Think of the membership process as a continuous flow, from the time a person first learns about a particular UU church, to the first visit, to the return and subsequent visits, decision to become a member, becoming connected and active in that church, to leaving it through inactivity, moving away, or death. The membership journey, for an individual or a family, might resemble a diagram of intersecting circles (PDF).
Though every prospective member is slightly different and has their own timetable and decision-making process, collectively there are ways to measure the progress of a group through this process:
- Awareness: What percent of the surrounding community (those who would be close enough to likely attend) know the church is there and what it stands for?
- Initial Visit: How many first-time, in-town visitors attend in a year, and how does this compare to the total membership and/or regular attendance?What is the source of these visitors?
- Return Visits: What percent of the initial visitors come back at least a second time?
- Joining: How many first time, in-town visitors does it typically take for the congregation to gain one new member?
- Becoming Active: What percent of new members participate in some on-going activity other than Sunday worship? What percent of total members?
- Leaving: What percent of total members leave each year due to moves, inactivity, and deaths? What percent of new members leave each year due to these same reasons?
Why would a church want to collect data like this? Because these numbers can help a congregation determine where in the membership journey they should focus their efforts. Using membership data can be very helpful. And when this data is collected and compiled nationally it can be "normalized," that is to say that it can be converted to a ratio that can be compared to a standard range, so churches can compare themselves to this range and determine if they are typical. This may help them identify where they are not typical, and if appropriate direct their efforts towards the areas where they would get the greatest benefit. To use the car example again, cars come in many different sizes, weights, and fuel tank sizes - but if what you care about is fuel efficiency, you can easily compare very different cars by looking at the ratio of "miles per gallon."
These kinds of concepts, collectively referred to as process improvement, have enabled many industries to make significant improvements to their operations, and can be applied successfully to any process, in other words anything with a continuous flow proceeding through several steps.
These tools are meant to be indicators, and unusual circumstances can often distort the results. They are continuing to be refined, using "real life" data about what can be accomplished in a liberal religious setting.