UUism in the 1960s Had the Same Low Retention Rate as UUism Today: The Answer to Today’s Trivia Question

Congratulations to Allogenes, who correctly answered that UUism in the 1960s was 90% composed of converts.  In 1967 Robert Tapp reported the results of his comprehensive survey to the UUA: among his findings, only 10.6% of Unitarian-Universalists had been born into Unitarian/Universalist/Unitarian-Universalist families.  The other near 90% were converts.  Thirty years later, a UUA survey released in 1997 again found that UUism is composed of 90% converts and only 10% lifelong adherents.

This seems to put the low retention rate of birthright UUs into some perspective.  It isn’t simply a crisis of the last decade or so: liberal religion appears to have a near rock-bottom retention rate.   Furthermore, we have a third data point: Robert Miller’s scientific study of UUism published in 1976 found that 15.7% of UUs were lifelong members, while 84.3% were converts.  15% is nearly half-again as large as 10%, but we’re dealing with low numbers that approach the margin of error here, so let’s just say that throughout the second-half of the 20th century UUism had a cradle UU retention rate of about 10-15% and an incoming conversion rate of about 85-90%.  This is remarkably steady, and it is worth noting that 1967 and 1997 were both periods of growth for UUism as a denomination.

Why is UUism so bad at retaining its children?  Many ideas could be advanced here.  Sociological theory posits that churches that make high demands on their members have much higher retention rates than ones with low barriers to joining and leaving and that do not make strong demands on how individual members order their lives, spend their resources, and think.  That is to say, the liberal model is a losing model from a sociological standpoint, while the conservative model is a far stronger one.  Yet at the same time it is impossible for either model to fully capture the market in an open situation such as exists in North America, and therefore even less healthy models (such as the liberal one) can maintain an apparently permanent position even in the face of competition from more robust approaches to member retention.

Put another way: UUism doesn’t make you pay for leaving.  You aren’t damned to hell, shunned by your family or community, or harassed by former associates.  The “exit costs” are minimal, and therefore little keeps people within UUism other than simple agreement with its principles or lack of a better alternative.  This contributes to a high deconversion rate, simply because people are allowed to drift and suffer no penalties for leaving.

On the other hand, maintaining a UU identity requires little work and this too contributes to low UU retention.  Sociologists have shown that people are substantially more faithful to churches that make high demands on their members–in many cases, the higher the demands, the greater the retention rate.  Many people seem to want their religion to truly challenge them and force them to adopt a quasi-countercultural stance–membership in a church that speaks against the secular world in some fashion gives people a counterbalance to the pull of irreligious popular culture.  The retention is highest among groups that don’t just talk the talk, but make you walk the walk by repudiating mainstream culture in defined ways, such as through one’s dress, speech, reading/viewing habits, social relations, and especially in how often one is expected to go to church and how strongly one is told to donate to church and similar good causes.  Put yet another way: demands for personal sacrifice actually result in significantly higher retention of members in American churches (and likely elsewhere as well).  Meanwhile, staying UU requires very little of the average members, and this contributes to people falling away either out of lack of interest, or attraction to more demanding (and therefore, by sociological measures, more rewarding) religions.



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

6 responses to “UUism in the 1960s Had the Same Low Retention Rate as UUism Today: The Answer to Today’s Trivia Question

  1. Miya

    Some thought questions: Are there ways UUism could learn from these sociological theories and observations so as to better retain its members, new or life-long, while still adhering to the values of liberal religion?

    I’d also be curious to know comparable statistics for people who have at any time joined a UU congregation, self-identified as UU, or even visited a UU church (don’t know that this data is out there), and how all this relates to the push to expand membership through things like the new ad campaign. Do ad-viewers and visitors actually find the take-all-comers, do-your-own-thing message to be as appealing as it is intended to be (in contradiction to the theories)? Or is there a way to be radically inclusive but still retain some of the strong identification and other aspects of more conservative religious communities so as to strengthen UUism? It seems that “high exit costs” can’t be the only explanation for high retention rates for other denominations… presumably at least some members are staying because there is something that appeals to them, not just that it is hard to leave.

    Forgive the half-bakedness of these ramblings, just very intrigued by these issues.

  2. Jeff

    No need to apologize, Miya, those are good comments. By the way, in case it wasn’t clear, there is no intended implication here that high exit costs are the only reason people stay in such churches. There are of course other reasons as well; exit costs just seemed relevant to the topic at hand.

  3. Allogenes

    Way to go!
    My first visit to your blog and I get something right!
    Now then. As to the reason for our low retention rates, I am familiar with the sort of “cost-benefit” analysis you allude to, which I know mostly from the writings of Rodney Stark. However, it seems to me that the liberal/conservative differential is widely overstated, and retention really depends more on something else entirely. This came to me when I was attending a Lutheran church in NYC in the 1990s, and I noticed a lot of young adults coming to the city right out of college having a certain sense of identity as Lutherans, that I didn’t see with other denominations. Not that they were such regular church attenders, but they still identified with the denomination. And it didn’t matter whether they were ELCA (liberal) or LCMS (conservative). What they had in common was they grew up and went to college in parts of the country where Lutherans were thick on the ground, and had active youth and student groups and activities. Then I looked up the recent trends in denominational membership and found really very little difference between ELCA and LCMS. Both were just about holding their own in overall membership, not keeping up with population growth, let alone growing like the Southern Baptists were until recently, but not tanking like the UCC and Presbyterians either. If it was all about people craving religious orthodoxy, you’d expect LCMS to do much better relative to ELCA.
    And so I came up with my own theory of church retention: to retain young people, you need to control territory. If kids share a denominational affiliation with their classmates and teammates, they’ll take it more seriously than if they only associate it with the people their parents hang out with on Sunday mornings. Not that they’ll necessarily become active in the church, but it will be there for them in the background of their awareness.
    This is consistent with the results of the recent Pew survey, if you compare them with those nice colored maps that someone puts out every decade showing dominant church membership county by county. Which denominations control the most territory in the US? The Catholics, the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, and the Lutherans; these are the only denominations that have better than 50% retention.
    Methodists are next, with substantial strength in the midwest and border states; they have retention in the upper 40s.
    Denominations with 3-4 million members nationwide, but spread evenly among the middle class suburban counties and not dominating any territory, retain much less.
    Thanks for bearing with me, if indeed you have chosen to do so…

  4. Patrick McLaughlin

    And yet… there are hundreds of thousands–not attending–who tell the surveyers that they’re UUs.

    When someone says they’re Catholic–are they attending? Or are they expressing identity?

    When someone says they’re UU… and we don’t count them, what are they? We say we haven’t retained them. Yet, I’ll bet that most of those hundreds of thousands are UUs who were raised UU and think of themselves as UUs (I was one for, well… decades), or folks who are good UUs who moved and found the local congregation isn’t a fit for them, or…

    As I recall, there are 2-3 times as many non-attending UUs (reporting) as attending UUs.

    Worth mulling over.

  5. Jeff

    Good comments everyone. Not a lot of time this morning so this will have to be shorter than I’d prefer.

    Miya: I think it’s too soon for us to know the impact of the ad campaign, but hopefully some data will be begin to trickle out before too long, even if it’s just informal (such as anecdotal evidence of new members stating they were brought in initially by the ads).

    Allogenes: Yes, Stark and his cohort is what was being referenced here. I both agree and disagree with you here. I agree that Stark’s liberal/conservative theory is overstated, but I don’t think it is as overstated as you seem to believe it is. Stark advances his theory as a sort of all-encompassing answer to denominational difference in the USA, which is clearly overstating the situation (there are many other contributing factors and plenty of counter-examples, and meanwhile Stark’s personal flirtations with conservative Christianity can make this sort of theory a little fishy at times). Yet the essence of his theory is clearly on the right track and it is very widely accepted in current sociology of religion–it can’t be dismissed simply because it is sometimes exaggerated.

    On geography: I don’t think your theory has more explanatory power than Stark’s (there’s a lot more to this than geography), but I bet it is part of the puzzle. Keep in mind that ability to hold on to geography is often about high retention rates, and most of the faiths you listed are overall strongly in the conservative camp. One thing to think about is that geographical dominance doesn’t just mean that you have many models for your religion, it also means you have many options for churches: you can find a nearby church no matter where you go, and if you don’t like the closest one you can find another one not much further away. That’s a situation that UUism simply doesn’t offer outside of New England and surely contributes significantly to drop-out, especially since UUs are highly mobile even when compared with the already continuously moving American populace.

    I’ve always been a proponent of keeping geography front and central when thinking of American religious history, so naturally I’m keen to think about your points here.

    Patrick: your comments are definitely helpful to the discussion, but I’m not sure if it makes a strong difference in the end. The three surveys cited in this post all measured retention by UUA churches, whereas the Pew study measured the general populace. So UUA churches indeed have a roughly 10-15% retention rate of children brought up in the denomination, but the higher number of UUs in the USA overall may indeed suggest that some birthright UUs retain a UU identity even after they stop attending church, as you mused. However, I have to stress that this is speculative, since we have no data on those mysterious non-church UUs; that said, my gut feeling is that indeed some of these folks must be former UU RE kids.

    It doesn’t necessarily amount to much in the end, though. If 90% of kids raised in UUism stop going to church, UUism doesn’t get passed on. I don’t think those several hundred thousand UUs who aren’t on church rolls are actually passing UUism on to the next generation. In many cases they’re probably married to a non-UU and letting their kids be raised in the other faith. Some may be married to secular partners, but UUism doesn’t seem to be passed on in the home without significant connection to a local church as well. In other words, I don’t think there’s an alternate lineage of home-based UUism outside of churches that is being inculcated and passed on generation after generation to new UUs. Rather, these raised-UU people who are outside the churches are probably denominational “dead-ends,” in that when they die their UUism will die with them, not having been transmitted to their children or grandchildren. Granted, some will return to the fold specifically to give their kids a good church RE experience and others may come back for their own reasons, but we’re talking here about the majority who clearly never rejoin the church even if they privately continue to think of themseves as UU.

    As the blogger Chutney pointed out, it is UU churches that form the backbone of UUism, and I think they are the primary mechanism for passing on UUism to new generations (not a particularly successful one, if the 10% mark is correct, but then again still more successful than fully non-church UUism). I say this as one of those lifelong UUs who is currently not on the rolls at any particular church, and thus would be counted by Pew yet fall outside the survey data of the UUA.

  6. Patrick McLaughlin


    It’ll take some time yet to test that. There aren’t many birthright UUs older than I am, and I came back with kids who “needed their shots.”

    Because our moving overseas, we weren’t attached ot a church from before I was a teen. My brother’s not married and has no kids and… in some sense then is a dead end (and I have no idea how he identifies himself). My sister, younger yet, has a weakly UU identity, though I don’t think she saw a UU church after age 5… save the one time she checked out one as a single young adult. She’s now got a 7, 5 and 1 year old and has started being concerned about how they get raised not to fall into being fearful or haters, religiously. I’ve pointed her again to the church in her city.

    We’ll see.

    Her husband was raised Episcopalian, but isn’t a believer (as far as I can tell) or church member.

    As I said… we’ll see. I suspect that we’re only at the beginning of being able to see any sort of “lifecycle” of UU faith… and the mid/late 60s and 70s probably created something of a disruption.

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