The word you're looking for is decimation

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Dan Harper ran some of the UU congregation membership numbers, following the close of the 2011 certification period. In order to have a voting representation at General Assembly, congregations must certify their operations (held elections and worship services) and their membership. They must also make a financial contribution.

This last one is important, as non-giving suggests an unspoken or non-public grievance, since I gather even a single dollar would qualify (if not be terribly useful). But that’s for another time. What we have now are fresh membership numbers.

Three observations, with the caveat that that the facts behind these seem so volatile that I wouldn’t make any predictions from them. I’m comparing the newly certified numbers with last year’s, including any congregations admitted in midyear.

  1. Some congregations grew quite well. On a percentage basis — and ruling out the very small and a federated churches as outliers — the top two are
    • Unitarian Universalist Church of Cortland (Cortland, N.Y.), to 57 from 31.
    • Sacred Journey Fellowship (Garland, Texas), to 41 from 26.


  2. But what of two congregations? I was pleased how easily last year’s last mapped to this year’s list, with two exceptions.
    • Rainier Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation (Seattle, Wash.), 45 members.
    • Universalist Church of Westbrook (Westbrook, Me.), 24 members.

    These churches have an expired domain and a calendar un-updated since 2008 respectively. Is it too much to think they disbanded, merged with another congregation or disaffiliated? And if so, why is it so hard to get information about former churches; this used to be announced like a life passage. I welcome news about these. [Later. Found this blog post that mentions Ranier Valley’s closure in passing. Near the bottom.]

  3. And the big news, which occasions such a miserable blog post title. 147 congregations lost 10% or more of its reported membership in the last year. Some of these members can be surely recovered, but it’s hard to account for the diminished morale in losing fellow church-members, not to mention the lost donations. Some of these congregations were very small to begin with, so it might only take a couple of people to loose 10%. Some, too, are federated and seem to be loosing their Unitarian or Universalist part. But these two groups (federated, and where 10% or more means 3 persons or fewer) is only 14 churches. And four congregations with more than 500 members in 2010 lost more than 100 members when reporting for 2011.
  4. Assuming the two lost congregations aren’t simply a case of clerical error (pun intended), then the net change from last year is 1,152. A loss of 1,152.

Two Danvilles, two Monroes and no church

A map by request. Here is where all those metropolitan areas without Unitarian Universalist congregations are. The usual caveats apply, but note how most are east of the population fall-off line around Interstate highway 35; these are not lost in the desert. Funny how there are two cities each named Danville (Illinois and Virginia) and Monroe (Louisiana and Michigan) on the list. Less is funny is that they’re on the list at all.

And even if Unitarian Universalists did exist like a mineral (at 6.6 parts per 10,000), there’s no reason why there wouldn’t be a medium-sized church in metro Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Why isn’t there one, or rather, why isn’t there help for the people of that and other cities?

View Larger Map

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.

Putting the congregational data project to bed; requests?

It’s been a fun series, crunching though United States towns and cities and matching them with Unitarian Universalist congregations. Feel free to comment away; I certainly will, since there are also issues about Unitarian Universalist culture implied there. Here are the blog posts, in reverse chronological order.

This was a trial run and a learning exercise for when the 2010 block-level Census data comes out in a few months, when we can pick up the fun in earnest. That said, is there any kind of data you’d like pulled out with respect to Unitarian Universalist congregations?

I’ll also have the basic spreadsheet I used to draw some of these conclusions available for download — once I add some meaningful headers. Go and do likewise.

Update. Download uua-congregations_data_20110111 (244 kb, CSV)

Next project: church administration tools for the smallest congregations.

A metropolis without Unitarian Universalists; no, dozens, really

Later. Title changed to its opposite to correctly reflect the facts herein. Oops.

Dear readers, to recap. I data-hacked the Unitarian Universalist Association directory and mapped it to Office of Management and Budget-defined areas: some metropolitan, some micropolitan, the balance rural. More or less. I wanted to find which low-population areas had Unitarian Universalist congregations and which high-population ones didn’t. I hoped to find insights, if not patterns, and have appreciated all the interest in this project.

So what is a metropolitan area? This is a county or counties, bound by commuting and social patterns, and having an urban core of 50,000 or more in population. I was frankly horrified to find dozens without Unitarian Universalist churches.

Two caveats:

  1. Some metropolitan areas are wedged between or nestled against areas that have churches, and could — if you made the point — be said to be evangelized. But these should be noted as opportunties for growth. The largest of the bunch is Vallejo, California (2009 pop. est. 123,109) in the Bay Area. It is neatly ringed by congregations, except to the east, and none is its county (Solano; 2009 pop. est. 407,234) and none closer than ten miles. For somebody’s to-do list.
  2. Then there is Puerto Rico. There’s only a single emerging congregation in the whole commonwealth, and it has only 10 members. Given that lack and its particular history and cultures, a Puerto Rican strategy — and its 6 completely unserved metropolitan areas — should be considered separately.

So within the 70 unserved metropolitan areas, I’ve worked down from the top and found 8 significant cities with no church within 25 miles, some with none within 50 miles and one with no church even in 100 miles. Let’s think on these first.

But here are those stats:

Fort Smith, AR-OK Metropolitan Statistical Area 293063 pop.
Holland-Grand Haven, MI Metropolitan Statistical Area 261957
Laredo, TX Metropolitan Statistical Area 241438 nor one within 100 miles
Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 202973 nearest in New Orleans
Lake Charles, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 194138 nor within 50 miles
Joplin, MO Metropolitan Statistical Area 174300 nor within 50 miles
Monroe, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 174086 nor within 50 miles
Jacksonville, NC Metropolitan Statistical Area 173064

I drove to Fort Smith from Tulsa during my internship, feeling the loss — such as it is — even then. But the three in Louisiana are even more interesting.

I’ll revisit this list after the 2010 census numbers come out. The full list of ungathered metropolitan areas in alphabetical follow under the fold.
Continue reading “A metropolis without Unitarian Universalists; no, dozens, really”

A word about rural churches

I was going to move directly to metropolitan areas, but thought I would detour first to those congregations that are neither in metropolitan or micropolitan areas. That is, rural churches. These are very few — only about 5% of all Unitarian Universalists congregations — and most (from personal knowledge) are in small towns, not in open country. Indeed, I was ordained by one, in Canon, Georgia.

The full list, plus notes, below the fold.

Continue reading “A word about rural churches”

The largest micropolis without a Unitarian Universalist congregation

So if you wanted to fill in the largest places that don’t have a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where would you start? This is a continuation of the series I begun yesterday.

First, some caveats. Would Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City, be considered its own entity, or given its population — 2.3 million; bigger than 15 states and the District of Columbia — count each neighborhood as an entity? There’s a single Unitarian Universalist congregation in Flushing. So what about Astoria or Sunnyside or Jamaica, for example? (And there are none in the Bronx; with 1.4 million people and more populous than Hawai’i.)

And not all metropolitan areas have Unitarian Universalist congregations; I’m working up a list next. And I’ll leave aside the thorny issue found in many places and in all denominations about congregations that have essentially stopped engaging with their communities and so can hardly be thought to serve them.

That brings us back to the micropolitan list, which, to review, is a county or contiguous group of counties, with an urban core between 10,000 and 50,000 in population. Some are scarcely above 10,000, while others function as diffuse suburbs without a large core: more like a network of towns or settlements than a metropolis. Some of these are adjacent to larger metropolitan areas; some aren’t.

Strictly by the list, and noting what’s on the UUA site, the largest unserved micropolitan area is Hilo, Hawai’i, on the Big Island, with a 2009 estimated population of 177,835. (Indeed, the only member congregation in the state is on Oahu.) But I recalled that many year ago that there was a district-affiliated fellowship there. And when I searched I found the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Puna, claiming about 25 members. Bless them and their work.

The second-largest on the list has a better — or would that be worse? — claim, anyway. There are no congregations in an area of North Carolina from the northern suburbs of Charlotte to the south, and the cities of Winston-Salem and Greensboro to the north. Interstate highway 85 runs between the two points, and on this line you’ll find Lexington, home of the famous barbecue, twinned with Thomasville, famous for furniture manufacture and together anchoring Davidson County (2009 population estimate 158,582). There is no Unitarian Universalist congregation there. Neither is there one in Salisbury, in Rowan County (2009 area population estimate 140,798) bordering to the southwest. It’s number seven on the unserved micropolitan list. And forget that poor blighted (former) “city of looms” Kannapolis, though arguably its close enough to Charlotte to be within its ecclesiastical orbit.

Admittedly, I have a personal interest. My husband’s alma mater is in Salisbury, but it seems strange that such a well-connected and populated pair of areas have not churches of our fellowship.

For more marvels, see the next 20 list of ungathered micropolitan areas, with their 2009 estimated populations and how many Unitarian Universalist congregations are within 25 miles (as the crow flies), below the fold.  Albany, Oregon may be close enough to Corvallis to allow a pass, but the rest of these are functionally unserved.
Continue reading “The largest micropolis without a Unitarian Universalist congregation”

The Unitarian Universalist micropolitan area breakdown

How small a town can support a Unitarian Universalist congregation? In time, I hope to answer this, but for the moment want to consider the middle scale of United States habitations: the micropolis.

As I’ve mentioned before, a micropolitan area “consists of one or more counties and includes the counties containing the core urban area, as well as any adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.” (Cite, with data products) The urban core area of a micropolitan area, as opposed to a metropolitan area, has at least 10,000 but fewer than 50,000 persons. In a less statistical frame, we might call them small cities or market towns, with the understanding that they include outlying areas. Mount Pilot, and by extension Mayberry, say. There are 581 micropolitan areas in the United States.

I spent much of the New Year’s Day weekend grapling with UUA membership list and OMB and Census data to connect main congregational address zip codes with Census Bureau Statistical Area code, and thence to those identifying micropolitan area. (Some other time I’ll filter out which congregations are in metropolitan area, and which area in rural areas.) Yes, there may be some errors, and when I publish my data files, I would appreciate your review and comment.

Remarkably, there are 186 Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations in 157 micropolitan areas. Yes, some areas have more than one congregation and in one case there’s a cluster of congregations. Most of these congregations are among the smallest in the UUA, but it should make us a bit more grateful and graceful towards those who can continue a ministry in less-populated areas and often at quite a distance from other congregations.

There are plenty of interesting statistics, but after all that work, I don’t want to give them up all at once.

So what’s the smallest micropolitan area with a UUA-member congregation?
Continue reading “The Unitarian Universalist micropolitan area breakdown”