We’re In This Together


One might wonder whether the story of The Community Congregation has any relevance to the churches we lead.  What is the point of talking about 3-5% of income when 1% is so hard to come by from so many of our members?  And, why do we need to focus so directly on financial commitment levels?  Isn’t the church about something bigger than the amount of money people give?

Yes, and often No.  The church not only provides a haven for us in our wounded times and continuing support for us in our idiosyncratic ways, it demands that we grapple with the meaning of our lives.  It is the place in which we are called upon to continue to expand the depth of our relationships — with others, with the world, and with ourselves.  The pursuit of such growth is spiritual practice.

So, Yes!  The church is about money:  Most simply, and most profoundly.  It is a predominant feature of what church is about — not because our church needs to get through the next payroll or repair the roof, however.  A church’s struggle for money is the struggle of its parishioners to have lives of meaning.  We give money not to build a church but to transform lives, starting with our own.  Such transformation cannot take place while we pursuit an acquisitive lifestyle, ignoring the enormous responsibility we face to repair the world we live in for following generations.

Church leadership must foster generous giving as a vehicle for personal transformation.  Such gifts need to be part of one’s life not for the next five years, but for the duration.  Remodeling the religious education wing is not the reason for getting a congregation to increase giving levels.  Rather, it is the mechanism — it is what we talk about.  The reason is to bring lives of value into focus.

Having said this however I want to affirm that there are two schools of thought on how we should define membership standards to determine who should be able to vote and hold office.  Some feel that everyone should be welcomed into community without reservation, and all who are welcomed should be confirmed the full right to participate politically.  Others claim that a church community, like any other, has standards:  whether doctrinal, financial, participatory, behavioral, or a combination of all.  They argue that a healthy community considers its boundaries explicitly.

It is an important question for each congregation to address.  There is no correct response – either can be a legitimate philosophical stand.  It is a question of our spiritual practice, addressing how we wish to be in community.

What is not correct, in my opinion, is to answer the question with one spiritual stand while maintaining another political stand.  If you argue that all who attend are included in community with equal rights of participation, for example, don’t wail about how some people are not meeting your expectation of membership.  If your philosophical or spiritual position requires universal acceptance of all voices, it also requires you to forego criticism of how they engage the community.

Nor is it appropriate for the congregation to agree that standards are important, but set them so low as to be meaningless to the member.  The notion that a gift to the church of $100/year is sufficient for membership because it covers the costs of the newsletter, for example, fails to attend to any issue relevant to individual membership.  The amount is set primarily to terminate a discussion members find uncomfortable.  A meaningful binding of an individual in relationship to a church community has nothing to do with postage costs.  Requiring cost recovery of the newsletter and denominational dues is a political response to a spiritual or ethical question.  It is a compromise grounded in an interpretation of institutional needs (and a niggardly interpretation at that); the issue of the individual’s needs in establishing a relationship with the community in integrity is far more important — and is unaddressed.

Why should one who dutifully pays a $100/year minimum pledge (and is employed) be included in a vote on whether to launch a capital campaign, or hire a second minister?  That person is voting on how everyone but themselves should assume community financial burdens.

Why should the person who cannot control their anger and screams at others during most business meetings be allowed to continue attending and voting?  That person is disrespectful of the dignity of others, individual freedom of conscience, and the democratic process.

Why should the Snowbirds who are no longer present except when visiting children at Christmas (and still pledge) be allowed to participate in the vote to Call a new minister?  They are not present to witness the pastoral mess, nor to listen weekly to an uninspired service.  It’s not about the money.

I believe church life is foremost a calling to integrity.  In part, it is a calling to integrity in our relationship with those around us.  Everyone needs to engage the meaning of membership before having a voice in governance.  The purpose of a church goes beyond scheduling potluck dinners for a bunch of folks who enjoy chatting.  We are in church precisely because “church” is a place to forge particular relationships crucial to our identification and selfhood.  All relationships have expectations built in; the parties must hold up their end of the bargain.  Surely being in a church is not something we should embark upon while asking “what is the least I can do here?”  Does anyone seriously argue that we practice the best of Unitarian Universalism when we hold ourselves out as the Church of the Least Committed?  While all are welcome to drink from the community well, simply partaking of the water does not confer a seat on the Water Board.

We want to be part of something, not alone.  In joining a church we throw our lot into the pile, sharing the good and bad that may come from our association with others because we sense that doing so will improve our own lives overall.  In so doing we differentiate among our relationships.  We are not required to accept everyone into our network of friends.  We set boundaries as to what we expect, and what we require.  We determine that there are individuals with whom we will not associate.

A congregation is no different.  It too determines its membership boundaries.  A wise congregation will tend to those boundaries carefully.  The church belongs to those who are serious about their daily practice as members, whatever form that practice takes.  While the liberal congregation may encourage attendance and participation from virtually anyone who chooses to come, the governance and the direction of the community are the responsibility of those who invest their time, their person, and their money seriously.  The questions which face a congregation, such as:  “Should Reverend Jones be our pastor for the next several years?  Should we build a new building here or move across town?  Should we continue to allow a convicted child molester to attend our congregational gatherings?” ought not to be decided by anyone who happens through the door and puts $10 in the collection plate.  Yet some congregations, by the absence of any other standard, allow these issues to be debated with equal standing by all in attendance on the day of the congregational meeting – the committed, the dabblers, the uninformed, and the troubled.

In any reasonable notion of democracy there is a test of citizenship, a proving of one’s rightful place in the community.  Serious thinking about democratic process must delineate standards by which one might be found unworthy of participation.  In the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association this identity between membership and voting is recognized as follows:  “A member of a member congregation is any individual who, pursuant to its procedures, has full or partial voting rights at business meetings.”  At the denominational level there is an affirmation of the linkage between membership and the right to vote, while relying upon the local congregation to establish criteria.

Many in our congregations easily confuse these discussions about membership by blurring the distinction between the term “member” when used to refer to those we welcome into our midst as fellow seekers on Sunday morning and when used to refer to those we entrust with the corporate governance of the church.  Some argue that there is no distinction in these meanings; I argue they wish to avoid the hard questions of boundaries.

The issue facing the local congregation is not one of determining who is or is not a Unitarian Universalist; it is one of determining who is or is not a member of the congregation.  “UU” and “Member” are not synonymous terms.

It is the right of the individual to determine their own particular religious beliefs within their understanding of what that means.  Further, the individual must decide whether to join a particular congregation.  We all know people describing themselves as Unitarian Universalists (my own persuasion) who choose, for whatever reason, to not meet the requirements a congregation holds up for membership, however minimal those requirements might be.  There is no fault or shame in making such a choice.  Such people are still welcomed warmly into fellowship with the congregation — but not as voting members.

In the absurd extreme, surely, we could set up a table at the mall on Sunday afternoon and simply ask those who pass by whether we should call a new minister, or whether we should launch a capital campaign.  We can all quickly agree that “those people are not members!”  But, would any of those people who happened to attend one service and enthusiastically “signed the book” be welcomed as a member at the annual meeting that afternoon?  Where is the distinction made between a modest interest in the congregation and voting in the election of trustees, or being a trustee?  Surely the distinction amounts to far more than walking through the church door once or twice.

Too often the argument over membership is cast solely as a financial discussion.  Membership ought not to be entirely about money, though that is part of what every significant relationship struggles with.  Money is the form our discussion takes because, in part, it is an easy way to avoid any deeper discussion about the integrity with which we approach others.

There are three areas of commitment that every congregation must struggle with in defining membership boundaries.  I have not set forth clear lines of demarcation for these criteria because each community must discern the meaning of the general standards for itself.  To know that we are confronted with “grey areas” in making important decisions does not mean that the decision can be or should be avoided.  The decision will be difficult and controversial, but no less important.  In each of the three areas outlined below we can all agree, I’m sure, that some behaviors are clearly on the far side of any reasonable standard for community membership.  (In Appendix 5 you will find a sample bylaw based upon the following discussion.)

First, one must be present in the life of the congregation.  One cannot be a “member” of any community without putting in time, without being present within it.  In a church community one must attend services reasonably frequently, and/or one must participate in other social and service ministry activities of the congregation.  There is no other way to know the people in the community.  If one doesn’t know the other people, one is not part of the community.  Failure or inability to participate continually makes one a “friend” of the church, not a member.  Those who disappear from life in the community should not be allowed to reappear at the congregational meeting several years later asserting their right to a voice in a sensitive or fractious discussion, even if financial support can be demonstrated in the interim.  Such is only slightly less absurd than if one who has never attended and lives hundreds of miles away sends a check and asks to join the congregation.

Second, one cannot be a “member” of the church community without putting into everyday living the values affirmed in joining.  One does not have to accept the Principles and Purposes of the UU denomination as creed to understand that one’s life must be in harmony with them to be part of a UU community.  There are those in the world who we all agree do not abide by our Principles and Purposes, do not accept them, who we wish to distinguish from ourselves in our own living of life.  Those others are “not members”.  The community can and should expect that all “members” will behave in ways that show respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all, for example, or the democratic process.

We each have edges where the Principles and Purposes get tested, where we keenly understand the relevance of them.  Without affirming to live by them, an individual is not rightfully a “member” of a UU community.  An individual can spend a great deal of time in the UU congregation and give a great deal of money and still fall short of the right of membership through continuing behavior that is blatantly offensive to the Principles and Purposes.

Third, we must rearrange our financial lives somewhat to include the congregation.  Such rearrangement includes a fair measure of what flows to us.  “Rearrangement” means that we recognize that we are all fraught with the vexation of difficult choices: college education savings, business expenses, remodeling the home, vacation, saving for retirement, school clothes for the kids, or fixed income.  Becoming a member of a congregation means that the church too is high on the list of financial necessities.  Because it takes a place on the list, it creates additional tension in competing for resources.  But, being a “member” of a spiritual community requires that we look at our life as spiritual practice; a modest commitment of 5 – 10% of our resources must come ahead of beer and pizza and a trip to Cabo San Lucas.

The gifts we give to the church are not supposed to be comfortable, any more than putting money into a retirement plan is comfortable.  Our gifts become spiritual when there is an element of sacrifice present in our sharing with others, when we require ourselves to rearrange our finances somewhat to make room for our church commitment.

Our gifts are not supposed to make us suffer either, however.  Somewhere there is a balance.  It is the job of church leadership to help the congregants find this balance in their lives.  In any case, giving standards that we discuss within the congregation need to be based upon each individual’s particular income level, rather than upon the notion that the individual must meet an arbitrary dollar need of the church.

Service As Revenue

There has been a long-running debate in most denominations revolving around whether the service that individuals perform in the church ought to be “service in lieu of money”.  Some contend that when we establish a requirement for monetary support before extending the right of voting membership, we invariably and unfairly discriminate against those less well off financially.  To offset this “injustice,” it is sometimes suggested that we also extend voting membership to those who volunteer for the many tasks involved in church life, and waive any expectation of monetary contribution for them.

Clearly, both kinds of giving need to be held up and honored.  But, it’s apples and oranges — kumquats and avocados.  A good salad has both.  Any truly important societal relationship makes independent claims on time and money.  When I decided to get married and have kids, for example, I could not then claim that I would be a good father by devoting money to my children’s’ upbringing but not time — or because I spend evenings with them I do not need to provide costly health insurance.  My commitment to raising a family is understood to place both money and time demands on me, and my obligations are not reduced simply by asserting that I have done enough in one arena to compensate for the other.  My obligation to my church is not materially different in this respect.

Time comes and goes.  We get to use it once.  Sometimes we want to use it to enhance our lives.  Sometimes we want to use it to watch television.  Sometimes we would rather not go to the committee meeting at church because “Survivor” is on the same evening.  We get to choose.  How we choose is what we make of our lives.

It isn’t simple.  There are times when we would rather not be productive, or responsible.  We just want to put our feet up and watch TV.  But at the end of the month, most of us would rather be able to say we did something other than load up on soap operas and sit-coms.  Finding something else to do with time makes us feel smart, kind, important, visionary, or whatever.  It is what gives meaning to our lives.  Giving meaning to one’s life through the use of time is a given.  Everyone decides or defaults.

Financial support of the church is what we do because we are part of a community which shares financial burdens.  There is no default decision on financial support; we must choose.  These burdens exist in the choosing of the relationship.  Everyone in a community is expected to shoulder some of the burden, as they are able.  It’s about living with integrity.  The weight of economic reality descends upon us all.  And, every “price” inevitably excludes those who are unwilling or unable to pay it.  Membership in our communities gets its meaning from commitment to healthy relationships, including nurturing gifts of both time and money.

Yet, every congregation also needs to establish a process to reconsider the unintended injustices of its membership requirements.  In many congregations the minister or a small committee of the Board will hear appeals from individuals and decide whether the normal membership expectations should be waived for any of a number of reasons.  For most of our congregants, however, what is required is a reminder of why they joined the community, the importance of it in their lives, and their ability to make choices supportive of their membership.

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