Renewable church membership?

As I mentioned a few days ago, I sent a resignation letter to the church with which I held a then-nominal membership. I joined honestly enough, but it became clear to me that they were dead in spirit and program (if not fact) and had no will to change.

I quit to turn my attention to the 2U church start, but I could have stayed on the books forever, if I had so chosen. Or at least until the next membership purge, but we know how often those happen, especially in dysfunctional churches.

So let me question the passive lifetime membership, so often a feature in churches.

  1. Does it make sense, if there’s no claim (as low-church people don’t claim) that church membership bestows a particular spiritual estate?
  2. Does make sense to put the burden on the church to expel a nominal member, even if that person has long gone?
  3. Does it make sense to continue membership indefinitely in churches (as seen in the low churches) where stated muual support is a basis for the church existing?

I know you’re wise enough to see leading questions, but I’d love to hear thoughts on either side of this question. I have to think this was a live question as churches moved from a pew rent to donation basis, though I’ve never come across a debate. Perhaps society was not so mobile (or church boards were steelier) that the solution was obvious.

But the idea of a renewable church membership — however logical — still seems peculiar. Thoughts? Examples?

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

6 thoughts on “Renewable church membership?

  1. For most UU congregations, this kind of thing would be implemented through the bylaws. Ever the pragmatist, I’ve been thinking about how one would word the bylaws to accomplish what you’re suggesting. One possible way is to state in the bylaws that in order to remain membership status, members must make a financial contribution of record each year. If you don’t remember to make a contribution (or get a waiver due to financial need, or a waiver due to health problems, etc.), you’re off the list. That’s what the bylaws state here in the Palo Alto church, and that change led to a measurable drop in membership when it was implemented. I believe this sort of thing accomplishes what you’re looking for, although it’s in the language of the bylaws and not in the theological language you’re using in this post.

    You write: “Or at least until the next membership purge, but we know how often those happen, especially in dysfunctional churches.”

    Problem is, dysfunctional churches can screw up anything. Even if the bylaws state that members have to re-up every year, the congregational leadership still has to update the list. I have no doubt that a dysfunctional congregation could “forget” to remove people from the membership even if they didn’t re-up.

    In any case, I firmly believe that you are absolutely correct in this post. Membership is not for a lifetime — it’s for as long as you show interest. (And yes, if someone has dementia or some health issue such that they can’t show interest, I do believe you should carry them on the membership rolls if that’s what they wanted while in good health.)

  2. One more thought from a theological perspective: Unitarianism and Universalism both demand logical and rational assent to religion. Sure, there’s an emotional component, but if an individual can’t give rational assent we feel that individual should not be able to join a congregation. This is a big part of the reason why most UU congregations require members to be at least 14 years old — that’s the age when rational thinking begins. Thus it seems to me that you could make a strong case for requiring ongoing rational assent to religion — which I think is part of what you’re asking in this post.

  3. ditto with Dan on Rational Assent.

    I’ve left two Churches during my life: a UU and a UCC, and I never took time to write a letter saying I was leaving. I just stopped going. I’d write an email now. I feel a little bad about putting the burden on the Church to figure out life’s changes pushed me another direction. But if the leaving members shirk their burden, it’s perfectly right for the Church to clean their rolls of members no longer showing interest.

  4. In my experience, most churches have two lists, one for
    “inactive” members. Not sure how they use those numbers, l but I always assumed that those were the folks who for whatever reason didn’t want to send a resignation.

  5. I think I’m going to take the opposite side on this.

    I am still a member of the church that I was baptized in. And I’m never going to give it up. It is the one place (outside of family) where I know I will always belong.

    I’m wondering if there’s a middle ground to be explored… the idea of associate membership. Associate members are those who want to have their primary membership at one congregation, but want to keep some connection to an-other or other congregations. This way, people who leave congregations for job/school/family reasons could still keep connections to congregation(s) that mean something to them.

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