How Do We Compare?

How do we compare?

Stefan Jonasson and I tracked down the membership data for five other comparable liberal and mainline denominations and compared it with ours over a fifteen-year period.  For those faith families with several denominational bodies, we selected the more liberal representative groups for comparison — i.e., Evangelical Lutheran Church of America for the Lutherans, United Methodist Church for the Methodists, and Presbyterian Church USA for the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.


Stefan and Tandi  Stefan and Tandi love to geek out over numbers and graphs.  Don’t judge.

These days, a picture is worth more than 1,000 words

LovestatehouseUUSC“The web is going visual.” If you follow media trends at all, then you’ve heard this refrain again and again over the last few years: “It’s all about the visuals.”

And you’ve seen it happening, on your favorite websites. As visually-based platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Vine grow and grow – right along with our ability to capture and share images instantly – the social web is flooded with competing visual content.

According to Buzzfeed, every minute web users are:

  • Uploading 208,300 photos to Facebook
  • Liking 510,000 photos on Instagram
  • Uploading 100 hours of video to YouTube

Why? Because we humans like it. Psychological research shows that human brains process images 60,000 times faster than text, and we SanJoseHeartsremember information presented visually far more accurately.

Moreover, giving people what they like works – web users interact with visuals at much higher rates. According to Jessica Gioglio, co-author of The Power of Visual Storytelling, “Posts with an album or photo drive up to 180% more engagement than those without, and viewers spend 100% more time on web pages with videos.”

What does it mean for UUs?

If we want people to hear our life-giving message, we need to learn to compete within these visual media. We need to cooperate strategically, in order to collect and curate and share our most compelling images, so that more people can see our life-giving message in action.

Does your congregation’s (or UU organization’s) website feature vibrant images? Does it show smiling, diverse UUs of all ages in action – worshiping, learning, singing, hugging, marching, and having fun?


How about your Facebook page – are you sharing great new images at least weekly?

Do you have a robust photo permissions policy in place that allows you to share great photos on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and more?

Share and share alike

As Online Strategist for the UUA, I’ve been encouraging UUA departments to reassess their approach to image-sharing. Now I’m hoping to foment a movement-wide change, in three parts:

  1. Ask congregations and UU organizations to adopt a permissions policy that allows for sharing by all UU organizations, such as shown in this suggested form.
  2. Collect images in Flickr groups open to all UU organizations.
  3. Run monthly photo contests that
  • build up our common photo resourceskids planting at ASC Boston
  • get UUs across the country voting (and talking/sharing about favorites) online
  • reward images that best capture our UU take on themes such as Faith Development, Courageous Love, Forgiveness, and the Meaning of Life.

You can help

With a little creative thinking, we can meet the challenge of the visual web together.  Please ask your congregation to consider this new permissions policy, then take photos and share to our UUA Flickr group. And be sure to enter or vote on this month’s photo contest.

Our congregations are chock-full of both interesting people doing interesting things and willing photo-snappers and –sharers.  If we can get them together and get those images online, we’ll be showing our message to the world.  And growing our influence.



SusannePhotoA former editor at Ms. magazine and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Susanne Skubik Intriligator has served as the UUA’s Online Strategist since September 2013. Her experimental position comes to an end after GA 2014, and then she’ll get back to completing her PhD dissertation in digital media, parenting her three kids, and helping out at the local Unitarian congregation she helped to found. She lives in Bangor, Wales. Contact her at

Future of (Our) Faith

Future of Faith picCarey McDonald is one of those innovators and collaborators growing our faith beyond silos and traditional boundaries who I love to dream with. Whenever I’m in Boston we set aside a chunk of time to play into the following questions:

1. “If we were in charge …”  and then we excitedly spill out possibilities with no regard to our current authority or resources at our disposal. Note that the “what” of our charge shifts at our creative whim. Sometimes we’re in charge of the UUA. Sometimes we’re in charge of the world.

Sometimes the imagination playground is inspired by a book we’ve both read.  Last year Carey turned me on to American Grace by Robert Putnam, and that still makes appearances in our conversation.

2. “However, we aren’t in charge.  And we still can …” is the second, perhaps most important part of our exploration. We get real with what is our current authority and responsibility and “our work.”  Accessible resources magically sparkly with new and variant possibilities. Partners within and outside our system become apparent.  Strategies begin to take form.  We both come away feeling energized and inspired by our partnership.

I encourage you to seek out a partner to try these questions within the context of your leadership.  Don’t go to the most obvious partner in your system. But do find someone who is also passionate about growing our faith and is clear in the mission of your community.

Sometimes Carey and I try ideas out with each other that aren’t quite word-ripe, or we show each other pieces that we’re just putting the finishing touches on.  Future of Faith: Unitarian Universalism and the Millennial Generation is a presentation that is stunning and smart and right on. Carey’s been thinking about the Future of (Our) Faith for a long time.  This presentation brings it all together!  (Note: there is no sound and you move the presentation along with the arrows at the bottom.)

Please tell us what jumps out at you in the comments. What excites you? Gives you frown lines? And feel free to share the presentation.  I think this would be a great piece to show at a board meeting or staff retreat.


cmcdonald_headshotCarey McDonald is the mind behind Future of our Faith.  Carey joined the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries in the summer of 2011. He most recently worked as the staff director for a statewide advisory body, the Ohio School Funding Advisory Council, where he has focused on education reform, educational equity and “closing the achievement gap.” He has also worked as a budget analyst, policy advisor and legislative aide, and has considerable experience in political campaigns and organizing. Throughout his varied career, Carey has focused on creating a world more just through a community more loving, and is excited to bring that inclusive approach to the helm of the Youth and Young Adult Ministries Office.

Carey is a seventh-generation Unitarian Universalist who was active as a youth with Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). He is formerly a member of the Ohio-Meadville District Youth/Adult Council, was active as a youth in Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), and served three times as a delegate to General Assembly. Before moving to Boston, he was an active young adult in his congregation in Columbus, Ohio, as a member of the Young Adult Covenant Group and chair of the church’s Annual Budget Drive. He also has served in recent years as a lay member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Carey has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Economics from Pomona College in Claremont, CA. He lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with his wife, Sarah.

How Can My Congregation Become a Breakthrough Congregation?

breakthroughI can say with authority that none of the 52 Breakthrough Congregations developed a strategic plan to become a designated Breakthrough Congregation.  They didn’t set out on a mission to become a Breakthrough Congregation. And yet one of the most asked questions I get in the Unitarian Universalist Growth Office is, “how can my congregation become a Breakthrough Congregation?”


This is how I want to answer that question:

  • Do “religious community” well.
  • Be yourself intentionally, joyfully, and impact-fullly.
  • Live your saving message in bold, generous, loving ways inside your walls.
  • Live your saving message in bold, generous, loving ways outside your walls.

But you don’t need me to tell you all that.  Read their stories in the UU World or watch their videos.  It’s all in there. I believe their stories can spark your imagination as to what your work is to become a Breakthrough Congregation.


And yet I know what most people mean by the original question is really, “how are Breakthrough Congregations chosen?”  Here’s how…


There is a stellar BTC Advisory:


The BTC Advisor watches and “collects” congregations all year. Congregations that have captured our attention go in the hopper. When people like you nominate a particular congregation, they go in the hopper.  I’ll ask District and Regional Staff in late spring who they think should be considered. Those congregations go in the hopper.


Then I take all those congregations in the hopper and compile quantitative data on them. The BTC Advisory takes this list and we peruse their websites, newsletters, area news. We ask UUA staff that have worked with them in the last couple of years about their story, their breakthrough and vibrancy.


What we’re looking for is a teaching story about each congregation’s breakthrough. We know we’re on to something when a headlines jumps into our imagination.


In August the Advisory is convened virtually.  We make a round of votes and see what patterns arise. Who are the favorites? Which congregations got no votes. And we debrief what that all mean.


Then we talk about what we’ve seen in the last year — what are the stories our (Unitarian Universalist) people need to hear, see, experience?  What do our people need to learn?  What kinds of growth do we need to hold up in light of all that?  And we go back to the list with deeper conversation.


And then more rounds of voting happen, not in the spirit of the most votes “win,” but rather where is the group’s yearning?  By then, we’re in a consensus groove. We choose a top 4 with a 5th in the wing in case something happens to one of the 4 that effect the power of the story.


Chris Walton, Executive Editor of the UU World, then assigns the quarter each congregation will most like be featured and a reporter to go spend a chunk of time with the congregation.  I give the information from our discernment to the reporter and then let it go. They go find the story they experience. Right before the story goes public, Mark Bernstein creates the study guide, and it all gets posted in the Growing UU blog with links on  Before it goes live the Public Relations folks at the UUA contact the congregation to see if they need help with press releases and such.


And that is how the Breakthrough Congregations get chosen.  … So, what is your breakthrough? What is your teaching story? What is your headline?


Tandi Headshot GATandi Rogers convenes the BTC Advisory.  She also waits on the steps for the UU World to come and flips through to the BTC article every month with wild anticipation.

Staffing For Growth: Finding the Right Balance

When adding staff, it’s important for congregations to strive for balance. For instance, the gifts and talents of an associate minister should ideally complement those of the senior minister. It is also important to strike a balance between maintenance positions, which serve the needs of current members, and growth positions, which expand the congregation’s ministry. Yet another need is to balance relationally motivated staff with task-oriented staff.

In a nutshell, maintenance positions tend to support the administrative needs and organizational infrastructure of a congregation. Such positions include administrators, bookkeepers and other office staff, of course, but they may also include positions like pastoral care workers and parish nurses—even membership personnel, if their work is focused more on administrative than programmatic responsibilities. These positions are often task oriented and those who fill them tend to meet their responsibilities on their own, assisted by few volunteers, if any. They serve existing members, for the most part, and help to keep the institution on an even keel.

By contrast, growth-oriented positions are more likely to serve both newcomers and existing members equally well. They nurture the spiritual development of congregants and focus more on organizing programs and ministries than sustaining the institution itself. They typically have a more relational focus and, ideally, most of these positions seek to organize volunteers in support of the mission and ministry of the congregation. Growth-oriented positions typically include ordained ministers, educators, community organizers and membership directors (especially when they function like “cruise directors”).

In real life, almost any position can lean in either direction. Sometimes ministers get trapped in institutional maintenance, while at other times administrators find themselves ministering to significant numbers of congregants and newcomers. Every growth-oriented position has a certain element of maintenance that goes with the job, while every maintenance-oriented position will also contain a growth imperative. The important thing is to get the balance right and, overall, to emphasize serving people over simply taking care of business.

The staffing needs of a church are not met simply by complying with a formula, however sound. Staff must be empowered with the authority necessary to accomplish the goals developed for their positions. This can be a growing edge for some Unitarian Universalists. It can be especially challenging when staff assume tasks and responsibilities that formerly fell to committees.

Staff also function best within an environment where the lines of authority are clear. The ideal staff is one that functions as a team, where goals are shared, communications are clear, and working relationships are collaborative. But all good teams have leaders and the natural team leader in any size of congregation will almost always be the minister—or senior minister, in the case of congregations with more than one.

However we may feel about the increased reliance on paid staff in our churches, there can be little doubt that the quality of congregational life is enhanced by an adequate, balanced, well-trained, fairly compensated and strongly motivated church staff.

Paul Nickerson Highlights Growth Conference in Taunton

Have you thought about growing your church?  Are you excited about Unitarian Universalism, and looking for ways to let others know about our spiritual communities and all the wonderful things that go on there?  First Parish Church in Taunton, Massachusetts, is hosting a conference, “Growth: Strategies for Your Congregation” on October 26 to 27. The Taunton congregation welcomes Unitarian Universalists from far and wide to attend this ecumenical conference, which will focus on:

  • Understanding your community.
  • Understanding the current realities facing your congregation.
  • Seeing your congregation’s mission field differently.
  • Designing events that will enhance hospitality.
  • Developing networking strategies.
  • Building teams for growth and creating a plan for going forward.

Paul Nickerson, their presenter, has a proven track record of helping churches grow in both number and vitality.  An experienced UCC minister, he is a senior consultant to the Griffith Coaching Network and has worked with many denominations.  Peter Bowden, a television producer and church consultant, will also be presenting on Social Media in our time.

When? – Friday, October 26, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., and Saturday, October 27, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Where? – First Parish Church in Taunton, 76 Church Green, Taunton, Massachusetts.

How much? – $125 per person or $350 for a team of four.

Please register by Saturday, October 20, 2012.

Contact First Parish Church in Taunton (508-822-2107 or for more information.  Or go to and register today!


Conference Brochure: Taunton Growth Conference

About the Main Presenter: About Paul Nickerson


Staffing For Growth: A Simple Formula

“How much paid staff does our congregation really need?” This question comes up repeatedly when I work with the leaders of congregations of every size. Each congregation’s needs are a little different, and the available resources vary as quickly as changes in the economy, but there are benchmarks that congregations can aim to achieve.

In the past, churches relied on a cadre of dedicated volunteers to meet their staffing needs. But congregations today are finding it difficult to recruit, train and manage the number of volunteers they need to do all that needs to be done. I often hear people wax nostalgically about the good old days when there was a volunteer for every job and a job for every volunteer. The simple fact is that lifestyle changes have reduced the time available for volunteering.  And Unitarian Universalists have been affected by these changes more than most!

As congregations deal with a shrinking volunteer pool, they also face increased expectations for service by both members and the larger community. Individual positions may grow so large that it is no longer reasonable to ask a volunteer to fill them, nor may it be practical or possible to break a position up into “volunteer-sized” pieces. Even when church programs do rely heavily on volunteer staffing, such as in the case of religious education, the task of coordinating and training calls for a paid professional. There is a greater need for specialization, along with the training and skills that specialization demands. Each of these factors, along with others, point to the need for increased staffing levels in most congregations.

In his book Staff Your Church for Growth, Gary McIntosh observes that churches follow one of three policies for staffing, whether or not they are even aware of it. The most common strategy among churches is to staff for decline. The next most likely approach taken by churches is to staff for maintenance. It is comparatively few churches that intentionally staff for growth.

Encouraging congregations to be intentional about their staffing strategies, McIntosh offers a simple staffing formula. If a congregation is staffing for maintenance—that is, looking after the people who are already there—it needs the equivalent of one full-time program professional for every 150 active participants (i.e., average attendance, including adults and children), assisted by one full-time support person for the first program professional and one half-time support staff position for each additional professional. (This staff complement does not include custodial staff, since the caretaking needs are largely determined by the size of the facility rather than the size of the congregation.) If a church wishes to staff for growth, the basic formula remains the same but the ratio shifts to one professional for every 100 active participants.

Interestingly enough, churches that are well staffed usually find that their volunteer pool increases! We can speculate that this is because the quality of the volunteer experience improves when there is adequate staff to coordinate and support the work of volunteers.

Congregations and Beyond

The following the second in a three part series first published on Rev. Christine Robinson’s blog, iminister

In my last two posts, I have discussed research findings about Unitarian Universalists from the American Religious Identification Survey. Now what does it all mean?

More than half of those who tell researchers that they are Unitarian Universalists don’t belong to a UU church.  Some are probably peripherally involved with a UU church, but it seems more likely that the majority of this group consists of people who were raised UU.  (This can be inferred from the large number of people who identified as UU’s who said that they had never changed faiths, i.e., were raised UU’s.  Over 50% reported of the sample claimed this, whereas I have never been in a group of UU’s over age 35 where more than about 20% were raised UU’s; the usual figure is 10%.)   So it appears to me that a major question we should be asking is,  “What could we do to get our kids back?”  (most of those “kids” are now over 40, of course).  The answer to that question will have to be found by discovering ways we can serve the religious needs of adults who were raised UU’s, still think of themselves as UU’s, but are no longer participating in a congregation.

A second, more general question would be, “How can we serve the religious needs of those who tell researchers that they are UU’s but are not members of our congregations?  (In some polling situations, three times as many people tell researchers that they are UU’s than are members of our congregations.) What’s up, here?  Are there solvable issues with current congregations that would bring more folks in? (Maybe most of our congregations need to find ways to offer Saturday worship? Maybe what people really want is small groups?) Is the problem that we’ve conflated legal membership in the corporation with membership in the religious community? (We need to ask the Puritans how that worked for them!) Are there ways to meet needs on a fee-for-service basis that would allow non-member UU’s to feel a part of things and offer support without joining? (Retreats, RE, Small Groups, etc.?) Do we want to do that? This discernment is the work that is being called “Congregations and Beyond.”


Guest  Blogger

Rev. Christine Robinson has been the minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1988. She describes herself as a “human being, mom, Unitarian Universalist minister, wife, friend, intrigued with technology and how it can help us minister to each other and our world.”

More Research on UU’s

The following the second in a three part series first published on Rev. Christine Robinson’s blog, iminister

The American Religious Identification Survey is done about once a decade and involves a large number of Americans (about 50 thousand) in a telephone poll about their religion.  The third such poll, done in 2008, was just released, and has a number of interesting points for UU’s to ponder.

Besides the points I covered Wednesday (That fewer than half of those who identify as UU’s actually belong to a congregation, that that group is growing in number rather significantly and growing in diversity even faster than the American population is), here are some more points of interest in this survey.

  1. We’re migrating to the Sunbelt just like the rest of the population. In 2001, 26% of us lived in the northeast and 23% of us lived in the Midwest, while 21% of us lived in the south and 30% lived in the west.   In 2008, only 19% of us lived in the NE and 17% of us lived in the Midwest, while 24% of us are southerners and 40% are westerners.   We are only historically a New England congregation these days!  The great majority of UU’s live elsewhere.
  2. We’re aging faster than the population at large.  The median age of the population has increased from 40 to 44 years old over the study period, but increased from 44 to 52 years in the UUA.
  3. We are more monolithically Democrats than we were in 1990, when about 18% of u were Republicans and 37% were Independents.  In 2008, only 6% of us were Republicans and 30% independents.  In 2008, the percentages were 6% Republicans and 30% Independents… a significant loss of diversity.

A small percentage of respondents were asked more detailed questions of their religious beliefs. The following data is suggestive but based on very small numbers of respondents, so is not statistically significant.

  1. 77% of self-identified UU’s told researchers that they believed in God, but of those, few believed in miracles or that God helps them in any way.  So while it seems that this particular sample over-represents theists in our midst, in other ways, the sample sounds pretty UU.
  2. Fewer than half of the people researchers spoke to said that they were legal members of a UU congregation.  This is similar to what they found among other liberal religious groups.
  3. About ½ of the sample UU’s had switched religions at some point in their lives.  (Common wisdom among UU’s, however, is that 90% of UU’s  “came out” of some other faith.  This gives us a strong hint, it seems to me, about who identifies as UU but is not a member of a church…that is, the graduates of our RE programs.
  4. This study estimates that there are 100,000 people in the US who used to be UU’s but who are now something else, mostly, none.  (So the old Joke about how Unitarian Universalism is a way station between the Mainline and the Golf Course seems to be true.)
  5. Over half of UU’s in this sample were in interfaith (or UU/no faith) households.

In the last post of these series, I’ll comment more on the significance of these statistics.


Guest  Blogger

Rev. Christine Robinson has been the minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1988. She describes herself as a “human being, mom, Unitarian Universalist minister, wife, friend, intrigued with technology and how it can help us minister to each other and our world.”

Beyond Congregations, Growing, Diversifying!

The following the first in a three part series first published on Rev. Christine Robinson’s blog, iminister

In 1990, 2001, and  2008, researchers funded by the Lily Foundation randomly dialed  up about fifty thousand  Americans and asked them,  “What is your religion, if any?  Then, they asked follow-up questions.  In 2008, 192 of those fifty thousand identified as Unitarian Universalists, up from 182 in 2001.  The following is an extrapolation and analysis of this data.  The whole report can be found  here  This study gives us some interesting information about ourselves and comparison to other religious bodies.

The single most interesting, but not surprising fact is that this study suggests that there are more than a half a million adult UU’s in this nation.  Fewer than half of these self-identified UU’s are legal members of UU churches, but they think of themselves as UU’s.  Furthermore, this group is growing robustly…as a matter of fact,  nearly keeping up with population growth.  (the group of self-identified UU’s grew by 26% between 1990 and 2008, compared with 30% population growth)

Here’s a happy surprise:  The UUA has done a little better than the nation as a whole in increasing ethnic diversity.   In 1990, non-Hispanic Whites were 90% of the  UUA. (compared to 77% in the US as a whole)  These days, non-Hispanic whites are 75% of the UUA. (compared to 66% overall)    We are still lagging behind our nation, but not by as much.   Our success at this is largely due to an increase in Hispanic UU’s, however, while most of our diversity “angst” over the years has been the small number of African American UU’s.

11% of the US population is Black,  but only 6% of this sample of people who claim to be Unitarian Universalists is Black.  However, even on this point we have notable success.  In 1990, we lagged 8 points behind the nation in percentage of Black members.  These days, we lag only 5 percentage points behind. This study has more interesting things to say about us.  Stay tuned to this Blog for more!


Guest  Blogger

Rev. Christine Robinson has been the minister of First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico since 1988. She describes herself as a “human being, mom, Unitarian Universalist minister, wife, friend, intrigued with technology and how it can help us minister to each other and our world.”