Membership – What Does it Mean?
As some of you will recall, at the Annual Congregational Meeting I asked for volunteers to start the process of reviewing our Historic Roll. The main reason that I asked for this to be done is because according to the statistics we send to the national church each year we are listing well over 300 resident members – I think the number is 380 but am typing this at home so can’t confirm right now. I want us to be sure we are providing accurate numbers.
In theory, the Historic Roll lists all those who have ever been what the United Church used to call “Full Members” [people who had either made a Profession of Faith (been Confirmed) at St. Paul’s or who had been members in another congregation and transferred their membership to St. Paul’s]. It would list when they became members and if they are no longer members when they ceased to become members (that may be through death, by requesting to be transferred out or removed, or by action of the Board/Council). People who have never become Members of the congregation are called Adherents. They may in fact be very active people in our community, people whose presence we would miss terribly if they were not here, but officially they are not Members
But it does tie in to another discussion. What does it mean to be a “Full Member” (from now on I will just say Member)? Does it make a difference in how one is a part of the community?
And that is a hard question.
In the United Church in recent decades we have chosen to focus on how inclusive we are. And do we rarely talk about the importance of membership. In point of fact the hardest sermon I have ever preached was trying to present why membership is important in the United Church. I tried to come at it from the old American Express line “membership has its privileges” and was at a loss.
In our structure there are very few things that are exclusively for members. One is that, officially speaking, only Members can be a part of our Council (as far as I know all of our current Council members are, in case you were wondering) since our Council fills the role traditionally held by Elders. Also only Members can be representatives from the congregation to Presbytery (and from Presbytery to Conference and from Conference to General Council). Only members can enter into the official process to discern a call to ministry. AT a Congregational meeting Members present automatically have a vote on all matters whereas Adherents can only vote if the Members present give them that privilege (and even then there are specific issues that Adherents can never vote – such as to call or to remove a minister, to buy or sell property, and other “Spiritual Matters” [though I have often wondered what matters in the life of a faith community are not spiritual matters]. I have heard of people who become members specifically so they can serve on a Search Committee.
Not really great privileges are they....
So why is membership important? And what does it really mean? As it stands now someone could attend and be active for years but not get a vote on an important matter whereas the next person might have been confirmed decades ago but only attend sporadically and not be really aware of what is happening in the life of the congregation but gets a vote as soon as they appear at a meeting. That does not quite seem right to many people.
If membership gives a voice in the life of the congregation is it more important to be active or to have at some point in the past made a public faith statement? (which is a bit of a false choice since both are important in my mind).
In amongst all the other things that are being discussed across the United Church is this question of membership. Traditionally (and presently) membership in the church comes through baptism and (if baptized as a child) a Profession of Faith. But now there are more people who want to try out a faith tradition before making the step of a public Faith Profession. Does that mean they are not members?
IS membership about attending and participating?
Is membership about believing?
Is it about both?
What does membership mean to you? Why is it important to be a member?
On a related note, I am thinking forward to the fall. In September/October I am planning to offer a session of exploring what it means to be part of Christian Community. I was going to call it a membership or confirmation class but I am intentionally not doing so. I make that choice because I truly believe we are stronger in our faith if we take part in these discussions periodically, not just when we “become a member”. Look for details in the early fall (one plan I am looking into will include a meal together with each session).