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,

RevWik Print this post


Tom said...

If you are going to have both democracy and property you have to have some membership rules. Otherwise some group of cult members who have never set foot in the church could show up at the annual meeting and vote to donate the building to the cult.

But, as you point out, there is no legal requirement for democracy. You could make the board self-electing. Lots of non-profits work that way. I suppose it its simply a question of how much one values democracy.

RevWik said...

I understand that such a thing COULD happen, but, really, how likely is it? The whole cult thing seems pretty much like a straw dog to me. I don't have all the answers here, but I do think that there's some middle ground between "Let's establish categories of members and non-members and only the official members can vote" and "anyone who walks in off the street can vote." Surely some sort of mechanism could be developed to prevent the "never set foot in the church" crowd from taking over.

Lynn said...

Re Tom's cult example (and others less sinister that come to mind), the likelihood may be small, but the consequences can be large. We had a very heated discussion about the banner on our church and the process for youth membership was called into question. (Q: Were we packing the house with our kids? A: No, they probably know more about being a UU than most of us.) People did join in order to vote. For that matter, there's some very lovely property in Maine held by under 10 Shakers. How hard would it be to find 10 UUs to fake join?

We are a church of seekers, and people are going to drift in and out. How do we identify the ones who drift out from the ones who feel left out? Our membership rolls allow us to say, "At one time, that person had some commitment, whatever it was, and now does not. Can we find out why?" Without some kind of categorizing we cannot address this.

Yes, I think we need better ways of organizing and keeping track of activity. And we might want to ask our active non-members why they haven't joined. I'd also like to see more people, members or not, verbalize what the nature of their commitment is in some public way (part of the worship service, blog, directory/album of faith statements?) as a way of getting us all to think about what church is and could be. It comes back to how do we move beyond the numbers of people we can personally track, which is a question of intimacy, not numbers.

RevNaomi said...

Yes. Baptism, however, at least in some christian denominational understandings, is also a commissioning to the larger ministry of the good news.

There are several excellent, but huge cultural changes, that will come out of doing away with the concept of membership. One is the elimination of turf. There are no more "my member, your member" arguments. Everyone is called to serve the larger whole. That'll startle and challenge some leaders and some congregational identities, but ultimately is probably healthier.

That also means getting far more serious about the joy of discipleship and engaging discipleship models that result in the definition of leaders being people who cultivate and make more disciples. That's fairly radical still even in evangelical christian circles, but it is how growing congregations in highly secularized Europe are growing, forming new communities, and developing leaders.

Even more challenging will be the generosity and care of congregations with association and with one another.

The fear of take-over can be quite real and realistic, even if it feels like a defining sense of membership based on the Missouri-Maine compromise of 1820. I've been places where that fear was being lived out and very much part of recent history, but here's the question: is how we're approaching this faithful, or are we captive to cultural assumptions, old traumas, and contentious selfishness (this is supposed to be MY church!)? If a group did come and take over, wouldn't people of faith figure out a way to carry on, whether within or by understanding this and being part of a calling to some new incarnation?

Bob said...

Also, in a very real sense the members own the church. They are the ones with power to dissolve it and authorize that the assets be liquidated, etc. It's hard to see how you could have a legal entity without some legally binding definition of who the voting stakeholders of that entity are.

But I would like to see something other than a body count to arrive at the UUA fair share. I've seen the "but the young adults who've just joined don't pledge and so they cost us money" argument that maybe they shouldn't be counted for the UUA off an on over the last 21 years at our current church.

I think, apart from the tension caused by the budget implications of the official membership count, that I'm still not clear what the real issues are with various types of involvement - apart from how they are labeled (or, if the labels are the issue, why are these particular labels a problem). So, not really getting the problem it's quite possible I'm not seeing why this solution helps.

David said...

I don't mean to get all crazy and radical and stuff, but...

If we're worried about non-members voting to paint the building safety-vest orange and rename the congregation "UUs of the Flagrant Sociopathology," why don't we take the good Rev's suggestion to its logical conclusion?

If "membership" is no longer a matter of nomenclature but of behavior, then only folks who have been consistently and documentably active in the life of the congregation over the previous 12 months can vote.

Problem solved?