This week we asked our bloggers to consider “membership” – How is our understanding of membership changing? Is membership important? What are new ways of moving forward? These are their responses.
During the first year of my tenure as pastor of the church I am currently serving, I made some interesting discoveries regarding the church’s membership rolls. First, they hadn’t been tended in some time – at least not with any real care. The fact that there were more than a few deceased members still listed as “active” was evidence to this fact.
Additionally, I discovered that there were several people who were listed as members who hadn’t darkened the door of the church in decades. We also discovered that many long-absent members had actually moved away or become members of other churches and had never bothered to notify us.
Over the course of the next six years, my church removed close to 250 from the rolls for a variety of reasons (some of which I listed earlier). If I’d left everything alone, including the dearly departed, I’d be the pastor of a thousand-plus member church by now! Instead, I chose to engage in what is commonly known in churchy circles as “purging the rolls.” Using the word “purge” in any sentence typically connotes something negative, but when it’s used to describe a process related to church membership, it sounds even worse.
Several years ago, I actually had a very difficult conversation with a couple who had been “purged” from the rolls by my predecessor. They angrily related how they had received a letter informing them that since they no longer attended, donated money or were otherwise involved, they were being removed from church membership. During the course of our conversation, I discovered that all of those things were, in fact, true. They hadn’t attended church in over a year and we could not find any evidence that they had ever given any tithes or offerings – ever. Additionally, the letter they received was one of several that had been sent to them, none of which they responded to until the last one.
All of this led me to reflect on the meaning of church membership, particularly the ways our church defined it, how we received new members, retained them, etc. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we had a problem when folks thought that being a member was simply a designation on a piece of paper.
We experimented over the years with several different membership classes and at times we eliminated them altogether. There have been seasons when we made it more challenging for people to become members of the church and seasons when we’ve made it as simple as saying “yes.” Our methods may have changed from time to time, but there are some aspects of our membership process that are intractable.
This is what we have learned (in no particular order):
- Always connect membership with involvement. All of our prospective members are clearly informed that it is an expectation that they find a place to serve, use their talents, give of their time and financially support the church. This is now a part of our culture.
- Publicly and dramatically receive members during worship. We bring our elders forward, call a session meeting and everything. It’s quite awesome. The whole congregation gets a chance to see how God is adding to our number.
- Ask prospective members to clearly state why they feel called to become a member. Each of our prospective members is asked to write a couple of paragraphs about their faith journey and why they feel called to our church. These stories are shared among our elders, but they also help solidify in the minds of our prospective members why they want to become members of the church.
- No matter what “they” might be saying on the Internet, membership matters. The fact is, attendees who become members are, on average, more invested in the health of the church, more generous with their time, talent and treasure, and more inclined to attend worship regularly, volunteer freely, etc. than attendees who remain attendees.
Regardless of how the format or the steps in our processes transform over time, we’ve learned that these key aspects of membership are vital to our definition of what it means to be a church member. Lifting these up in the membership process has helped to transform our congregation’s understanding of membership, including the expectations, requirements and benefits of being a member.
Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida. Visit his website.