“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?”
“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.