Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A reflection on the diversity of UU congregations

In my years of being active in UU churches, both here and in Colorado, I have noticed great differences regionally between UU churches. As an active participant on the UUMA ministers' chat, I've observed the differences in attitude between UU ministers, to some extent related to the region of the country they are serving. Reading blogs and Facebook entries from contributors and friends across the country, I notice the same thing: churches and staff members and ministers have widely different experiences, depending on the region of our nation they serve.

Recently I had a chance to ask a friend who travels extensively for the UUA this question: if you were a fly on the ceiling, looking down on the US and the various geographic/cultural regions of the country, how might you characterize the differences between districts of the UUA, in attitude, in growth patterns, that sort of thing.

I won't try to reproduce the answer here because I didn't take notes, but I was left with a few impressions which seem to underscore my own observations. And those I will try to describe.

New England UU congregations are numerous but they are not growing in numbers or strength. It is from those ministers and members that I hear a lot of "UUism is dying" complaints. One informal trend my friend noted was that when one church in a given population strip (say between Boston and its outlying areas) starts to grow, the others tend to lose membership. Churches in New England are only a few miles apart, so distance is not much of a factor; the suspicion is that the growth is due to people leaving one UU church for another. My friend also had noticed that churches in a region don't know much about what's going on with the other UU churches nearby. My friend noted, too, that New England churches tend to be either pretty solidly Christian or non-Christian in flavor. Most have big old buildings to maintain, which is a heavy financial obligation, especially with historical buildings.

Southern UU congregations are pretty juicy and interesting places to be. In the South and Southwest areas, aka the Bible Belt, UU congregations are often the local oasis of liberal thought and tend to attract a lot of people who are eager to associate with other like-minded folks and offset the heavily fundamentalist atmosphere of the area. However, this atmosphere meant that most folks were familiar with Christian language and able to speak it as necessary.

Pacific Southwest congregations are "California" in nature, reflecting the West Coast atmosphere of experimentation, new age spirituality, pop culture, growing steadily. Mountain Desert congregations are also juicy and energetic, with new congregations emerging in less-populous areas to serve local UUs and make it less necessary for them to travel to larger cities for their religious fix.

Midwest congregations are solidly Midwestern, with all the qualities we think of as native to the Midwest: strong, steady, working to overcome local problems, perhaps growing slowly, hit very hard by the recession.

Pacific Northwest congregations are growing pretty steadily. Our district has been dubbed "the district that does" and many other districts look to us for programming and to pilot new programs. Many ministers in this district have been in the same congregation for ten and more years. Few want to re-locate elsewhere.

When I hear my colleagues say that "UUism is dying" and that we will be extinct in a matter of years if we don't get on the stick, I always want to find out where they're serving. My experience of UUism is that we are growing strongly, at least in the regions I'm most familiar with, and that we are far from dead.

I'd be interested in hearing from folks who live in other areas. How do you think your region of the country differs in its UU nature from other regions? (I haven't included Canada in this, as I haven't formed an opinion, though the BC congregations and ministers I know seem to be positive about their growth.)


Elz said...

Good thumbnail sketch, Ms. K, with important implications for the future of "UU Studies" and UU polity. Having our headquarters in Boston puts the staff out of touch with the heart of the faith of the future. And don't count out those New England parishes -- that insular quality makes us the national leader in equal marriage. Why? Because we choose to know our neighbors. Of course, right now, it's snowing, and we also know that without our neighbors, we won't necessarily get out of the driveway.

RevEliot said...

Hey There,

I have to say that my New England congregation is certainly not shrinking but is leveling off a bit after a period of growth as the community diverts its energy toward spiritual growth and instituional sustainability. The UU congregations next to us are also growing. Our building is relatively small (though quite old and certainly historic), serves us nicely and is well-maintained.

That having been said, we are most definitely Christian in "flavor" being both UU and UCC. However I wouldn't attempt to paint our individual theologies too narrowly.

I would echo what Elz said about our neighbors. That we like to spend time with each other is one of our greatest strengths. However (and there is always a "however") it is also true that our "UU" ness is far behind our "Eliot Church" ness when it comes to our identity (a multi-denomination identity at that) and may not be what folks are looking for when they are seeking a church invovled in denominational affairs.