Where to set the bar for membership?

I first became a full voting member of a Presbyterian congregation in 1958 through a confirmation class. I thought it was cool that as a 13-year-old I then had a vote in congregational meetings equal to that of my parents, both ruling elders.


But more than five decades later I’m thinking it’s time to take a thorough look at what membership in a PCUSA congregation means. That very discussion has started to happen in my own congregation, and although I’m not sure where we’ll end up, recommendations have been all over the lot – from demanding a deeper commitment to lowering the bar to not far above zero.


But before we adopt new approaches to membership in PC(USA) congregations, it’s helpful to go back to the Book of Order and reread (you have read it, right?) G-1.0304, “The Ministry of Members.” Here we find a substantial list of what’s expected of members, starting with “proclaiming the good news in word and deed.” Well, that pretty much covers it. The rest is commentary.


I’ve come to understand that the “belonging, then believing” model makes lots of sense, given that everyone enters the faith journey – especially the path toward church membership – at a different place. Currently we require “a profession of faith in Christ,” though that may well mean different things to different people.


If I were to write the PC(USA) church membership rules (probably a bad idea), I would let anyone be a voting member who could affirmatively answer the question about faith in Christ. Then I would make sure that every congregation provided opportunities for all new members to learn in depth what the Christian life can look like in all its variety.


But I’d insist that we not inflate our membership numbers by fooling people into thinking that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is easy. I might not immediately quote to newcomers Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea that when Christ calls someone it’s a call to “come and die,” but that kind of admonition would be somewhere near the top.


The membership numbers game has produced lots of shenanigans in our denomination – and no doubt in others. It’s not unheard of that congregations keep completely inactive people on the rolls for years because a higher membership number looks good and increases representation to presbytery meetings – even if it costs more in per capita dues.


It’s a system we’d do well to reform. But how to handle people who come regularly to worship with us and may even contribute to the budget but who have little or no interest in becoming full members? In other words, what of the people who are used to living together without being married and think that’s an acceptable way to relate to a church? How do we speak plainly of the financial commitment it takes to run a generous, mission-minded congregation while not seeming to be giving off the message that we want people to join mostly so they can help make our budget?


It’s time to let this conversation bubble up from the pews. Indeed, it should have started in, say, 1958.


Bill Tammeus

BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at Read about his latest book at E-mail him at“>