Tag Archives: church membership

Membership Madness

Let me begin by saying I love the concept of community–especially as it relates to communities of faith. The whole idea of coming together as a group of people to love and support one another, as well as learn how to deal with the challenges of life and make a positive difference in the world is very attractive to me. This idea is a big part of the reason I do what I do. I have no interest in converting people to Christianity–or to any other faith for that matter. My overall goal as a pastor is to give people healthy options for developing a robust spirituality that enables them to grow inwardly, to effectively deal with the challenges of life and to be of positive service in the world. For me, church is not a place where we come to escape from reality; it is a place where we come for not only comfort and healing, but also to learn how to live in that reality called “our lives.”

So community is great! Church membership, on the other hand, is a whole other issue…

The organized, administrative part of me completely understands the need for identifying committed people who are willing to serve as business decision makers (Board of Directors, for example), and to serve as liaisons to the larger denominational body (in MCC we call these folks “Lay Delegates”). We also need to be able to identify strong financial supporters who are willing to invest not only their time and skills, but also their financial gifts in the vision and mission of our communities of faith.  I see such identification and affiliation as the primary goal of what I call “voting membership.” These are the folks who are “all in.” That said, in no way do I mean to disregard the valuable contributions of faithful friends of the church (who often fulfill membership standards better than some voting members, by the way); still, the voting members are the ones who have officially “signed on the dotted line,” so to speak.

In our church, the primary benefits of  voting membership are the ability to serve in one of those capacities mentioned above and to have voice and vote in congregational business meetings. That’s right; you don’t have to be a voting member to serve on ministry teams, teach, serve in worship–even consecrate and serve communion! You don’t have to be a voting member to receive pastoral care calls, home and hospital visits, baptism, funeral services, marriage services, and so on, either.

At the same time, if you do decide to “officially” join our community of faith, there are expectations. We like to see your smiling face in worship, participating in some ministry of the church and financially supporting the church at least once every six months. Of course, I would love to see everyone’s smiling faces a lot more than once every six months; still, life happens. And let’s face it, not even the pastor should be in church for every single service and event! Everyone needs to take some time away–including the pastor–and I do.

I also understand when people say their spiritual needs aren’t being met by the community; or if the programming isn’t a good fit; or if the pastor’s sermons just don’t do it for them; or just fill in the blank with your particular need. As much as I would love to be able to meet all the needs out there, no one person or community can meet all the various needs present in today’s world. Needs change over time, too; so we shouldn’t be too surprised or hurt when people leave our communities as their spiritual paths change. That’s part of the reason we have so many communities of faith. And I think its great we have the ability to choose the spiritual communities that challenge and nourish us the most.

Unfortunately, I think its possible the way we’ve structured church membership in most communities is part of the hangover which remains from the marriage of the church to the Roman Empire. That is, in some communities of faith membership is largely a patron system. Those with the most influence and money are sometimes treated differently than those with less influence and money. And woe be to the pastor/board/membership committee who seeks to equitably apply the rules of membership covenant! Been there, done that–and a couple of times it was seriously ugly.

To me its pretty simple. We made a covenant. Now one of us can no longer honor it for whatever reasons. Can we work it out? If so, great! If not, let’s grieve the loss, wish one another the best in life and go our separate ways. Seriously, its OK to do this. In fact, it might be the healthiest option for everyone. Its just that it never gets easier for me to be the one to initiate these difficult discussions.

So, does anyone have suggestions for how we can reform the concept of church membership in the 21st century–ways that honor the legitimate need for some structure and order, gives voice to others who may feel marginalized by our current systems, and encourages a sense of healthy community participation and responsibility?

The floor is now open…

Blessings on your journeys!

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Membership Has Its Privileges

“Membership has its privileges” is an advertising slogan made famous by American Express. You may remember some of the commercials full of exotic vacations, multi-course gourmet meals and the like. The commercials would usually end with the slogan “Membership has its privileges.” The implication, of course, was certain things were available only through the use of the American Express credit card. So if you wanted to get in on all the rewards, you had to be a “member.”

Some of you already know where I’m heading, don’t you?

Yes, some religions/churches/denominations/associations/movements–pick your favorite term or add one of your own–tend to treat membership in their communities much like American Express. “If you want to go to heaven–and avoid hell–we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom of religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom from religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want rockin’ music, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want that “old-time religion” complete with the “smells and bells,” we’ve got what you need.” “Heck, we’ve got both rockin’ music and smells and bells in the same service.” “If you want the most intelligent/thoughtful/caring/entertaining pastoral staff around, we’ve got what you need!” Then based on these and other considerations, people make their decisions as to whether or not to join these communities.

And then we wonder why many of these folks act like consumers once they “join the club.”

What I mean by that last comment is that in a desperate attempt to increase our numbers and cash flow, some churches don’t share–as Paul Harvey used to say–“the rest of the story.” For me, the rest of the story is simply the privilege of being a member of any community of faith is the responsibility which comes with learning how to live, love, learn, and “be” together, as well as do our part to transform our communities and world as part of that particular community of faith. For it is through those very processes that we, too, are transformed.

That’s right; the privilege of membership in any community of faith–“official” or not–has nothing to do with reserving our sweet seats in the afterlife by saying the “right” words about God and Jesus, baptismal vows, confessions, having voice and vote in congregational matters, dropping a few–or several thousand–dollars in the offering plate, or even holding elected offices in the church. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with holding beliefs about God, Jesus, an afterlife, baptism, or confessions. And Goddess knows we need spiritually and emotionally mature people to help fund, guide and make decisions in our communities of faith.

At the same time, being part of a community–any community–is not a spectator sport. There are times when we need rest, support and healing, and there are times when we provide opportunities for rest, support and healing for others who need it. There are times when we are fed, and there are times when we do the feeding. There are times when we need to be held in our pain, and there are times when we hold others in theirs’. There are times when we want to share our successes with others, and there are times when we celebrate the successes of others.

To me, this type of giving and receiving is what it means to live authentically in community, and it has the power to transform not only us, but the world as well. And the privileges of membership don’t get much better than that, now do they?

Besides, if there is an afterlife, something tells me God doesn’t take American Express…