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Posts Tagged ‘membership

It happened again. Someone joined the church who was too excited. They came to worship for the first time and swooned all over—singing the praises of the church, the people, the preaching, the food, the fellowship, the programs, the children. Immediately, they asked to join. They came to everything in that first month. They attended every worship service, answered every call for volunteers, showed up enthusiastically to every event. Always, they were filled with love and you could feel the joy they felt at being in church, our church.

When I first started out in ministry, I used to get really excited about these kind of newcomers. I imagined them to be fired-up leaders who would come in and boost the energy of the church. After a few more years of experience, my first reaction to these over-enthusiastic newbies is deep concern and worry. In my experience, these types of visitors-turned-members flame out within a matter of weeks. After jumping in and becoming a fixture at everything in church, I look up one day and discover they are absent. At first, I figure they just had a scheduling conflict, or finally realized that most people do not attend every single church activity. But then they miss another program, another Sunday, another event, and I realize they are gone.

I always call, and they are almost always happy to talk to me. They do not express doubts or anger or frustration about the church, no cataclysmic event that turned them away. They are still as excited and proud as ever to belong, but their commitment has fizzled out as fast as it caught fire.

I am troubled by these travelers, because I don’t know why they come, why they disappear, or what we could do differently to shepherd them into a deeper, more committed relationship to Christ and the church. Perhaps they think they have found perfection in the church, only to discover we are human, imperfect institution like everyone else. I attempt to warn them, but it doesn’t seem to work. Perhaps they get burned out from getting involved in so many things so fast. I try to warn them about this too, but it’s like talking to a teenager you can’t convince you know anything valuable. Perhaps they just had a temporary gap in their lives, and the church filled it for a month or two. When the need ends, so does their connection to the church. I take consolation that we were there when they needed us, and perhaps they will return when they need us again.  Perhaps they are desperate for connection and community, and we did not welcome them deeply enough, quickly enough to satisfy. I work to help them make friends and social connections with other members, but these things can’t be forced or rushed. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps—the experience remains a mystery to me.

Does anyone else have experience with these kind of short-term enthusiasts? Do you have additional theories or strategies? Have you found successful ways to pastor/shepherd them through the transition from smitten lovers to committed partners?

What does it mean to be a member?  Why does it even matter?

The question came from a woman who had returned to our church after an absence of more than 25 years. She had been baptized, confirmed and married at our church, and several of her children were baptized and even confirmed with us. No one in the church remembered her from those years, except the one neighbor who had invited her back. She had approached me to talk about how to get more involved in the church, and we were sitting on her back porch having that conversation. I had—carefully, gently, so as not to hurt or anger her by telling her she was no longer “on the rolls” as a member—invited her to renew her membership in the church along with several others who were joining for the first time.

Her question did not surprise me, but its directness confronted me with my own questions on the subject. We live in a world where loosely-organized and constantly changing social networks are fast becoming our norm for community. Institutional distrust is at an all-time high, and people will avoid church ties just because the church is an institution. Membership organizations of all kinds are losing ground as younger generations may be interested in participating, but not joining or holding office. Most people visiting our churches either have a spiritual journey that crosses multiple ecumenical (and even interfaith) lines, or no history of Christian faith at all. This context has a dramatic impact on the meaning of membership.

People come to our churches seeking faith, community, a chance to serve and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. In my church and many others, our first step in answering their quest is to offer them membership. The returnee who asked me the question sought all of those things, and as I sat with her on her back porch I tried to make membership the answer to her query. After all, my pastoral training has taught me to grow the church and get people to become members. Membership is about belonging to the community, I said, because we take care of one another. Reaffirming your membership vows means reaffirming your commitment to follow Christ and grow in your faith. It is promising to serve Christ by attending and supporting the church and helping us together serve the community. Joining our congregation links you up with the wider United Church of Christ and the church universal, God’s presence in the world.

In reality, though, I knew that she could find all those things through simple participation in my church, with or without ever becoming a member. I can say with some confidence that our church is a place where her spiritual quest can find support and fellow sojourners. We are a vital congregation, and we offer multiple ways to deepen your faith, connect with other people, find ways to use your gifts and talents in meaningful service, and be a part of something bigger than yourself.  But none of those activities require membership.

What would membership do for her? Let her vote in congregational meetings and hold some elected offices reserved for members. Most of our ministry teams are open to all for participation, regardless of membership status, so there is little added benefit to becoming a member. It might make her feel a greater sense of official belonging, but we have had plenty of people become members who never feel like they really belong. Beyond that? I can’t quite come up with much more that membership would do for her spiritual quest.

On the other hand, I could quickly and easily generate a list of ways that her becoming a member would benefit me, the pastor. Clergy have long been taught to measure our job performance by the number of new members added to our community, so there is a great benefit to me in getting someone to sign on as a new member. The church would grow, in a tangible way that I could report on next year’s yearbook forms and in my next job search. Membership also belongs to a care-taking model of ministry, where the pastor-as-shepherd is responsible for the well-being of the sheep. Membership helps me know who I am responsible for and who I am not, who I need to visit in the hospital and who I can put off, who I need to call when they stop attending worship and who I do not. Encouraging her to become a member helps me a great deal.

The church benefits from her membership too. People would see her participate in the public rite of membership, and see the church growing in numbers. People in the pews feel good when new people (or, in her case, returning ones) join the church—it gives them a sense of pride that other people want to be a part of their community. The church can look to her for financial support, and ask her to help in leadership and service. Again acting in the care-taking model, they will know that she is “one of us” and needs us to look out for her.

While membership does a whole lot to benefit the pastor and existing edifice of the church, I’m not sure what it does to build the church of the future or nurture future disciples. I’m still not satisfied that membership might play any significant role in a person’s quest to know the God of Jesus Christ.

Do not misunderstand me—I believe we still need a faithful path for people to commit themselves to the church. Faith grows by commitment, leadership and accountability. The church should be creating communities where people can make deeper commitments, be held accountable in their Christian walk and grow as leaders and witnesses. I just don’t think membership does those things, and I’m not sure exactly what it does do.

I have encountered some new churches that have engaged a different model of membership. Everyone that participates in some way—attending worship, volunteering in a service project, showing up for a fellowship group—is considered a part of the community. As individuals get more involved, they are invited to make a specific, holistic commitment to the congregations. Some churches call them “covenant partners” or “discipleship leaders.” These people make promises that include things like continuing to grow in their faith, supporting the church financially and with their time, participating in mission and service, and sharing their faith with others.

These churches, however, have already abandoned a care-taking model of ministry, and replaced it with a missional spirit where the pastor is a visionary and inspiring spiritual leader. They usually fall outside mainline denominations, where membership numbers hold the key to representation in regional bodies and polity power. They are newer and younger, so older generations who have held membership status in the church for decades are not displaced. I think it would be difficult to make the transition in our established churches, because people would perceive it as the creation of separate social strata in the church. (Of course, there are already social strata in the church, but we don’t like to talk about that.)

I am increasingly convinced, however, that church membership is a concept that has outlived its usefulness. We must begin to create richer, more nuanced and more open ways of understanding our church communities. We must rebuild our congregations on the model of mission outposts, rather than the model of social clubs and mutual aid societies. We must imagine new ways of making decisions and governing ourselves at the local and denominational level that are based on participation rather than record-keeping. We must measure our ministries by the fruits of the spirit taking hold and transforming lives, rather than the number of people who exit or enter our registry. Changing the meaning of membership is part of the wider cultural change taking place in the church, and it will require a generation or more to unfold.

But we have to start somewhere. Sitting on that back porch, having tried my best to make traditional membership the answer to her spiritual quest and to explain membership in some meaningful way, I finally gave up. “You asked a really good question–and a tough one,” I said. “The church that you grew up in has changed, and the world has changed. We don’t place as much value as we used to on having our name counted on a list as a member of the church or the Elks or the Masons or anything else. But we still have those old systems in place, until we figure out a new and better way. There is a lot of conversation right now about what role membership plays in the church. So maybe you can think about joining as a member of the church, and together we can figure out what that will mean.” In the end, she did. Together, I hope we keep the conversation going and figure out what it might mean.

We had an information session for potential new members at church today. I always begin by asking people to share a bit of their history and the spiritual journey that brought them to this place. In the UCC, people generally have a broad spectrum of history with the church. In nearly nine years of ministry, at least two dozen of these groups, I have never had anyone who didn’t have a story to tell. What always amazes me is the pain and heartache in people’s stories.

Today, one of the participants was a woman who was raised at our church and is returning after many years. She shared what had started her drifting away in the first place. As a child, she was often sick and consequently was behind her peers in her reading skills. At Sunday School, they were often called upon to stand and read, which always embarrassed her and left her feeling bad about herself. So she began to drift away from church altogether. It seemed like such a small thing, but it was enough to keep her away for years.

It got me to thinking about how fragile people are when they enter our church doors. When people come to worship, they wear their hearts and souls on their sleeves in a way they do not do anywhere else in their lives. I know it’s true for me, when I’m not in leadership–I come to church with my heart out, vulnerable and open with tears just below the surface. Interactions that wouldn’t merit a second thought in the world can send me into an emotional tailspin in church. Every little slight or disruption seems magnified, because I have taken off not only my armor but even my skin in order to expose my heart to God.

I sometimes complain about how touchy people can be about church stuff, but I realized today that such sensitivity is also part of the true power of God’s church. People come with their hearts out, trusting the pastor and the community to have their hearts out too, so that God has a better chance of coming close.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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