Does Membership Have Its Privileges?

In the mailbox today was the latest issue of The Christian Century, May 31, 2011. The cover focus article has to do with church membership and the rising numbers of individuals (and even families) that attend churches, or a church, but never officially become members of any church. Author Amy Frykholm cites sources that indicate this is especially true of adults in their 20s and 30s (the age demographic I just left).

This focus really excited me because it speaks to my current place in the church-going culture. I’ve been attending Sunday services at a congregation for just over a year now. And I fit somewhat with the article’s description in that I usually attend worship and then leave. Sometimes I’ll stay for coffee hour, but most times I don’t. I usually say hello to the senior pastor and give him an update on how my health is doing (I asked to be on the prayer list last summer while I was in radiation therapy). He also knows that I am a clergy person who is not currently serving in a call.

I have considered joining this church. At this time, I would have to say it is the closest thing I have to a church home. Why haven’t I joined? Well, a number of reasons really. A primary reason is that I am ordained but not in the denomination this congregation is affiliated with, but the church I’m attending does have an ecumenical relationship with my home denomination, so I don’t really see that as a barrier; except for the fact that my husband is also clergy and serving in an institutional role rather than a congregational role.

It does bother me a little that, as a clergy person, I know how this stuff is supposed to work. You visit a church. You visit again. You visit a number of times and decide you like the church. You keep coming back. At some point, sooner rather than later, you are supposed to make the relationship official; kind of like dating and then getting married, only in my case I’ve been dating a long time and have almost considered moving in. I don’t have another church home, so it’s kind of like I’m living out of my car.

I’m not really thinking that I don’t want to commit because I’m leaving my options open, it’s more that I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I come off of my medical sabbatical and go back to work. I’m also comfortable to be an ecumenical-in-residence. I have served before in a congregation that was not of my ordination, and I have a bit of an ecumenical bent anyway.

But then there’s this other side of my thought that has a lot to do with the ecumenical thing. I’ve been questioning the idea of church membership for years. It started even before I was ordained. I remember, in my second student position, there was a family in the church I was serving. The father was a pastor in another denomination, but when he was on vacation and when he was between positions (he served interims), he attended the church his kids attended. The kids, all folks mid-20s to about 40, attended the church regularly, faithfully and tithed. They served in many volunteer positions. But they would never join the church, even though it was clear they were committed to this particular congregation. They saw themselves as Christians, generally, not specifically; like catholic with a little ‘c’ (world-wide church) instead of Catholic with a big ‘C’ (Roman Catholic Church based at the Vatican).

I was intrigued by this family and the logic that went with it. And it actually fit well with the New Testament, Restoration Movement theology of the congregation. (But that’s another story for another time).

To put it in secular terms, I came to develop my own appreciation of this idea of being a Christian without having to put a denominational name on it; though in the beginning, and admittedly I’m still mulling this line of thought, I was focused more on denominational identity. I figured, as long as I was baptised (and now ordained) it was clear that I was a member of The Church. I had “deposited” my commitment in one of the branch offices and I figured I should be able to “bank” at any location without any rigamarole.

Later on I learned that in many denominations, ordained ministers are not members of local congregations, they are members of the judicatory or the denominational church. That makes sense to me. One of the aspects of membership is being a “shareholder” in the congregation/parish–that means members get to vote on leadership and policy. As a minister, I work for God, at the call of a particular group of people. While leadership is my role, the people of the parish/congregation are the permanent parts of the local body and should be given voice and vote. As a pastor/minister I don’t think I should be voting. I should have voice, but it’s the role/privilege/duty of the local body to make the final decision. If I’m doing my work to listen God and seek to carry out God’s will in that place and time, then one would hope that the people would be on board with what God was trying to do with them (though I have seen many times the congregation/parish acting more like the Hebrews in the desert, ignoring Moses’ God-given instruction and guidance).

So, membership may have its privileges (like American Express says), but the question is “Is congregational membership really necessary to be the Body of Christ?” Most Christian denominations will agree that baptism is the essential sign of commitment to Christ, but I think there is still a lot of disagreement about what is essential to the life and work of the local congregation.

What does commitment mean to you? How do you show your link to the Body of Christ? Why would/not you become a “member” of a local church?

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4 Responses to Does Membership Have Its Privileges?

  1. membership does seem a bit outdated, and i do agree that ultimately, i am a “member” of the one, holy (little c) catholic Church.

    i grew up presbyterian, and when we joined the episcopal church, i actually had to be confirmed (again). catholic and orthodox transfers are “received” but everyone else is confirmed. membership is serious!

    i feel committed to my church but not necessarily the denomination. if we move somewhere else, we won’t necessarily stay episcopal or presbyterian, but we will probably seek membership. i don’t think it’s theologically necessary or anything, but i like the idea of laying down roots. there is something about membership, to me, that implies that i’m not just a consumer but a stakeholder (ugh-hate the financial metaphor!) in the community.

    • Grace Walker says:

      Suzannah, when I was serving in the Episcopal Church and considering seeking ordination there (I was already ordained by my home communion) my first step in that process what to join the ECUSA. I think b/c I was already ordained that I had shown myself a serious Christian, so I was ‘received’ instead of being ‘confirmed’. I was appreciative that the bishop recognized, at least in that small way, that my ordination counted for something. We have since moved from that diocese and now I’m communing with UCC/PCUSA folk. It’s cray all the constructs we have come up with to identify and separate each other from “church”.

  2. it is a difficult balance between being a part of a faith community and explaining to your children what that means or alternately doesn’t mean. As practicing Catholics my husband and I stress inclusion and a committment to the place of women, married person in ministry, gay and lesbian members, etc. But it is a hard bargain some times…

    • Grace Walker says:

      Patti, I worry all the time for my kids. What ideas about the church are they growing up with? Will they even want to be part of any church as adults? My experience of recent years has certainly brought things to light I’d never considered and feel woefully inadequate to address.

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