Who’s a member? (What’s a member?)

Three of us from our congregation met this afternoon to talk about our new membership database. The topic for today’s conversation: what categories will we have for people in the database?

Twenty years ago, it was fairly easy to categorize people in your congregation’s database: there were members, and there was everyone else. Members were those people who signed the membership book (in my religious tradition, some people used to get theological and defined members as those who agreed to abide by the congregation’s covenant). Most people who attended your congregation’s Sunday services on a regular basis would sign the membership book, sooner or later. Sure, there were always one or two grumpy people who refused to become members; and a few conscientious people who, for reasons of (carefully thought out) conscience, felt they could not sign the membership book; but most regular attenders eventually became members.

That was twenty years ago.

Today, fewer and fewer people seek out institutional affiliation of any kind. Probably this is related to larger societal trends of civic disengagement, the loss of trust in all institutions, and the displacement of organized religion to society’s margins. In a new book, congregational expert Peter Steinke says, “None of this has to do with the church’s internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual.” Whatever the cause(s), we’re seeing more and more people who want to participate in our congregations without ever wanting to become members.

In the near future, I predict that “membership” is going to attract an ever decreasing number of people.

The problem is, we knew what to do with members. The congregation sent its members regular communications (e.g., newsletters, email lists, etc.), which they liked to receive, and which they read. They in turn knew how to communicate with key people in the congregation. And both the congregation and the members knew who was going to ask for money to run the congregation, and where that money is coming from.

We still know what to do with members, but we’re not quite so sure what to do with the other people who are coming into our congregations, the ones who don’t want to become members. These people may not want to receive our newsletter — they only want to hear about the things they want to hear about; and they want to hear about them in the ways they prefer (SMS, Facebook), not the ways we prefer (printed and email newsletters). These people do not know what a canvass is, or how or why we raise money (some of them even think we receive government support — no joke!), although they’re probably willing to be educated about how we take care of our finances, and how they can help us further our mission.

These are some of the things the three of us talked about this afternoon. We came up with at least four categories for our new membership database: “members” (people who have signed the membership book and who pledge annually); “friends” (people who have signed a declaration of friendship, a lower level of affiliation); “participants” (people who have participated in one or more congregational activities, ministries, or events); and “newcomers” (people who have showed up Sunday morning and are still relatively new to our community). We talked about the idea of another category, which we tentatively called the “distance” category: those people who no longer live close to us but who feel an emotional attachment to us, who may want to receive our communications, and who may sometimes want to give money to as a tangible expression of their appreciation for the congregation. We toyed with the idea of having separate “participant” categories, one for Sunday mornings “participants,” and one for “participants” who come at other times, but decided we don’t need that level of detail (yet). We did add a category for “child,” because we needed to distinguish between adult “participants” and non-adult “participants.” We also added a category for “deceased.” And we talked about other ways people may have relationships with our congregation, which we don’t quite know how to describe or categorize as yet.

I came away from our meeting with a very strong sense of the increasing importance of types of congregational affiliation besides “membership.” More and more people care less and less about the meaning of “membership,” and the younger they are the less they care. It’s like a century ago, when gradually people didn’t want to own pews any more, and they came up with this idea of congregational membership instead. Well, just as pew ownership once disappeared, I suspect we’re seeing a time when “membership” is slowly disappearing.

What do you think — is congregational membership is slowly disappearing? If so, what do you think will replace it?

6 thoughts on “Who’s a member? (What’s a member?)”

  1. “(people who have signed the membership book and who pledge annually)”

    The abiding significance of “member,” it seems to me, is “voter.” Our congregations are democratically run. As long as that is true, it will be important to distinguish between those who have the right to vote and those who don’t. We can’t have 400 people eyeing the property and deciding to join overnight, attend the annual meeting and vote that the property be turned over to the “Four Hundred New People with a Great Plan for a Condo Development” Group, so we have safeguards to make sure membership is bona fide.

    But considering how many of our votes are essentially carried out by nominating committee, are enough of our votes significant for us to remain organized around the concept of voting membership?

  2. Even as membership becomes a less socially relevant concept, I think it is important for congregations to be clear about what membership means. Which means that membership committees need to be able to articulate not just what the by-laws say about what it takes to be a member of the church but also what membership implies about how things happen at church. Many people have experienced extreme powerlessness in other religious settings. They look to the minister and church staff as the highly powerful people who make all the decisions about what happens at church. And they don’t get why the minister doesn’t just say “make it so ” like Jean-Luc Picard.

    If those who welcome newcomers to church are able to articulate “how we do things here” it may help people understand that membership is a form of participation — sort of a special case of “participant” in which you say, I care about what happens around here and want to help it keep on happening. It strikes me that it takes a while for people to develop a framework in their mind (and in their heart) about what being part of a church actually means for them. Fostering the development of this framework in another person requires real relationship — which means that the membership committee needs to form genuine relationships with folks and to walk with them as they figure out what their relationship with the church might look like. I don’t think membership committees are generally equipped to do this work. They are usually nice, friendly people who want to help and who have been told to make sure everyone is wearing a name tag. I wonder what kind of work it would take to transform membership committees of today into community development committees that engage in the deeper work of helping people actually experience themselves as members of something larger than themselves or their familes.

  3. Louise, good to hear from you! And thank you for pointing out that a big part of the issue is education — we have to teach people what membership means.

    At the end of your comment, you point out that membership education might not be in the purview of the typical membership committee. You and I are both religious educators, and it occurs to me that we should be paying more attention to this aspect of education — maybe we’re the ones who are in the best position to transform membership committees in the way you outline.

  4. Seems to me the decreasing focus on the importance of membership is a natural consequence of the merger. Member no long means who is going to Heaven and who isn’t, While it used to mean having a fairly significant say in how the local congregation was run, with more and more congregations following Policy Governance, even that facet has largely eroded away. The internet provides us with lots of people with views similar to ours, so the reason of attending a UU congregation to associate with like-minded people has less draw than a decade or two ago. And some of the best UU sermons in the country are being recorded and posted up to YouTube.
    Can you think of ANY way that being a member now is more important than in years past? I can’t.

  5. David, I’m not quite buying you arguments about heaven (Universalists have been saying we don’t need to worry about heaven since the 18th century), nor do I buy your argument about Policy Governance (TM) (congregations that haven’t heard of Policy Governance (TM) face exactly the same problems).

    But —

    When you bring up the Internet, I think you’ve hit on something really important. Why should I fight traffic on Highway 101 on Sundays (and yes, in the Bay area, there is always traffic) when I can stay in my nice warm kitchen and find like-minded people via the Internet? Why become a member of something, when the dominant paradigm on the Internet, the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, is either free services or ad-supported services?

    So when you ask your final question, as someone who spends a lot of time online, my honest answer is: No. And the fact of the matter is that I am not a member of any congregation right now — I pledge 5% of my gross income to my congregation, but I feel no need to be a member.

    Though I might become a member if my congregation provided as many online services as does Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF)….

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