UU Reality Check – The Demographics

11/23/10  UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that some of the content linked to at the bottom of this post is no longer accessible due to changes on the UUA’s archive site. I’m hunting down original copies and will post as soon as they are available.  ~ Peter


If we’re going to look at growth, in my opinion we have to start with the facts.  What are the statistics?

When it comes to demographics I love this map of the United States showing the percentage of Unitarians by population. This is based on 2000 census data.  Room for growth?  Ya think?

Percentage of UUs by Population
Percentage of UUs by Population. Click for larger image.

This map is by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. And you though Unitarian Universalism was a really long name…  Note that this group is working on a 2010 study.  How will we fare? Any better. From what I’ve read we haven’t improved much since 2000. Maybe 2020 will show the fruits of our uu growth labor. You know the expression about the best time to plant a tree?

I’m going to grab my laptop and head of to a cafe and immerse myself in some statistics.  I’ll be back.  In the meantime,  there is a great review of recent demographics by Christopher Walton here.  And continued here. These posts are from 2008 just after the most recent data were released.

Here are a few other demographic tidbits from the archives compiled by Larry Ladd.  These show UUA statistics for the first 40 years (1961-2000) of our association.

Combined membership & RE enrollment vs. population
Combined UUA membership and RE enrollment as percentage of population
UUA Summary Statistics - Membership, RE Enrollment and Combined
UUA Summary Statistics - Membership, RE Enrollment and Combined

More stats are available through the Faith Communities Today Survey, known as the FACT Survey.

If you have a link to  relevant UU demographics, please share.  Post information in a comment or email me.

9 thoughts on “UU Reality Check – The Demographics

  1. “And you though Unitarian Universalism was a really long name… ”

    Well not quite as long as –

    *The* Tiny Declining Fringe Religion™

    to use UUA President Peter Morales’ description of Unitarian*UNiversalism aka The U*U Movement™. 🙂

  2. Hi there, Peter. I’m Julian Michels, currently on the steering committee for UU YAs and also a psychological scientist/statistician in training. I saw Stefan Jonasson referencing your blog and I wanted to check it out.

    It seems to me that contemporary religions with a high growth rate are pretty much the ones that have created environments to support their youth and young adult populations in their normative peer outreach. On the whole, on the congregational level and on the UUA level, UUs are really falling down on this. Our institutions show some reluctant but significant support for youth, but all of that work is lost with the tremendous YA falling-off. This isn’t because YAs want to leave our church; it’s because there isn’t much of a place for them in it.

    Given how long it has taken for the UUA to take any real action about this, I have to wonder if most UUs place substantial value on growth. Perhaps UUs as a whole are happy to be small, homogeneous, “elite” comunity? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this and what’s behind it.

  3. As an operations research analyst I agree that one must look at statistics such as these to gain insights into UU growth or the lack thereof over the past several decades.

    Looking at these graphs, my first question is, “What was going on in the late sixties that led to a modest spike in UU membership and RE enrollment?” My second question is, “What has been the cause of the remarkably consistent level of membership and RE enrollment in the nearly four decades since that spike?” Why have we not grown or diminished in size?”

    I don’t know the answers to these questions. I suspect that the answer to the first has something to do with active UU involvement in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of that period. We were in the forefront of the effort to build what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Beloved Community. Maybe it was our passionate commitment to that vision that resulted in a modest increase in membership.

    Answering the second question is more difficult but, I suspect this question is the more important of the two. Why have we maintained a remarkably consistent level of membership over the decades? I don’t know but I suspect it is because we have achieved some kind of equilibrium. The numbers probably reflect two groups within our church – those who are comfortable with things as they are and want to stay and the revolving door of those who come in seeking something only to leave when they don’t find it. The latter group is probably replaced by other seekers who also, after a time, become disenchanted and look elsewhere.

    So, if we truly want to grow, what do we do? I suspect we need to upset this equilibrium. How do we do that? Well, I think this is a question that operations research analysts such as myself can’t answer. It is a question that growth consultants like Peter Bowden can’t answer. I think it is a question that our clergy, led by our new President, Rev. Peter Morales, must help us answer. As seekers, we come to this church looking for answers. We cannot find them alone. Yes, we can look to our hearts and to other UU’s but I think it is our clergy who need to take the lead in helping us, together, find the answers. They must do it with more than just media outreach or programmatic changes. We need a serious, heartfelt theological examination of who we are and who we want to be. We need a vision for Unitarian Universalism.

    I have heard many UU’s speak of “our liberal religious faith.” I have never been certain what is meant by this phrase but, relying on the dictionary definition of the words, one might conclude that by liberal religious faith we mean, “a non-authoritarian devotion or fidelity to something for which there is no proof.” If that is the meaning of the phrase then I believe that we need to define what that “something” is to which we are devoted, to which we are faithful.

    Now I am sure that there are those who will say that the “something” is our seven principles – we are true to them and that is enough.

    Is it? Are we? If so, why can’t we recognize that war shatters the interdependent web of all existence and conclusively renounce it? Why are only a fraction of our congregations “Welcoming Congregations”? Shouldn’t we all be? I think so but others do not – and that, I think, is our problem. We do not have a shared set of values.

    Where can we find these values? We don’t have to renounce our liberalism, our humanism, or our other “ism’s”. We can find them in our history and our heritage. Channing, Ballou, and Emmerson offer insights that are relevant today. James Luther Adams and Richard Gilbert speak to us in contemporary terms about core values that, should we collectively embrace them, will put us at the forefront of the builders of The Beloved Community – what I believe is the true vision of the UU church.

    Peter Morales has called us to be the religion of the twenty-first century. To do that, we will need more than effective media outreach or vibrant programs. We will need a collective soul-searching of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in the twenty-first century. If, through this soul-searching, we can redefine or reaffirm our core values; we may lose some along the way who decide they don’t agree with the vision; but we will gain so much more. We will gain a foundation that will truly make liberal religious faith relevant in America. In so doing, we will grow beyond our wildest dreams.

  4. Tom Beall asks “What was going on in the late sixties that led to a modest spike in UU membership and RE enrollment?”

    While I do not have the numbers in front of me, I believe that most mainline Protestant had a similar high point in members around 1968, and started to decline after that. My theory is that people went to church so that their boomer kids would get a religious education, an stopped attending after those kids went to college.

    “What has been the cause of the remarkably consistent level of membership and RE enrollment in the nearly four decades since that spike?” Why have we not grown or diminished in size?”

    At first people did not know that we were in a decline. About 1976 staff at the UUA started to worry. To turn the decline around, an extension director was hired, the minister on loan program was created and in 1977 the extension minister program started. I believe these efforts (and others later) stopped the decline and created a level membership. It is not the growth we want, but it is better than the decline that continues in many other Protestant denominations. In other words, I believe that passed efforts were successful, but not as successful as we hoped.

  5. I take issue, somewhat, with Tom B’s looking to the dictionary for a “definition” of “liberal religious faith.” If, instead of choosing a word from the definition list, look at the etymology:

    “Liberal” comes from a word meaning “noble, generous, befitting free men.”
    “Religious” comes from a word meaning “to bind together”
    “Faith” comes from a word meaning “trust.”

    One trouble that we UUs have — and that others have with us — is that we confuse “religion” with “theology.” We don’t know how to talk about ourselves, except defensively and comparatively.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about growth — I belong to two one of the largest UU congregations, although our minister is quick to remind us that there are more Catholics in Milwaukee county than there are UUs in the world — and I wonder about the value of growth for its own sake. Why is not enough to be rare, and yet to do great good (if we can)?

    I think that one needs to be wired (whether hard or soft) to be attracted to a faith that requires so much from its members. There are a lot of people who have no desire to have to think so hard all the time and make conscious decisions — that’s one reason 25% of the American public gets its news from Fox. But I digress.

    There are rarities in the world, and maybe we’re one of them. Maybe being a UU is like being gay, or left-handed, or possessing an IQ of 140, or having a beautiful voice? Maybe UUism is something that one is called to because it fits a particular sort of personality — a sort of personality that is not in great supply. And maybe that’s not so bad, if, as UUs we decided to get really good at leading, regardless of the religions of the people we had committed ourselves to empowering.

    In Meyers-Briggs lingo, I’m an ENXJ, and there are only 2% of us in the US population. According to the Center for Applied Psychological Type, only 25% of the population are Ns. But almost 83% of national merit scholarship finalists and 92% of Rhodes Scholars are intuitive students. (Over 65% of business majors are sensing students.) I gave an abbreviated Meyers Briggs test to forty high schoolers in my YRUU group one year — except for one, they were all Ns, and the one who wasn’t an N was smack dab in the middle. I’m of the opinion that most UUs are Ns.

    Let’s assume that my assumption is true, just for the sake of argument. And let’s assume that, while the other three temperaments in the Meyers Briggs scale can shift over time N vs. S is immutable — you can’t turn an S into an N no matter how hard you try. That means that, since most Ss won’t be attracted to UUism, we need to root out the remaining 25% of Ns and enfold them. What percentage of those folks is a reasonable number to hope to recruit? And to what end?

    Vicky Jones
    Madison, WI

    P.S. There are more tanning beds in the USA than UUs.

  6. It’s rather hard to look at the various items that produced growth in the UU (and earlier Unitarian) in the 1950s-1960s. and then massive shrinkage in the 1970s.
    One was the fellowship movement, which provided growth in
    the non-traditional UU areas. There are multiple theories, much (most?) of it having to do with both UU Culture., and the American Culture of the Johnson-Nixon era. The near bankruptcy hurt as well, forcing the UUA to cut programs and services.

  7. I forgot to add this: from The Power of Losing Control by Joe Caruso

    Imagine that you’re skydiving. You stand in the open doorway of the plane, parachute strapped to your back, and look out at – nothing but sky. And then you jump. You can’t be certain your parachute will open, and probably can’t even see the spot where you’ll be landing. That’s what I call the ultimate leap of faith. You can’t see where you’re going, but you have faith that your chute will open and that you’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments on the way down in order to wing up in the place you want to be. Or, for another high-flying image, think of yourself as a trapeze artist. You let go of that bar with ultimate faith that your partner on the next bar will be there to catch you. Without faith, you’d never jump from that plane or let go of that bar – because you’d be too afraid. Faith is the antidote to fear.

    When we act as if something will happen in a certain way because it’s always happened that way before, that’s belief. Our beliefs are truths we’ve come to accept because of past experience. And when those beliefs are related to proven and repetitively experienced natural phenomena such as the rising and setting of the sun, functions like turning on the lights or turning off the gas, or the commonality of meanings, they are the foundations upon which our understanding of reality is based.

    Belief, in that sense, requires clinging or grabbing on to the past, and is actually the opposite of faith. Life is all about growth and change, and what we don’t want to do is limit our potential for optimal growth by resigning ourselves to perpetuating what happened in the past, which is an attitude based on fear.

    God, faith, and religion are three distinct and different concepts that should not necessarily linked to one another. For example, did you ever consider that, in addition to being the basis for religion, faith is also the basis for all scientific discovery? Here’s a quote from Alan Watts, an author and renowned interpreter of Asian philosophies:

    “Belief is the insistence that the truth is what one would believe or wish it to be. Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. Faith is the essential virtue of science and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

    In the case of both religion and science, we must walk up to the very edge of the known, and then leap. “God” is an intangible concept – we can’t see, smell, taste or touch it – and yet we can believe in God’s existence. Scientific experimentation and discovery is also the result of faith in the unknown. If Copernicus hadn’t taken that leap of faith by embracing his belief in a new system of astronomy, we might still be clinging to the belief that the sun revolves around the earth. It took a leap of faith to believe that by sailing into uncharted waters we wouldn’t be falling off the edge of the world. We can’t see subatomic particles, and yet we “know” they exist because of our faith in scientific principles.
    No matter what kind of faith you decide to use in your life, it will require trust – trust in God, trust in an outcome, trust in your story, or whatever you’re placing your faith in.

  8. I don’t think there is that great a gap between Vicky’s etymology of the term “liberal religious faith” and my dictionary-based definition – after all, most good dictionaries rely on etymology to develop their definitions.

    I agree with much else that you say Vicky, thank you. Rather than go on longer, you might find a sermon I gave at my church this past summer interesting – along the lines of what you speak of in your second post. You can find it on my blog at:


    Thanks for the posts.

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