So all those churches since 2003

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve gone back to see how many churches have joined the UUA since GA 2003. (Was that the last GA I attended?)

It’s as if someone turned the tap down to a trickle. New congregation news used to be common, but now the “emerging congregation” pool has grown quite large. I wonder why, though I’m sure there are many reasons. And is it true — I fear it is — that churches that don’t “commit” break up? (Or perhaps that have committed with each other, but don’t bother with the UUA.)

Here’s a hypothesis: it’s cheaper for emerging congregations not to join, and cheaper for the UUA not to serve them the same way as members. Or there’s a missing culture of planning and resources, and — like the path to congregational membership — the steps are not present. (I remember thinking “will Wildflower ever join?” But whatever it did seems to have paid off the best.) Interested in your thoughts.

Here are the joined-since-2003 churches, in increasing current membership.

Name City State URL Membership 2010-11
Seward Unitarian Universalist of Seward Seward AK
Unitarian Church of Hubbardstown Hubbardstown MA 13
All Souls Free Religious Fellowship (All Souls UU Society) Chicago IL 14
Open Circle UU Boulder CO 15
Florence UU Fellowship Florence OR
Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church Indianapolis IN 25
Unitarian Universalist Church of Blanchard Valley Findlay OH 26
New Hope Congregation New Hudson MI 30
Unitarian Universalists of the Big Bend, TX Big Bend TX 31
Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Ashland WI 31
Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation Slippery Rock PA 32
Mosaic Unitarian Universalist Congregation Orange City FL 34
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo Tupelo MS 36
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rocky Mount Rocky Mount NC 40
Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community Saranac Lake NY 40
Unitarian Universalists of Fallston, MD Bel Air MD 41
Unitarian Universalist Church of Hot Springs Hot Springs AR 43
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Chesapeake California MD 43
Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship Raleigh NC 44
The Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware Dover DE 51
Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Fond du Lac WI 52
Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg Gettysburg PA 53
Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Decorah IA 57
Unitarian Universalist of Santa Clarita Santa Clarita CA 59
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church Aiken SC 68
Unitarian Universalist of Petaluma Petaluma CA 71
Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation Grayslake IL 72
Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Maryville TN 72
Pathways Church Southlake TX 90
WellSprings Congregation Chester Springs PA 143
Washington Ethical Society Washington DC 150
Wildflower Church Austin TX 181

Here’s another thought. Might the Christians “take over” the UUA church planting movement by organizing a dozen 30-member churches in the next decade? You have to hear the sarcasm or weariness in my voice to get my meaning, though.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Interesting list. The First Parish Church of Hubbardstown is considered an “emerging” congregation? That congregation has been in existence for centuries. Centuries! Why would they be emerging? They emerged when Massachusetts was still a colony of the British empire.

    Hubbardstown used to be well-known in the UU ministry as an example of a family church–literally. It was said that all the congregation’s membership belonged to the extended Hubbard family. Don’t know if that is true today.

  2. All Souls Free Religious Fellowship (All Souls UU Society) could claim to being the oldest U and U Church in Chicago. It was formed in 1971 from Chicago’s First Universalist and the Unitarian Free Religious Fellowship organized in 1948 that met at the Abraham Lincoln Center. First U one of the oldest Churches in Chicago. Not sure how they got onto this list. All Souls and the ALC have their roots with Jenkin Loyd Jones… a heritage these 14 souls very aware of and will tell you about if you visit them.

  3. I’m firmly of the belief that a congregation that has fewer than 100 members is too small to thrive, and I believe that emerging congregations should stay in the care of a mother congregation until they are about that size and can afford space and paid leadership. And at least two congregations, Albuquerque and San Diego have branches that are in that kind of care…for a total of four more “emerging congregations” which are being carefully nurtured.

  4. The Findlay, OH church is a sad story. They were actually growing at a good clip, but then massive flooding destroyed their property (and they were not adequately insured). A good number of people then relocated out of the area. This congregation has never really been the same since that time.

  5. And there is Pathways…

    The results at Pathways were basically the same as the old 5-year, declining, extension grant model. But Pathways cost us ALOT more. It was supposed to grow quickly into a liberal mega-church. And never really got further than its 90 members.

    If most new UU churches plateau out at 70-90 members, what does that tell us?

  6. Another factor to consider — wasn’t the Extension Ministry program cancelled in the late 90s? And we have nothing to take its place — no UUA-sanctioned program to foster new church starts.

    Also, Washington Ethical Culture Society was another existing congregation that was affiliated with that movement, and sought dual fellowship (thanks in part to the excellent interim ministry of Jone Johnson, who has dual fellowship herself).

    Also, note that Wellsprings in Chester Springs, Penna., with 143 members, was a recent offshoot of the Mainline UU church in Devon, Penna.

    One more observation — some of these congregations are in places that won’t allow for much growth beyond where they are now (e.g., Seward, Alaska — I’ve visited there, and they’re probably not going to get much bigger). This is fine with me — I’m all for small UU churches in rural and low-population-density areas — so I have to disagree with Christine above.

  7. I also disagree with our colleague in New Mexico, in part because it sounds like the newest installment of the UUA’s long-running soap opera: “One Model at Most”

    Seward was once much larger. They had a volunteer/founding minister, I believe — now she would be hard to replace if she’s not there — but there’s no site so I can’t see what they’re doing.

    And Dan, I had mentioned Washington Ethical Society’s pre-existance a couple of posts ago. But it had never been a member of the UUA until recently. Stafford, Vermont is the only other re-admission I can think of — say the early 2000s.

  8. There are competing issues here, as the comments have highlighted. Christine is probably right — it is difficult, if not impossible, for a congregation to thrive at less than 100 members. On the other hand, some of these churches (I’m thinking here of UUs of the Big Bend, with whom I have some familiarity) are fighting the good fight just by existing as a church where they are.

    I think the best model is one where large churches support branch congregations at least until they can thrive on their own, as a few congregations have done — Christine’s, San Diego, Memphis, All Souls D.C., etc. But the problem is that this seems to be that there are too few of those churches and leaders willing to do that work. How can we encourage more of that work?

    A side note on Wildflower: they have been deliberate in their growth and progress, and it’s paying off. They have a very good minister and lay leadership, are growing, and are now seeking their first building.

  9. Going with 2009 stats (the last directory), I see Alabama has 9 congregations, only 3 over 100; Alaska has 6 congregations, only 2 over 100; Arizona has 13, 8 over100; Arkansas has 7, 2 over 100, California has 71, 45 over 100, Colorado has 20, and 11 over 100, and Connecticut has 19, with 10 over 100. etc.
    An awful large percentage of UUA affiliated (not just emerging) congregations have less than an hundred members;.

  10. Here’s a link to the old Seward UU website:

    From looking at the Seward and Anchorage UUF sites, it seems Rev. Beatrice Hitchcock was the minister at Seward, but has for some time been with the Anchorage UUF. A quick scan of AUUF newsletters reveals she’s been consulting/interim/transitional minister there since March ’08 or so. I don’t know when she stopped leading services in Seward, but her printed schedule in the AUUF newsletter these days does not reflect any Sundays at Seward.

    I’m not aware of whether the Seward UUs still meet.

    I’m a member of UNMC, but my wife is from Anchorage, so we visit once or twice a year. I attended a service at AUUF for the first time this summer and plan to do so again in a few weeks. I’ll report here if I hear any info about the Seward UUs.

  11. With regards to churches and numbers of members, what do we mean by them “thriving”?

    Is thriving an issue of number of programs? Owning a building? Employing a full-time minister? Or is it something a bit more abstract regarding the experience of congregational life?

    Some of the best congregations I have been part of, have had around 50 members. Each of the churches I’ve been part of, that had more than 150 members, seemed a bit like stagnant country clubs.

  12. We can talk about ideal fostering methods until we’re blue, but what is better?

    -For the person who is temperamentally and theologically suited to a UU congregation but has nowhere else to go to simply do without while waiting for a Christine Robinson to expand into their neck of the backwoods?

    -Or to have a teensy fellowship, struggling to survive, that provides some wobbling community?

    To hear some people talk, it is preferable to let people starve than it is to feed them a bologna sandwich.

  13. I am arriving late to the conversation, but I agree with Derek. There is a sense in which churches over 100 can be defined as “thriving” because churches over 100 have decided what the term means. There are planety of smaller churches that are doing just fine. There are others that are struggling. Of course, there are large churches that struggle, too.

    The big challenge for a smaller congregation can be in maintaining healthy leadership (both professional and volunteer) and in having mission that is effective and sustainable. Many smaller–and thriving–churches end up feeling bad because they don’t quite fit the mold. Fitting the mold, though, isn’t always a good thing…

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