I was a panelist at the Summit on the Economic Sustainability of Ministry, organized by "the people formerly known as the Department of Ministry"in St. Louis.  A couple of people livetweeted the event and the #sustainministry hashtag carries a lot of the most memorable things that we said by participants. The UU World was there and is preparing an article, and has already posted photos on the UUA's Facebook page.

I was given a chance to make two presentations to the group. I am going to break up my points into a couple of posts.

My first point is that the decline of the 'mainline' churches is, to some extent, political. When the country lurched to right in the 70's and 80's, conservative evangelical churches grew and the more liberal denominations shrank. (Recent years have shown their relative decline, but conservatism as whole is now shrinking as well.)

I have pounded on this point repeatedly here at the Lively Tradition. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism, in any of its dimensions, can only be understood in the context of the 40 year cultural hegemony of conservative ideology. For decades, conservative churches have done quite well; the more liberal mainline churches have done poorly. I believe that the only reason why the UU's have not had the same decline as the mainline was that we were welcoming LGBTQIA people while they were not. What a boost in energy, creativity, and clarity came about as a result !

So, when we look at the economic sustainability of our ministry, we need to remember that our problem is not just the sign of a generational shift in church-going habits, but also the result of the political trends in the country. Rosemary Bray McNatt commented that the African American church has not seen the same pattern of decline.  Carey MacDonald pointed out that the decline has mostly been in mainline white Protestant denominations and English speaking Catholics.

And we must remember that the political dominance of the Right has fostered economic policies that affect our situation: the concentration of wealth at the top and the reliance on individual debt to finance what used to more commonly supported endeavors, like higher education.

So my point is this: when we look at the precarious economic circumstances of liberal religion, which includes the economic sustainability of the ministry, we have to see it, in part, as the damage done to it by political forces which explicitly oppose our values. And therefore, we have to look beyond ourselves to the present historical situation for solutions, in part.

Keeping the Faith
(edited to correct stupid error: 6:58PM)


  1. Thanks for blogging on this, Tom, and I hope that you'll continue to share your impressions from the Summit. As you've probably already seen on Twitter and Facebook, some of us are frustrated that the conversation has had the appearance of secrecy to it, although I trust that this is just appearances.

    I'm curious about your suggestion that the UUs' smaller decline in numbers is related to our being welcoming to LGBTQIA people. Do we have the numbers to demonstrate this? My impression is that this population of new UUs is too small to offset the decline the other Protestant movements are experiencing. I'm fishing around for whatever additional factors there may be.

  2. Scott, It's my guess that our relatively flat growth rate, compared to other mainline's precipitious decline, is due to our welcoming posture. I am not thinking of this in numerical terms -- I think the numbers of lost Methodists alone is more than our total numbers period. I do think that our welcoming posture brought in a sense of vitality, an atmosphere of cultural relevance, and reservoirs of creativity that made UU churches comparatively more exciting places to be than many a mainline church.
    As to other factors, I think that, even though we were still 'churchy', we were less so than the mainlines, and that there were some who were happy with that precise mix of church/not church that their local UU congregation offered. Same with being interfaith.
    By and large, I think that the picture was that aggressive evangelical Protestantism polarized the Protestant world, moving people either to their movement, or out of Christianity altogether. A lot of those missing mainliners went to the right; a lot went to the left and out of the religious affiliation altogether. We picked up some for some specific reasons.

  3. Thanks, Tom. It's hard to put our finger on the precise causes, I guess, partly because the UU gains and losses are so small compared to what we're seeing elsewhere.

  4. This is key: "And we must remember that the political dominance of the Right has fostered economic policies that affect our situation: the concentration of wealth at the top and the reliance on individual debt to finance what used to more commonly supported endeavors, like higher education."

    We are grappling with systemic and cultural challenges to sustainable ministry and sustainable progressive religion. We cannot rely on the 1% to support the 99%, be that in our broader economic culture, our churches, or our seminaries. We need to flip the tables in the temple and rethink stewardship of our collective resources.


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