Churches Don’t Have Dues, but They Do Have Don’ts

Member Stamp Shows Membership Registration And Subscribing“What are the benefits of membership?” she asked me.

I just kind of stared at her, trying to figure out if she was serious or not.

I hadn’t been in the parish very long, just a year, but I had never imagined that someone would ask that question with any seriousness.  My confusion was my own fault, of course. The bubble of church membership that I had grown up in insulated me from many who had never been part of church culture before.  And, like country clubs offer membership perks, I had before me someone seriously inquiring as to what she might get if she joined our parish.

“There are no perks,” I said, “except that you get to vote and can be on committees.  Which, isn’t really a perk at all because, well, have you been to a congregational meeting?”

I laughed.

She didn’t.

“Then, why would I join?” she asked matter-of-factly.

And that was a great question.  Why would she join?  Why would anyone join?

In all honesty, I’m “post-membership” myself when it comes to churches.  The people who are a part of your community are the people who participate in the community, whether they’re officially on the books or not.  But, deep in my heart, I know that joining something does do something to me.

It makes me feel responsible. Accountable.

“You join,” I said, ” to remind yourself that these people and you have covenanted to do life together.  People join to say something about themselves, to be accountable to others and themselves, and like any marriage, the joining keeps you together until you fall in love again.  So when we fight, you just can’t leave, and we can’t walk out on you, we have to figure it out as best we can…”

It was all I could think of.

She nodded, “Ok, but what are the dues?” she asked.

Again, an honest question that I never expected.

“There are no dues,” I said, “but we are expected to give of ourselves and our treasure, including our money, to fund ministry and give back to God what is God’s.”

In that first year, at our first congregational meeting in fact, I had one family who, though they considered themselves quite important, rarely participated in the life of the church, and they asked me before the meeting, “If we split up the budget equally amongst all the giving units in this church, how much do each of us owe?”

I stood there, blinking.  I had actually done that calculation the night before, but I wasn’t going to offer it to them.  They were a family of means, and could offer to give far more than the number on the ledger, and far more than they gave at the present time.  Meanwhile, they were sitting right next to a family of five kids where the father was out of a job and the mother alone held the roof over their heads through her 9 to 5, but they showed up every time the doors were open and quite honestly were punching above their weight in the giving department, but far below the number on the ledger.

“That’s not how it works,” I said.  “The question we ask isn’t ‘how much does it cost all of us,’ but rather, ‘how much of what I have been given am I deciding to keep?'”

Church budgets are not equal.  They are fair.  Or, at least, they should be.

Back to the woman in front of me: she sat there thinking about the idea of membership and dues and what it all would mean to sign on the dotted line.  I gave her some time…she never did officially join.

But she was a part of the community.  And she was active.  And she gave what she could.

Churches don’t have dues, but they do have some don’ts.

Don’t make your church easy to “join.”  Churches aren’t country clubs, they are costly.  They should cost the members something: of treasure, time, commitment, and everything it takes to do life together.  A Saturday seminar with a Sunday reception does not imply the costly nature of it all.

Don’t treat all your parishioners equally.  Everyone gets treated well, and treated fairly, but if you expect the same out of everyone you’re missing the very important differences between the people in the pews.

Don’t be surprised if the membership culture of church life gets confusing for many.  Some from previous generations think membership entitles them to certain opinions, even if they don’t really participate in the community.  Others, especially those who didn’t grow up in the church, will wonder why they might bother at all.  You should wrestle with this as a community.  Why does it matter to be a part of it all, anyway?

And finally, don’t imagine that any of what worked before will work again.  Change is happening at a pace that is difficult to keep up with these days.  Tweak and refine what membership means.  Tweak and refine what you’re asking of the people in your community.  Tweak and refine what it means to make and meet budget.

Churches don’t have dues, but there are some don’ts.

Pastors Who are Co-Dependent on the Collar

User commentsI was talking with a friend and colleague the other day.  The conversation got around to our profession and how, we’ve observed, some people really love it.

Not the work of the profession, mind you, but the idea of it.  They like being “a pastor,” not pastoring.

At the risk of sounding (more) judgmental, I’ll continue…

The problem with this, I think, is that it causes such a huge identity crisis in the individual, that the person becomes co-dependent on the title in a way that breeds psychological, emotional, and yes, physical illness.

Co-dependency is synonymous with death in all instances.

A definition here might be helpful, though.  Co-dependency is this reality where you can’t see yourself objectively, but only through the filter of whatever it is you are co-dependent on.

Parents can become co-dependent on their children.  When their children have good days, the parents are allowed to have good days.  The same is true for bad days.

People become co-dependent on their spouses, losing themselves in their role as partner/wife/husband.  I’ve seen many friends fall into this, and it seems to be especially true for those early on in relationships.  If you find you have no identity outside of your relationship with your partner, you’ve lost yourself altogether.  And, what comes next?  Resentment.  Rebellion.

We can become co-dependent on our religion, too.  I’ve known people to hang pictures of Jesus in their house like they’d hang a picture of a parent, sibling, or spouse.  Not as an art piece, but as a member of the family…and this, to me, is a sign of attachment to an icon or idol in an unhealthy way.

Plus, Jesus didn’t look like that…

Likewise, people can become co-dependent on their profession.  And while this is probably true for many professions, I’ve found pastors are especially susceptible to this reality, for a couple of reasons.

First, we talk about the profession in such a way that lends itself to abuse.  Pastors are “called.”

True, the church tries to inject that language into every profession or passion.  People are “called to act with justice,” as the hymn goes.  But the idea of “call” is usually reserved for the profession in a unique way, which of course means that, if a pastor leaves a congregation, or the ministry altogether, we have little language to imply anything other than they’re no longer “called.”

A pastor who loves being a pastor for the title, but may have little skill in the way of the pastoral arts themselves, might get wrapped up emotionally in this in a way that leads to un-health.  Want an example?  What about a pastor who stays in the pulpit because they really like the credentials, but aren’t proficient at the work? Or the pastor who pines after the administrative job not because it’s their gift, but because their gift seems to be to want that kind of job?

They do no one any good.

Or what about when a pastor can’t not be a pastor?  Like, all of their relationships are made through that role?  They have no friends outside the parish, virtually making it impossible for them to not only ever leave, but actually do the work effectively. Let’s be honest, a friend cannot tell us hard truths a lot of times.  The relationship is different.  And that works both ways: both with a pastor telling someone a hard truth, or someone telling a pastor a hard truth.

I’ve blogged about this before, but if your only outlet in the world is through the lens of the collar, you’re co-dependent with the profession in a way that is making it impossible for you to do your work.

In other words: you love the idea of being a pastor, not the work itself.  Because the work demands you give some distance.  But the idol of the job whispers that you can do it differently…

You can’t.

Or what about those days when you only measure yourself against the opinions of others in relation to your work in the parish?  You begin to believe you’re good or bad at your work only because others think you’re good or bad at it.  If you constantly measure your worth based on the opinions of the pews, you’re probably co-dependent on your role.

And before you think I’m casting stones in glass houses, let me inject some real honesty here: it’s easy to become co-dependent, especially for a pastor.

It’s easy to buy the lie that people give you that you have to be at every function for it to have any meaning.  It’s easy to buy the lie that you can’t be yourself in the grocery store because, well, what if a parishioner sees you with a political shirt they disagree with? That’s a problem…

It’s easy to buy into the lie that you suck just because that parishioner left the parish, sent you that note, or is gossiping endlessly about you.  Likewise, friend, it’s easy to believe you’re good at your work because people praise you and lavish you with accolades, even though you rarely prepare for your sermons, rarely touch base with parishioners, rarely read or study, and rarely do the actual, hard, behind-the-scenes work that gets no recognition.

It’s easy to buy into the self-serving deceit that you are your job and your job is you and that the letters in front of your name identify you more than anything else you do or have ever done.

It’s an easy trap. I’ve fallen into it. Every pastor has.

We all fall in love with the idea more than the art at one time or another.

But unless you’ve put in some safeguards like people who can be honest with you (who aren’t parishioners), and a healthy dose of “no” in your vocabulary, and some honesty about how normal (and usually mediocre) you actually are despite what your ego and your ordination want to tell you, co-dependency is hard to slough off.

Co-dependent pastors kill themselves, and the church, one forced smile at a time.

It’s OK to just be yourself sometimes.  Those letters in front of your name are not you, but just part of what you have at your disposal to do the actual work.