End "Membership" in UU Churches

A discussion today at the SE Michigan UUMA cluster meeting brought up the question of membership.

It doesn't violate our covenant of confidentiality to report that I made several sweeping pronouncements which, to the someone who didn't know me, would give the impression that I knew what I was talking about, and had thought and studied on the matter in some depth.

So I have spent the rest of the day trying to get my brain to catch up with my mouth.

So why don't we get rid of this concept of UU church membership?

It seems to me that there are several overlapping and concurrent circles of people involved in a typical UU Church.  But, we have only two categories of people we describe:  Members and Friends.  And then, there are all the others.

Members are someone who has joined the church, signed the book and met whatever other requirements the church may require.  They get to vote in the congregational meetings, and some of them actually do.

Friends haven't signed the book, but are active in some way and are financial supporters of the congregation.

But in reality, there are multiple relationships:

1. There is the Worshipping Congregation:  people who attend the church on a regular basis for worship.
2.  There are people who active in various congregational programs -- teach in RE, sing in the choir, come to forums and programs.  Call them the UU Activists.
3.  There are people who financially support the congregation. Call them Supporters.
4.  There are people who take an active interest in the governance of the institution -- they do come to the Annual Meeting, listen carefully, vote thoughtfully and stay to the end.  They serve on administrative committees and task forces.  Call them the Institutionalists.
5. There are people, we hope. who are allies of the church in the community.  They could be mobilized by the church for a cause, a program, a concert.  Just say they are in our Network.
6. There are people in the community  who identify as Unitarian Universalists but who choose, for one reason or another, not to be active in this particular church.  I don't know what you call them: the Beyond Congregationalists, the Lost Sheep, or Free Range UU's.
7.  There are elders who used to be very active in the congregation but who are no longer because of age and infirmity.  Call them our Alumni.

I think what we now call "Members" ought to be just the "Institutionalists".  They are on the voting rolls of congregational meetings.  I think that it is possible to place a very high requirement on these people, including tithing and membership approval by the governing board.

Of course, anyone in any relationship to the church ought to be asked to make a financial contribution to the congregation, be invited to be Supporters.  (And the congregation should track and report back on all contributions to the church, especially non-pledge contributions.  Provide an envelope for people to put collection plate cash in, and write their name on the envelope and get a statement at the end of the year.)

Those people who participate in congregational programming, but have not made an Institutional Commitment are UU Activists.  Not every Activist needs to become an Institutionalist; not everyone wants to.  But the Institutionalists need to recognize that the Activists are the heart of the programmatic work of the congregation; the Institution have as its goal supporting these people in the work of the church.

It would take some thoughtful work to define these levels of relationships. But a clear definition of each would make more clear the expectations of each level.  It is a step in one's faith journey to move from a being a regular Attender of worship services to being an Activist in the church -- agreeing to teach an RE class, or be a greeter or an usher on a regular basis, or to be a regular volunteer in one of the congregations social service programs.  It is taking on a responsibility for which one is accountable.

"Membership" is too vague and general category to be useful.  Because we want lots of members, and because people are in so many different life circumstances, it is hard to define the essence of "Membership".  And so it becomes a self-selection with no accountability, which has the effect of limiting the spiritual development of all.

We should retire the phrase completely.


  1. I love this. I would call the "Activists," the "Actives," just to differentiate from social justice activists.
    It's so exciting when we let our brains catch up with our mouths. Love ya.

  2. I have been saying this for more than three years now. No one understands me. Membership is a 19th century tool that we don't need. It forces us to define people and it forces us to make choices. I say pledge everyone we can, let dedicated people chair committees and pay the UUA a percentage of the budget.

  3. A complementary model for this is what we use in our worship committee, which is composed of those who are people willing to commit to coming to meetings -- they are committee members (oops! there's that word) but then we also have committee satellites, people who enrich the worship team with thoughts and sometimes do tasks, but won't and don't need to show for meetings.

  4. Jeff Briere -- I agree with your model. Have you thought about where decision making power lies? Most states require some sort of membership to elect the board for incorporation purposes?

  5. This makes so much sense.

  6. Good stuff, Tom! I particularly like the clarity (and invitation) your model offers for the differences in commitment level. One-size "membership" does not fit all....

  7. As is it I see little commitment to each other, at least your proposal would end all pretense.

    I would probably resign and have nothing to do with UU except to say it used to be a fellowship to which I once belonged.

  8. Great stuff! It is SO time to move church into this century. Thanks for transforming this from thoughts to document.

  9. How about "partners"? Let's count them, too. The folks in the wider community with whom we partner and show up for/with?

    I've been less enamored with membership count and much more interested in impact in the lives of people who consider themselves to be Unitarian Universalists and the wider community.

  10. I find this quite interesting and provocative and plan to take it to your old church for a chat. Love from CCUU to you!

  11. Tom -- I love the fluid and inclusive regard for various commitments/resonances within the church community. Another part to flesh out is accountability to the culture of the faith community -- with considerations for supportive processes for safety, equanimity, inclusiveness and creativity. I think the covenantal nature of our communities is important and needs to be intentionally nurtured.

  12. Some commentators seem to be worrying about covenantal nature of the community that is expressed in membership. When you "join" the church, you enter into the covenant. What does that mean if you don't "join" the church?

    Covenants have to be based on people's real life level of commitments. I think that congregations could devise realistic covenants for various groups within the congregation. But that covenanted body would be co-existing within a network of other relationships.

    Everybody who participates in a church sponsored program should be aware that there is a behavioral covenant that exists within church programs. The Church Activists may have some other covenant. Certainly the institutionalists share a common commitment to the institution and to each other.

    One covenant? Only if it is vague and aspirational. We know how hard that is -- to move from such a covenant to real relationship.

  13. So if there's no members, who "calls" the minister? Does the board become a self-selecting oligarchy? This seems to make great progress towards institutionalizing the transformation of co-creators of religious community to mere consumers of the UU "product". Great layout on the market segmentation!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

The 8th Principle

Complicating the Great Reformation: Dialectical Theology (Part 11 of many)

"What Time Is It? Questions from James Luther Adams to Unitarian Universalists of Today."