The Cost of Losing Our Childen – guest post by Rev. Christana Wille McKnight

The following is a guest post on the the cost of losing our childen as adults by the Rev. Christana Wille McKnight.  Christana serves primarily as a chaplain, but also consults, guest preaches and teaches around issues of pastoral care, community ministry, and retention in our denomination. Christana will be presenting “How to Grow Unitarian Universalism by Keeping Our Kids” at the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis.


By Rev. Christana Wille McKnight


Over the last 40 years, Unitarian Universalism has emerged as a transformative movement in the United States. Our denomination has become a haven for people from a variety of faith backgrounds, well regarded for its acceptance of people regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental ability.  Despite our success in welcoming people from other faiths into the Unitarian Universalist fold, we have not been as successful retaining as adult members people who have been raised from childhood as Unitarian Universalists.

The cost of losing so many of the adult children that are raised in our faith is staggering.

  • Spiritual losses – Raised UUs offer an important faith perspective and depth of experience to our congregations.
  • Emotional losses – The sense of rejection that countless raised UUs have experienced as they attempt to integrate into the adult church is a mark of shame on our welcoming faith.
  • Financial losses – The amount of potential dollars lost each time a raised UU walks out the door is enormous.
  • Numerical losses – Our denomination is struggling against a wide range of factors that prevent us from achieving even a 2% annual growth rate, while a significant source of growth departs from the denomination each year in the form of raised UUs.

Comparative Retention Statistics

There has never been a statistically significant longitudinal study conducted on the retention rates of Unitarian Universalists who have been raised in the denomination.  However, according to cross-sectional studies conducted by the denomination over the last four decades, it has been found that an average of approximately 12.5% of all adult UUs self identify as being raised UU or in one of the pre-merger denominations.[1] A comparison with numbers provided to the author by other denominations show that Unitarian Universalists have a significantly smaller proportion of adults as members who were raised in the faith than other comparable Protestant denominations in the United States:

  • 44% of all adult Presbyterian members were raised Presbyterian.[2]
  • 48% of all adult United Church of Christ members were raised UCC or in one of the pre-merger denominations.[3]
  • 50% of all adult Episcopalian members were raised Episcopalian.[4]
  • 67% of all Evangelical Lutheran members were raised Evangelical Lutheran.[5]

(No figures were available from the Baptist or United Methodist denominations)

These denominations report an average rate of over 52% of their populations raised in their church, as compared to an average of 12.5% for our denomination.  While this significant difference in the proportion of adult members raised in the faith could be attributable to our adult conversion rate and overall growth as a religion, an analysis of growth statistics over the last decade make this conclusion highly unlikely.

UU “Lost Growth Opportunity” Statistics

Adult membership statistics from the Office of District Services of the Unitarian Universalist Association for 1998 through 2009 are attached as Table I.  An analysis of these statistics tells us the following:

  • The mean adult membership census for the period in question is 150,474.
  • The average annual adult membership growth during that time frame was 1,174 members, or an approximate average annual growth rate of  0.78%.
  • Since an average of 12.5% of our adult members report have been raised UU, it can be concluded that we are gaining approximately 147 raised UUs in the denomination annually.
  • The Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office of the UUA estimates that over the last decade, approximately 4,000 young people have graduated annually from religious education programs.[6]
  • Assuming 50% of the raised UUs who graduate from religious education every year could be retained as adult members, that would produce an average annual growth rate of 2,000 raised UUs.
  • This represents a lost growth opportunity of 1,853 members per year – significantly more than our average annual adult membership growth during the past decade.

Why Do Raised UUs Leave

Research and reason point to four key reasons for our low retention rates.  These conclusions have been drawn from research [7] conducted from 2004 to 2009 by the author and are supported by the 2005 Commission on Appraisal report Engaging Our Theological Diversity.

  • A lack of religious identity and commitment.  The Commission report states:  “We have a common desire not to indoctrinate our children, to leave them free to determine their own truth.  This is a noble aspiration, but have we taken it too far?  Perhaps children don’t get anything to hold onto now and they ultimately find themselves adrift in a confusing and frightening world.   As a participant in one of our youth focus groups said  ‘Adults are concerned about influencing what kids believe, but being influenced by other people is how we figure out what we believe; it’s the only way it can happen.’”[8]
  • A significant difference between the religious education program and the adult church. The Commission report found that “The way UUs raise our children seems to prepare them for something completely different than what Unitarian Universalism actually offers.  This suggests that UUs should change one or the other (or both).”[9]
  • An historical culture of focusing the adult church experience around meeting the needs of people who have not been raised in our faith. From the Commission again:  “Born-inners, it seems, have some different religious needs than come-inners.”[10]
  • Congregational challenges with accepting and encouraging raised UUs to be in positions of power and authority within the church. The Commission summarized its conversations with youth in our denomination as follows: “Once people are fourteen or fifteen years old, these youth told us, they need to be incorporated into the larger community; ‘If you want to ‘mind the gap,’ you need to meld it more; bring the generations together, get you and adults interacting more.  Current structures create too much separation of the generations.’”[11]

Some progress is being made in addressing these issues on local, district and national levels.  For example, the Tapestry of Faith resources made available by the UUA Lifespan Faith Development Department have several sections that focus on religious identity.  Additionally, the young adult movement around the country has been working tirelessly to integrate young adults (many of whom are raised UUs) into the fabric of church life.  However, if we are going to fully support as adults, the children and youth who were raised in our congregations, grow as a denomination, and encourage spiritual depth at a new level, further action is necessary.

What Actions Can Be Taken To Retain Raised UUs

There are several steps that we can take to strengthen our ability to retain Unitarian Universalists who have been raised in the church.  These can include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Creating and disseminating rituals for families and congregations that are distinctively Unitarian Universalist.
  • Creating and disseminating resources for both youth and congregations to guide them through the process of bringing a raised UU into the adult church, specifically addressing differences between religious education and adult church.
  • Educating ministers and laity about how the experiences and needs of adult members who are raised UU may differ from congregants who were previously unchurched or raised in other faiths.
  • Educating ministers and laity around the gifts that raised UUs offer to congregations, and how those gifts could positively impact the church.

It is important to acknowledge that actively working towards retaining raised UUs as adults does not necessarily require a drastic shift in our current structure.  In fact, if we hope to keep raised UUs consistently as a growing demographic in our denomination, we must incorporate their needs and wants into our existing establishments rather than creating parallel realities for them to exist in.  Dialogue and education will be an essential component of this process, as well as heightened awareness on the part of our leaders to the imperative nature of this call.

Market research indicates that it is significantly easier and more cost-effective to retain a person who is a member of any given group – whether client, constituent, or congregant – than to recruit new members. It is time for us to acknowledge that the loss of so many raised UUs negatively impacts our movement in many ways, to acknowledge the systemic issues that contribute to our low retention rate, and to take steps to address this solvable problem.   By devoting a proportionally small amount of resources to retaining raised UUs as adult members, we have tremendous potential to grow as a transformative faith in the world.

[1] Commission on Appraisal Studies: 1967 – 12%; 1979 – 16%; 1987 – 14%; Needs and Aspirations Survey: 1997 – 9.9%; UU World Readership Survey: 2004 – 12%.

[2] Smith-Williams, Ida.  Associate for Research and Information, Presbyterian Church, USA.  “Raised Presbyterian.” Email to the author.  9 Feb 2009.

[3] Shellhammer, Destiny.  Minister for Research Information and Services, United Church of Christ. “Raised UCC.”  Email to the author.  9 March 2009.

[4] Alexis-Earvin, Donna.  Research Assistant, Episcopal Church Center.  “Raised in the Church.” Email to the author.  10 Feb 2009.

[5] Taylor, Dann.  Research Analyst, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  “Those that were raised in the church and remain in the church as adults.”  Email to the author.  11 Feb 2009.

[6] Kesting, Erik.  Acting Co-Director for the Young Adult Ministry, Unitarian Universalist Association.  Email to the author via Scott Robbins, Assistant Director, Annual Program Fund, Unitarian Universalist Association.  13 Feb 2009.

[7] This research has primarily taken the form of primary source conversations with raised UUs, denominational ministers, District staff, as well as readings and sermons from denominational leaders and theologians.

[8] The Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Engaging Our Theological Diversity. (Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), 125.

[9] The Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Engaging Our Theological Diversity, 124.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Engaging Our Theological Diversity, 125.

12 thoughts on “The Cost of Losing Our Childen – guest post by Rev. Christana Wille McKnight

  1. Fabulous post. I’m so excited that this will be addressed at GA this year. Wonderful news. I think something has shifted in my congregation ( I’m a religious educator). Many of the families who visit (and join) have one parent who was raised Unitarian Universalist. I’m interested after reading all the data here to go back and look through our last five years of growth and figure out a percentage. But it almost feels like there are more families with one parent who has a background as a UU–and who already know what it’s about. Granted, many of us grew up before the principles and sources were adopted and before a chalice was commonly used, but we still know in our bones what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. So…..maybe there’s some hope for folks coming back as parents. Oh….and todays service? We had two 18-year-olds preaching! You have to walk your talk. I am not going to surrender this generation to any gap. Nope.

  2. Most UU churches don’t offer much that is different from the secular world. Young adults can easily attend lectures on a multitude of topics, get involved in environmental or community causes, and find many outlets for their talent
    and energy without joining a church.

    Many of these outlets, such as Habitat for Humanity, are more effective than churches, and offer a higher quality experience.

    This is particularly true in the Pacific Northwest, where people attend church the least. Some church leaders think this area is fertile ground for liberal churches because such churches reflect the larger society. But the opposite is becoming true. Conservative churches find the Pacific NW an excellent “mission field” because they offer something that is distinctly different from the secular culture.

  3. This is remarkable research. The apparent(to me ) conclusion is that we need to set a goal to retain youth and
    develop plans to make it happen.
    Let’s have a contest to see who can develop the most effective programs. Each congregation could set up a task force immediately and begin brain-storming for solutions.

    Regarding the relative merits of UU congregations and other movements like Habitat for Humanity: to us folks who
    like to see ( and make ) things happen, sometimes it seems like we have more impact in an outside group. Is this because we lack focus on social action in our churches?

  4. I came across this blog posting after googling around looking for born-inner UU retention rates. The data is staggering. Thank you for publishing it.

    I was born-into Unitarian Universalism in the ’80s and am joining a congregation in Atlanta, GA next week. While this is a great moment in my own life, I am apparently joining only 146 of my peers nation-wide over the entire year. Wow. That is embarrassing.

    And I don’t think the answer to this issue is as simple as integrating programming. There is a deeper problem at hand – the lack of experiencing any deep spirituality at church because the church is overrun with people who have anti-religious baggage.

    As a born-in UU I have very little in common with most Unitarian Universalists who – no matter how wonderful their intentions – come across as folks looking for a peer group that is willing to engage in Bible-bashing banter. That sort of atmosphere is not encouraging to deep spiritual growth, and by the time youth come-of-age they usually decide that all religion is irrelevant (including UU) or that they need to find a deeper spiritual home in another denomination that feels less like a post-christian self-help group.

    I share these somewhat crude opinions, not to make us feel bad, but as a fellow UU who wants our faith community and movement to grow in a meaningful way.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Anna Snoeyenbos

    1. Thanks, Anna, for brave and insightful comments. I was raised a UU in the southern Bible Belt and, though I am still UU and am raising my daughter as such, I feel I learned as a youth in a UU community way too much about how to be intolerant and contemptuous of others who were of devoutly Christian faith or working class economic status. I am more comfortable challenging such behavior within my own UU community now that I am an adult, but I do get tired of the battle. So thanks for speaking an important truth!


      Jenny Brooks

  5. Dear Anna,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. You raise an important point, that behavior in UU congregations, if we are not careful, can easily lead to the view that religion is irrelevant.

    Recently I attended a conference of religious educators (LREDA 2009 Fall Conference) and was pleased that when someone demonstrated “Bible-bashing banter” in a skit, the community assembled identified it as an issue, raised the very issue you are commenting on, and affirmed our need to move that “post-christian self-help group” mentality.


    1. Thanks, Peter. I’m encouraged to hear that you had that experience at your conference. We need more people to be aware of this issue, I think, in order to change the tone in our congregations.

      I always grew up feeling like it was more acceptable to say, “I find yoga as my spiritual guide” than to say, “I find Jesus as my spiritual guide.” This is a shame not only because it is a hypocrisy to our core belief the acceptance of all spiritual inspirations, but also because Christianity is the most prevalent religion that we are surrounded by as children – the lowest spiritual branch to grasp. When we make children feel ashamed for reaching for that branch we end up stopping them from reaching at all.

      —-As a side note, I grew-up at First Parish Kingston in the Ballou Channing District and am happy to see that you work in that region as a growth consultant!

  6. I am not at all surprised by the results of this research.

    I was extremely active in YRUU throughout the 1980s on the local, district, and continental level, and upon returning to UU churches as an adult I have been staggered by the tepid welcome I have received. And I have heard the same from fellow YRUU alumni.

    In general, the people sent to welcome newcomers during the coffee hour are relative newcomers themselves (as is, in many cases, the minister!). It’s incredibly awkward to arrive at a new church and be received by someone who has come to UUism only within the last few years and clearly has nothing to say to someone who was born & raised UU. Generally the welcomer looks uncomfortable and, rather than suggesting ways I could get involved in that particular church, immediately moves off to talk to a newcomer who is altogether new to UUism. At one church, I tried going six times, to no avail. No one ever engaged me in further conversation after learning that I was born UU. I have felt downright unwelcome and I’m beginning to wonder if I should just start saying that I’ve broken free from evangelical Christianity in order to get someone to show some interest in my presence.

    I am not alone – I can name, off the top of my head, at least 20 former YRUU leaders on the district and continental level, all of us born UUs, who are no longer engaged with a UU congregation because we feel that there is zero interest and investment in us as returnees, whether by local churches or by the UUA at large. We may still be in touch with each other, and we may continue to hold the beliefs and commitments imparted to us as children, but we have largely given up on organized UUism.

    This has become a movement in search of converts, not a supportive faith that nurtures its own. Shame on the UUA.

    1. As a lifelong UU myself, let me say that I understand how you feel. I’m involved today in many ways because of my own dedication to revolution & change, not because I’m a success story. I fell through many cracks, more often than not landing on the couch talking to the sexton of my home church. We come from a long tradition of heretics, trouble makers and revolutionaries. The UUA, our movement and its institutions, is only viable when there is ongoing revolution from within. I’ve been quietly working on my own for about a decade with minimal support from the UUA to change our culture, now finally getting some traction. I have a blueprint I’m working. I’d be happy to talk / email more. You can email me if you want to, okay? Peter Bowden. We can’t wait for someone to change things for us. We have to do it ourselves — with others — from within.

  7. Peter, interesting article, thank you. This in particular gets at the core for me “The way UUs raise our children seems to prepare them for something completely different than what Unitarian Universalism actually offers. This suggests that UUs should change one or the other (or both).”[9]

    I feel very grateful for my UU upbringing, and especially for the alive, joyous spiritual worship I encountered through YRUU conferences in the ’80s. I searched broadly — including a half dozen UU churches — in the ’90s, and was blessed to find a spiritual home at Chochmat Halev, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley, CA which captures the joyous song-chant-and-dance-filled worship and spiritual thirst that I encountered through YRUU. Whether UUism wants to create more of this sort of worship is a fair question — it’s quite different from the more staid services that I tend to encounter at UU churches.

    (For me, there’s an additional element: I find I like a spiritual tradition with more form and structure to be challenged by and to push against. I’m naturally rebellious and skeptical; having a tradition which challenges me and within which to question is actually more interesting for me than questioning in open space. Not sure how generally applicable that second is.)

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