Red flags lower about best growing churches

Philocrites, in the last entry, picked up on the probable red-flags in the “top 36′ list. I knew that James Reeb Unitarian Universalist, Madison, Wisconsin, would falls off the list as it reported large membership losses.

But Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, Chatham, Massachusetts, stood out more. A UU congregation founded in Massachusetts in 1988? That had to be a merger.

It isn’t, an in fact an article from Interconnections from 2002 suggests why they thrived, and why if you read between the lines, with leadership, this might work elsewhere.

Time to re-sort the biggest growers list

Philocrites, in two postings, announced the thirty-six greatest growing congregations, and rather plainly points out how few congregations make up the bulk of the UUA’s net growth.

The problem with the lists is that it depends upon UUA data that seems to reset the clock at when a church is founded. But this includes a church being renamed or reconfigured, but not started from scratch. Fair being fair, I think a few of the thirty-six should be removed and some “honorable mentions” should be brought forward. After all, I want to know what churches are really growing because they may have lessons worth reproducing.

So, let’s look at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Poway, California. While the UUA database records it as being founded in 2000, it is in fact a merger of two pre-existing congregations: the Chalice Unitarian Universalist Church and the Inland North County Fellowship, of Rancho Bernando. (This is recorded online with the UUA Board of Trustees minutes of January 22-23, 2000.) A fair accounting would see what the 1993 memberships of both congregations were, and calculate the difference between that sum and its current membership. I doubt it would make the top group. Do recall this church in your prayers, though, as it was one affected by last year’s fires.

The Atkinson Memorial Church, Oregon City, Oregon, is a bit trickier. Until recently, it was jointly a member with the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, but has since droppped that membership. Perhaps part of its growth is due to accounting for members formerly accredited to the NACCC. A fair accouting would compare its current reported membership with its full membership in 1993.

UUA certification now above 350

With more than 350 UUA member congregations certified, a bad trait is showing up. Including a formerly dormant church now a member, but excluding three Canadian churches that left the UUA (so giving the most favorable numbers possible) the aggragate growth is a puny 811 persons in congregations equaling 37,918 members.

The good news is that there are two more “what are they doing?” churches worth noting:

Bell Street Chapel, Providence, Rhode Island, grew from 82 to 104 members, an increase of 26.8% Good going!

Unitarian Universalist Church, Fargo and Moorhead, North Dakota, grew from 66 to 84 members, an increase of 27.3% That’s great news. (A product of their construction project, or a cause of it, I wonder? Click here for pictures)

UUA running tally

Continuing the thread Philocrites started, I’ve found it interesting that, after 287 congregations have reported that 41 report the exact same number as they did last year. That’s about one in six. “No growth, but no decline,” you say, and thus no foul. Perhaps. But it also suggests that the statistics were just rolled over from last year. (I’ve been guilty of this myself.)

Bad stats are not in-and-of-themselves bad, but it does speak to a certain inattention to mission. God knows we suffer from a shyness to mission to begin with; we don’t need to reinforce the habit.

So, here’s my offer. If you’ve lost members, say so. (A couple of certified congregations clearly had new members join, and recertified with one or two more. That’s the spirit!) We can all be glad next year when the 2005 figures show growth from where you really are.

For those counting, with 287 congregations reporting, the UUA has a net increase of 835 members.

UUA growth, so far

With 157 congregations reporting, my own database shows a rather thin net increase between those congregations of 773 members. This is particularly bad since 310 of these are from the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

First Universalist, Minneapolis and White Bear U. U., Mahtonedi, Minnesota are the top two gainers, so far, reporting 79 and 65 new net members respectively.

I’ll report back when 250 or more congregations report to the UUA.

Early returns for UUA growth

Philocrites has been reviewing the top thirty-six congregations in the UUA, as regards total membership growth.

Presently, UUA member congregations are notifying the mother ship “25” of their membership numbers and other statistics.

Of the fifty-eight congregations that have so far (earlier today) sent in numbers, thirty-one have grown (390 new members in all) and only seventeen have lost (a total of 211) members, leaving a net gain of 179.

Not earth-shattering, but better than shrinking.

Update. 12 January. With seventy-five congregations reporting, another thirteen congregations have reported increases (91 members) and another three congregations have reported decreases (76 members) giving a net gain of 15, or 194 so far.

Pathways Church pool

Watch and Pray notes the new website of the intentional large-church start in Tarrant County (Ft. Worth area), Texas called Pathways Church

He says: “I am curious to see how it all flies? I’ll be conservative, and at this time predict a middlin’ success. Maybe a membership of 300, which would be good, but not the 900+ member church the UUA wants.”

I’m less sanguine. If anyone wants to start a betting pool, I take 195 members for the number Pathways Church certifies as membership in 2008; a bit less than five years from now.

2008 April 24. I lose. 94.

Unitarians and Universalists outside the UUA

Earlier, I mentioned the possibility of a Universalist church outside the UUA. As it happens, there are several, though not nearly as many (who opted out of joining the UUA) as there once were. Some died; some became Community Churches and lost their Universalist identity.

One of the survivors — Universalist and Christian, and dear to me — is Rockwell Universalist Church, Winder, Georgia.

Some — well, so far, one — Unitarian church(es) are in the American Unitarian Conference while an case for independence is made by the [2009. defunt,] Wasatch Front Unitarian Fellowship “an Independent Unitarian Presence in Utah”

Some Unitarian Universalist congregations, especially out west, seem to have a relationship with a UUA district, but aren’t members of the UUA. Whether these small groups ever plan to join the UUA is unclear. I’ve put the names of a couple (with membership numbers in parentheses) in the extended entry.
Continue reading “Unitarians and Universalists outside the UUA”

Polity quandries and the UUA Bylaws

Disclosure #1: In my hypothetical church planting exercises, I believe that UUA membership would be desirable, but not essential, to the welfare of the church.

Disclosure #2: Rules — in this case the UUA bylaws — are not made to be broken, but imagination must be applied to them, so as the negative parts of the culture behind the rules do not taint the new work and mission. In other words, there is more than one way to read the UUA bylaws and still stay true to them and Universalist Christian church planting.

Disclosure #3: I believe that any new Universalist Christian church needs to rest on the Winchester Profession, even if there is a local profession built on top of it.

Now, to the UUA Bylaws.

Section C-1.1. Name. The name of this Association shall be Unitarian Universalist Association. It is the successor to the American Unitarian Association, which was founded in 1825 and incorporated in 1847, and the Universalist Church of America, which was founded in 1793 and incorporated in 1866.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

Section C-3.1. Member Congregations. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a voluntary association of autonomous, self-governing local churches and fellowships, referred to herein as member congregations, which have freely chosen to pursue common goals together.

Section C-3.2. Congregational Polity. Nothing in these Bylaws shall be construed as infringing upon the congregational polity or internal self-government of member congregations, including the exclusive right of each such congregation to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, and to control its own property and funds. Any action by a member congregation called for by these Bylaws shall be deemed to have been taken if certified by an authorized officer of the congregation as having been duly and regularly taken in accordance with its own procedures and the laws which govern it.

*Section C-3.3. Admission to Membership. A church or fellowship may become a member congregation upon acceptance by the Board of Trustees of the Association of its written application for membership in which it subscribes to the principles of and pledges to support the Association. The Board of Trustees shall adopt rules to carry out the intent of this Section.

See also

Rule 3.3.5. Rules and Regulations for New Congregations. It is essential that Unitarian Universalist congregations be affirmative in spirit, inclusive in fellowship, and mutually supportive in their relationships with other congregations. The following statements represent the Association’s best judgment as to the meaning of this general statement and shall be used by staff and the Board in determining action upon applications for membership.

. . .

(b) The Association interprets its statements of purpose to mean that no congregation can be accepted into membership if its bylaws exclude from its local membership any person because of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin.

(c) All member congregations must be congregational in polity; the final authority to make decisions must be vested in the legal membership of the congregation.
. . .

My questions are

  1. What constitutes a creedal test? Do organic polity documents of a UUA predecessor have special status? Is the Principles and Purposes, if individual acceptance is made a qualification for congregational membership, a creedal test?
  2. In what ways do the highly centralized habits of Unitarian congregationalism and de facto congregationalism of Universalist semi-presbyterianism influence the current practice of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism? And more, what does it mean to have congregational polity without an understanding of the “headship of Christ”? Does the UUA secretariat assume some of the spiritual character of unifying the congregational churches in its fellowship?
  3. Unitarian Universalists today use terms that have different meanings –congregation, church, parish, society — as synonyms, and apply a specific meaning to one term — fellowship — for adminstrative, but not ecclesiastic, reasons. What kind of polity, befitting a Universalist Christian church, would come from a clearer understanding of these distinct ecclesiastic terms?
  4. Likewise, what if we made clearer distinctions between language of theological identity, like creed, affirmation, profession, confession, and the like?

[Spelling corrections made. SW.]

Some telling statistics from the UUA

God bless restless energy and the technology to re-format some information the UUA has on its website.

I stuffed the last UUA congregational certification numbers the membership numbers congregations use in making an annual report for GA, plus the latest available membership numbers for the churches that didn’t certify, minus the Canadian congregations that have since disaffiliated from the UUA into a spreadsheet. Note: there is one existing congregation for which I cannot find good membership numbers.

That said, some facts.

There are 1059 congregations in or approaching membership in the UUA, including the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) and twenty-five “emerging” congregations, the latter which I account as having zero members.

Together, this makes 157,267 adult members. The CLF is the biggest “congregation” (2762 members) but since it is in a category by itself, the “biggest church award” goes to First Unitarian Society, Madison, Wisconsin, with 1300 members.

Remove the CLF and the emerging congregations and you have 1,034 congregations.

The largest 3% (31 congregations; sized 587-1300) have 24,371 members.

The smaller 50% (517 congregations; sized 3-93!) have 23,310 members.

OK, I get desire for large congregations, though I do question the ability for a small-church denomination to accomplish this (including raising the money and managing jealousies) better than organizing more mid-sized churches that make up the middle two-thirds of the UUA collective membership. Not to mention the covenant made among the members of the UUA, and the resources left to fulfill it.

Enough for now. Want a statistic? Ask in the comments.