“Born UU Who Stuck and Why” survey by the Rev. Terry Sweetser


This is a critical time for our faith.  I’ve had conversations with some suggesting that we’re at a fork with one path leading to a “new golden age” of Unitarian Universalism, and the other decline and decay resulting from a failure to change.

It seems to me that this thing called “Unitarian Universalism” will live or die depending on what happens with our youth ministry.  Everything else is secondary. We can’t thrive on transfers and first time church goers alone.  We need our born UUs to take on leadership roles while they are children and youth, and to go on to lead as adults.

Given there is so much discussion about this — though not nearly enough — I thought I’d share a survey that I read years ago by the Rev. Terry Sweetser. I had trouble finding this online so I contacted Terry and asked for permission to share. Thanks Terry!   The Rev. Terry Sweetser  is the Vice President of Stewardship &Development and Senior Advisor to the President of the UUA.  He is also a 5th generation UU!

Born UU, Who Stuck and Why

Born UU’s:  Who Stuck and Why
By the Rev. Terry Sweetser. Reprinted on the UU Growth Blog with permission.

The following is from an informal study conducted by the Rev. Terry Sweetser from December 1999 – June 2000.  Note that all participants self identified as born UU’s in response to an email inquiry made to several UUA’s email discussion lists. Whether the trends in this sample are true for all born UU’s we can not know.  However, there is no doubt that the results are informative.
Click here share this survey with others via FaceBook and other social networks. You may direct people to this post using the following link: http://www.tinyurl.com/bornuu


Sample Size:
260 ministers, DRE’s, and lay members were interviewed.

Ages of participants:

Oldest 91
Average 57
Mean 51
Youngest 18

Participants by generation [at time of survey]:

9%  Net Gen, ages 18-25

26% Gen X, ages 26-35

29% Boomers, ages 36-55

22% Boosters, ages 56-69

14% Depression, ages 70+

Summary Statements:

  • 67% liked Sunday School because of some form of community connection.
  • 69% did not like the school atmosphere of Sunday School.
  • 94% of lifelong UU’s interviewed were involved with a Youth Group/Program.
  • 91% reported their participation in these programs as being a vital/significant experience.
  • 74% reported it being important to them because of peers & adults who cared.
  • 46% attended conferences as youth. 71% of those attending conferences reported it was a vital connecting experience.
  • 29% attended a UU camp
  • 86% of those attending reported it was a vital connecting experience.
  • 78% of lifelong UU’s interviewed stayed a Unitarian Universalist because they felt it was home and/or because of connections made during their youth experience.
  • 19% left at some point with 76% drifting away during college.
  • 99% of 260 ministers, religious educators and lay members felt that stronger youth, campus & young adult programs would help keep our young people.

Questions and responses:

  1. What did you like about Sunday School
    Being with like minded friends 29%
    Being with caring non parental adults 20%
    Having fun 18%
    67% total

  2. What did you dislike about Sunday School
    Boring 46%
    Too much like school 23%
    69% total

  3. Did you participate in some form of Youth Group/Program
    Yes 94%
    No 06%
  4. Was your participation in the Youth Group important to you?
    Vital 76%
    Significant 15%
    Okay 07%
    No Response 02%

    “Vital” and “Significant” account for 91% of responses

  5. Why was it important to you?
    Being with peers who cared 51%
    Being with adults who cared 23%

  6. Did you attend conferences as a youth?
    Yes 46%

    If so, was this a vital connecting experience for you?
    Yes 71%

  7. Did you attend a UU camp as a youth?
    Yes 29%

    If so, was this a vital connecting experience for you?
    Yes 86%

  8. Why do you think you stayed a Unitarian Universalist?
    Strong love, loyalty and hope gained during Youth Experience 57%
    I felt it was my home, it was a good fit 21%
  9. Did you ever leave?
    Yes 19%

    If so, why did you leave?
    Drifted away during college 76%
    Other 24%

  10. Why did you come back?
    It was home 45%
    Kids 41%
  11. How do you think we can keep more young people?
    Stronger support of Youth programs 51%
    Stronger support of College/Campus programs 32%
    Stronger support of Young Adult program 16%

    Youth, College/Campus and YA programs account for 99% of responses

12 thoughts on ““Born UU Who Stuck and Why” survey by the Rev. Terry Sweetser”

  1. Yep. And I worry that turning the youth ministry so solidly back to the congregations will not serve our youth in small churches very well. It’s really hard to have a youth group when you only have four youth!

    I know some folks in top leadership at the UUA feel like the youth issue is kind of a “family fight” that just keeps going on, but we’ve got to do something and we’ve got to do it soon.

    This is also right in line with what Eboo Patel talks about in “Acts of Faith”–other groups, extremist groups, spend huge amounts of money on youth programming…..and they have such a powerful influence on their beliefs that it has changed our world.

  2. There is a huge difference between having district and national
    *alternatives* to local youth participation – events and organizations that pull youth away from congregational life — and having national and district support for local youth ministry.

  3. Absolutely agreed. Except that I think that events can deepen the faith of youth, just as attending GA or Star Island or other events deepens the faith of many in our community. I’ve seen that spark come back and connect youth TO the congregation, not pull them away. Not to replace a congregation, but to enrich it. It comes down to that commitment by congregations to youth–not just a youth group but integrated, dynamic youth ministry.

  4. Saw this posted by a friend on Facebook. I would be one of the folks that drifted away in college after being extremely involved up until my junior year of high school (regional and national youth conferences, attended 8 years of UU summer camp, considered some of my closest friends in junior high from church or camp, even went to a GA with my sunday school class far from home). What happened – a few things, moved to a smaller church from a bigger one in high school and the RE cirriculum was not as robust (though I really enjoyed and respected our minister, who made a lot of time for mentoring this small group) Local high school and job became more important junior/senior year as college loomed, and only attended about 1-2 youth events in college (and never church). Once I moved to a new city, I found a music ministry in a different faith that became extremely important to me and then wound up converting based on the fact that it was a large congregation of progressive thinking people who happened to believe in a much more conservative view of the bible. (I did visit different UU congregations in this locale, but did not feel welcomed or invited in as a visitor). Now that I’m a parent, I’m completely rethinking this view as I ponder how will my kids learn their values in a faith community, where as an adult, I made my peace with my differences. But its still not for sure we’ll return to the UU church as our home faith.

  5. First off, speaking as a life-long UU, now 66 years old, what made me UU was not the strength of RE or youth programs, but the strength of the church, and of the minister in particular. My son (now 39) was also brought up UU in a church with a strong RE program and youth group. He is still UU, but his participation is sporadic. Strong churches can help people become lifelong UUs. Strong RE and youth programs don’t always do the trick. It could even be that the youth ministry most effective at retaining youth is nothing more than strong ministry for everyone.

    Second, speaking as someone conversant with social science research, I have to say that this questionnaire looks to me very much like looking under the lamppost.

    The questions are almost all about youth and RE programs. Perhaps that’s what the survey was about, but without asking about other aspects of the respondents’ religious upbringing, it cannot be all that informative about what makes people stay UU.

    What’s more the population of interest, it seems to me, are those who fell away from the denomination. Sure, the ones who did not fall away are easier to contact, but those who did fall away aren’t totally out of reach. One might simply ask UU parents of grown children to put them in touch with the children who are no longer UU (and those who still are UU).

    It may well be that strong RE and youth ministry will lead our children to become lifelong UUs, but we can’t reach that conclusion from these data. The scope of the questions and the reach of the survey are simply too restricted.

    1. Hi Henry, You’re right about the survey. I asked permission to post it primarily to get more people talking about this issue. I agree with you that it is usually the ones who have left that have the most to teach us. Unfortunately there seem to be very few congregations that do any kind of exit interviews. There is a “bet I can find a 1000000 Unitarians” group on facebook. Maybe someone should start a “bet I can find a 1000000 former UUs” group that way we can ask them for feedback from time to time… Thanks for your comment.

  6. I share Henry’s concern about the survey. Its more of a straw poll than a survey that tells us anything. Moreover, the reason that people who became UU Ministers and DRE’s remained in the fold is probably irrelevant to issues of general church growth. Those folks may have had positive experiences about any number of other aspects the church, as well.

    Last I heard only 15 percent of our Ministers were raised UU.

    At any rate, even if some portion of our Ministers found youth group to be quite positive, that still doesn’t tell us why the average person in the pew stays or leaves.

    Thomas Bandy actually found one of the characteristics of declining churches was what he called “an obsession with youth”.

    I have no doubt that excellence in RE and Youth programs contributes to church growth. But this survey doesn’t support the claim that ““Unitarian Universalism” will live or die depending on what happens with our youth ministry”

    That said, as a life long UU, I have to say my youth group was fantastic. Oh yes, and I became a UU minister.

    1. Thanks for your comment David. I agree that this is more of a straw poll. The notion that we our movement will “live or die” based on the health, quality, and depth of our youth ministry, not to mention integration of that ministry into our adult ministries is 100% my personal opinion. I think some for of UU congregations will continue without a youth ministry & leadership revolution. I just think it will pale in comparison to what we can achieve. I’ll have to look for the Bandy resource, sounds very interesting.

      1. Those interested in the “obsession with youth” reference may find it in the book Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches by Thomas G. Bandy on page 130 (you can see that page on the amazon preview of the book. I hear the point about obsession with youth. Its true, we shouldn’t obsess over youth alone but see youth ministry within the context of a healthy comprehensive lifespan ministry. http://www.amazon.com/Kicking-Habits-Welcome-Addicted-Churches/dp/0687049342

  7. I think this study is not very helpful since the minority of folks who stayed UU may be staying for the exact same reasons that the majority of folks LEAVE UU.

    I was born UU and found that those who were most “into it” as kids were also the most socially awkward youth, who were craving an accepting community no matter where they found it – for them it just happened to be at church.

    We need to be providing a lot more substance to born-in UUs if we want people to stay for for a reason worth sticking around for. Youth need to feel that “this is a faith community where I choose to grow religiously,” rather than “this is a community that my parents brought me to and I don’t feel made-fun-of here.” We can only give that to them if they actually feel MOVED when they come to church.

    That is not to undermine the value of an accepting community, but to show that it is a baseline and not an end-goal for the greater population of our youth. Give me a reason to stay and I will stay, but if the only reason is a solid peer group – then most people can get that other places much more easily.

  8. Peter, thank you for re-posting the survey and generating the discussion. I also highly recommend the Bandy book. Early in the book (pp 20-21), he posits some pretty radical ways of rethinking what many people believe to be true about what makes churches work – for example, “The children are our future!” Leaving aside that the children (like every other generation represented) are in fact significantly part of our *present,* Bandy’s answer is that the future of our congregations is in the Transformed Adults who are “changed, gifted, called and equipped” through their church experiences. Among these transformed adults will be those whose gifts and calling is creating the next, best, fulfilling and sustaining programs for children and youth which will be meaningful, powerful and lifelong blessings. I agree with you that we absolutely need to minister in new, better, different and radically intentional ways with our youth and children. What I worry is that attending to the meaningful, powerful and transformative youth group experiences of lifelong UU’s who are now in their 30’s, 40’s, 50′ and 60’s might lead us to re-create programs and models that are not necessarily going to serve our Millenials, Digital Natives and Homelanders as well in the 21st century.

    Bandy’s take on this reminds me of Dr. Howard Thurman’s quote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” We must talk about ministry with and to youth, and as part of that, let’s talk about helping congregations and our lay leaders discern their callings – somewhere out there is someone with just the gifts, passion, vision and calling to move us closer to the “new golden age” future, but that person may never volunteer for a Sunday evening youth group as we know it now.

    I’m so grateful to you for posting this and adding to the much needed conversation, and I look forward to reading and listening more!

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