Tuesday, January 24, 2012

3 of 4 UU's Don't Belong to Congregations. Why?

Of course, it is technically true that all UU's belong to UU congregations, because technically, there is no way to be a UU unless you belong to a congregation.  But don't tell the people that.  (It makes them mad!)  And,  of the people who tell pollsters that they are UU's,  3 out of 4 DON'T belong to a congregation.

Why would that be?  Let me count a few ways.

1.  Some of them don't have a UU church in commuting distance.  Above is an old map,  but it shows huge swaths of our nation (anything not pink or purple) where there is no UU church in the county. Not much has changed in 12 years.  Some people who are out of range of a brick and mortar church belong to the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and more may now that this organization has really beefed up its on-line resources, but most apparently don't.

2.  Some live in range of a UU church but don't belong because they can't find a place for themselves theologically, or they don't like the minister or the leadership group,  or they have become discouraged by church politics or burned out by the incessant demands of lay leadership.   We are a denomination of small congregations...and small congregations are hard, hard work.  There are very few communities outside of the East Coast between Washington DC and Southern Maine which offer any real choice of UU congregations.

3.  They may live in range of a UU church but be busy with other things in their life right now.  Many college students are near UU groups but don't join up, for instance.  Their lives are rich and interesting and busy on campus.  It would take a huge effort of outreach and support to get them interested in belonging to a UU church.  (I get this.  My son belongs to this group)

4.  They may have grown up as UU's and not continued to belong to a UU church, although, if asked, they would say they were UU's because they generally agree with what they were taught as children.  That is to say, they may be among the between 80 and 90% of children of our church schools who don't join UU churches ever again in their lives.  If the goal of our RE programs of the past 50 years had been to innoculate children against church, we'd consider ourselves quite successful.  Ouch.  My two siblings belong to this group.

5.  They may be kind of interested in being a UU but when they visit they discover nobody like them.  Nobody under 40.  Nobody who didn't graduate from college.  Nobody who is not white.  Nobody who is not Anglo.  They look around and see that in this congregation, they'd be by themself.  So...they stay by themself.

6. Then there are the ones who don't want to be asked for money but don't mind taking advantage of the fact that some people will give for them.  But this is, in the end, a pretty small category.

Put all these folks together, and it is easy for me to believe that 3 out of 4 people who think of themselves as UU's would not actually belong to a congregation.

How about you?  Can you add other reasons UU's  might not belong to a UU church?


@NativeMikeAdams said...

I like this question that you have asked, “Can you add other reasons UUs might not belong to a UU church?” I think it is potentially a very fraught question and one that UUs don't often ask, because on some level, we are aware that there are true answers to that question, which cut rather close to the bone.

My wife, my mother-in-law and myself all grew up in UU congregations. My mother-in-law is the daughter of a now deceased, but famous and influential UU minister on the East coast. Her mother was a force within our denomination in her own right. My wife grew into a young adult attending a West Coast UU congregation and I spent my Sunday mornings at the Los Alamos UU Church.

My parents taught RE and served on many committees. Additionally, my mom served as president of the board for Jemez House youth home, along with several other UU congregants.

In short, I grew up believing that Unitarian Universalism made a difference in this world, I thought of UUs as warriors for justice and though during my brief college career, I chose not to nurse my Sunday morning hangovers in UU services, I did honestly identify as a UU. I drank too much to finish college and several years later, I met my wife at a 12-step recovery meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area. In AA, I learned how to help others, even when it was terribly inconvenient, because someone's life might depend on my willingness to be of service. I learned how to place spiritual principles before my own personality. In some ways, I saw AA service as a similar manifestation of what I had witnessed from the UUs who worked to provide a home to troubled youth and to provide food to those in need.

When my wife and I decided that we wanted our kids to grow up inside of the sorts of values we had learned in our childhood UU churches, I started attending with a certain degree of excitement and since returning, I have written and delivered several sermons at two separate churches, taught RE, mentored youth for our coming of age program and served as a member of the committee on ministry. I love our values and the ideals we set, that we covenant to affirm and promote our seven principles. I love that my children are growing up having the sorts of ethical conversations that help me develop as a person. But I am disappointed by the relative degree apathy in our denomination. We're not promoting our seven principles, not compared to how the right wing is promoting the “War on Christmas” or how Nike is promoting shoe sales and the problem is that what we have to promote is so much more important than so many other things.

I think that a major reason more people don't choose to belong to a UU church is because they lack a reason. There is no theological necessity of attending church as with Catholics or other Christians, there is no life or death situation as in AA and in the end what we offer is a good RE program (usually), an often interesting sermon, interesting conversation and hymns (often poorly sung)

I suspect that there are many people, who come to us, because they want to be a part of something that is important, that is making a difference in this troubled world and they feel disappointed, disillusioned by what they find.

kjr said...

I am a UU minister close to retirement. Went to RE as a child but quit because it didn't offer anything for my spiritual development. I went back as a young adult and still found an emptyness with a minister who was afraid to offer any spiritual perspective, if he indeed had one. I went to seminary not certain about the ministry but wanting (I think now) some of what the church didn't offer me when I was young.

I think my ministry and some of our churches have offered something to people like the person I was, but, frankly, there have been heavy pressures against it within the parish in some churches (not all). The people who seem to me to be deep searchers for a place that will sustain them in their spiritual and ethical lives often fall away from the church. If they are on the slightly more traditional side of the theological spectrum they may go to another church, but there are not a lot of choices that really ofter the theological freedom that UUism promises but fails to nurture, so what do the rest of us do. I frankly, don't know where or even whether I will go to church when I retire. Our spiritual lives and our search puts people in a somewhat vulnerable place -- so how do churches where people are so hostile to religion at times or at best ignorant or inarticulate attract people who are looking for a faith community? Our UU churches do often offer an opportunity to meet capatible people if you are the right demographic for that particular church, but that leaves out a lot of people as well as not being enough who are looking for more than a social club.

Nyx said...

Well, I wanted to attend a UU church, but discovered it was too difficult to take my children. The Sunday school program during church services was serious. My children were expected to be potty trained and attentive at 3. Not a great fit for my developmentally delayed autistic son. I tried to go at Easter but again it was not really made easy to participate with unruly children. There was an Easter egg hunt which was nice but since I couldn't seem to get to know anyone it was awkward and unfulfilling. There are actually two other congregations where I live, but I don't think they have a children's program at all. The only sermon I ever managed to hear was interesting but felt like a little like a college lecture. Very intellectual. I keep thinking that UU should be a good fit for me based on principles, but then I also want warmth. Church to me is supposed to be about community. A place to go for love and potlucks. But I just didn't get that vibe.