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How do we measure Unitarian growth?

A few weeks ago I asked the following question to the Executive Committee:

How does the Executive Committee intend to objectively measure numerical growth?

I ask this question as I am not aware of any publicly available figure for the number of Unitarians in Britain, other than the electoral role number for the Executive elections. But why should this number be only available as a by-product of elections? Shouldn't the number be published every year at the Annual Meetings? This is what happens in the UUA, and as a result I can easily find that the number of UU adult members is 164,656. I can also go on the UUA website and find the membership numbers for individual congregations (see here for example) Such information is public and easily available. Can such information not be available here too?

I understand the difficulties of getting those accurate numbers but if an objective is not measurable then what is the point of it? If growth is an objective it should be measurable.

The response here was

Thank you Stephen. An old management adage says 'you can't manage what you don't measure.' As you point out, it is difficult to get reliable information (and this is true in the UUA as well). Nonetheless, knowing and sharing this information could be helpful in our focus on growth.

Andy [Pakula]

I've never quite understood why the reported membership numbers for each congregation should be so secret. And why I only ever heard rumours of our national numbers. Are there 6,000 of us? 4,000 of us, 2,000 of us? Is that so difficult to determine? At what rate are we in decline? When will we go extinct if you follow the curve of the line? Surely the answers to such questions will determine our attitude and priorities.

I don't mind reporting that the last time I checked there were 56 members in my congregation. I have spent a good bit of time trying to make sure that number is accurate so I can measure numerical growth, but it still includes a few inactive members.

There are of course other ways to measure growth. We could pick one Sunday and all count the number of attenders in worship that Sunday (I think the Baptists do that) or we could report average worship attendance numbers. Again, I don't consider it a secret to say our average attendance in 2008 was 31 people.

All this talk about growth has been a bit airy-fairy for the last few years. If we are thinking about growth, we need to be able to measure it.


Paul Oakley said…
If you have only 56 members and 31 average attendance, Stephen, how on earth can they pay your salary and benefits package in addition to taking care of the physical plant?

I ask because my small-town Midwest USA congregation is an "emerging" congregation with 25 members and, if you extrapolate from prior years' contributions, we would need to have at least 200 members to afford a minister.

Now I know congregations do it with fewer members than that. I'm talking about our current giving levels. Our most dedicated members are giving at about as high a level as their finances can manage, and naturally not everyone is strongly committed.

Of course, growth is key to our continued existence, with or without a minister. Especially since the primary population in our area who show any interest in what we stand for are seniors. And, with only four years being in existence, we've already had 2 funerals, and one member has had to move from her home to a skilled-care facility. Her family know down to the day when that will eat up the remainder of her savings. Three other members, that I can think of off the top of my head, are in their upper 70's.

In short, while I love these seniors and the wealth of experience they bring with them, we're always a handful of deaths and hospitalizations from total extinction as a congregation unless we balance our population by age group. Without families with children and teens, without young adults, without young marrieds, without middle aged people, without the full demographic, we are always at risk of dying out.

So make sure that your growth efforts pay close attention to demographics as well as mere numbers.
Unknown said…
Hi Stephen,

I have wondered why it is a secret since I arrived in the UK. I agree with you that it should not be. If it were up to me, the reported number of members of each congregation would be displayed on the GA web site.

Not only would this help us monitor growth, it would help prospective visitors to not be quite so surprised when they arrive at their nearest congregation.

I wouldn't want to suggest that any congregations actually under-report their membership, but it might just be that one or two would adjust the numbers they report if they knew it would be seen by the public.

At last count, 75.

Andy Pakula
Newington Green and Islington Unitarians
Paul, you make a very good point. Working it out on the back of an envelope I reckon we raise about 20% of my stipend each month from live giving.

So how is my stipend paid? Well, a percentage comes from a national fund, and the congregation has income from lets (we have a business permanenty based in our basement), car park rent (town centre car park is a very valuable asset) and income from investment. The difference is that my congregation is 330 years old, and in the nineteenth century there would have been a good number of very wealthy members. So basically we're living off their live (dead?) giving. We're living off their fat. Which is not to say we're rich, not to say we may well not be able to afford a minister in ten years.

One of the reasons I feel a moral obligation to grow my congregation is that I think live giving should cover a minister's stipend, with income from the property supporting the upkeep of the property. I'm very aware that I'm being supported by old money that is frankly running out, and it feels irresponsible to me to let that continue.

But in the UK very few churches expect to cover a minister's stipend through live giving. There is a different culture, which I think has something to with establishment, where churches are things that are just there, part of the landscape, like the post office and the library, they're always been there, and they always will be. No one thinks too much about how they get paid for. It's one of the culure changes that needs to happen if Unitarianism is to survive - we need to get realistic about live giving.

By the way - if 56 members tithed, they could easily afford a minister.
Paul Oakley said…
Thanks for giving me a clearer picture, Stephen.

Ah, the tithe! I'd forgotten about that.

Around here, the idea of the tithe has been greatly constricted except among the fundamentalist churches. Frequently people who do think of it consider it to be 10% of income after-tax, after-college-tuition-for-the-children, after-some-other-semi-obligatory-spending. And then they consider that 10% to be the ceiling for all charitable (and sometimes even political) giving, church being just one part of it.

But IF the tithe were considered a church-only support and were were based on gross income from all sources, then 10 members above those needed to support other expenses could support a base salary for a minister equal to their average income, and an additional 10 members could cover health insurance and other non-salary benefits and the adjustment to cover self-employment tax (since in the USA ministers are considered self-employed for purposes of Social Security and Medicare taxes).

However, from where I stand, it seems very unlikely that fundamentalist-style tithing is coming to my Unitarian Universalist church in the near future, which leaves us in need of a whole lot more members...

If your members are currently contributing only 20% of your stipend, it seems that their attitudes about tithing are not that far from the liberal American attitudes above. Do we need to do some major "stewardship" preaching as well as concentrating on membership growth?
Yewtree said…
I'm still finding that most people haven't heard of Unitarians and/or have no idea what we stand for. We need to get out there and mention it. For instance I was buying some food on the way to chapel for the Harvest service (tins for the local homeless and fresh food for the lunch after the service) and the supermarket was closed due to Sunday trading laws, so I had to use the garage instead. So I said to the checkout lady that I thought it was a pity that conservative Christians dictated Sunday opening hours to the rest of us, even though I supported the rights of supermarket workers to a home life. Then I mentioned that I am a Unitarian and was on my way to church, but that we don't like to dictate other people's lifestyle choices to them.

I think having websites (local and national) will help.

I think that including the various types of Unitarians (Liberal Christians, humanists, Earth Spirit, and universalist) is very important. I was a bit horrified by a letter in the Inquirer suggesting that churches advertise themselves as either UU-style or Free Christian, and that we have separate national organisations for each. All types of Unitarian exist happily alongside each other at our chapel, and I'd guess most other chapels are in a similar position. It is possible to be inclusive of all tendencies without reducing it to a wishy-washy style of service.

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