'There is evidence of a Stillspeaking effect'
A quantitative analysis of the impact of the Stillspeaking Initiative says the UCC's media and identity campaign has resulted in "incremental changes" for some churches, but cautions that "dramatic change in three years cannot be expected."
"The Stillspeaking Initiative is the beginning of systemic change, but only the beginning," says the Rev. C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church Center in New York, who was contracted by the UCC to provide a statistical analysis of Stillspeaking's impact. "There is evidence of a 'Stillspeaking effect,' a change in long-standing patterns of decline with committed participation in the Initiative."
Hadaway, who once directed national research for the UCC, has given the denomination its first broad-based look at Stillspeaking's impact. Until now, most of the analysis has been anecdotal. The study was distributed to members of the UCC's 90-member Executive Council in October.
Stillspeaking churches — those who have formally opted into the program — are central to the life of the UCC, especially its present and future health, Hadaway concludes.
"Stillspeaking churches form the committed core of the United Church of Christ," says Hadaway, "and the Initiative has helped create a sense that local churches, Conferences and national setting are in mission together with a common purpose. The more a local church in involved in the Stillspeaking Initiative, the greater is the effect on the church."
Perhaps the most significant positive number in the study is the percentage of UCC churches that are growing. From 2003 to 2006, the number of growing churches inched upward from 17.9 percent to 18.5 percent, something the church hasn't seen for decades.
"Clearly, involvement in the Stillspeaking Initiative positively affected the attendance patterns of many churches, halting the long-standing trend of ever-shrinking proportions of growing congregations in the UCC," Hadaway says.
Even though overall church membership continues to decline (including among Stillspeaking churches), aggregate membership decline is less severe for Stillspeaking churches.
According to Hadaway, non-participating churches are declining at a higher rate (5.7 percent) compared to churches that participated in and contributed to Stillspeaking (4.7 percent).
Stillspeaking's "opt-in" churches still represent less than half of the UCC's 5,700 congregations, but account for a clear majority in terms of attendance, membership and total operating expenses.
Stillspeaking churches also contribute 75 percent of basic support for Our Church's Wider Mission, the denomination's shared purse for connectional ministries. Stillspeaking churches have steadily contributed proportionately more to OCWM each year since 1999, but the greatest gains have come since 2003, the year that Stillspeaking was launched.
Among the most committed Stillspeaking churches, the numbers are even more striking. For example, financial resources of contributing Stillspeaking churches grew much faster than the rate of inflation.
In an executive summary of Hadaway's study, Marilyn Dubasak, Stillspeaking's former coordinator, says the report shows slow incremental changes and signs of hope.
"Many positive things happened that can be attributed to the Stillspeaking Initiative, but a sea change in the direction of the UCC is not yet apparent," Dubasak underscores. "Many other factors impact giving and going, and although the Stillspeaking Initiative is an agent for positive change, the inertia-producing decline among mainline churches is well entrenched and long standing."
Beyond Stillspeaking's central issues of local church "vitality" and "welcome," UCC congregations are also battling numerical consequences based on other factors. Chiefly, most UCC members are older than the average American and have fewer children.
"Incremental changes requires the addition of new people who reflect the diversity of the country and an improved retention rate among young people," Dubasak says.
Dubasak says the report shows that growth in membership, attendance and giving are related. "One cannot expect a turnaround in giving without the beginnings of a turnaround in the number of persons who attend and give to UCC churches."
But, she says, improved relationships between local churches and the UCC's national setting — one result of the Stillspeaking Initiative — should help stabilize OCWM basic support in the future.
"However, there is much work to be done to continue developing the relationship and helping build stronger churches," she says.