Christian Century on membership

I felt Unitarian Universalist blogger Bill Baar (Pfarrer Streccius) shared some of my concerns about formal, rigorous membership in his blog post today, where he quotes the current issue of the Christian Century. Or at least, shares my thought that sometimes you have to try something new without the approval of the powers-that be.

I was going to reply at his blog, but the Blogger blog platform is having some kind of problem and it threw an error when I tried. Here’s what I wrote about his comments:

Very interesting, and not at all surprising. But in addition to the mid-century church organizational style, I noticed some of the hurt voices in the body and comments of that Christian Century article also get lost in a kind of ecumenical jargon that dates to the same era. Body of Christ, for example, among mainline Protestants, but Unitarian Universalists do it too with covenant. Insider language for insider ideas, and no sense of irony with respect to evangelism.

So what’s the alternative? For one, perhaps, to build in an alternative meaning of membership. At this point, I started to write the patented Scott Wells review of parishes and churches in the Unitarian and Universalist tradition, but erased it all. The short version: it might be worth modeling what we see in the United Church of Canada and the Uniting Church in Australia, in a congregationalist way. Make a role for non-joiners (each call them adherents; that sounds too much like a bandage to me) and give them decision-making power on financial matters, if they are donors. This isn’t too different from what Universalists did a hundred years ago from what I can tell.

I’m also thinking of the way Providence has allowed the universal gospel to be spread from a single, even impersonal point of contact.

So, even shorter: recognize the non-joiner and allow for alternatives in word and deed.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks! There was a lot in that artcile and more than I had time for when I posted, or right now.

    I’ve followed you on this topic and a handful of other UUs who have been writing on it. I think a whole lot more needs to be said on it. It’s a deeper reflection on trends in how Churches need to reach people.

  2. I like your thinking on this Scott. We have been wrestling with these sorts of questions at Eliot and clarifying where need be about who belongs and how. Money is an important factor.

    Sometimes I think we need to set aside the membership model entirely and think use more of a mission model (I don’t know if that is the right term. I am sure someone has copywritten it for something else)

    I guess it may make more sense to grow a community around certain actions (worship, fellowship, social justice) and give voting writes to contributors for as long as they contribute. The concerns around preserving the institutional system is knocking us for a loop…

  3. Some traditions from the Holiness end of Christianity, have no practice of local church membership. Financial contributors are allowed to vote on proposed annual budgets. Those who attend worship a minimum number of times per year are allowed to vote on extending a call to a new pastor.

    So the record keeping shifts from membership; to donors plus attenders. Most people in a congregation would be both; but a few could be one or the other. As a caveat, I would imagine that attendace would be the most challenging statistic to keep track of (but it is also VERY usefull for analyzing congregational development).

  4. It’s worth remembering that in the 19th C., many congregations had two separate organizations, the church and the society. Pew holders voted in the society, and the society usually controlled finances and owned the physical plant. The church society often had control over who got to take communion. (Of course, established churches in some colonies/states got government funding, up to 1833 in Massachusetts.)

    When a few congregations started having open pews in the mid-19th C. — no pew holders, everyone welcome — lots of people said it was a funding model that would never work. Of course it did work, and that’s the model we now have. By the way, some Unitarian congregations kept the pew rental system up through the 1950s!

    So now we’re in a period where we have to change the funding model again. But we should remember that one half of membership is just a funding model — it’s really just a transmogrification of the old pew rental system, except you don’t get a pew. With this in mind, it is well worth reading Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article on “Ten Nonprofit Funding Models”, spring 2009, partially online at:
    Our congregations fit into the “Member Motivator” funding model — alongside Saddleback Church, public radio, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. The tactical tools available to us, then, are membership, fees, special events, major gifts, and direct mail (well, skip direct mail, it only has a 1% return rate). So I would not yet throw out membership — although I would be willing to redefine membership completely.

    The other half of our membership model comes from the old church, where in the congregational system you confessed your sins in public before the congregation and then were admitted into communion. (See the excellent article on Rev. Dr. Exra Ripley of Concord in the 2009 UUHS Journal about how that type of membership evolved in the early 19th C.) This type of “spiritual” affiliation often included people who were excluded from membership in the society, e.g., women and African Americans. This type of membership has disappeared as a separate category — basically, when you become a member of a UU congregation these days, all you get is the right to vote — there’s not implied spiritual benefit. Yet for most, UUs the reason they join a congregation is not just for the obvious Sunday services, activities, etc., but also for the intangible benefits they get from their affiliation. (Here again, it’s worth reading the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, and wrestling with the questions they ask for the Member Motivator funding model.) So we need to figure out how to communicate to people how membership gives them those intangible benefits, in addition to the more tangible benefits.

    Just some thoughts…

  5. Ah, Dan . . .”it’s worth remembering” — sheesh, I wrote much like this — not the wild turkey part, of course — but deleted it, since I’ve been yammering about church/parish for ages.

    But I will add this much. It’s been my experience that those congregations in the UUA that are still Christian is because they have retained that distinction, if vestigially, or retained elements, say, trustees and deacons.

  6. @ Scott – Among the Holiness traditions that do not practice local church membership, I believe that the Church of God Anderson is a good example.

  7. My background includes the holiness denomination called the Church of God (Anderson, IN.); I attended for 14 years as an adult. They had no formal membership; their belief was “Salvation makes you a member”. The requirements for becoming a voting participant were to proclaim Jesus Christ as your Savior, be at least 18 years old, and to have attended regularly for three months before the business meeting (some churches may have different lengths of time for the attendance requirement). There was provision in the bylaws allowing a challenge to someone if it was believed that they did not meet voting requirements, but I never saw that happen in practice. A financial donation was not a requirement; in fact, there was no reporting of how much you were going to tithe to the church. That was left up to each individual. Needless to say, it was quite a shock to me when, after I started dropping checks in the offering plate, I was contacted by someone and asked to sign a pledge card so that they could know what I planned on giving for the year! I was also surprised to receive, near the end of the fiscal year, a letter reporting to me how much of my pledge was left to be fulfilled. I wondered if the church didn’t trust me to give them what I promised. It left a funny taste in my mouth. Anyway, back to membership….I have attended my UU church now for about nine years, of which I have been a member for the last three years. Honestly, I haven’t found much benefit to membership and have considered resigning. I am more of an introvert anyway, and like things slow and low keyed, so the added responsibilities of attending business meetings and being more likely to be asked to serve on committees I find stressful. Going back to simply being an attendee, and participating in some extra activities are enough for me.

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