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Saturday, January 3, 2004

Sixteen fastest growing churches.

Updated 1.5.05: The information in this year-old entry is based on data collected through early 2003. The 2003 figures, however, may actually reflect the church membership figures from 2001-02. This list should not be interpreted as a reflection of current rates of growth — and, unfortunately, I don't yet have comprehensive updated figures.

Sixteen congregations have contributed a whopping 24% of the Unitarian Universalist Association's membership growth over the last decade. (These 16 churches grew by 200 or more members between 1993 and 2003.) Forty-six other churches added between 100 and 199 members each, and are responsible for another 40% of the UUA's growth. In other words, 62 of the UUA's 1,000+ churches account for 64% of the Association's growth over the last decade. All the remaining congregations accounted for only 36% of the Association's membership growth. Amazing.

I've been working on extracting some interesting information from the comprehensive tables Peter Morales prepared for the UUA's district executives and others involved in promoting effective strategies for membership growth. This post is the first part of that extraction effort.

The following table lists the 16 congregations that reported more than 200 new adult members between 1993 and 2003. There's no magic here: Peter simply put each congregation's reported membership for each of the last ten years into a district-by-district spreadsheet, and computed the change. (There are some questionable figures in the data, which I've noted. Some of these are probably errors in the congregation's reporting methods.)

For each congregation, the first number is the most recent number of members (voting adults), as reported in the 2003-2004 UUA Directory. The number in parentheses is the difference between the 1993 number and the 2003 number. I've added each congregation's founding date — some are very old, and a few are less than a decade old — each congregation's location and district, and the names of its ministers (with the date of installation in parentheses).

  • First Unitarian Society 1300 (+436)
    Madison, Wis. 1879 (Central Midwest)
    Rev. Michael A. Schuler (1988) - Rev. Scott G. Prinster (assist. 2002) - Rev. Kellyjane Crocker (contract 2001)

  • Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation 359 (+359*)
    Oak Park, Ill. 1994* (Central Midwest)
    Rev. Alan Taylor (2003)
    *Unity Temple was founded in 1871; the 2003-2004 UUA Directory, however, gives 1994 as the founding date. Assuming the congregation had not grown significantly between 1993 and 1994, the actual growth rate would be +92, not +359.

  • Unitarian Universalist Church 1082 (+277)
    Arlington, Va. 1948 (Joseph Priestley)
    Rev. Michael A. McGee (1999), Rev. Linda O. Peebles (relig. ed. 2001), Rev. Sarah M. York (interim 2003)

  • First Unitarian Universalist Church 716 (+264)
    Ann Arbor, Mich. 1865 (Heartland)
    Dr. Kenneth P. Phifer (1980)

  • First Unitarian Universalist Church 604 (+260)
    Austin, Texas 1951 (Soutwest)
    Dr. Davidson Loehr (2000)

  • First Unitarian Church 1002 (+247)
    Portland, Ore. 1866 (Pacific Northwest)
    Rev. Dr. Marilyn J. Sewell (1992), Rev. Thomas G. Disrud (assoc. 1995)

  • Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship 391 (+230)
    Appleton, Wis. 1957 (Central Midwest)
    Rev. Roger Bertschausen (1990)

  • Unitarian Universalist Fellowship 565 (+230)
    Raleigh, N.C. 1949 (Thomas Jefferson)
    Rev. Julie Denny-Hughes (1999), Rev. Donald E. Garrett Jr. (assist. 2002)

  • First Parish 725 (+225)
    Brewster, Mass. 1700 (Ballou-Channing)
    Rev. James A. Robinson (1982)

  • Atkinson Memorial Church 222 (+222*)
    Oregon City, Ore. 1844 (Pacific Northwest)
    Dana Elizabeth Worsnop (2003)
    *The congregation apparently revived its UUA ties in 1997, creating a sudden spike in its reported membership, although the congregation itself appears not to have grown quite so dramatically.

  • First Unitarian Society 640 (+217)
    Milwaukee, Wis. 1842 (Central Midwest)
    Rev. Andrew C. Kennedy (1986)

  • Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship 213 (+213)
    Dayton, Ohio 1998* (Heartland)
    Rev. Richard Venus (1991*)
    *The 2003-2004 UUA Directory reports that the Rev. Venus has been serving in Dayton, Ohio, since 1991, but reports that the congregation was founded in 1998. If the congregation was founded before 1994, the rate of growth may be slower than shown here.

  • Unitarian Universalist Community Church 210 (+210)
    Glen Allen, Va. 1994 (Thomas Jefferson)
    Rev. Timothy Kutzmark (2000)

  • East Shore Unitarian Church 611 (+207)
    Bellevue, Wash. 1950 (Pacific Northwest)
    Rev. Peter J. Luton (1994)

  • Foothills Unitarian Church 493 (+206)
    Fort Collins, Colo. 1898 (Mountain Desert)
    Dr. Marc A. Salkin (1991)

  • First Unitarian Church 841 (+205)
    Dallas, Texas 1899 (Southwest)
    Rev. Dr. Laurel E. Hallman (1987), Rev. Daniel C. Kanter (2001)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 3 January 2004 at 9:44 PM

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January 4, 2004 05:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

What conclusions do you draw from the data? I have some issues with the data collection method, as churches are notoriously poor reporters of membership.

Some of these churches are led by real visionaries, but that hardly explains the growth at, for example, Arlington, VA, where the uninspiring Kim Beach is followed by the affable but shallow Mike McGee.

Richard Hurst:

January 4, 2004 06:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kim Beach's last few years at Arlington were ... divisive for the congregation. I liked Beach, as a theologian and preacher at least. Perhaps having an "affable" pastoral minister counts for more than theology or preaching, as awful as that sounds. Perhaps the conclusion is ... niceness counts? Or maybe Arlington County, Virginia, is UU country (I hate to say it, you know, Cultural Creatives, Utne readers, Whole Food shoppers, etc.), and leaving divisiveness behind simply allowed the church to fulfill its pent-up demographic mandate.


January 4, 2004 06:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

The data is, by and large, pretty accurate: it's pegged to the per-member fee that the UUA assess congregations for the UUA's services. I wouldn't be suprised if wealthier congregations are more generous in calculating membership, and poorer congregations more stingy in their numbers.

As for Arlington: The low point was 1996-97, when the church reported 761 members. The numbers jumped to 832 the next year, then 870, 885, a big jump to 943 in 2000-01. The data show Beach's tenure hovering around 800, which still puts the church in the top ten churches in the UUA. Something is clearly going right for that church, even with a divisive end of a ministry in the mix.

Melanie, I don't have much interpretation to offer yet. I don't yet see any pattern in this data at all.


January 4, 2004 07:08 PM | Permalink for this comment


I have reservations about the quality of the per cap data. I belonged to a large, well-to-do congregation that pledged poorly and never paid its per cap. The overall pattern of growth in UU has been flat to minimal increases in the 1-2% range for decades.

Richard, your comment about "pent-up demand" in the Arlington demographic sounds about right


January 4, 2004 09:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Melanie, what interests me about the data is that the UUA's overall rate of growth is so largely dependent on the fastest-growing 62 churches, which are growing at much, much higher rates than all the others (many of which are barely holding steady). If there are things these churches are doing that the others could learn to do, we should start identifying those things.

There's no perfect way to identify "real" membership numbers — attends each week? tithes? wears a chalice pin to work? — and the per capita figure is the most stable figure we have. And what other approach would you have us take?


January 5, 2004 12:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

The per cap numbers are probably the best you've got, but the bottom line is that they are so unreliable as to make your conclusions suspect.

My issue is this: I've been studying the raw data for years, applying a variety of methodologies, but generally liking that proposed by the Yearbook of North American Religion. All of the liberal Protestant denominations are in demonstrable decline, at varying rates. When UU says it's growing, my skepticism gene kicks up. Individual congregations go through cycles of growth and diminishment, but the overall pattern is of decline. I suspect that 25 is buffing the numbers.


January 5, 2004 12:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Whether UUism is growing at 25% or maybe just 10% or not at all, let's keep in mind just how small we are - that are fewer UUs in the world than there are Catholics in New York. While our current growth may be encouraging, our denomination is small, and the vast majority of people in this country have no idea what we're about. We're little. We're little, and I believe there is a theological imperative to do more outreach work. Many UU's get squeamish about what they feel is evangelism, but if you look at the kind of work that's being done, especially in Kansas City, ( that seems far from the truth of what's going on. I don't even see much of the Cultural Creative stuff reflected in the material. For me, UU growth is a Justice issue. How can we claim to be interested in changing the world when we won't even go outside our front door? What kinds of communities are we reaching out too, and given our supposedly liberal beliefs, why are we still so overwhelmingly White? Whatever the numbers may be at the moment, they are not enough to seriously effect the change that is so desperately needed in this world. There's still a lot of work to do - on ourselves, and in our congregations.

Richard Hurst:

January 5, 2004 01:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hey, Chris, is *bottom line* growth in the number of UUs the issue?? Isn't 20 new members for an 80 member church the same as 200 new members for an 800 member church?? I mean, it's hard to say an 800 member church is doing something "better" by getting 200 new members, except being big and adding more new members to the UUA's bottom line numbers. But that couldn't be what "really" counts, could it?. Those 20 new members might mean more to the 80-member congregation.

I dare say your whole analysis buys into the whole mega-church philosophy that the UUA is pushing. I'm not sure I'm buying it.


January 5, 2004 05:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

No, Richard, I'm not an advocate of the megachurch approach and I'm not all that interested in the Association's overall rate of growth. What does interest me is that what growth there is within the UUA is so dramatically tied up with a handful of churches. I would like to see more energy invested in understanding what the top 100 churches do well (not just the top 16) — especially since the next tier of churches, with a growth rate of more than 100 new members over the last decade, includes many small to mid-size churches. I don't think this is a big church phenomenon.

The bad news, however, is that a huge number of UU congregations are not growing. A lot of the pep talk in the denomation has papered over this reality by focusing on the denomination's overall growth rate.

But you are very right that a small church that has welcomed 20 new members is doing something right, too. I don't mean to dismiss them at all. I'm going to work my way through the data, hoping that you all can help interpret it and locate some patterns. No one has broken out the growth rates by church size, but that would be really interesting to see, too. For once, though, we have church-by-church figures for a full decade, and can at least watch for trends.


January 5, 2004 05:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great topic and great discussion...
As the minister of the church that has benefitted the most from the UUA's advertising campaign, I am a bit biased. I think it is wrong to jump all over the idea of advertising. I think a multi-disciplinary approach that includes advertising is the best way to grow churches.

Looking at the list of churches above, it is clear to me (having been close to several of the above congregations) that there is no single magic bean that will sprout enormous growth. These churches have gotten there in different ways. Some of the above churches have charismatic ministers. Some are captializing on demographic shifts. Some (like Portland) have grown through the publicity that their strong social action programs have attracted. Some are growing small groups.

The number is really smaller than 16 as you point out. Striking is the absence of brand new churches that have began in the last 10 years and grown to the 200 member plateau!!!

I hope that you'll list the other 46 congregations. --Thom

Richard Hurst:

January 5, 2004 06:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, the Glen Allen church is brand-new, or at least it's only 10 years old or so. But that's the only "new" one on the list. The sermons strike me as ... theist-lite and even Judeo-Christian-friendly, and I had always thought the Rev. Kutzmark was a UUCF member, and I believe on the UUCF Board Members was active in establishing the church.

It's not "institutionally" Christian though, the way Ephiphany in Michigan is. I'm not sure what to make of that, except to say that ... the idea that we're succesful when we "come in from the margins" on the language-of-reverence idea, to follow in the footsteps of Bill Sinkford, might not be too wide of the mark for new church starts. It seems to me that "Pathways" in the Dallas area builds on that idea, for what it's worth.

John Keohane:

January 13, 2004 04:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Unity Temple in Oak Park did not grow from nothing to 359 in the 10 year period, although you do have it listed as #2 in growth and going from nothing to 359 in ten years.

In 1972, my cousin Maria Doktor, my fiancee, and I visited that church, for church services, the minister bowed his head, said some words, lifted his head, and Maria, who had never been to college, and was on her first trip outside the Netherlands, my conservative Christian cousin Maria from Holland, whispered to me: "Was that kind of a prayer". I'll always remember that. The minister had certainly not involked deity, and cousin Maria had lost nothing in translation.


January 13, 2004 04:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

John, the Unity Temple figures are obviously wrong, but Unity Temple and the Atkinson Memorial Church in Oregon City (however erroneously) showed up on the unanalyzed table of fastest-growing churches. It turns out that there are only 14 churches that have grown by more than 200 adult members over the last decade.

I've been to Unity Temple, too, and loved the Frank Lloyd Wright sanctuary. The day I visited, I was wearing an ugly geometric sweater that just happened to have the same color-scheme as the interior of the building: I fit right in! My wife won't let me wear that sweater anymore, though.

Ron Robinson:

January 14, 2004 11:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just been thinking, in light of all the above, about Stark's "The Rise of Christianity." Hmm. going from 30 in 33c.e. to 3,000,000 three centuries later--half of the Roman Empire. thats (only!?) 6.8 percent growth a year (or so I have been told; someone can check the math if they want). It wasn't just the Emperor creating the Christians, as we often I think like to tell the history, but the Empire shifting to accomodate the rapid rise of Christianity in the Empire. How did the faith grow in the first three centuries, and could that be a model for us as we look toward the next three centuries? (okay, due to revolutionary rate of change as opposed to evolutionary maybe we don't have that long, so maybe we better think in terms of 100 years, but even that is better vision-casting and planting than the 3-5year vision, at best, most churches reflect). Y'all read Stark and can comment on if we can use a premodern model in a postmodern age?

Gila J.:

January 15, 2004 11:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think Unity Temple is shown coming into existence in 1994 because that's the year it merged with another nearby congregation.

I visited East Shore about 9 years ago, shortly after Peter Luton came. It has an extremely nice facility, plenty of parking, and exceptionally well trained greeters. The congregation is young and there are a large variety of programs. UUism is a good fit with the laid-back mentality of the Pacific Northwest.

Tandi Rogers & Rev Anne Heller, PNWD:

January 15, 2004 04:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

We are thrilled and not surprised to see Bellevue, Portland and Atkinson from the Pacific Northwest District on the list. If you are looking for models for growth, please also check out:

Quimper UU Fellowship (Pt Angeles, WA)
UU Church of Eugene (OR)
UU Church of Salem (OR)
Kitsap UUF (Bremerton, WA)
Bellingham Unitarian F (WA)
UUC of the Palouse (Moscow, ID)
Boise UUF (ID)

These stars are growing solidly, steadily, and intentionally. One of the things they have in common are Directors of Religious Education that work closely with the minister and lay leadership to provide a program that inspires and supports that religious community’s mission. Their Religious Exploration programs are intergenerational and address the whole system. Their DREs are active members of LREDA, attend and support district trainings and events, and are connected in their wider network. Their congregations have made contracts, fair work loads and fair compensation a part of their religious culture and expectation.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

January 15, 2004 08:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

How nice to my home congregation, Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Port Townsend, WA, listed among the "stars" of congregational growth! Personally, I think one of the chief factors in our growth is something that just can't be reduced to marketing: the quality of relationship. As one friend put it: "It isn't that people don't get mad from time to time and want to leave, but we hold them so close it is hard for them to go."

Scott Gerard Prinster:

January 24, 2004 09:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

I appreciate getting to discuss these figures with other interested people, as I'm currently chairing the Central Midwest District's Growth Initiative Steering Committee. We've been looking at these same numbers, and what a few of you have intuited about suspicious results is true. Unity Temple was the result of a merger, and I seem to remember Miami Valley UU in Dayton undergoing something similar, which would explain the odd dates.

Obviously, the stories of individual congregations are much richer than the bare numbers imply, and it's good to tease out some of these details to make sure that we're comparing apples to apples.

As to why certain congregations experience apparently sudden growth, I think that an insider's view is required. At First Unitarian Society in Madison, the growth is almost a perfect straight line over the 15 years Michael Schuler has been there, after almost no growth over the 35 years of his predecessor. The only time that membership did not grow under Michael was during the controversial year that an MRE was encouraged to leave. Arlington has had some of the same issues -- I suspect that, once the feuding ministers who preceded Michael had left, all of the other factors that could have brought about growth suddenly did do just that. I'm sure that, after a difficult pairing of ministers, Michael McGee's affability is a relief; also, he and Linda are generally institutionally savvy, which sure doesn't hurt.

Again, the internal life of a congregation has so much power to affect its numbers. James Reeb Congregation in Madison, as Scott Wells mentions in his blog, experienced significant growth under Shawna Goodwin's ministry but, when she left, their numbers dropped so much that they had to go to a half-time interim. They're calling a full-time minister this fall, but it's a financial stretch for them, and we provide a lot of extra professional support from First to help get them re-stabilized.

One of the concerns that is always raised in these conversations is the emphasis on numbers. I'm pleased that our growth efforts in the CMw District really focus on the other dimensions of growth (maturational, organic, incarnational), trusting that the numbers will follow. That's certainly been borne out at First Society in Madison, and I'm hoping that we can make deeply healthy congregations our real focus, and let the numbers rise as a happy side-effect.

Roger Kuhrt:

January 26, 2004 01:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Have you broken this data out into Districts? Is that info. on a server?

Great work here, like the little robot #5 in the movies; I seek data!

Cheerfully, ROK


January 29, 2004 03:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Roger, I haven't looked at the district totals or trends, although I believe each district executive has this information. (I will be looking at this information; I just haven't done it yet.) But, just as a handful of congregations accounts for most of the Association's growth, so too a handful of districts accounts for most of the growth. The Mountain Desert District comes out on top in the total growth seen by a single district over the last ten years, but beyond that, I don't remember the order.

The ten-year data is not on-line, and I'm not aware of plans to put it there.

Jim Mason:

August 15, 2004 09:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

The link on this page for the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, is incorrect. Here is the correct link:


August 23, 2004 12:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for catching this, Jim. I've fixed the link.

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