider UU universe, even if was to a congregation hundreds of miles away.

    As for a magazine for young adult UUs, I think it’s a great idea. I don’t want to diminish the fine efforts of the folks involved in any way, but Ferment never quite did it for me, and now of course it’s defunct. I’d produce such a magazine myself, but I’m already over-committed, including serving as editor of UU Sangha, the journal of the UU Buddhist Fellowship.

    I think the number one thing that churches could do to stem the loss of young UUs is to provide a free subscription to UU World (and/or other relevant publications, like the local newsletter or a hypothetical magazine for younger UUs) to all college-bound children of the community, and to fund that subscription for the entirety of their college career. College is _the_ time when people are made to question their identity and seek answers, yet to a large degree it is also when UU churches and thus UUism completely drops away from the radar because one is no longer in regular contact with one’s home congregation.

    Scott, sorry to burden your comments section with such an extended discussion. I just thought Chris’s questions and comments were provocative enough that I’d like to think the issues through a little more. But now the Red Sox game is coming on so I’ll sign off!

  4. Here-here on the young adult magazine. Especially/only if it’s written for and by young adults. And I’m guessing/hoping that would give it an edgier and more controverial tone than UU World.

    I had coffee this morning with a UU freshman. She volunteered that she loved getting UUWorld because it was a refreshing break from all the other media she encounters. I mentioned the discussion over here, and she was intrigued by the idea of the young adult magazine.

    As a volunteer campus minister, I would also like to have a free stack of both/either to hand out, especially in the fall when there’s an info fair every other day.

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