Sunday, April 29, 2012

"We have so much of what people are moving to"

Fourth in a series of posts about the April UUA Board meeting

Saying that the Chinese symbol for crisis means both threat and opportunity is somewhat trite (and according to Sinologist Victor Mair, wholly inaccurate)  -- but it really is a good summary of Peter Morales' President's Ends Monitoring Report:  the certified adult membership of the Association has been in decline since 2008, as has religious education enrollment.  Put within the context of mainline Protestant religions, we are hanging on.
Chart from The President's Monitoring Report, March 10, 2012

The difference, points out Peter, is that "we have so much of what people are moving to".  A rejection of a God that seems at odds with Love.  A spiritual home for those with a non-traditional view of God or no God at all.  A place to center social justice with moral values.  A way to incorporate truths from many faith and secular traditions.

This was the basis for much of the marketing work in the past ten years (including in the Bay Area) -- if only people knew about us, they would come.

There is some truth in this.  There was clearly an impact in the Bay Area (contact me if you want to see the results) but not anything close to a silver bullet.  So Peter has taken the Administration in a different direction, made famous in his pre-President days as "repel fewer visitors".

I used to do a workshop at every General Assembly called "Congregations Count" that provided a lot of data about visitors and membership.  I still remember the first time I calculated the number of visitors who came back at least once within a 6 months period for my church.  It was 40%.  I was horrified -- in Peter's words, we were "repelling" 60% of our visitors.

It turns out that was actually pretty good -- I have been collecting data for about ten years from UU as well as Christian mainline churches and "normal" percentages that do not come back is closer to 70-80%.   We are "too Christian", or "not Christian enough", or "the building is too dark".  If we do a good job with our websites (almost 100% of our visitors check us out there ahead of time), our theology should not surprise anyone -- they are looking for fit.  And for many, our welcome and ritual do not.

The UUA has shifted its emphasis from bringing more visitors to working with congregations to help transform us from "a religion that is tied to origins in another time" to one that "reframe[s] our past as a story of a people who saw new possibilities in every age and who embraced those possibilities." Peter goes on to say

If we are to thrive we need a new culture of collaboration within our congregations and across our movement. We need religious leaders who can lead the change we need. We need to find new ways of being moral beacons in our communities—standing on the side of love when others would marginalize and dehumanize.

The full monitoring report can be downloaded here.

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