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.

    Congratulations.

  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.

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

9 thoughts on “The word you’re looking for is decimation

  1. Rainier Valley officially merged with the West Seattle Unitarian Univeralist Congregation, unfortunately a couple weeks before I moved to Seattle. With that being said, there are three or four UU congregations in the greater Seattle metro area, so I would not mourn this one too heavily – the next closest church to the old Rainier Valley site has a membership of 1000 (University Unitarian Church, http://uuchurch.org)

  2. @David. I don’t quite get your question. The figure comes from the difference between last year’s numbers and this year’s.

    If you’re asking why, I suspect it’s a combination of member culling to keep the UUA contribution law, and loss of dispirited people. But such guesses aren’t all that helpful.

  3. I think the issue is more one of culling numbers than loosing dispirited members. I’ve seen two churches go through such trimming in the past couple of years (although in both cases, the impact was masked by actual growth). In a strong economy, a congregation can afford to carry inactive members, but when the economy tanks as it has in the last couple of years, that burden is harder to bear as endowments shrink and unemployed and underemployed members are forced to cut back on their donations.

    Not saying that dispirited people don’t leave, but that strikes me as more of an on-going issue, and those people are probably carried on the rolls as inactive during when congregations don’t have to watch their pennies so closely.

  4. The thing to watch for would be a multi-year trend. Such losses can not be dismissed as the product of culling inactive members, if such a trend follows year-on-year. If that would prove to be the case, some soul searching questions are in order.

  5. This is an anecdotal data point which isn’t even on your map, since it comes from the UCC, but it might be instructive. The congregation I’m a member of did a very recent culling of members who had been inactive not to reduce our contribution to the UCC (it works differently – the UCC contribution is entirely voluntary, and is generally a percentage of giving) but to make quorum in congregational meetings more easily. Given that we have the same congregational polity, some UU congregations could be doing that as well.

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