Re-Posting "End Membership in UU Churches"

This post has gotten a lot of attention lately, thanks to a mention in the UU World.  Welcome to new readers.  It was originally posted in February 20, 2013.    

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 like the new categories, but have one that is not quite a fit. The Church of the Larger Fellowship is the largest group of these UU's. These congregationless UU's are more than free range, and certainly not "lost sheep". We are deeply involved in the denomination, but sometimes either members of a congregation, but not actively participating regularly, or CLF activists, or other Beyond Congregationalists who understand that the neighborhood congregational unit is not a necessary or useful modern organizing concept.

    I am what I might call, but never admit to being to my friends, a congregational member in name only (MINO), was for a long time a congregational activist, but since being elected to the board of directors of the UU Ministry for Earth, an active participant in cluster/district/regional activities and most certainly denomination-wide issues.

    The presumption that the congregation is an important unit is no longer necessary in an electronically connected age. It is the relic. Yes, having a place to go to hear, talk to and meet people is great. However, for me, that can just as well be a Facebook page, board meeting, national rally, where it is easy to find "the Love People" by the yellow shirts. Maybe the closest analogue in the 20th century was the CLF.

    What that will look like in the 21st century is obvious to me, I have been doing it across the country for almost 10 years.

  2. I suggest an additional, 21st century category, something along the lines of Church of the Larger Fellowship, but less formal, and more integrated than "beyond congregationalists", less insulting than "lost sheep", and more deeply involved than "free range".

    There are many of us who are barely tied to a congregation (members in name only - MINOs), but deeply involved in the denomination in some way. My primary attachment to UU structure is through my membership with the UU Ministry for Earth. When I travel to rallies, give presentations at congregations, or visit events (like Citizens' Climate Lobby conferences, Tim DeChristopher's trial, or the Tar Sands Action, for example), I find UU's everywhere. Sometimes, we are obvious at the "love people", a mass of yellow t-shirts, other times, language about principles, or other sometimes outright statements of belonging.

    Consider us denominationalists, or principals. We are the heart of 21st century UUism.


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