Questioning the high-commitment church membership

A rough hacking/breathless/congested sick day. I’ll keep this brief.

For years now, I’ve heard about high-commitment church membership: how it builds better and more dedicated members, stronger churches and unicorns for everybody. It takes long classes, introspection, personal participation and financial giving that is both “sacrificial” and “feels good” — a rather specialized kink to be sure.

Jeeze-louise, I’m glad I didn’t run into that in churches early-on or I would have run from them, and I imagine that’s even more true with social expectations today. (Think Facebook.) Just attending a church is a huge act of faith and placing too many barriers can fairly be read as “you don’t really belong here, do you?”

I’d just as soon welcome people as they come and make membership an easy and transparent process.  To allay an organized takeover threat, I’d probably limit decision making power by instituting minimum membership length for voting and higher supermajorities for big decisions (property sales, say) — and then make membership periodic rather than lifelong. Let commitment grow if it will, but it needs to be an organic process.

The good news it that this high-commitment membership model is still a minority practice in Unitarian Universalist circles, and I would be just as happy to see it go away.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Aw, the wrong sort of “hacking” — get better soon!

    “High commitment” seems to me to be a counter-productive practice — even in more hierarchical churches (e.g. the Episcopal church), while “membership admission” (baptism/confirmation/reception) is more periodic, everything else tallies with what I’ve experienced in most UU churches — pledge amount is voluntary, educational and social programs are optional, etc.

    Are there any specific example of “high commitment” churches? In the interest of not naming and shaming, you can just email the examples to me — I’m just curious to see what forms those commitments take. Thanks!

  2. Is there perhaps a middle ground? In the groups I am a part of, there is a fairly high bar set for membership. Yet, there is also an openness for anyone who wants to attend, and we are careful to not pressure anyone into a level of commitment that they are not yet comfortable with.

    This provides many with a worship community that they can be a part of, as well as maintaining a core of membership that is highly dedicated to discipleship and mutual submission in Christ.

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