The Meaning of Membership

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Today is the first day of our new member orientation at Shelter Rock.  Starting today after services in the Art Gallery, the ministry team will meet with folks who are interested in joining the congregation for four sessions.  At the end of those sessions, they will have the opportunity to sign the membership book and formally become members of this congregation.

It’s worth exploring, then, on this occasion, what we mean when we talk about membership- and what possibilities it holds for each of us, whether we joined 40 years ago or are coming to the first session this afternoon.

In some ways this is an easy question:  what does membership mean:  It means you have signed the membership book, made a financial pledge to the congregation, and a payment on that pledge –we are starting the pledge campaign next month, so be ready!-  Yet there is a lot going on beyond those simple check boxes.  In the UUA publication this sermon takes its name from, membership in congregations is primarily a covenantal relationship, similar to other covenants that we enter into—like marriage. My marriage means, in one way, that Stacie and I signed a form from the City of Baltimore, that we were of legal age and sound mind.  Just as that is a painfully incomplete picture of marriage, signing the book, making a pledge and a payment on a pledge can oversimplify this complicated thing that is membership in religious community.

The meaning of membership is also caught up, in this moment, in cultural changes much larger than our congregation or Unitarian Universalism.  While there was a time when membership in a religious community was an expected part of being an adult, religious affiliation (at least in New York) is no longer the default.  Of my peers, the vast majority do not belong to churches, synagogues, or other religious institutions.  A recent survey found that Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile, and 59% of millennials (30 and under) raised in a church or religious tradition are no longer members of a religious institution.

So even more than we have in the past, it’s important to think of membership as a covenant that we enter into voluntarily, and not because society expects us to.  That, to me, makes the choice all the more interesting.  Why is it that we join?  There are a few ways of thinking about membership that may answer part of that question:

The first is Membership as Transaction.  This is in some ways the most visible part of membership.  Members don’t have to pay to have a wedding ceremony.  When Stacie and I got married at the UU congregation I was a member of, the organist only accepted a check from us after we made it out to the Baltimore Organ restoration fund.  We can think about this in terms of expectations:  We support the congregations that we are a members of, and expect support in return.

I don’t mean to reduce this to an economic exchange of services.  Congregations have a major role in caring for members in times of need, and in holding lives and stories through generations.  “Who will tell my story” is one of the central existential questions of life, and congregations are a place those stories are told.  I walk past UUCSR’s archives on the way to my office each day, and in there are stacks of minutes, letters, oral histories:  the accumulated stories of 75 years of living together in community.  The memorial garden marks the names of members that have died, and I promise, each minister that has served here holds memories and stories of the people they have met and cared for.  We hold a lot of stories in this place.

There is a danger, though, in this transactional model of membership. It is incomplete.  Rev. Conrad Wright wrote once that “Joining a congregation should be different than joining the National Geographic Society.”  If we limit our relationship with this place to a series of transactions, the exchange becomes the point of membership.  We never get deeper.  This can be a real challenge and fear in places where the transactions are valuable.  The elephant in the room (which to be fair, we talk about fairly often) is UUCSR’s great material wealth.  We should and do try to take care that it is not the dominant or only way of thinking about our relationship to this place.

Another model is Membership as a form of signaling.  By joining an organization, we are declaring something about who we are and what values we uphold.  This is much different than the transactional way of thinking about membership, in that it does not expect direct support from the organization.  Saying that you are a ‘card carrying member of the ACLU’ does not (generally) mean that you expect they will provide you a lawyer, but it does say something about what you value—and what you want other people to know about you.  WNYC is starting it’s spring membership campaign tomorrow –my commute will suffer.  Pledging to your local public radio station does not mean you get more or better public radio during long commutes, but you do get a tote bag to carry groceries in!

We all do this in different ways.  If you’ve come by the office during the week, or to a class I am teaching, you’ve probably seen me walking around with a Peace Corps coffee mug.  You may also have heard me subtly mention that I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  Once or twice.

On one had it’s my favorite coffee mug.  It’s not one of these giant mugs better used for soup that coffee, it’s simple, easy to clean.  My recruiter gave it to me when I was accepted into the program, so there’s some sentimental attachment.  And, if I’m really honest with myself, I have it on my desk because I want to signal my membership in that organization.  I like what it stands for in the world and I like what it says about me that I was a part of it.

Unitarian Universalism can be similar.  In membership, we are signaling our affiliation with this movement, a kind of shorthand in a way, for everything from the inherent worth and dignity of all to the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part.  Declaring “I am a Unitarian Universalist” signals to the world (or the part of the world that knows something about Unitarian Universalism) that we are people with particular values and that we take them seriously.

 And.  There’s a danger that this view of membership as signaling both asks too little of the relationship between member and organization, and can glass over shortcomings-  both our own and those of the organization.  This kind of membership doesn’t ask much beyond the fact of public membership, a good starting point but not the whole picture.  Also, if we are using membership to signal good things that we value, we tend to have a rosy picture of the organization we are members of—and of ourselves.  After all, we are members! 

There is also a particular challenge of my generation.  It’s relatively hard to get an ACLU card-  (okay, hard for millenials, you have to send in a check and wait for a few weeks).  It’s hard to join a congregation- it’s a commitment of time, talent, and treasure.  It’s definitely hard to get a Peace Corps mug.  It’s really easy to like UNICEF on Facebook.  One click and your sympathies are displayed for all your fiends to see.  The commitment to membership, I hope, goes deeper than that.

One last model is that of Membership as Sanctuary.  I don’t think this can be overstated in importance.  We we sing ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” we are proclaiming that whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever your age, whatever your skin color, whomever you love there is a place at this table. 

While we still are trying to understand the full implications of this- and we often fall short- it is not a stretch to say that Unitarian Universalist communities and members providing welcome and love has saved lives.

According to a 17-year longitudinal study published this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 28.5% of high school students who are sexual minorities attempt suicide.  Each.  Year.  28.5% of high school students who are sexual minorities attempt suicide each year.  So when in the face of national news to the contrary UUA President Peter Morales declares: “To our Transgender youth:  You are loved and welcome here,” it matters. 

This is fundamental to what it means to be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 2017.  We try to practice radical hospitality in our congregations, and we have been a refuge for many groups in many ways..  Most of us have benefited from that hospitality in some way.  I have.  How many traditions accept agnostic ministers?

If there is a danger here, it is that radical hospitality without attention can lead to complacency.  If we are accepted, welcomed, and loved for who we are, why should we change?

For a generation or two after World War II, the expectation (at least in suburban white society) was that you belong to a church.  If you were an agnostic or atheist one of the only places you would have been fully welcome was in Unitarianism.  All to the good!  Unitarianism became deeply humanist- after the merger the UUA carried on in the same way.  In the last generation or so, there’s been a move to reincorporate the language of reverence into worship.  This has led to some chilly renditions of hymns, where a third of the congregation sings ‘Anointed by God,’  another third use ‘Walking together,’ and a third look around in deep confusion or dismay at a metaphor of walking that excludes folks who do not walk.  It’s not a pretty picture, and unless we are willing to give up some of our comfort to grow into something new together, one that will be difficult to solve.

So:  transaction, signal, sanctuary.  Three possibilities for the meaning of membership.  But we started with membership as a covenant. And to me there are rich possibilities in covenant.   Like any covenantal relationship, membership requires that we change when we join, and that we are renewed by our participation in covenanted community. 

Membership is, at its best, transformational.  The people we are together, after we have joined, is different than the individuals we were before.  The transformation is not limited to the moment we join in covenant, but grows over the time we spend together.  This is what Rev. Walker calls ‘True Community,’ not individuals sharing space but a community were everyone gives and changes a little that we may gain a lot.

Exactly what this looks like is hard to put in words.  So I’ll borrow someone else’s.   Stacie and I have been watching The Crown on Netflix, and there is a remarkable scene between the Duke of Windsor- the abdicated King Edward VIII- and a friend, as they watch the Duke’s niece Elizabeth crowned Queen of England.

D:  And now we come to the anointing, the single most holy, most solemn, most sacred moment of the entire service.

F:  So how come we don’t get to see it?

D:  Because we are mortals.   …  The oils and oaths, orbs and scepters, symbol upon symbol, an unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines that no clergyman nor historian nor lawyer could ever untangle any of it.

F:  Sounds crazy.

D:  On the contrary it’s perfectly sane.  Who wants transparency when you can have magic?  Who wants prose when you can have poetry?  Pull away the veil and what are you left with?  An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination… but wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey presto!  Whadaya have?  A goddess.

What the Duke is describing is something not unlike a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace—a spiritual transformation hinted at through metaphor and symbol.

We are not the Church of England.  We do not practice coronation, nor are we sacramental in theology.  There is something like a sacramental element in membership though.  When we sign a membership book, when we make a commitment of time, talent, and treasure to a community we are showing outward and visible signs of- I hope- an internal transformation.

Of course this is not how membership is every week, every Tuesday afternoon at work.  Some seasons our relationship to the congregation is transaction, some afternoons it’s a symbol of what we value, some days we just really need a place where we know we will be welcome.

And some days, despite and because of all of that, we are transformed.