Why We Aren’t Growing: An Open Letter to My Unitarian Congregation

Dear friends and fellow Unitarian Universalists,

While in church, I frequently hear the desire expressed to see our congregation grow. Doubtless, our congregation has its own unique challenges, but the stagnant state of our membership rolls is not unique to our congregation; it’s endemic to UUism.  Unitarian Universalist membership has been more or less flat since 1961, when the UUA was formed, with a little over 1,000 congregations and a little over 150,000 members.  (The high point was 1968.)  But if you consider that the U.S. population has almost doubled in that time, then UU membership has actually been shrinking as a percentage of the overall population.

Nor is this just a modern problem. Writing back in 1897, Meadville-trained minister, John Trevor, bemoaned the unfulfilled potential of Unitarianism:

For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character—everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”

It seems to me that little has changed in over a century.

This tells me that, if we want to understand why our congregation does not grow, we need to look, not to those things that make our congregation unique, but to those things that we have in common with other UU congregations.

Do We Really Want to Grow?

Before we go there, however, I think it is necessary to at least ask ourselves the question of whether we really want to grow. Many of our discussions about church growth seem to take the desirability of growth as a given. (Western culture is obsessed with growth.)  But I want to at least suggest that maybe we don’t need the church to grow. We have all watched as people visit, and even join, our congregation, and then within a few months or even weeks, they are never to be seen again. We are generally saddened by this, but I wonder if we really need to be.

Our Unitarian church (and I suspect UUism generally) plays a unique role in many people’s spiritual journeys. Because we are a non-creedal and welcoming religion, we serve as a spiritual way station for many people, a soft place to land after a bad experience with conservative religion, a way of dipping one’s toes into religion after years of religious disengagement, or just a stepping stone on the way to another religious home. And maybe that’s not something we should regret. Maybe it is our unique service to the world.

In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests a different role for religious congregations than is usually imagined:

“What if people were invited [to church] to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?”

What if we saw our own congregation this way? What if we accepted that our church would always be more of a way station than a destination for most people? And what if our role was to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in? Of course, a few of us stalwarts would be necessary to keep the doors open. But we could decide that that is our mission and let go of growth as a goal.

It’s just a thought.

Why Do We Want to Grow?

Now, assuming that we do want to grow, let’s move on to the question of why we want to grow–because I think that will tell us something about how we should go about trying to grow.

There are many reasons for wanting to see our congregation grow. Having attended many services where the chapel was less than half full, one comes readily to my mind: Worshiping with a larger congregation tends to be a more powerful experience.

Religious worship resembles a mob mentality in some ways. Mystic Alan Watts describes  the purpose of worship as attaining “unity through corporate self-forgetfulness”. Being in a large group helps us to surrender a little bit, and surrender, I think, is essential to effective worship. I know many Unitarians will be uncomfortable with this notion, but it’s a fact of human psychology that self-transcendence is easier in a crowd.

At a minimum, there is a sense of comfort that comes with being in a crowd of like-minded people. I have felt this at the UU annual General Assembly, not to mention at other churches, at sporting events, and at large public protests. And worship is just more likely to move us when we can unselfconsciously belt out The Spirit of Life, assured that the rest of the congregation will drown out our own disharmonious voices, than when there are just a few wavering voices backing us up.

Another reason we might want to grow our congregation is that more people (usually) means more money.  And having more money means we can do more of the things we want to do.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these reasons.  But I want to point out that none of these reasons is a reason for anyone else to want to come to our church on Sunday.  We may want more people to come to church so that our worship services will be better or we will have more money for church-approved projects, but those aren’t reasons for anyone else to actually want to come to the church.

But there is another reason why we might want our congregation to grow.  I have heard some members express the belief that Unitarian Universalism offers a saving vision for the world. And I agree. If everyone in the world lived by the UUA’s 7 Principles, the world would be a much better place.

But, here’s the question: Does anyone actually have to get out of bed and come to church on Sunday morning to make that happen? Given the percentage of Unitarian Universalists who themselves choose to stay in bed or do other things every Sunday (been there myself), I suggest that we have answered our own question. We ourselves don’t even seem to believe that church attendance is necessary, so why would we expect anyone else to think it is?

Why We’re Not Growing

And this brings us to the question of why we aren’t growing. Many, and maybe most, Unitarians are refugees from other, more conservative religions. We fled the dogmatism and intolerance of those religions, and we found a religious home in Unitarian Universalism. Meanwhile, general societal attitudes have been shifting in our direction for some time (though we should not ignore the recent reactionary resurgence of ideologies of hate). At the same time, interest in spirituality is actually growing. So it’s natural that we would expect that other people would want to come to a church where they aren’t told what to believe and where they are encouraged in their individual spiritual journeys.

But the fact is that most people don’t want that.  Attendance rates in liberal or liberalizing denominations have been declining for decades, while membership in conservative denominations has grown. The explanation is unavoidable: Most people prefer the security of the certain to the camaraderie of the questioning, even if that certainty is illusory.

But what about the growing number of “spiritual but not religious” people?  Most of them have discovered that they don’t need a church to be spiritual. Unitarian Universalism offers a community where people can believe what they want and seek spirituality on their own terms. But most people don’t need a church for that. They have the internet. They have yoga. They have Oprah. They have myriad other ways to be spiritual that don’t involve going to church.

What’s more, the Unitarian church comes encumbered by many of the trappings of the dogmatic religions which the spiritual-but-not-religious rejected: steeples and bells, pews and pulpits, organs and 19th century dirge-like hymns, and well … ministers.  If Unitarian Universalism rejects most of the substance of dogmatic religion, we have kept many of its forms. At worst, these are uncomfortable reminders of a painful past for many people. At best, they are unnecessary accoutrements.

The bottom line is this: If we want our church to grow, we have to give people a reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning. And most people will eventually realize that they can live a life consistent with UU values, without ever stepping inside a UU church. Which brings me to the number one reason I get out of bed on Sunday morning and come to church: I have responsibilities there.

So How Do We Grow?

Back in the 1980s, sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge tried to figure out why the religion had not disappeared from the American cultural landscape.  The secularization hypothesis–the idea that, as societies progress, they will become less religious–turned out to be inaccurate, at least in the U.S. Stark and Bainbridge sought out explain this using economic theory.

I’m not going to get into all of the details of their theory, but one of their findings was most interesting for our purposes: Religions which demand more of their members tend to be more successful.

“At first glance it would seem that costly demands must always make a religion less attractive. … On the contrary, costly demands strengthen a religious group in two ways. First, they create a barrier to group entry. No longer is it possible merely to drop in and reap the benefits of membership. To take part at all you must qualify by accepting the sacrifices demanded from everyone. Thus, high costs tend to screen out free riders–those potential members whose commitment and participation would otherwise be low. The costs act as non-refundable registration fees which, as in secular markets, measure seriousness of interest in the product. Only those willing to pay the price qualify.

“Secondly, high costs tend to increase participation among those who do join by increasing the rewards derived from participation. It may seem paradoxical that when the cost of membership increases, the net gains of membership increase too. However, this is necessarily the case with collectively produced goods. For example, an individual’s positive experience of a worship service increases to the degree that the church is full, the members participate enthusiastically (everyone joins in the songs and prayers) and others express very positive evaluations of what is taking place. Thus, as each member pays the costs of membership, each gains from higher levels of production of collective goods.

“Furthermore, for a religious group, as with any organization, commitment is energy. That is, when commitment levels are high, groups can undertake all manner of collective actions and these are in no way limited to the psychic realm. This is well illustrated by early Christianity. Because of their capacity to generate very high levels of commitment, the early Christian communities were bastions of mutual aid. … Thus, the fruits of this faith were not limited to the realm of the spirit, but offered much to the flesh as well–members were greatly rewarded here and now for belonging. Thus, while membership in the early church was expensive, it was, in fact, a bargain.”

— Rodney Stark, “Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail: A Revised General Model”, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 11, Issue 2 May 1996 , pages 133- 146.

It seems paradoxical, but as a general rule, the more a religion demands of its members, the more committed the members will be to the religion.  Consider the fact that church participation is highest among some of the most demanding religions in America— Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Evangelical Protestants–while Mainline Protestants and Catholics get only a fraction of the level of participation.

Is it any wonder than that Unitarian Universalism tends to generate low levels of commitment? It is very easy–I would even say too easy–to join our congregation. You just attend a few hours of classes and then you sign the book. After that, you can join a committee–or not. You can fulfill your pledge–or not. You can participate in worship services–or not. You can participate in one or more of the myriad ways in which we show our values to the world–or not. Unitarian Universalism offers many opportunities to give of our time and money, but we actually ask–much less demand–very little of people.

Having come from a very demanding religion (Mormonism), it irks me to watch my old faith grow at record rates, while my new faith flounders. And I am convinced that the difference lies in the fact that Mormonism demands a great deal from its members, while UUism demands very little. By way of comparison, here is an inexhaustive list of the things Mormons are expected to do:

  • pay 10% tithing
  • (mostly for males) dedicate 2 years to a proselytizing mission
  • attend 3-hour Sunday service attendance
  • attend other weekly church functions
  • fulfill one or more church “callings”, which are uncompensated positions, some of which approximate the time investment of a part-time job (Note, I did not say “volunteer”. Callings are given in the Mormon church, and while people can theoretically decline, they are expected to accept.)
  • visit other members of the church on a monthly basis
  • care for the sick and needy in the church (mostly applies to Mormon women)
  • attend the temple monthly
  • do family history research
  • study the Bible and other Mormon scripture daily
  • pray daily
  • hold weekly family devotionals
  • adhere to a highly demanding morality, including abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas, maintenance of a certain dress code, and abstaining from all extramarital sexuality, include masturbation

I am in no way suggesting that we Unitarian Universalists model ourselves after the Mormon church. But there is a lesson to be learned here. It is no accident that the most successful religions, like Mormonism, tend to be the most demanding ones. And it is no accident that Unitarian Universalism demands so little, and gets so little from its members.

Do We Really Want a Minister?

We are embarking on a search for a new minister. It is unclear whether our congregation can afford a full-time minister, or even a part-time minister. On the one hand, based on our current budget, the additional cost for a full time minister would only be about $5 a week from each enrolled member. However, our current budget significantly overestimated pledge revenue this year, raising the question whether we can afford even a part-time minister going forward.

Regardless, I believe that if we really wanted a minister (full-time or part-time), we would pay for them. But I don’t know if that’s what we really want.

I know that there are many people in the congregation who believe a full-time minister would be a panacea. They are convinced that new people do not come to or do not stay at our church because of the absence of a full-time minister. But I’m not convinced. I wonder if maybe a minister is just one those trappings of dogmatic religion that actually repels so many of the spiritual-but-not-religious.

I also know there are many people in the congregation who see our period of shared ministry as a failure. I have felt that way myself sometimes. But I would suggest that, to the extent that we did fail, it may have been because we really didn’t have a strong commitment to the idea of shared ministry. As a result, the bulk of the burden fell on just a few shoulders. And I wonder if at least part of the reason we weren’t committed to shared ministry was because we were effectively holding our breath for the appearance of a ministerial savior–one who, once again, did not materialize.

There’s three areas where I think there is a potential ministerial need–Sunday sermons, pastoral care, and congregational leadership–and I want to talk about each in turn.

1. Sunday Sermons

We actually do not need a minister to fulfill this function. We have already seen that, with the support of the rest of the congregation (a critical caveat), our worship ministry is capable of filling the pulpit with interesting and evocative speakers every Sunday.

The advantage of having visiting speakers (at least part of the time) is that we hear a diversity of voices, which is more likely to appeal to a diversity of listeners. I actually wonder, if we had a full time minister in the pulpit, if we wouldn’t actually lose more people if they did not appreciate that minister’s particular style.

2. Pastoral Care

We do not need a minister to fulfill this function either. I have been told that UU-trained ministers receive only a minimal amount of training in pastoral case and the bulk of their training is in theology. In a religion in which each member works out their own theology, I don’t understand why so much time is dedicated to it in UU seminary.  It is probably another one of the vestiges of dogmatic religion which the UUA has not shed.

In any case, while we don’t necessarily need a minister for this function, pastoral care is not something that lay people can do. For years I belonged to a church (Mormon) that delegated that responsibility to lay leaders. And the results are spiritually disastrous for individuals. We need someone trained in pastoral care, but it need not be a minister. Someone with a degree in counseling or therapy and a sensitivity to spiritual concerns could fulfill that function.

3. Congregational Leadership

We already have a lay leadership, which I am proud of. But there are some aspects of leadership which require specialized training. Fortunately, the UUA provides all kinds of training for lay members and for specialists.

If we decide that we do want to grow as a congregation, then we are going to start having to ask more of each other (see above). And I think we will need help doing that–trained help. That person need not be a minister, though. They could be a congregational coach, for example.

In fact, I wonder if having a minister would get in the way of us coming together as a congregation.  Maybe even holding the hope for a minister is something that keeping us stuck, keeping us from taking responsibility for our own congregation.

Looking Forward

We are entering the process of searching for a new minister. However, we have yet to receive any direction from the congregation as to what form that ministerial role should take. As we begin discussing what directions to give to the search committee, I ask you to consider the possibility of giving up the goal of a full-time, or even a part-time, minister. The things that are wrong with our congregation will not be fixed by having the same person in the pulpit every Sunday or every other Sunday. That kind of thinking is, frankly, pre-Millennial thinking.

What we do need is qualified pastoral care. What we do need is someone who is trained to help congregations grow together. What we do need is someone trained to help us do the hard work of coming to expect more of each other. I believe it’s time to move beyond the hope of a settled minister who will solve our problems. I believe it’s time to start getting creative about solving our own problems.

In faith and with love,

John Halstead


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