A metropolis without Unitarian Universalists; no, dozens, really

Later. Title changed to its opposite to correctly reflect the facts herein. Oops.

Dear readers, to recap. I data-hacked the Unitarian Universalist Association directory and mapped it to Office of Management and Budget-defined areas: some metropolitan, some micropolitan, the balance rural. More or less. I wanted to find which low-population areas had Unitarian Universalist congregations and which high-population ones didn’t. I hoped to find insights, if not patterns, and have appreciated all the interest in this project.

So what is a metropolitan area? This is a county or counties, bound by commuting and social patterns, and having an urban core of 50,000 or more in population. I was frankly horrified to find dozens without Unitarian Universalist churches.

Two caveats:

  1. Some metropolitan areas are wedged between or nestled against areas that have churches, and could — if you made the point — be said to be evangelized. But these should be noted as opportunties for growth. The largest of the bunch is Vallejo, California (2009 pop. est. 123,109) in the Bay Area. It is neatly ringed by congregations, except to the east, and none is its county (Solano; 2009 pop. est. 407,234) and none closer than ten miles. For somebody’s to-do list.
  2. Then there is Puerto Rico. There’s only a single emerging congregation in the whole commonwealth, and it has only 10 members. Given that lack and its particular history and cultures, a Puerto Rican strategy — and its 6 completely unserved metropolitan areas — should be considered separately.

So within the 70 unserved metropolitan areas, I’ve worked down from the top and found 8 significant cities with no church within 25 miles, some with none within 50 miles and one with no church even in 100 miles. Let’s think on these first.

But here are those stats:

Fort Smith, AR-OK Metropolitan Statistical Area 293063 pop.
Holland-Grand Haven, MI Metropolitan Statistical Area 261957
Laredo, TX Metropolitan Statistical Area 241438 nor one within 100 miles
Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 202973 nearest in New Orleans
Lake Charles, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 194138 nor within 50 miles
Joplin, MO Metropolitan Statistical Area 174300 nor within 50 miles
Monroe, LA Metropolitan Statistical Area 174086 nor within 50 miles
Jacksonville, NC Metropolitan Statistical Area 173064

I drove to Fort Smith from Tulsa during my internship, feeling the loss — such as it is — even then. But the three in Louisiana are even more interesting.

I’ll revisit this list after the 2010 census numbers come out. The full list of ungathered metropolitan areas in alphabetical follow under the fold.

Aguadilla-Isabela-San Sebastián PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Albany GA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Altoona PA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Anderson IN Metropolitan Statistical Area
Anderson SC Metropolitan Statistical Area
Anniston-Oxford AL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Battle Creek MI Metropolitan Statistical Area
Bay City MI Metropolitan Statistical Area
Burlington NC Metropolitan Statistical Area
Cape Girardeau-Jackson MO-IL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Carson City NV Metropolitan Statistical Area
Cleveland TN Metropolitan Statistical Area
Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin FL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Dalton GA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Danville IL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Danville VA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Decatur AL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Dothan AL Metropolitan Statistical Area
El Centro CA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Elizabethtown KY Metropolitan Statistical Area
Fajardo PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Fort Smith AR-OK Metropolitan Statistical Area
Gadsden AL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Gainesville GA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Great Falls MT Metropolitan Statistical Area
Guayama PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Hanford-Corcoran CA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Hinesville-Fort Stewart GA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Holland-Grand Haven MI Metropolitan Statistical Area
Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux LA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Jackson TN Metropolitan Statistical Area
Jacksonville NC Metropolitan Statistical Area
Johnstown PA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Joplin MO Metropolitan Statistical Area
Kankakee-Bradley IL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Lake Charles LA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Laredo TX Metropolitan Statistical Area
Lebanon PA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Lewiston ID-WA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Longview WA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Madera-Chowchilla CA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Manhattan KS Metropolitan Statistical Area (see comment below)
Mayagüez PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Michigan City-La Porte IN Metropolitan Statistical Area
Monroe LA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Monroe MI Metropolitan Statistical Area
Morristown TN Metropolitan Statistical Area
North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota FL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Ocean City NJ Metropolitan Statistical Area
Oshkosh-Neenah WI Metropolitan Statistical Area
Palm Coast FL Metropolitan Statistical Area
Pascagoula MS Metropolitan Statistical Area
Pine Bluff AR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Ponce PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Saginaw-Saginaw Township North MI Metropolitan Statistical Area
San Angelo TX Metropolitan Statistical Area
San Germán-Cabo Rojo PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Springfield OH Metropolitan Statistical Area
St. George UT Metropolitan Statistical Area
St. Joseph MO-KS Metropolitan Statistical Area
Steubenville-Weirton OH-WV Metropolitan Statistical Area
Sumter SC Metropolitan Statistical Area
Texarkana TX-Texarkana AR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Vallejo-Fairfield CA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Vineland-Millville-Bridgeton NJ Metropolitan Statistical Area
Warner Robins GA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Wichita Falls TX Metropolitan Statistical Area
Williamsport PA Metropolitan Statistical Area
Yauco PR Metropolitan Statistical Area
Yuba City CA Metropolitan Statistical Area


20 Replies to “A metropolis without Unitarian Universalists; no, dozens, really”

  1. Thank you for considering Fort Smith significant. It’s a sentiment not always shared in the state.

    As to Joplin, is Springfield really over fifty miles away? I’ve always thought of them as being about as far apart as Fort Smith and Fayetteville. Are you doing highway distances or (I think this) crow-flies distances?

  2. These are crow-flies distances, and based on the UUA.org site. The Google Maps API might have better numbers based on driving distances, but my skills aren’t that sophisticated. Driving, Joplin to Springfield is 79 miles.

  3. Well you might as well say that the nearest UU congregation to Jacksonville NC is 43 miles.
    Interestingly enough, you would drive past two historic
    rural Unitarian Church buildings to get there.

    The Clemson UU is less than a mile from the edge of the Anderson SC metro area.

  4. The Clemson scenario was what I was thinking of when I wrote “nestled against” but there was a church start attempt in Anderson in the 1990s. I preached for them a few times.

    But say more about the historic Unitarian churches.

  5. This is extremely valuable research, Scott. Thanks for publishing it. I am in complete agreement with your noting that Lewiston ID and Longview WA are good possible sites for UU congregations. Both are in fairly conservative parts of the state and, while that might sound like a deterrent, I believe that UUism would be welcomed by those who must otherwise drive up to 100 miles to find a liberal congregation.

  6. I would think Conservative areas anywhere ripe for UU Churches. We’re not talking about a mega Church but I’m sure there’s plenty of people “in reaction” to some conservative church, yet they still have a church going habit and would appreciate a UU option.

    I’ve noticed a few Missouri Synod Churches in some very liberal corners of Chicago. Originally built by Germans and then they survived neighborhood transitions and now they sit in gentrified neighborhoods. They seem to keep going and find a niche in a community you wouldn’t think open to them.

  7. This is a point that is not exactly what you are making, but is part of the same conversation and emerges from the comments here, especially Bill’s. I wonder who would be the most appropriate type of person to plant churches in overwhelmingly conservative areas of the country. On the one hand, it might be a left-liberal who can appeal as a truly different, even counter-cultural alternative to the prevailing culture, and gather in all the people disgruntled by it. I’ve seen this happen among UU churches in the South, and it can be effective in immediately drawing in people who have no other recourse in their area. On the other hand, perhaps the appropriate person would be a political moderate-conservative, who fits more comfortably with the overall cultural landscape but has a religious liberalism that isn’t currently represented. This person could gather the people who are specifically interested in a religious alternative, whereas the liberal tends to gather all the social liberals (NPR listeners, environmentalists, etc) who come to the UU church because they have no other place to gather, and thus aren’t all explicitly there for religious reasons. The tendency for UU churches in non-liberal areas to attract all the social liberals means they often risk becoming monocultures, especially since many people aren’t there for religion, and political conservatives open to liberal religion feel uncomfortable, even unwanted. Thus these churches can never grow beyond the limited population of the relatively hard left fringe in dominant conservative areas, and they are as much social clubs as they are truly religious churches devoted to nurturing and challenging spirituality.

    I should say that these observations come from widespread but ultimately anecdotal experience, not systematic research on my part. But it does seem that UUism’s welding to social liberalism is one of the main reasons it cannot grow. It can only serve a small, specific clientele, and thus is inherently unsuited for penetrating many parts of the country and many demographic groups. Am I off-base here? And to my original point, what does everyone think: is a better growth strategy to provide social or religious alternatives? This question is not rhetorical.

  8. Jeff,

    In thinking about Ft. Smith and Joplin, two of my favorite cities to drink in, I’d say it’s less politics and more culture that would be important. I’d either find someone from around here or someone comfortable with the culture of the Ozark region to work in those two areas. I’d make a similar argument for Pine Bluff and the Delta region, and for Texarkana and the east Texas region. Cultural fit is essential.

  9. John, your comment suggests a further thought for me. You’re right to at least somewhat differentiate culture and politics, something I was having trouble articulating. My observation is that UU congregations in places that culturally and religiously do not fit the mainstream UU profile tend to attract displaced persons–they are West Coasters transplanted to the Plains, Northerners who’ve moved to the South, etc. So these churches become refuges for people who are not knit into tight, native, local networks, don’t culturally fit in, and don’t religiously fit in (and often don’t politically fit in). Not to put too fine a point on it, but these congregations succeed by attracting all the “detritus” of these decidedly non-UU areas. This gives them an automatic base congregation AND sets a low bar beyond which they have very little ability to attract additional members. And because they are refuges, they are counter-cultural and can’t attract much in the way of genuine locals, whose culture (and politics) are often explicitly derided at coffee hour (and even from the pulpit).

    This links back to who should be gathering in these unserved areas. Should it be outsiders who can speak to the concerns of other displaced persons? I.e. the Boston-bred minister who can assemble all the former East Coasters who happen to have landed in Little Rock? Or should it be the Arkansas native whose cultural profile may not interest the transplanted UUs and potential UUs, but who can potentially speak the language of the locals in a way that lets them be religious liberals without having to cross over into a different kind of culture? Again, I’m not speaking rhetorically here–it’s not like I’ve ever founded a congregation, and I don’t know what strategies are necessarily successful. I just feel like these questions have to be part of the discussion if we’re talking about expanding into new micropolitan/metropolitan areas in an effective way. I’m suspecting that the failure of UUism to grow more dynamically is NOT due to UUism being an inherently poor fit with America, but with UUs being bad at making their congregations function in a wide range of demographics.

  10. Scott: the Unitarians had a rural circuit in eastern NC – from Burgaw to Snow Hill to Pelieter – existed from the 1890s to the 1930s. Still own the buildings at Burgaw (home of the Unitarian school, then Universalist now UU camp). The buildings in Hubert and Swansboro are just off the highway from Jacksonville to Moorehead City.

    Jeff: I know someone who says that they were told in the 1960s that the UUA in the south was not to serve southerners but to serve transplanted northerners. Hmm.

  11. Jeff,

    I’ve got a simple, difficult, probably impractical answer to: “This gives them an automatic base congregation AND sets a low bar beyond which they have very little ability to attract additional members.”

    Church plants should be planned to split the church at the earliest practical opportunity. Impractical, right?

    This is more practical, though it sidesteps unserved areas: Churches in underserved areas which wish to split should be given the sort of aid we’d be giving to church plants.

    Since the UUA isn’t (so far as I know) funding church plants just now, maybe it’s a moot point.

  12. Jeff- I appreciate your comments about unwelcome moderates/conservatives but religious liberals. This has led some in our church, including my husband, to leave.

    Scott, just to note that in s-west OH terms, Springfield OH is very close to Dayton, which is served by the Miami Valley UU Church. Not sure of the distance, but the Dayton church used to be located nearer to downtown Dayton but built a nice new facility (and ecofriendly) a few years ago.

    I think your work is great. One would hope that someone in the UUA headquarters is doing this type of work, or if not, learning from what you are doing.

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  14. Scott,

    Great work. But here’s an even more depressing piece of data that your work didn’t delve into. Laredo’s 241,000 pales in comparison to what’s just across the river. Nuevo Laredo, in Mexico, has another 355,000 people. That’s 600,000 people for which there is no UU church.

    This is a very different but related issue — starting a serious UU ministry aimed at Latino- and Spanish-speaking-populations. But it’s one we will have to face soon, I think.

  15. Scott — This is fascinating work and I commend you. I’ve had my head down on my own project and am just catching up. I’ll be fascinated to see what your next run at this shows, using the 2010 Census data. Sunlight is good!

  16. Late comment, but Manhattan KS doesn’t belong on the list. UUFM (http://uufm.net/) has been well established for decades, meets in an expanded building and has a called minister. A nice group of people who filled a important roll in our lives while I was working at KSU.

  17. Sure. I should say “Thank you” for this analysis. Very interesting. Alas I found it because I was searching for the “local” UU group in Joplin ahead of moving there for a new job.

    We’ve been on the ground less than two weeks now. The 1st UU of Springfield seemed like nice folks, but it’s a 75 minute drive each way. Ouch.

  18. Hey,

    There’s now a UU group in Rogers, (Benton County) Arkansas. It’s probably about 60 miles from Joplin. And we do have members from SW Missouri.

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