Where Did the Power Go?

Shannon (@ladyskysong) tweeted in response to my post on abolishing "membership" in UU Churches.

@tominma Then your churches become run only by those with time for 2-3 committee meetings (likely at noon). Who's voices get heard? Retirees

A very perceptive question, and one that I had not thought about explicitly since yesterday.   "How would eliminating the general membership category change the power dynamics in a UU church?"  Like I said, my brain is catching up with my mouth on this.

My first premise is that churches and congregations ought to be mission - driven institutions. as opposed to merely democratic institutions.  Power should be in the hands of those who are most committed to and active in fulfilling its mission.   Right now, this is not true in most congregations.  Right now, there is a lot of power in the hands of those who like the church as it is, or as it was, and that power is used to keep things as they are.

My second premise is that the broad general "membership" category overly empowers the passive consumers.

My third premise is that most churches have too many people involved in the institutional maintenance through committee work.  It is said that "People come to our congregations because they are seeking the transcendent, and we put them on a committee."

I want to empower the "actives" -- the people who are enthusiastic about working on the substance of the mission.  And understand that I don't just mean external community service and justice-making as the mission.  Our mission includes offering free worship to the community, inspiring the young to a life of religious liberalism, being a social center, facilitating community dialogue as well.

At the same time, congregations need people to sit on budget committees, and organize the pledge campaign, and write building use policies and employee handbooks.  People who are willing to dive into the details of how we provide health insurance for our employees in the era of "Obamacare."  We need people to make sure that we have the resources (money, facilities and staff) to fulfill our mission.

I think LadySkySong is right in that making the voting roll the "Institutionalists" may overly empower change resistant leadership in the congregation.  She poses this in terms of age, which I don't think is fair, or maybe I just resent it personally, but I think her point is valid.  People move toward 'institutional' leadership as they get older and more experienced and more accustomed to dealing with the church as a whole.

But I don't want to pull our 'actives' away from the work of the mission to waste their energy combing through budget spreadsheets. The "actives" are the flame in our chalice; the "institutionalists" are the cup.  We got a lot of congregations with big ornate chalices containing a little bitty flame.

So to me, it comes down to creating missional commitment among our leaders.  I don't think that anyone ought to be at the highest levels of leadership in the institution before they show a serious commitment to the mission of the congregation as unfinished business, before they are willing to meet some standard of sacrificial giving and some serious personal commitment.

So, what's your opinion?  How should membership be defined in the church of the future?


  1. I think there is a place for the idea of membership, whether you call it that or not. I like the idea of expanding that concept in a way that continues to support the human need for belonging and community, but also allows for different expressions of support. I agree that currently we are stuck in a financially driven understanding of membership and that it tends to favor institutional inertia; perhaps there could be a tithe of service that could drive missional/activist activities by empowering that group as being full "corporate" participants in the life of the church. We do still need to be able to pay the light bill, though... Hmmm...

  2. Thanks Tom for a good conversation. I have time-as retiree, to reply. ;=>

    In the dream world of fully implemented policy governance the missional end statements would give maximum freedom to working groups to be creative with means. The executive management team toils over the spreadsheets and is accountable to the board. No one micromanages the "actives."

    In my experience, the actives who are willing to create within the very big boundaries of mission, priorities, and the limits of budgets/policy/law feel authorized and empowered to act without looking over their shoulders.

    If the old guard continues as a shadow power source-not so much.

    The informal networks matter and if the networks of a former, smaller congregation dominate and rigidify, then "rebellion' by new networks-destined to rigidify in the future imitate transformational change. Rebellion,then, is in the DNA as the power source of change.

    I am wondering how mission focus generates a new network capable of real transformation. Might a change of heart be the source of the power of transformation that reshapes and remakes the power giving networks of beloved community?

    The story of 40 days in the desert, refusing the power sources of hierarchy, lineage, and magical charisma suggests that a relation to the holy is essential. 40 years of practicing relationship to the holy via policies of right relationship might be necessary to eliminate our slavish love/hate relationship with hierarchy.

    Ambivalence about power and authority keeps us vulnerable to the charisma of the moment.
    Awareness of our real powerlessness might make for networks of care as distinct from networks of allies.
    Blessings on the work,

  3. Shannon7:52 PM

    As the poster of the original tweet, I guess I should clarify. I am a young adult who has been a member of a large UU congregation in Texas, and is currently checking out several New England congregations. It drives me NUTS when congregants state "I wish we could get more younger folks in governance/planning/social justice/worship visioning etc" but when you ask when people meet to plan such things, the answer is too often weekly, during the work day, or without available child care.

    If congregations want under 35s to be active members, whether as Institutionalist, Actives, or whatever, then they'll need to find out the needs and abilities of that group of people. You want a vibrant, diverse community? Then make sure that you have a place in the work of the church and the Worship of the church for young people, older people, people who work 9-5, people who work other shifts, and people who are not working.

    @ladyskyong (twitter)

  4. G-Man: your phrase "financially driven understanding of membership" is very apt.

    I think one of the things that I am advocating for is to shift power in the church from those who "sign the book" and "make a pledge" to those who are active in fulfilling the mission of the church, broadly speaking. And I don't want to take the most active and mission-driven members and suck them into church administration.
    And I certainly don't want to get into proposing ideal by-laws for mythical churches here.

    But you're right, we need to have some ways for people to affilate, enroll and express commitment to and be recognized by religious community. It's a human need.

  5. Thank you, Martha, for your very rich contribution. I think that the contrast you make between a transforming power in congregations that is rooted in rebellion vs. a transforming power in congregations that is rooted in a change of heart, or conversion is profound.
    Tell us more about how you think a greater awareness of our real powerlessness would change how we build a missional network?

  6. thanks Shannon, for expanding on your original comment tweet. Getting the right forms to invite people to participate is always hard, but you have to start somewhere and keep at it. How would you invite younger adults to participate? I do think that a congregation has to formally state its intention to bring younger adults into participation and leadership as a first step.


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