Numbers can obscure as much as they reveal, especially when it comes to measuring congregational growth, so I generally encourage congregational leaders to focus on the tangible things their congregations can do to serve people’s needs and let the numbers take care of themselves.  Nevertheless, measurement is important to get a sense of how we’re doing.  Using data from the annual certification process for congregations, which is one of our most reliable sources of information, staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association study the statistics looking for indicators of recent developments and longer-term trends.

One lens we use in looking for trends is congregational size. It’s important to remember that, while enormously valuable in understanding congregational dynamics, church size categories represent “regions” of size and not absolute markers of difference.  Yet by identifying differences between congregations of differing size, we hope to find opportunities, discover challenges, and try to better understand what factors drive the differences.

In looking for statistically relevant changes, we’ve identified a 3% change (positive or negative) as the benchmark for comparing annual fluctuations at a congregational level. Variations of less than 3% in a single year are relatively common and not necessarily a cause for either concern or applause, unless the trend continues in a single direction for three or more years and the cumulative number exceeds 5%.  By contrast, variations exceeding 3% in a single year usually indicate that “something’s up,” unless they can be attributed to “delayed housekeeping.”

With this in mind, here’s a snapshot of the numbers for 2012 compared with the previous year:

  • The average size of a UU congregation’s adult membership is presently 148, which is down from a peak of 151 in 2007 but still higher than the baseline figure of 144 in 1998.
  • 28.2% of our congregations reported annual increases of adult membership exceeding 3% in 2012, but they were more than offset by 32.9% of our congregations reporting declines in excess of 3%.  38.9% of congregations were within the normative range of fluctuation, although small declines outnumbered small increases in this zone.
  • Declines exceeding 3% were significantly more common among fellowships (1-60 adult members) and midsize churches (161-300) than other size categories, with more than 37% of congregations in each category reporting declines of this magnitude.
  • Growth exceeding 3% was most common among large program churches (401-600), with  37.5% of congregations reporting growth of that magnitude, followed by midsize churches (161-300), with 29.6% achieving that level of growth.
  • The presence of midsize churches as a leading category for both growth and decline suggests that this is a relatively volatile category for membership when compared to others.  It suggests both opportunities and problems to solve.

In examining decade-long trends, we look at variations in excess of 10% and 20%, either way, as significant benchmarks.  Variations of less than 10% over the course of a decade are usually indicative of a plateau, since the annual changes involved are incremental.  When the trend is upward, it may indicate a consolidation phase, while downward trends will generally indicate a certain staleness or lack of energy in the congregation.  Increases of between 10% and 20% generally show a congregation that is relatively healthy, stable and quietly welcoming, while decreases of a similar range suggest that there are likely important problems to be addressed in the congregation, even if most of the change can be attributed to external demographics. When net growth exceeds 20% in a ten-year period, it’s almost always an indication of robust health and innovative leadership, while declines exceeding 20% suggest that there are major problems to be addressed and the congregation’s future viability may well be in doubt, especially if it was a smaller congregation to begin with.

Here’s how our congregations have fared over the last decade:

  • The decade-long trend shows that 22% of our congregations have declined in adult membership by more than 20% over the past decade and an additional 12.7% have declined by between 10% and 20%, which means that fully one-third of our congregations have declined beyond a level that can be attributed to normal fluctuation. The percentage of declining congregations peaks among fellowships (1-60), with 43.4% reporting declines in excess of 10%.  The best-performing category is that of large churches (550+) but, even among these congregations, one-quarter have reported declines of 10% or more.
  • 37.8% of large churches (550+) have reported increases in adult membership exceeding 20% during the past decade, followed by small churches (61-160) at 29.1%.  Fellowships (1-60) and awkward-size churches (301-400) bring up the rear at 17.7% and 19.6% respectively.

How does your own congregation compare with other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States?  More importantly, what are the major factors that have contributed to your congregation’s growth or decline?

About the Author
Stefan Jonasson
  • Janine Larsen

    Really interesting. What strategies for UU leaders (not just congregational leaders) do you recommend in supporting growth, given these stats? Anything specific to pay attention to, particularly given size correlations in numerical growth & decline?

  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    Strategies? I’m not sure they’re facing up to the facts yet.

    • Albatross

      What are the “facts”? These numbers just looked to me like reflections of increasing urbanization – the large churches grew, the small churches shrank. What do you see beyond that?

  • Angela Pineiro

    Just wondering if “awkward-sized” is now an official descriptor for the 301 – 400 congregation membership and if so, what factors make it so?

  • Albatross

    The UUA needs marketing like a thirsty man needs water. We’re a great denomination, but we pretend we’re too difficult to explain when people ask about us. This is nonsense, of course – we need to stop telling ourselves silly stories about the inscrutability of our denomination or our superiority to plebian pursuits such as marketing, and put together a solid campaign to tell America and the world who UUs are and what we do. Right now our best advertisement is Garrison Keillor, who mocks UUs and thereby actually informs the world we exist. We can do better than that. Look at the Mormon adverts for their own faith. We can do better than those.

  • Michael Hebert

    A few thoughts:

    1) The most cogent statement in the article is the lead statement, “Numbers can obscure as much as they reveal, especially when it comes to measuring congregational growth, so I generally encourage congregational leaders to focus on the tangible things their congregations can do to serve people’s needs and let the numbers take care of themselves.”

    So what is it that the “successful”, growing congregations are doing that “serves the people’s needs”?

    2) The article does provide some “benchmarks” that might trigger a change of direction for a particular congregation, such as a drop in membership of 20% or more, but by the time that statistic is determined, Elvis may have already left the buidling!