UU Strategy: How that Working for Us?

For 40 years or more, UU’s have based on their strategy on this proposition: there is a deep hunger for community out there, and that if we built genuinely inclusive, democratic, welcoming communities, we will grow because we would be feeding such a deep hunger.

How many church websites feature a group picture of the congregation: cheerful smiles, many matching tee-shirts, a visual invitation "to come join our group"?
Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation

How many congregational missional statement explicitly say that their mission is to build a community where all sorts of good things happen?
UU Church of Nora 

How many sermons and worship services directly address the life problems of being in community?

Isn't our transformation strategy that we build a global Beloved Community by building a Local Beloved Community?
The Purpose Statement of the Unitarian Church of Calgary

You can see why UU's of the 70's/80's took up this particular organizational strategy. It is a strategy of the lowest common denominator and the path of least resistance. There was no way to resolve the  theist/humanist argument, without a higher value which could contain both. We needed a strategy that let us put that argument to rest and let us move on. The congregation as "community" was the goal that could contain both theists and humanists..

And in the 70-80's, UU's could not make social transformation that higher value.  We were not going to go all in on a prophetic social justice strategy. Too many Boomers in our congregations were suffering from a form of PTSD about the late 60's/early 70's. They were withdrawing from social movements en masse.  And younger people of the era, the emerging GenXers, were also repelled by the anxious combativeness of that early period. Being "stuck in the sixties" was seen as a kind of mild mental disorder.

And the aggressiveness of the cultural conservative movements had pushed us onto the defensive.

An organizational strategy of building communities/congregations fit with our non-creedal and congregational traditions.

Creating covenanted, healthy, spiritually nourishing, genuinely inclusive, peaceful, and safe communities became our evangelical and ecclesiological method. But now, the strategy of community-building has become so pervasive, it is unseeable.

My question is "How is that working out for us?"

Size-wise, we are about in the same place as we were when we adopted this strategy.

Demographically, we have not broken out of our particular culture. Creating a truly welcoming community turns out to be very hard; the prevailing culture of the founders inevitably shows through and either attracts or repels people who are different. 

It's true that we constantly take in new members, but more come and go than stay.

Further, it doesn't seem that people are actually eager to join the kind of high-commitment community that a typical UU congregation is. We like to think that our congregations are low-commitment communities, but actually they are not. To be a full insider member, you need to commit a lot of time, energy and money to the congregation. I would suspect that a majority of congregational members feel that they are too busy to fully participate in the life of the congregation.

We believe that there is a deep hunger for community out there, but is that really true?

Building community has its own value, but maybe it's time to reconsider whether, as a strategy,  it is enough to change our anemic growth trends.

In the next couple of posts, I will suggest some alternative organizational strategies. 


  1. Oysh ...

    I've been involved in a variety of community groups since high school. Before that, I saw my father build a Cub Scout pack from a handful of boys to about two hundred. I went to college at Oberlin - a virtual crucible for activism and organizing.

    Fancy talk and theory does not build communities, groups or institutions.

    Help people meet their needs.

    That's what worked then. That's what works now.

    Listen to what people need. Help them meet those needs.

  2. Rev. Kate Lore11:42 AM

    First I should note that my ministry takes place in Portland, Oregon, and area that is ripe with vitality,creativity and several colleges and universities I mention this because the context matters, of course.

    I want to stress that our original premise was right: people are hungry for meaningful community. But people are also hungry for hope, passion and a sense of "aliveness." We cannot feed these needs whilst stuck in our heads. We need to break free of our traditional liturgy, shorten and enliven our sermons and be a force of hope for the community. This means getting involved with community groups that differ than our typical demographic. This means taking risks, learning cross-cultural sensitivity, taking stands and embracing technology.

    We have so much to offer if we just APPLY all of our book knowledge in public ways. Our vision is great; we simply need to let go a little more.

  3. joel slater7:56 PM

    Interesting analysis of the problems--looking forward to learning about some proposed solutions

  4. Community is the by-product of commitment to worthy goals, not an end in itself. What should our worthy goals be? What they've been from the beginning - - nurturing the spiritual growth of the individual and the common good of the world.

  5. I wonder if the fact the national membership is stable over the past 30-40 years is necessarily a sign of failure. My sense is that, other than certain mega and evangelical churches (categories which may overlap in many cases), attendance at mainline religious services has declined over virtually every denomination. Of my friends & relatives who belong to non-UU churches most are either practicing or C & E Catholics, and I attend Mass on occasion. Many Catholic parishes would be thrilled if their membership was stable over the last few decades. The reasons for the decline in Catholic observance are, I'm sure, many, but one thing that always strikes me at Mass is a lack of emphasis on community -- most parishioners seem to come and go, and ways to build connections or even chat over coffee are not emphasized. I guess my point is that it's hard to know where we would be if a different strategy had been pursued.


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