But better than family, because they were family by choice. Eventually they decided to call themselves a church, and in doing so, they realized how beautiful church could be. They loved their church. And it was indeed their church. It belonged to them, and they to it. Everything about it spoke to them. The music, the prayers, the ways they were empowered to make decisions on their own. They loved each other, the ways they knew each other, and each other's children.
But the children, it turned out, were a problem. See, the children had nothing to leave, nothing to reject and then re-construct. They were born into freedom, empowerment, affirmation. This was a problem because their parents had given themselves over to this religious community because they knew their lives depended upon it - it was their critical salvation to create and sustain such a sanctuary.
Built into the fabric of their created community, was the idea of choice. They had rejected church membership as something granted by way of inheritance. In their church, to become a member, you had to testify that you had been transformed by its message, promise, and good news. You - as an individual - had to actively decide and covenant.
But their now-adult children testified to no such experience. They took these gifts as a given. No choice moment ever seemed necessary and so they never chose. Which meant, membership in this beloved church started to decline as young adults of the second generation failed to join.
The first generation realized something had to be done. They took another look at the meaning of membership, and tried to create a way to be "in," or at least "semi-in", even if you weren't ecstatically-transformationallly "in" the way they had been as the original founders.
They called their solution the "Half-Way Covenant." It affirmed that you were a half-member, if your parents were full members, even if you never declared this your choice.
The idea was, if given enough time, eventually, these later generations would experience the same kind of joy in the community that their parents and grandparents had. Maybe once they had kids, or grandkids. Maybe once they were retired, or settled down, or, whatever. At some point, surely...they'd join.
It was, 1657. But with just a few changes here and there, I might have just told you the story of many of our Unitarian Universalist churches today, where we struggle to retain our youth, or to reach young adults, or we puzzle at the statistic that reveals that people self-identify as Unitarian Universalist about 4 times more than of those who officially affiliate with our congregations. What is that about? And what - if anything - should we do about it?
It seems, 250 years later, we're still trying to solve our membership problem. Our religious forebears, the Puritans of 1657, came up with a half-way solution. And still today, we live with the consequences of their insufficient compromise. Still today, we aren't sure what it means or should mean to be a member of our free church.
For our mutual edification, I want to invite a little experiment. In my live sermon of this post, I asked folks to raise their hand. That's trickier in a blog. So instead, let's just have you think your answers to yourself. Maybe even share some of your answers in the comments if you're willing.
I'm going to name a category, and ask you to consider if you fit that category. And then notice the ways these things do or do not correlate.
Signed the membership book? (That's the only requirement in our congregation for becoming a member, by the way. You can sign at any time.The book is in the office.)
Now to clarify: signing the membership book is not the same as the book for getting a name tag....we realized at our last Path to Membership class, there's some confusion about this. You can have a name tag regardless of your membership status. (We're working on our signage.)
Let's do that one - Name tag haver....?
Been coming around our church for more than 2 years....? ....More than 5....?
Have now or have had kids in religious education?
Served on one of our committees?
"Liked" Foothills on Facebook?
Participated in a small group, or an Adult Enrichment program?
Gotten some kind of care or counsel from me or Marc at any point? (We don't check membership rolls, did you think we did?!)
Oh, here's a good one for this pledge season.....Pledged?
Call yourself a Unitarian Universalist when asked?
Fascinating, right? In my experience none of these things seem to correlate directly with any of the others! You might be in one of the categories, or all of them, or none of them.
I mean, what the heck does membership mean? What privileges does it convey? And what responsibilities?
A few weeks ago, we lived out a tangible example of the privileges and responsibilities when those who are members were allowed to vote on my call....and those who are not....could not. Next Sunday afternoon, there will be a moment in the service, where "members" are asked to stand and perform the actual act of installation, and to recite our shared covenant. Those who aren't members, well, there's a generic question at the end for all others who are present....
What inspires one to become a member? Or to not? And what does "membership" have to do with the spiritual journey, and becoming a Unitarian Universalist?
Retired minister, Tom Schade- whose blog, "the lively tradition" I commend to all of you - has a series of posts about membership. Last September, he reflected on his process for becoming a member at his new post-retirement congregation. He had moved to town in early 2013, but 9 months later, he hadn't yet officially joined. As he says, "There was no doubt I would sign the book. This is my faith tradition from birth. I really like the ministers. I find the worship fulfilling and satisfying. We filled out our pledge card months ago. The people I have met seem to be good solid folks that I would like to have as friends and companions." What has held him back, he says, is that, "I don't really know them."
Because our congregational "covenant" can feel obscure, we often explain its meaning by referencing our most accessible cultural shorthand: the marriage covenant. In marriage, you promise to be with and for your particular beloved, pledging your enduring commitment in front of witnesses and with the Spirit of Life itself. And certainly, who you are marrying matters.
Similarly, many of us link our congregational covenant to the particular people we know within the congregation. In the video our Stewardship team just put together - on Why I Love Foothills - you'll hear a lot of talk about "the people." I love Foothills because of "the people." In the everyday experiences of the congregation, there's no doubt, the particular people matter.
Still, while the marriage analogy is somewhat helpful, it also limits our understanding of what it means to covenant with a religious community. Because - as we say in our responsive reading welcoming new members - our covenant transcends the particular people, or the particular minister you encounter when you arrive. We promise to support the "church as it is, and as it yet may be." Our great covenant connects us to the ministry and mission of this congregation and this faith, which transcends any of us in the particular. For all we know, any of us might not be here tomorrow, for various reasons. But that would not invalidate this church's covenant!
As Schade's post, goes on to say, membership expresses an affirmation of being "called by the ministry [of this congregation] to make the values of Unitarian Universalism the cornerstone of [your] life." Membership is saying "''YES' to that call," and saying you "join with those gathered to support each other in that transformation."
I think this is right on. Membership means; you have an experience of the particular ministry of this congregation that makes you feel inspired to make the values we profess to be the cornerstone of your life, you feel called to do that. But that's a tall order, so you say yes to partnering with others in making the changes necessary for such a thing to be true.
Getting to this YES will take different forms for different people, and happen at a wide variety of paces. Maybe you'll feel that it your first time here; maybe you will hang around the edges for decades, and never will. In our value of hospitality, we welcome all, wherever you may be on the path. We are transformed and transforming by our encounters across our difference.
For those who are willing, this YES must not signify the end of your exploration, but just the beginning. Unitarian Universalism is not a spectator sport - no religion is in truth, if you hope for it to fulfill its promises. Our Membership Committee has been talking recently about "meaningful membership," emphasis on meaning. We've identified 5 categories - Worship Liberally, Connect in Community, Grow in Spirit, Serve in Partnership and Give Generously - that we believe facilitate deeper meaning in our lives together, far beyond just "signing the book." Our hope is to articulate the practices that change our members' lives. And that change the world.
And speaking of the world changing....let's go back to that Half-Way Covenant. Those who came up with the Half-Way covenant, in their wrestling with the "living tradition," I think they came down a little too fully on the side of tradition, less on the living. They failed to recognize that their kids didn't have the same struggles they did, which didn't mean they didn't have struggles at all. They craved liberation - just not from the same forces or in the same way - as their parents. A whole new paradigm was needed in 1657, but our forebears weren't prepared to yield that much.
And so the question still lives on today.
As I said earlier, the large majority of our Unitarian Universalist children and youth do not end up joining a UU church as an adult. What vitality do we miss because we have not yielded to their particular yearnings for liberation?
Or, just as critically, what are we missing because we have not listened fully to those young adults who were born after the rise of the religious right, and who are finding our faith today without any of the religious baggage of the 1970s, 80s, or 90s?
These lingering questions mean that even as we are more clearly articulating what membership means within our congregation, we must also look beyond our walls for what membership will mean in our ever-changing religious and cultural landscape.
As an example, you may have heard about the initiative, Congregations and Beyond. This project of the UUA seeks to reach out to those who identify as Unitarian Universalist but who, for whatever reason, do not belong to a church. Unlike past endeavors, it doesn't hold church membership as an ultimate goal. Instead, it seeks to meet people wherever they are, to unhook our good news from the traditional trappings of "church," and to do as my friend the Rev. Sarah Moldenhauer Salazar describes: "to expand our covenant" in new and greater ways, with all who would partner in that great YES.
Membership. It's such a dry, dull, corporate word for all these big, important questions.
"Whose are you? Who are your people? To whom are you responsible, accountable? Who, what holds you in the hollow of its hand?" And are we one of your answers?
These are not dry or dull questions, not at all. And yet we sum them all up in this one word, this concept of membership.
I'm growing in self-awareness, emotional maturity, intelligence, and spiritual depth, so that I can better hold others in their going out, and their coming in. So that I can more fully be held.
I'm a member.
I belong, in the deepest, fullest sense. These are my people.
I'm a member.
I'm a committed partner in building a world built on an affirmation of each person's worth, as well as our interdependence and unity.
I'm a member.
Unitarian Universalism has liberated me, saved me. This covenantal faith holds me accountable to being my best self, and has seen me through the longest night, and inspires me to keep that bright thread of hope alive.
I'm a member...?
Maybe it is time, as Tom Schade suggests, to retire the word and the category of "membership" entirely, especially in light of the call of Congregations and Beyond and our desire to overcome this 250 year old "membership" problem once and for all.
To be honest, I'm not sure. I'm nervous to let it go else we lose the concept of commitment and promise that is so vital to our covenantal faith. And yet, I do think it's time for a shake up. And time live in these questions for a while. To listen to the widest possible circle of partners, those who have signed the membership book, and those who have not, to all who would say they are "one of us", us defined not by shared creed- what we believe- but shared covenant, how we agree to walk together, and the shared direction of our walking......all who are moved by and with the message of Unitarian Universalism. And to yield our past understandings to a new vision, one wider and deeper than we can even yet imagine.
And so let us make room in this tradition for the living spirit. Let us breathe into the undiscovered possibility. And in this space, may we all be transformed.
(Opening story, adapted from Alice Blair Wesley's Minns Lectures, which obviously are a huge influence on this sermon. I also brushed up on the Commission on Appraisal report on Membership. And re-read Sarah Moldenhaur Salazar's brilliant sermon she preached at Pacific Western Regional Assembly on expanding the covenant beyond congregations (unpublished).