Looking at membership and expenditure numbers, part 1

Better, I think, to do this in parts, interspersed with other topics.

I have been opining that we’ve had the return of the Fellowship movement within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I think, however, the real mystery is why there is a lack of variety in new congregational development. Why the insistence on “full service” churches and unquestioned praise for increasing revenue? If it worked, it would still offend my class sensitivities, but clearly it does not work for forming new congregations — so why is it the only approved way? Where’s the pluralism?

When I get to questions like this, I want to know how the money flows. That’s not a unique thought. So I tracked down the congregational membership roster, keyed to total expenditures and membership. I divided one into the other and scanning through, hoping to see patterns.

I’ll start with the outliers. At the low end, several churches reported no expenditures — we can pass on them; they clearly do have expenses, sometimes substantial — and even more churches reported tens of thousands of dollars of expenditures per member. In all but one case, these are federated churches, where the Unitarian Universalist portion of the membership is reported, but the total expenditures covered the whole congregation! (The exception is the Shelter Rock congregation; no need to recap its well-known financial situation, except to say that it gives away an extraordinary amount of money, so the numbers don’t work here.)

Let’s return to the thrifty end. Skipping over a couple of obvious data errors, we reach two more unusual cases: the denomination-as-congregation Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines and the virtualized Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). Interesting, but still outliers. But the CLF raises a question: might there be room for other non-local “congregations” as, indeed, has been anticipated in the age of the social web? And would there be a political will to see one admitted to the UUA. That’s a discussion for another time.

So my next steps are to sort the remaining congregations by size categories and see what patterns, if any, emerge. I’ll especially look at those that are most and least expensive per member. Then I’ll find what major metropolitan area has (or areas have) the United States median cost of living and examine what kind of congregation an average 2%, 3%, 4% and 5% household giving would afford, assuming no endowment or outside income: a mental exercise about what might be. Later, if I can, I’ll see what the growth edges of not having a minister or owned building are.

Anything else I should be looking out for?

Later. I can’t find the relative cost of living standard I remembered — at least not one that’s not behind a paywall — but after Googling around, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Cleveland look like the best set of median cost-of-living cities which, between them and their suburbs, should give us a comparable set.

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