This week and next week I plan to talk with you about an important aspect of our congregational life together. I plan to talk about membership, about what it means to be a member of this church and about why membership matters. God knows this is not the sexiest topic. Which isn’t to say that these sermons are going to be boring. At least, I hope not. But this topic is important. Actually, it is more than important. It is urgent.
But, before we get to that, I think it would be helpful to say a bit about how membership was regarded by our religious ancestors. In America, Unitarianism descended from the Puritans, a fact that strikes many modern-day Unitarians as surprising. The Puritans had extremely strict and demanding ideas about church membership. Membership was reserved only for the elect, for those whose salvation was assured. In order to become a member, a person had to meet with the minister and deliver a testimony of how God had acted in that person’s life and how God had provided that person with a sign of salvation. Then the minister would judge whether or not there was enough evidence that you were among the elect and accept you into or reject you from church membership accordingly. Many of these testimonies, by the way, were actually preserved in writing. As a student I had the opportunity to read several of these spiritual autobiographical narratives. On one hand, they were fascinating. On the other hand, I’m sort of glad that this is not the way we do membership today. (Sort of.)
This very rigorous concept of membership actually worked quite well for the Puritans when they first came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It worked well because the Puritans who had set sail across the Atlantic had self-selected. You had to be really serious about your religion if you were going to choose to get on a boat and sail across the ocean and make your home among others who were also so serious about their religion that they’d decided to make this arduous journey. Requiring a personal testimony wasn’t a lot to ask of people willing to give up their homeland and move to new continent for their faith. But then something happened that began to cause problems. The Puritans had children.
Having children changed everything. As it turns out, religiosity is not necessarily passed down from one generation to the next. There is no gene that guarantees that if you are very religious, that your children will be very religious. Nurture? Well, nurture can be a crapshoot. This is obvious, if you stop and think about it. Don’t many of us, even most of us, differ religiously from our parents? Thank goodness I hear some of you saying. And, if history is any guide, our children may not necessarily hold the same religious views that we hold.
So, in Colonial Massachusetts, within a generation, there was a growing population of young people who weren’t that interested in church membership. They hadn’t experienced a profound conversion experience. This made their parents very nervous. By the 1660s the churches in Massachusetts had rewritten their rules for membership. Under the new rules, full membership was available to those who could give a testimony. Half membership was available to the children of full members. Full members could receive communion and vote on church business. Half members were allowed to be baptized. Who thinks this sounds like a smart idea? It didn’t work out well. At best, the “Half Way Covenant,” as it was called, just pushed these issues down the road. When the half members had children, would those children become quarter members? At worst it just formalized the anxieties and tensions in the Puritan system.
I share this religious history, our religious history, not to advocate for a different system of membership for us today. Rather, I share it to observe that when we begin to talk about requirements for membership, standards for membership, expectations of membership, these discussions will tend to raise anxiety. The meaning of membership may not be the sexiest topic in the world, but it may evoke strong opinions.
One of the tensions that we observe in church life is wanting it both ways. On one hand, we want there to be some rigor. We want membership to challenge us, to really mean something. On the other hand, we don’t want to be exclusive. We don’t want to exclude anyone. We want a membership of the elect, except for that we don’t. We want there also to be exceptions.
In the Exploring Membership class, for several years now, we’ve taught those considering joining the church that there are four expectations for membership. We call them the Four P’s: Presence, Participation, Pledging, and Passing It On. Presence means showing up for worship, religious education, and church events. Participation means getting involved and being engaged with programs. Pledging means supporting the church financially. And, passing it on means sharing our church community and our UU values with those beyond the walls of the church. You might self-evaluate here. How many of you are batting a perfect four for four with presence, participation, pledging, and passing it on?
So, we tell people that these are the standards. And then, we tell people not to worry. We won’t take attendance on Sunday morning. If you choose not to participate, we’re not going to kick you out. As far as passing it on goes, we have no system in place to monitor whether you do that or not and it seems like many of our members don’t, and it is OK if you’re shy. As far as pledging goes, we tend to say that we want you to give as generously as you can, but we’re hesitant to define what generosity means, and if you’re unable to give even the smallest amount, you can receive a pledge waiver from the minister, and, by the way, there is no minimum pledge.
How did we arrive at the Four P’s of presence, participation, pledging, and passing it on? Well, we just sort of made it up when we designed the Exploring Membership class. It was never a discussion that we all had together. We never voted on it. We never reached a common agreement or a common understanding. It is what we told people joining the church, but not something that for which we sought greater buy-in. Our bylaws, by the way, set a much lower bar for membership. Our bylaws simply say that in order to become a member you must be 18 years old and in sympathy with the purpose and mission of the church, that you must take the Exploring Membership class or have a good reason for not taking it, that you must sign the membership book, and that you must make an annual pledge or have the annual pledge waived at the discretion of the minister. The bylaws also state that there is no creed required for membership and that you will not be required to participate in any ceremony.
Oh, and even if you decide not to become a member of the church, we’ll still welcome you to almost everything we do as a church. You just won’t be able to serve on the board, on committees, or vote at congregational meetings. Except of course for those times when people who weren’t members have served in various leadership positions in the church.
We’re only the heirs of four hundred years of religious tension. One force pulls us in the direction of a membership of the elect, of those who have passed the test and meet the high standards. An opposite force pushes in in the direction of a membership of all, a membership that excludes no one. Where do you place yourself on this spectrum? Do you favor a more stringent and strict set of qualifications for membership? Or, are you a more lenient, easy-going type? Do you favor a high bar or a low bar for membership?
To be more universal, I would say that any fundamentally democratic institution experiences this tension between a high bar and a low bar. In our society, there is a fairly low bar to be eligible to vote. The basic requirements are being 18 years old and having a pulse. If you’re an immigrant, there is a higher bar that involves a test for citizenship. How many citizens by birth would fail this test? I am disgusted by those who plot and scheme to make voting harder, who change the rules in order to disenfranchise racial minorities, the poor, and students. But if I can be completely honest with you, each time elected officials in our state make a point of challenging the teaching of evolution I find myself sort of wishing that voters had to take an intelligence test.
The truth is that more is required of us than the bare minimum. For democracy to function we need to be active and engaged. It isn’t enough merely to be present on election day. One must also participate in the process, pledge to candidates, and pass on the word about the candidates worth supporting. Doing the minimum that’s required does not lead to a thriving democratic society.
Our democratic church is different in many ways from our democratic society. In some ways, when there is a low bar for membership it can lead to resentment. Why does the person who shows up twice a year get to vote at the congregational meeting? The lesson we should take away is the same. In a church, doing only the minimum required does not lead to a thriving congregation.
At this point, maybe you are curious and want to ask a question, “So, Thom, what has inspired you to deliver a sermon on the subject of membership? Why this sermon?”
I was inspired to give this sermon for a couple of reasons. First, the nature of this church is one of strong leadership by members. Members are closely involved in the making of decisions and in the operations of the congregation. That’s the culture of this congregation. There are high expectations of membership, especially among the most active leaders in our church. As a member-centered congregation, this conversation about the meaning of membership is an especially important conversation to have.
The second reason I’m inspired to speak on this topic is that I believe that it is absolutely urgent that we make membership a top priority in our life together as a congregation. Part of this priority has to do with membership numbers, with welcoming new members and helping the members we do have to be more active and stay connected. Part of that priority has to do with the Fourth P: Passing it on. The truth is that our move to this new building has not led to the kind of growth in membership that many of us expected. That is a reality we should all be aware of and that we need to work on together. Part of this priority has to do with deepening our understanding of and expectations of membership. It has to do with a substantial conversation about membership. We can make up the Four P’s. We can insist on the minimum required for membership in our bylaws. But, I don’t think it is up to the minister to decide what the meaning of membership is and what the expectations of membership should be. As members, you own the answers to these questions.
There are several things I’m going to ask of you this morning. The first thing I am going to ask of you is to spend some time thinking about what membership ought to mean. What are the expectations of membership? Then, I want you to communicate those ideas to me during the upcoming week. I really want a conversation. Next week, I’m going to preach on membership again and what you share with me will inform next week’s sermon.
The second thing I want from you is your willingness to work with me on some membership projects in the short term. A while ago, several years ago, there was a saying we had in this church. “Every member of the church is a member of the membership committee.” What that saying meant was that the work of membership is the not the work of the minister alone, or a handful of volunteers on the membership committee, or the members of the board. We all share this work. The work of warmly welcoming visitors. The work of greeting and including the newcomer. The work of checking on those who we haven’t seen around. The work of passing it on, of helping to get the word out about this church.
I’m going to ask you to take literally this saying about the every member membership committee. I am hoping that several dozen of you will volunteer to work with me over the next couple of weeks to do some membership related projects. You can send me an email. You can send me a text message. You can tear off a corner of the order of service and write your name on it, and hand it to me after the service. Let me know if you’re willing to work on membership.
Our religious forebears, our religious ancestors, were not successful in perfecting the membership of their churches. Thank goodness for that. What I’m talking about this morning, the ideas I’d like to initiate, isn’t about perfecting membership. Don’t worry. But I do believe that membership matters. I hope you agree. I look forward to hearing from you.