Two (more) unhappy numbers about Unitarian Universalism

I’m no statistician, but I know that the facts we use to understand ourselves shape how we see ourselves — that sounds more like the work of a theologian, doesn’t it? — so bad or outdated facts give ourselves an incorrect self-understanding.

So, first, what proportion of the American population is Unitarian Universalist? We’ve suffered under this one for a long time — indeed, nineteenth-century Universalists were so apt to inflate membership numbers that you still hear how we were once the sixth-largest denomination in the United States. This was never the case. And I hear echoes of the boast/lamentation every time someone quotes the study that suggests that 450,000 Americans identify as Unitarians. It also matters because we rely far too much on attraction instead of evangelism. What then is the correct answer?

When I was a younger man, I heard it said that one person in a thousand was a Unitarian Universalist. But by the time I was in seminary — in the mid 90s — I calculated that ratio had dropped to eight in ten thousand. The proportion of adults (15 and up) in the United States in 2008 was 79.4%. (I was 16 when I joined my first church, so 15 and up seems right.) Today, there are about 312 million Americans, suggesting 247.7 million adults. There were in 2009 164,684 Unitarian Universalist members (PDF). Adding up the numbers I gathered recently, that number is 164,279.

Either way, that’s 6.6 per 10,000. Gulp.

Second, how are the big churches doing? Even though I have a special place in my heart for small churches, it’s clear that in many metropolitan areas, a single large congregation dwarfs the memberships of all other churches combined. (Washington, D.C. is an exception.) Membership loss in the largest congregations can have a profound effect.

In 1994, Unitarian Universalist minister David O. Rankin, said in a speech, “Truth Telling to Unitarian Universalist Large Church Leaders” at Tulsa, Oklahoma — I was in my internship then, and there was a conference at All Souls Church —

Apparently, the UUA has not been successful in developing and maintaining large churches. I have been told:

In 1966, there were about 54 UU congregations above 600 members.
In 1994, there are about 33 UU congregations above 600 members.

Today, that’s 32 — not much of a loss — though that includes the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and I have several times stated that we should think of these each in their own unique category. (But they were at least that large back then, so I’ll include them now.)

Now, there’s no natural law that says large churches must needs stay large. Some churches have shrunk beyond recognition and I’m sure some of the current 32 have grown into that status meaning others (plus one) have shrunk below it. Even consolidating with other local churches can’t stop the leak if the demographics are against you; here, I’m thinking of how two of the largest Universalist churches in the country were in Lynn, Massachusetts and Peoria, Illinois.

So, what would happen if the 30 non-UUCP and non-CLF 600+ churches shrank to 150 members: a common size for churches with ministerial staff? The UUA would drop by 20,865 members, a number equal to the memberships of the smallest 497 non-emerging congregations; that is, every church with fewer than 87 members.


So then, with the facts, who are we? A small community of people who need to come up with new ways to manage our relationships, find new ways to provide services, create new opportunities to welcome current outsiders and gather new congregations for worship, formation and service.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Using UUA figures and dividing the total member plus RE number by the total US population we find that at the merger the number of UUs per 10,000 people in the US was 12.6. It peaked in 1967 at 14.4. It then declined rapidly until it reached 7.6 in 1980. Since then it has been quite stable. There was a little boomlet in the late 1990s, reaching 7.8 in 1997. It has since declined slowly to the current number of 7.2, an all-time record low. But really things have been pretty flat since 1980.

    Do you have any information about Unitarian numbers in earlier times. I can’t figure out whether we were once significantly larger or merely significantly more influential. How many Unitarians were there _really_ in 1900?

  2. I deliberately didn’t count children since the anecdotal evidence is that we keep very few of them in adulthood. If kids bolt at the first opportunity, and are unlikely to return, how can one say they ever belonged?

  3. Interesting post. I was ‘Christened’ (don’t know if you still use that term) a Unitarian in 1960. I’ve visited churches on occasion since I left home, but have more or less dropped out. I am made somewhat aware of happenings in the church because of info from family members who still attend. Your comment about kids bolting as soon as they can seems right. My siblings have nothing to do with the church now. Has there been any attempt at following up with adults who were raised in the church who do not attend now? Seems like the UUA is doomed to disappear in another couple of generations, with such little retention.

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