Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Membership, Openness, and Thinking Outside of the Box

I know I said that I was writing a three-part series on the idea of "the member-less church."  That series, then, should have come to an end with my last post.  I was reminded, though, of one more thought.

What triggered this thought was the memory of a document held with great pride by the people of the First Parish in Concord, Massachussetts.  It is a letter from Henry David Thoreau.  In this letter, Thoreau resigns his membership in First Parish.  (Possibly the only letter from someone who doesn't want to be a member of a church to have such a place of honor!)  Thoreau goes on to say that if he could, he would resign his membership in the human race.

Some people are just not joiners.

Some people are of a mindset that is anti-institution and anti-organization or, at the least, can take them with a grain of salt but most certainly don't want to be tied to any of them.  They hold fiercely to their freedom and independence and, as Thoreau put it, wouldn't even want to be identified as "members" of humanity.

This doesn't mean they don't engage with community.  Value it, even.  They just have a different way of relating to it.

And this "other way" is one of the hallmarks of the so-called "post-modern" mindset which is, for better or worse, the perspective that's in the ascendency.  Post-modern people -- and this is not strickly a generational thing, but they do tend to be younger people -- do not see the world the same way as people with a "modern" orientation -- which, again, while not age limited tend to be older folk. 

If, then, the church is interested in appealing to younger people -- and people with a "younger" orientation -- and is at all concerned about its future, then it needs to learn to attune itself to this "post-modern" orientation.  This is not to say that it should ignore the "moderns" in its midst, but it does mean that it must learn to question and challenge the "modernist's" assumptions and be willing to try new things.

My thinking about "doing away with membership" is one such challenge.  We will always have to have ways of measuring our impact, and people will always want ways to mark their belonging, yet we also need to realize that in today's world, a great deal of the currently un-churched look at the church's focus on membership as a negative.  This may be hard to understand from within the modernist mind-set, yet we must recognize that it is fact.  The post-modern "generation" is looking for ways to engage community without also engaging legalistic categorization -- in other words, they want to find meaningful involvement without having to take on what they see as a meaningless identity.

And a question before the church -- before any church -- is just who it exists to serve.  Some see their focus on the people who already belong, and those most like them.  Others believe that their primary focus should be on those who are not yet there.  Studies show that the former tend to decline, while the latter tend to flourish.  And we who say we draw on "the wisdom of the world's religions" should also note that most of the religious traditions we humans have ever developed have suggested that the primary focus should be on bringing people "into the fold" who are not there already.

This leads to a discussion of evangelism within Unitarian Universalism, and I'll turn to that shortly.  But in the meantime, we should note that a dynamic, inclusive faith such as ours should really be looking beyond its own walls to the difference in can make in the wider world.  To do this we must -- must -- strive not to be caught in doing this as we've always done them, but, rather, as they need to be done.

In Gassho,


Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Member-less Church, part three

It is my understanding that my Viking ancestors had a two-fold concept of time. That Which Has Been included everything from the beginning of time up until this very moment. That Which Is Yet To Be included everything from this moment until the very end of time. This moment, then, could be viewed as either the culmination of everything that came before, or the jumping off point of everything that is to come. It’s with this later perspective that I began the discussion of “the member-less church.” It’s important to recognize that it is about the church that is and might yet be more than the church that was.
I’m guided by two other thoughts. In the business world there’s a saying that there are really only two questions: “What business are you in?” and “How’s business?” And then, of course, there’s the old aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, the corollary to that, which usually remains unspoken, is, “If it is broke, do what you can to figure out why and then do whatever is needed to fix it.”
So . . . with that foundation . . . let’s look at the church today. (And by this I mean especially the liberal/progressive church and, perhaps most specifically, Unitarian Universalism.) By virtually every measure you can imagine the church, today, is broke. Attendance is down. Membership is down. Pledging is down. The number of people who say that the church is a major influence in their lives is down. In every major pole the fastest growing religious affiliation is, “none.”

Those of us who care about the church today – both our own individual congregation but also the greater concept of “church” – need to look at The Church Which Has Been and try to see what’s “broken” about it. We also need to imagine The Church Which Is Yet To Be and see what we have to do to get there.

Perhaps those two questions from the business world can help here. What “business” is the church in? Contrary to much of its appearance, the church is not in the “business” of maintaining and growing the church! The church is really in the transformation “business” – the transformation of individual lives and of society as a whole. To be more specific, a Unitarian Universalist church – and the movement writ large – is not in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalist churches. It’s in the “business” of building up Unitarian Universalists – people who live out a Unitarian Universalist expression of the human impulse. The fact that so few of us have any idea what this means is proof enough that “business” is not all that good.

I’m the first one to admit that I don’t know – in any kind of definitive way – what is “broke” about the church today. I would certainly not claim to have The Answer about how to fix it. This will take, I think, a whole lot of experimentation on the part of actual congregations willing to try some new things, willing to try to behave like The Church Which Is Yet To Be (or how they imagine this church will behave). If enough of us do this, and compare notes on our experiences, we will, together, create this Future Church.

One thing I do believe – based on my own personal and professional experiences and observations – is that the Church Which Has Been is far too focused on institutional things. To be sure, an institution needs to pay some attention to institutional things, but without conscious and intentional choices to the contrary, the default emphasis will over time increasingly be on maintenance and, perhaps also, growth of the institution. If the church were a business, or a non-profit aid agency, or a school of some kind this might be alright. (Although even for these the question of “What is your business . . . really?” would come into play.) But for a church to be too focused on itself is . . . well . . . missing the point of church.

I wrote earlier about how we need to free ourselves from the idea of church as something that we go to to that of church as something that we are. This means that the church is not the institution; rather it is the relationships and activities of the people the institution exists to serve. I think that this is one of the key transitions needed to move from the Church Which Has Been to the Church Which Is Yet To Be.

And part of this transition – I think – will be doing away with the conceptual category of “member.”

What role does this concept of “member” play in the Church Which Has Been? As we’ve seen,
  • It allows the congregation to measure its size (which assists in the figuring of its relationship with, and responsibility to, the wider movement);
  • It creates clarity on who “owns” the church and, so, is vested with the responsibilities of leadership, voting, etc.;
  • It provides a means of demonstrating one’s commitment to the institution.
And for the Church Which Has Been it has fulfilled these roles fairly well. The fact that there is often confusion between “official” members who are uninvolved and highly involved persons who are not members shows that it doesn’t fulfill these roles perfectly. But in the Church Which Is Yet To Be these will not be such important considerations.

This concept of membership begs the question – members of what? The institution! But in the Church Which Is Yet To Be the role of the institution will be much more clearly the support of individuals in community who are transforming their lives and the world. (Rather than the role of the individuals being the support of the institution as it, at least, so often feels today.)
  • It won’t really matter how many “members” are in the institution but, rather, how involved people are in its transformative work (so we’ll count attendance and participation rather than “members”);
  • It won’t really matter who “owns” the institution but, rather, who is “owned” by its mission (so we’ll rewrite our bylaws to say that decisions will be made by those most involved);
  • It won’t really matter who is “in” and who is “out” but, rather, who’s lives are being transformed and who are active in transforming the world (so we’ll find other ways to mark people’s passage into deeper and deeper relationship with one another.)
This last points to one of the great gifts of doing away with “membership” as a category. When “becoming a member” is the ultimate expression of your relationship with the church, what comes next? “Membership” is a static category, unless you create a variety of permutations – “active member,” “inactive member,” “pledging friend,” etc. – and this variety dilutes the very attributes people ascribe to “membership.” If there need to be so many nuanced sub-categories, just what does “membership” mean, anyway? But if we do away with “membership” we are freed to be even more creative in identifying and celebrating the myriad of ways that people can be – and let’s face it, are – in relationship with the community. Each person can be honored for where she or he is, and people are free to move both into more deep and less deep relationship as the realities of their lives dictate. The Church Which Is Yet To Be recognizes and honors this natural ebb and flow in a way that’s just not possible in the Church Which Has Been.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe for a moment that I have all the answers. I don’t even claim with certainty that what I’ve written here is “true,” by which I mean that it will work as I think it will. But I do know that in order to survive the Church Which Has Been must transform into the Church Which Is Yet To Be. To do that will take courage, and creativity, and a willingness to experiment and see what happens. And I do believe that great things can come from this.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Member-less Church, part two

So . . . I'm playing with this idea of "doing away with membership" in the church.  Let me be clear, though, before going on -- I am only talking about doing away with "membership" as a conceptual category.  I'm not suggesting that we somehow stop caring about whether or not people feel connected to the church, or have a sense of belonging.  I'm not even suggesting that we stop counting folks and trying to keep track of the "size" of the church.  I'm really only talking about how we think about things; the conceptual categories we use to identify and organize things.

That said, I promised on Monday to write today about some of the hurdles that would have to be overcome to move forward with this idea.  (On Friday I'll write about some of what I think would be the positives that would come from doing so.)  Whenever/wherever I've talked or written about this idea, the majority of the responses include one or more of the following objections.  Here's my attempt to address them:

The Unitarian Universalist Association assesses each congregation on a per-member basis when figuring out its "fair share" contribution to the work of the wider movement.  Seriously?  This is the reason that we should have the conceptual concept of "members" in our congregations?  Because the UUA uses this number as the basis of their formual for assesing "fair share" contributions?

How many congregations today play with their membership numbers in order to keep their APF -- that's Annual Program Fund -- contribution affordable?  (More than you'd imagine!)  And how many congregations that are trying to keep accurate records aren't able to pay the full APF amount?  (A lot!)  In essence, that means that they're not paying on a per-member basis anyway!

It has been suggested in the past -- in multiple venues -- that the UUA should move to a percentage-of-budget based formula for figuring APF contributions.  Suppose we asked all congregations to pay 4% of the budget to the UUA as their annual offering.  (Note, as an aside, that I've avoided calling these "dues."  They're not, really, or shouldn't be.  Just as our individual congregant's pledges aren't "dues."  But all of this is another post, I think.)  Or, to be more accurate, what if we asked congregations to figure out what percentage their current APF contribution is of their total budget and then they pay that from now on?  The UUA would still get its funds and we wouldn't be stuck with this "membership" category just so that it's easy on the institution.

Without "membership" even more people would slip throught he cracks than already do!  Again, seriously?  That seems like such an empty arguement.  If we agree that with the concept of membership we lose track of people and others drift away on their own, why do we assume that it'd be any different (better or worse?) without such a concept?  As has been noted elsewhere, in every congregation there are long-time participants who are not "members," and "members" who in no real way participate.  This arguement seems to me to suggest that we should be focusing our attention on "members" -- whether or not they participate -- because it's the "membership" category that matters most.

What if -- and I'm just throwing this out here -- it is the very concept of "members" and "non-members" that leads the institution to allow folks to fall through the cracks?  What if some new way of assessing a person's involvement with the congregation -- and vice versa -- is needed?

How would we know how successful we are?  I've never heard it put exactly this way, I'll admit, but I have heard it wondered how we would measure our growth if we do away with "membership."  I'll say again -- I'm not against keeping track of things, but "membership" is an extremely inefficient category to use for measuring things.  (Note the common experience mentioned above.)  Many congregations are moving to counting attendance at worship.  Some are discovering ways of measuring all involvement in all programs.  Doesn't this seem a more dynamic -- and accurate -- way of measuring the health and vitality of a congregation?

Congregations are legal entities and, so, must be able to show membership to retain their status.  Okay.  I'll buy this.  But I wonder what the minimum requirements are.  Would it be possible, for instance, to so-write your bylaws that anyone who is an officer of the church is, for legal purposes, a "member"?  The category -- which I maintain is truly problematic for a number of reasons I'll get to on Friday -- would be retained purely for legal reasons.  I'd imagine that each congregation would have to look into its own state's requirements, but I'm willing to bet that this seems like more a hurdle than it really is.

If we did away with membership, anyone could vote!  Well, yes.  That's true.  And I suppose that in some situations that might be problematic.  But I'd wager that in the vast majority of congregations the vast majority of the time it wouldn't matter at all.  Except, perhaps, it might increase the percentage of active participants in the community who are also involved in deciding matters related to that community.  Think of it, as it is today, in most of our congregations, only "members" can vote.  And how many of them turn out?  In most of our congregations it's a shamefully low percentage.  And then there are all those people who are active in the congregation but who, for one reason or another, have chosen not to "sign the membership book."  These folks are held inelegible to vote.  Why hold them back?  Really.  (Other than the fact that it's always been this way!) 

I mentioned in Monday's post a congregant in one of the churches I served who had been so deeply embedded in the life of the congregation that the vote for him to be President was unanimous and enthusiastic.  But he'd never joined the church as a "member"!  So he became a "member" for the duration of his term and, then, recinded his "membership" when his term was over.  And before and after this time he was not allowed to vote in congregational meetings while a great many people who had far, far less involvement with the congregation were, technically, permitted to do so.  Does this situation make any sense?

Membership is a reflection of an individual's commitment to the church.  Of all of the reasons I've heard that "we can't do away with membership" this is the only one that isn't instituionally based.  (Think about that for a minute.  Let it sink in.)  I have, myself, used this idea when talking to people about membership.  I've used the analogy of the difference between getting married and "just" living together -- it's an outward and visible symbol of that commitment, and one shared within the context of a community.  I get all that.  But is it the only way to show such commitment?  It is, certainly, the one with which we're most familiar, but as a ritual, as a symbol, does it really do what we think it's doing?  Again, if one can be an active participant in the community and not be a "member" and be a "member" with actively participating, what does "membership" actually mean?  (As opposed to what we think it means or say to one another that it means.)

Some of the Christian traditions use adult baptism as a way of marking a person's movement into deeper commitment and identity.  (Membership is recognized as merely an institutional necessity.)  What if we added adult naming ceremonies -- or some other ritual -- as a way of celebrating someone who wants to say "this is my community"?

I'm sure some of you can come up with other objections to the idea of "doing away with 'membership'," and some can come up with other responses to the objections I've explored here.  Please.  Let's get a conversation started.  I'll be back Friday.

In Gassho,


Monday, June 13, 2011

The Member-less Church

I've found myself recently playing around and around in my head with an idea.  It's one that makes immense sense to me, yet I seem to be having a really hard time getting this idea out of my head and into others'! When I talk about it face to face with people -- or write about it here or on FaceBook -- the way people respond seems to me to suggest that I haven't sufficiently communicated the idea as it is in my mind.  Language -- especially when there's no body language or vocal inflection to help -- can be so difficult!!!

I'm looking at the "concept" of membership, the term itself, and noting that many, if not most, of our congregations pay a great deal of attention to it. How many members do we have? How can we get more members? How do we classify our membership (e.g., "members in good standing," and "friends," and "friends who pledge," and . . .)?

Along with this, of course, we all know that there are problems -- some very active, long-time participants in our congregations are not "members" while some "members" are hardly ever, if at all, involved. Some congregations try to keep down the number of "members" they have to keep their dues to the Association affordable. And many of today's post-modern folk are turned off to churches because of what they perceive to be the church's focus on "numbers" (i.e., how many members do we have/can we get?) Etc., etc.

What I'm doing is simply asking us to look at all of this with fresh eyes. What if we did away with the conceptual category of "membership"? Stopped using that word -- and all of the assumptions that go with it.  What if we stop asking "who's a member" and its corollary "who is not"? What if , instead, we focused on "involvement" or "participation"? This might be "only" a semantic or symbolic shift, but I think it'd be quite powerful.

We would now ask people to join our movement and get involved in ministries (to and with one another and the wider world). We would stop asking them to become "members" of a particular church. We'd put our energy into courting transformation, not counting people who've gone through a "new member" course.

What I'm trying to get at here is a shift from emphasizing the preservation and development of the institution to a focus on doing the work the institution was created to do.

Ironically, I think doing this would actually increase that which right now is called "membership."  Because now it wouldn't only be people who had achieved some institutionally sanctioned threshold who could think of themselves as "members."  The people who "only" attend the weekly meditation group could rightly think of themselves as belonging to the community.  (How many "members" attend worship each week?!?!?)  The people who "only" work in one of the social justice programs, or "only" attend Lifespan Faith Development programs could now be counted.  In fact, anyone who was involved in any way -- and this, by the way, could include people who were at a place where all they could do is receive from the church -- and who considered themselves to be part of the community would, indeed, be just that.

This would be different, all right, offering both gifts and challenges.  On Wednesday I'll take a look at some of the challenges.  On Friday I'll take a shot at explaining the gifts.
In Gassho,

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

It Is Us

The church is not something that we go to;
It is something that we are.

As I wrote on Friday, most people would say that, on a conscious level at least, they realize that "the church" is not the same as "the church building."  There is a song that we used to sing at summer camp -- "I am the church.  You are the church.  We are the church together."  [(c) Avery & Marsh, 1972]  Most people would understand this to mean, "the church is the people," and would agree.

And yet, as I also noted on Friday, every time we say, "I'm going to church" we are unconsciously reinforcing this misunderstanding -- that church is a place to which we go.  Even if we're not actually talking about the building but, instead, the programs that're happening in that building, whenever we talking about "going to church" we reinforce the idea that church is something that we attend.

Yet if, as most people would agree, "the church" is "the people," then it's not something that they are doing and that we are attending.  It's us.  Together.  In community.  Church isn't someplace that we go; it's something that we are.

And it's important to note that it's something that we are.  You cannot be a church in isolation.  It takes community because, simply put, it is community.  A very special kind of community.  It's often called "the beloved community."  South African Archbishop Desmuod Tutu once said that church should be, "an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world,” showing how the world should be.  We are the church together.

And who is it, then, who makes up this church?  Actual institutional congregations often spend a fair amount of time and energy trying to quantify who is, and who is not, a member.  Sometimes this is for doctrinal reasons (they want to keep the heretics out); sometimes its for financial reasons (the denominational headquarters assesses annual dues on a per-person basis); and sometimes its for reasons of pride and self-identity (wanting to know if we're a "large church" or a "mid-sized church" or a "large mid-sized church.").  There may be a committee or even a paid staff person to keep track of the numbers.  There may be new member classes, or a workshop, or a special initiatory worship service.  There's often some kind of "membership book" in which are enscribed the names of the members.

Yet even with all of this attention congregations still wrestle with questions about membership.  Do we count the people who come to worship on (most) Sundays?  How about those who come but don't pledge financial support?  How about those who pledge financial support but don't come?  How about people who serve on lots of committees?  How about people who don't serve on any committees yet who seem to embody the spirit of the community in the way they live their daily lives?

In one of the congregations I served there was a bit of a kerfluffle at one of our annual meetings.  The vote had just been taken on our next president, and it was unanimous -- this guy was deeply embedded in the life of the church, he'd done so much, everyone knew him and respected him, he'd been there for years.  Yet it turned out that he wasn't a member.  He'd never "signed the book" in all of those years of active involvement.

Now, from my perspective, he was much more a true "member" of the church than some of the folks who were on the membership roles yet who rarely (if ever) darkened the door of the building in any way, shape, or form.  And it wasn't just that he came to church; it's that he was church.  His engagement -- it's quality -- was what identified him, signature in the book or not.

So . . . would it be possible for us to stop worrying so much about numbers and "categories of membership" and start focusing on active engagement?  The questions would become, then, instead of "who is a member?" -- who is actively involved in the ministries of our congregation, and who is being touched by them?

I would note, tieing this in to my last post, that it seems to me that the focus on "membership" (as we currently do it) stems from our focus on institutional conservation.  To let go of that would be to open ourselves to risk.  After all, without membership criteria anyone could show up and vote!  (Not really too big a worry when you consider the small percentage of members who actually show up to participate in annual meetings!)

A deeper issue is raised when you put this conversation in juxtaposition with those who want to create higher levels of expectation for members . . . essentially making it more challenging to become "a member" so as to deepen the meaning and significance a person attaches to her or his membership.  Yet if we define "member" as someone who is actively engaged in the ministries of the church -- or, perhaps even, being touched by them -- haven't we already done that?

And, too, there are those who say that we need to identify members so that we can take good care of them and keep track of them (especially as a congregation grows).  Yet again, it seems to me, that this focus on "members" will mean that we're counting some people who hardly belong, really, and not counting (perhaps) many who are deeply involved.  I suggest that we still keep track . . . of the actively involved.  (And I do believe that those who are in a place in which they can only receive are also actively involved -- they're involved in receiving!  That's why, above, I asked, "Who is involved in our ministries and who is being touched by them!"

I believe that if we begin to think this way we'll soon find that our congregations are actually much larger than we currently think they are.  We'll be more attractive to the "post-modern" crowd who are wary of joining things, wary of institutions, and wary, specifically, of the church in part because they think the church is only interested in increasing its members!

I've noted elsewhere that Jesus did not ask people to join his church; he asked them to follow.  An action.  And the early Jesus movement was called, simply, The Way.  Suggesting movement -- again, action.  The predominating view of membership -- conscious or not -- is that it is something that one attains or achieves.  It might well be time, again, for the church to remember that it's about engaging a Way, of being community together in the world, not just signing a book.

I look forward to the conversation that I hope this will engender.

In Gassho,


Friday, June 03, 2011

"Even Stumbling Steps Do Not Lead Backward"

"Failure is always an option!"
~ The MythBusters Motto

I am, for fairly obvious reasons, thinking a lot these days about what can help a congregation to be fully alive.  (I am, after all, exactly six weeks from starting my new position as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist's ordained clergy person.  We're in Charlottesville, VA for anyone passing through!)

One of the first things -- and this will be the focus on my next post -- is to make sure that everyone knows what the church is and what it's not.  The church is NOT the church building!  While most people would say that at a conscious level they know this, at an unconscious level this misperception is reinforced every time one of us talks about "going to church."  Church is not something we go to; it's something that we are.  (But more about this on Monday.)

Today, though, I want to look at an attitude that, I think, gets in the way of congregations being as rich, as engaging, as fully alive as they can be.  Perhaps, not surprisingly, this same attitude is awfully prevelant in the lives of individuals, often leading to the same sense of "there should be more to my life than this!"  Let's call this attitude -- Conservatism.

Congregational leaders -- at virtually every level -- spend a tremendous amount of time trying to ensure that the good thing they have continues into the future.  They want to protect their assets -- material and spiritual -- and that leads to pretty conservative thinking.  How can we conserve what we have?

This creates a risk-averse culture.  New ideas are talked about, considered, wrestled with, thought over, and processed so as to try to make sure that there will be no negative consequences, so that success (however that is being measured) is virtually assured.  Not everyone raises the dreaded critique, "we've never done it this way," but most everyone wants to know, "should we be doing it this way now?"  And they want the answer to that question before starting.

When I was in seminary I heard a sentence that has stayed with me ever since: 

Ministers need to be better trained to lead memorial services for programs and ideas. 

If you only do things that you are sure are going to succeed, then you're going to do very few new things.  And if you keep doing things because you always have -- whether or not they are still relevant for today -- then you are going to find your energy tremendously bound up.  And if your primary focus is on protecting what is, you will almost certainly miss what could be.

As a fan of the television show MythBusters I have grown to deeply appreciate their motto -- "Failure is always an option."  It reminds me of the Taoist proverb, "even stumbling steps lead not backward."   In both I see a willingess -- and indeed an eagerness -- to try something to find out if it will work!  If it works, great.  If it doesn't, learn from what happened and move on.  In either case, risk, dare, try.

Isn't this, at the level of the individual, one of the keys to a rich and meaningful life?  Isn't this one of the learnings which the most successful business people, artists, athletes, and just plain people cite most often as being key to their success?

Why not apply this to the lives of our congregations, as well.  Dare.  Risk.  Try.  Failure is always an option, but so is the discovery of profound and unimagined treasures.

In Gassho,