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Membership or Connection?

On Sunday I sat next to a friend of mine in church.  She’s a young adult (late twenties, perhaps) and extremely active in the congregation.  She volunteers in the church school, sits on committees, volunteers for different events and pledges money.  And she’s not a “member” of the church.  She said to me, “I don’t know what difference it makes to have my name on a piece of paper – how much more committed could I be?”

She also attends a UCC church on Sunday evenings.  The two services bookend her week in a powerful way that she would not want to give up.  They connect her to meaning and community and give her space for spiritual reflection.

There are many such people like my friend here.  Some not quite so actively engaged, but who nevertheless feel connected to Unitarian Universalism in deeply meaningful ways.  And who see their religious expression and commitment as one that is not defined by “membership.”

What do we have to learn from her story?  Perhaps the future of Unitarian Universalism does not depend upon more people “signing the book”.  Perhaps it depends upon us adjusting our understanding of what connection and commitment are.  I say this not only because we need to attend to the changing perspectives of young adults (which we do).  I say this because I believe it to be true of every demographic.

I heard a colleague recently adamantly assert that unless a person is a member of Unitarian Universalist congregation s/he cannot call her/himself a Unitarian Universalist.  I understand why this colleague was so vehement, but I respectfully disagree.

We believe that a religious life requires commitment and sacrifice and finds its fullest expression when we join in community together.  And there are many ways now to join in community together that can be just as powerful as signing a book or sitting in a pew.

Perhaps we can attend more and more to providing ways to connect, than getting a signature on the dotted line.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jim #

    Well, OK, but her church should pay the UUA as if she were a member. She’s receiving the same services from the UUA as everyone else, and part of her pledge to the church should be remitted to the UUA.

    December 9, 2011
  2. So, how does one go about “becoming a member”? Thanks!

    December 16, 2011
  3. Terasa Cooley #

    In our congregations the methods vary — “signing the membership book” is the common thread. The question for me is about how connection can mean more than just this.

    December 16, 2011
  4. joy berry #

    As a director of religious education who sees this trend happening in our fellowship, I appreciate the support for remembering that “time, talent, and treasure” includes the words “time and talent”, not just “treasure”. But if churches change and include more time and talent folks and less treasure, how are we to make adjustments commensurate with that shift, and still maintain professional staffing levels/hours needed to continue growth? In our church, few (if any?) pledge (money) if they are not members. No matter what energy they bring to the community, or how essential their time and talent are to making our community thrive, a budget can’t be built on it, as it has no commodifiable monetary value. Your thoughts?

    December 16, 2011
  5. Teresa #

    I have yet to encounter a UU fellowship or congregation that was willing to stop at signing the book. Every one I’ve been to has been focused on reaching out, helping visitors, guests, friends, members, and regular attendees to establish and deepen their connections. To me, the pertinent question might look more like this:

    How can we help people to make deep, personal, sustaining, lasting, and dynamic connections with the church and each other while making sure we have ample resources to offer services and programs to maintain those connections and continue growing new ones?

    (Though admittedly, that questions is much more unwieldy than the one you posed!)

    December 16, 2011
  6. I have a feeling the young adult had no real understanding of how her not signing the book and pledging affects the congregation’s relationship to the UUA. Someone might try explaining it to her.

    Non-members: many do give money, but they just throw it into the basket and don’t think in terms of the annual pledging.

    A lot of people use church – as some part of the community that might want them even if they don’t spend money there or are poor. I believe this makes sense and so is the reality that the congregation’s do rely on a budget, but the relationship can be as invisible as the wife with the absent husband who sends money. She complains to her friends that its like she’s a single mother – because he isn’t even there….but those not receiving the benefit of the funds don’t think so. Believe it or not: being active and spending money both matter.

    Here’s a weird note: for myself – I had to re-allocate monies that I used to donate to charities to be my congregational pledge. I just hadn’t thought about it like that. It required being a little more self centred – to spend on a place where I spend time and am included, rather the altruism of giving only because of a shared value but no personal involvement beyond that.

    On being UU without being a member of a congregation? I strongly believe in this. I was raised UU and have a UU religious identity regardless of whether or not I attend church regularly. In reality, I have often been active and how I do changes.

    During the past year or two I started moving to progress the established of Unitarian Universalist monastic orders for both women and men. Mainly so that we don’t lose ‘that type of person’ to other religions when we could benefit from keeping them.

    December 16, 2011
  7. When I was first exploring Unitarian Universalism, speaking to some people after attending a service, and discussing our beliefs and disbeliefs, someone commented, “So you’re Unitarian, but didn’t know it.” I’ve also heard this sentiment expressed at other times. Later, I was shocked to learn that I was not considered Unitarian unless I had officially joined some particular congregation. Having been raised Catholic, I had to adjust to this unfamiliar congregational polity.

    Since I serve congregations in my line of work, it doesn’t work well for me to actually join a client or potential client congregation. Yet, it is very important to UU clients that I am UU. Thank goodness for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, without which I would have been in a can’t-get-there-from-here situation.

    Not sure what this experience says about your question, but I’m just putting it out there, curious to know whether anyone else finds it relevant.

    December 16, 2011
  8. Hello again, Terasa. “Signing the book” doesn’t quite explain things. I was baptised and raised Catholic, spent 8 years in a Catholic school. In high school I attended various churches with friends, I was involved in Youth for Christ and Campus Life. I’ve never felt at home spiritually until I was convinced by a friend to attend church with her, at a local UU church. I ENJOYED attending. This is a big deal for me. Sadly, I am unable to attend regularly, due to my work schedule. And I am troubled by the lack of community within the local UU Church, the kind that I see another friend involved with in her church. The others at the UU Church are all very lovely, but there’s just nothing going on. In fact, most of the congregation are older folks.

    In any case, I am wondering HOW does one get to “sign the book”?

    December 17, 2011
    • Terasa Cooley #

      Hi Danielle,
      Sorry I misunderstood the question. Different congregations have different ways of having people join, and I’m sorry it’s not apparent how that goes in yours. If there is a minister you could ask her/him, or someone who seems to have been around a long time.
      This kind of goes to my point. Sometimes our congregations, perhaps unwittlingly, make it really hard to join, even for those like yourself desiring for that connection. Often folks like you drift away from the congregation because of it. My question is how we can help you still feel connected, even without membership. Thanks for asking.

      December 17, 2011
  9. Okay, now I understand better, there’s no one formal process. You’re right…it’s not as obvious as say…Confirmation in the Catholic church.

    I know the UU Church is the right church for me. I’ve not felt this way about church, ever.

    For me, it helps to have an active community within the congregation, in order to feel connected…rather than just “going to church”.

    December 20, 2011
  10. In my humble opinion, a true measure of UU church’s vitality and growth is how many “active congregants” does the church have. We have members who are barely active and non-members who are very active in terms of giving the three Ts – Time, Treasure and Talent.

    I believe that UU churches and UUA need to discipline themselves to count number of active congregants ~ and get away from counting those who signed up to be called members.

    December 26, 2011
  11. Mark Christian #

    Connection is such a difficult thing to measure. It’s either there or it’s not–except that it can be partially there somehow. “Signing the Book” is important more on an institutional basis than an interpersonal one. It’s value is a means of funding common activities (read UUA and District) for small and medium sized churches and for feeding ministerial egos as churches get larger. Alban, of course, says use warm bodies–who shows up–except all churches (particularly as they get bigger) have a cadre of people who support the institution financially, who self identify as members and who almost never darken the door steps. How I wish we had a way of reading one’s heart. So far, that’s a skill I have yet to develop.

    December 27, 2011
  12. Christine Robinson #

    I think that the handwriting is on the wall…lots and lots of people…and more and more people…are going to pursue their spiritual growth without benefit of membership in a congregation. If we don’t find ways to serve them and help them feel connected to us, then we get smaller and smaller. And frankly, we can’t get very much smaller and stay alive as a denomination.

    That doesn’t mean we have to give up the category of membership, only that we quit worshiping it and start expanding our categories of significant ways we serve people’s religious growth. What matters is not how many members a church has. What matters is how many people they are serving, and how much. That’s a harder number to figure by nature, but we don’t even try.

    At the moment, our only official measure of non-membership service is the “average Sunday attendance” number we are expected to report. But since this average is over the number of Sundays a church holds “regular” services, the number is meaningless for meaningful discussion of church size, complexity, or staffing needs. A church which averages 400 people over 52 weeks is a LOT more complex than a church which averages 400 people only during the weeks that public school is in session.

    And, of course, that doesn’t count the spiritually significant covenant groups, support groups, classes, meditation groups, and evening youth groups. We should be counting, cherishing, and finding ways to help support (by helping participants pay for) all of these things.

    January 15, 2012

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