Data check on the emerging churches in the UUA

When I read the March 2014 UUWorld article “Emerging, alternative groups at UUA’s growing edge” something didn’t sit right with me, but I’ve not had the time to put my finger on it. Something about the “more than 50 ’emerging’ UU congregations across the country” framed as a positive accomplishment and not a mixed blessing or an ambiguous outcome. I needed to review my notes.

First, church building is hard and often thankless. So, if you were involved in an emerging congregation that later submerged, thank you for taking the risk and making the effort. Take courage from the ministry you made, understanding you may never know the secret and special good it brought to someone.

But not all is going to plan, and that the trickle of new congregations dribbling towards zero says something’s wrong. Are the emerging congregations just dying on the vine, or is a bumper crop in the works? Or something else?

First, I went back to the list of emerging churches I gleaned in 2005. There were 33 then. What happened to them?

  • 8 were admitted to the Unitarian Universalist Association and still exist.
    • Of these, 2 now have fewer than 30 members, meaning they would be ineligible to join today.
    • The largest has 69 members, the second largest has 52.
  • 9 disbanded or have an unknown fate
    • Of these, 1 may have been a duplicate; it was very close to another emerging congregation.
  • 16 are still classified “emerging”.

Sixteen seems high to me, if an emerging congregation is “one that has not yet been accepted into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for membership.” That was December 2005, so the congregations are minimally eight and a half years old. A congregation’s birthing and development phase isn’t set in stone, but it does have a limit and in eight and a half years it’s surely has been past. This means that we don’t have emerging congregations, just very small ones. At this point, a radically larger congregation would come from a re-launch, a difficult process needing resources equal to or greater than starting one. More and more of what happens now will not lead to substantially larger churches. The church’s culture has been established. (Some newer emerging congregations grew faster earlier, and these are the conventional “successes.” But they are few.)

And so what? Unitarian Universalism skews to small congregations. So some will be smaller that others. It’s only a fundamental problem if

  • a small congregation pre-empts further church development in the same area. Really, a problem with any congregation, however large, but tiny fellowships “sitting on the franchise” is a part of Unitarian Universalist lore, so it deserves mention, and
  • the goal of mission is add members to the Unitarian Universalist Association. There are different, good reasons for an active mission, but joining the UUA shouldn’t be the goal, but rather the means for better common work. I don’t think anyone is saying that, but it would be easy to infer that goal from the literature. It is, after all, an agreed-upon desirable outcome.

But there needs to be revision of our missology. Because if this is what we are relying on to bring new blood into our Association, it won’t be enough for us to thrive.


By Scott Wells

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


  1. I recently conducted a day-long leadership workshop for a UU cluster. The emerging congregation (fellowship) leaders were uncomfortable with ‘spiritual’ practices and the exercise Experience of the ‘Holy’. In a religiously and politically conservative area of the country, many find our church’s a refuge from the baggage of their native faith. But allowing these congregations to have no faith does a disservice to the larger movement. We will never grow until we grow our faith development. Part of that needs to be, it seems to me, to help people move beyond the rejection of their native faith, help them heal, and discover what in UUism calls to them.

  2. I was once part of an emerging church that joined the UUA, and then “submerged” and died after about 13 years of life. That church changed my life for the better, and occupies a special place in my heart. It failed in terms of UUA membership, but was brilliant in terms of lives inspired. I’ll take the later success whenever I can get it.

  3. Most of this month I’ve been ignoring blogging and worship to focus on the flowers which are emerging from the bulbs I planted last autumn. It is amazing how much they require! You have to study the shape of each little tip, to see if it’s what you planted or will be a weed. You have to learn when to water, when to feed, and how to keep the soil the way it likes. How does it drain? But when you water and feed, does it hold the right amount? How much mulch will keep it from getting too wet, versus causing stem rot if the mulch is too close to the base?

    Parents with newborns, and caregivers dealing with a new medical condition, will recognize the syndrome. There is absolutely NO WAY a single denominational workshop — no matter how excellent — can do the job. it takes a steady gardener, and respite, recreation, and steady consultation for said gardener. At some point, the plant might make it with a stake or a cage, or even just stand on its own. But not in the beginning.

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