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.
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