The Meaning of Membership April 5, 2009

posted Apr 14, 2009, 6:33 PM by Mike Allen   [ updated Apr 14, 2009, 6:35 PM ]
I miss George Carlin.  Remember his observation about Christians’ wearing crosses as necklaces?  He reminded us that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment for the Romans, and he asked, “What if Jesus were put to death in the electric chair, would they wear tiny, silver electric chairs around their necks?”  The cross may have been the electric chair of ancient times, but it has endured as a Christian symbol, I believe, not only because it symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from death, but because its very shape captures the essence of religion.  I know, if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times from me, that the literal meaning of the word “religion” is to bind back together, to reconnect.  The cross symbolizes both the vertical and the horizontal connections that stand at the heart of religion. The vertical connection – our yearning for a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves.  Some people use the word “God” to describe this ultimate reality, while some of us prefer words like “humanity,” “the world,” “the universe,” “life,” or “truth.”  And the horizontal connection – our yearning for community, for relationship, to belong to something and someone.  

I believe a healthy congregation not only provides this sense of community in itself but also connects people to the larger community.  It was Ben Franklin who said that “people wrapped up in themselves make small packages.”  I believe the same is true for congregations:  congregations that are inward-looking only and do not reach out to the surrounding community make small packages, as well.  This is why I am excited about the results of the Appreciative Inquiry we conducted a few weeks ago, the one concerning social action, in which we asked each other, “What social action project made you feel most alive, and how did it change your life?”  We also asked, “What area of social action would you like to see our Fellowship focus on for the year?”, and you said, “The area of poverty, hunger, and homelessness,” which is not too surprising, given our economy.  I’m looking forward to our congregation’s getting out in the community with some hands-on, direct involvement in helping others.  You know, we Unitarian Universalists talk a good game.  We act as though when we think and talk about something, we’ve done something.  We contemplate, pontificate, investigate, analyze, scrutinize study, explore, examine, dissect, and discuss social issues to death, but we don’t like to get our hands dirty in doing the work of social action.  That’s going to change as we as a Fellowship will be invited to work together on various social action projects throughout the year in the area of poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  I think outward-looking congregations are healthy congregations, and they nurture a healthy spirituality that expresses itself in self-sacrifice instead of self-absorption.  

Today, as we formally accept 14 new members into our fold, we notice in our Fellowship two trends that we notice throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association.  One is that the overwhelming majority of our members -- 9 in 10 – either come from other faith backgrounds or no faith background.  How many of you fall into one of these two categories?  Please stand.  More than most faith traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a “convert faith.”  Now that’s a word we don’t use often around here – convert.  Almost all of us here are converts – converted Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, or Mormons.  At some point we could no longer believe the beliefs those traditions taught us to believe, so we left them behind, both the beliefs and the faith communities.  But most of us weren’t converted into Unitarian Universalism immediately.  We spent a period of time, like the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, not belonging to any faith community or sure of what we believed.  We just knew that something was missing.  And then we discovered either this or some other UU congregation, and it felt like a homecoming.  It felt like we had found our people.  We discovered that we had been UUs all along and just didn’t know it.  That reality of being a convert faith is both exhilarating and challenging.  The challenge to us as a congregation, as an association of congregations, and as individuals is to be as clear about what we do believe as we are about what we no longer believe.  The spiritual challenge for us converts is to know what we stand for, not just what we oppose; to know who we are, not just who are not.   

The second trend that we notice in our Fellowship and throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association is that our membership is extremely fluid.  Most UU congregations gain about as many members as they lose each year.  In some, more are leaving out the back door than are coming in the front door.  We are one of the lucky ones.  During the past five years, we have received new members at the rates of 4%, 6%, 12%, 13%, and 20%, and from today’s service, it looks like that trend is continuing.  Whether you are an official member or not, how many of you started coming to our Fellowship within the last five years?  Please stand.  

Another way of saying that we are a fluid congregation is to say that we have a low retention rate.  All denominations, by the way, have this problem because we live in an extremely mobile, transient society.  But retention is a particular problem for us UU congregations because most Unitarian Universalists don’t identify themselves first as Unitarian Universalists but as members of a particular UU congregation.  If you are a Baptist or a Catholic, you are more likely to think of yourself primarily as a Baptist or Catholic.  You would belong to a large franchise, so that no matter where in the country you moved to, whatever Baptist or Catholic congregation you visited would be pretty much like the one you left because Baptist and Catholic congregations are more uniform than UU congregations.  We have a lot of diversity within and between our congregations.  Some are traditional in their worship style, while others are innovative.  Some are more formal with lots of ritual, while others are more casual, resembling a gathering at Star Bucks.  Some of our congregations are more distinctly Christian or Theist, while others are more Humanistic or Pagan.  So the UU congregation in the town you move to – if there is a UU congregation – may be very different from the one you left behind.  Our loyalty is more to the congregation than the denomination.  The challenge of low retention rates is to help newcomers make connections and find a sense of community before they get lost in the shuffle and drop out.  

I see church membership as a process, a continuing process of greater commitment to the community that doesn’t end with the joining ceremony.  In fact, this joining ceremony is just the beginning.  I see these stages of growing commitment as a church member as being very similar to the stages of growing commitment as a married couple.  In the beginning is the honeymoon stage, which, as I said recently, is basically a state of intoxication.  This is literally true because when we fall in love, we are intoxicated by a rush of endorphins that are released at the mere sight of our beloved, at the sound of his or her voice, at the touch of his or her skin.  He is her prince charming.  She will never feel lonely again.  She is his sex goddess and mother in one.  He will never feel inadequate again.  They will run toward each other in slow motion across a field of pansies, and they will embrace and live happily ever after.  

When many of us converts from other faith traditions find a UU congregation, it feels like falling in love.  Our new lover is nothing like the old one, who was dogmatic and narrow-minded.  Our new UU lover is open, inclusive, authentic, and hip.  With this new lover, we feel understood and accepted for the first time, and we are free to be ourselves.  This honeymoon stage of membership really is intoxicating.

But the honeymoon eventually ends.  It always ends.  After about six months to a year, the endorphins settle down, and we start seeing things less idealistically and more realistically.  He’s not prince charming; he’s Joe the plumber or Andy the accountant or Ichabod the IT geek.  She’s not a sex goddess, especially before she has her first cup of coffee in the morning.  They become disillusioned with each other, and I find that word “disillusion” most intriguing.  Dis-illusion -- to become separated from your illusions.  Some couples will interpret the end of the honeymoon as meaning that they have fallen out of love or maybe that they were never in love.  They will believe that they have made a terrible mistake, and they will break up or divorce.  

The honeymoon ends for new church members, too.  At first, this new community is a warm, fuzzy ideal, but then reality sets in.  The microwave blows a fuse, and the furnace breaks down.  There are bills to pay, a budget to balance, and tables to set up.  Committee meetings last forever and nothing gets done.  Some people are downright irritating with their pettiness, their egos, their tempers, and their blind spots.  The minister is too liberal or too traditional, too intellectual or too touchy-feely.  To our new members today, let me give you a heads-up:  we will disappoint and disillusion you.  You can count on it.  Every congregation of any denomination I have ever belonged to has disappointed and disillusioned me.  I got so fed up with church that I left and went to graduate school, where I was eventually disappointed and disillusioned.  And when I worked for a mental health center, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a university counseling center, and a hospital, guess what, I was disappointed and disillusioned at those places, too, because they are human institutions, and human beings are full of imperfections, contradictions, and shortcomings.  They will disappoint and disillusion you every time.  Some church members, when they are separated from their illusions, will interpret these realities of community as meaning that they have made a terrible mistake, and they will resign from a committee, withhold their pledge money, or drop out.  These are the signs of a church divorce.

Dis-illusionment  is actually a good thing for couples and for congregations.   For couples, disillusionment spells the end to expecting your partner to be perfect, and it means the beginning of trying to understand and accept each other as a unique human being.  He is who he is, and he’s not going to change not matter how much you nag.  She may be a little crazy, but that’s why you were attracted to her in the first place.  When the honeymoon ends, the work of commitment begins, and commitment is basically a decision – you decide to stick by your spouse and by your marriage whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not, or as our marriage vows state, “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.”  

For new church members, disillusionment spells the end to expecting your congregation to be perfect, and it means the beginning of realizing that you don’t passively find community -- you actively build community.  It means you realize that the more you invest yourself in the community, the more community you experience.  It means you realize that the church is a human institution, and like any human institution, it is made up of imperfect, flawed, wounded, and wounding human beings.  When the honeymoon ends, the work of commitment to the congregation begins, so that while some will step back and drop out when conflicts and trials come, others will remain steadfast through these tough times, whether they feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not.  They are in it for the long haul.  They are committed not so much to the institution as to the ideals and values that the institution seeks to promote and uphold.  They realize that without the institution, their ideals and values remain in the abstract and are never embodied in the flesh.

Commitment means living up to our congregational covenant, to which we rededicated ourselves earlier in our service.  This covenant does not represent warm, fuzzy ideals, but the hard work of being committed to one another and to our Fellowship.  It takes hard work to make a positive, welcoming environment.  It takes hard work to practice direct communication and to enter into conversations with compassion, deep listening, and respect.  It takes hard work to value and appreciate each person’s contributions.  It takes hard work to address conflicts openly and honestly and to resolve them as close to their source as possible.  It takes hard work practicing forgiving others and yourself.  The spiritual payoff is that when we do the hard work of living in covenantal community, we develop patience and tolerance and the capacity to forgive.  You can read about these qualities in books and think about how wonderful they are, but you cannot develop them until you practice them.  Living in community with commitment forces you to practice them.

I’m afraid, however, that institutional commitment doesn’t come easy for Unitarian Universalists.  Many of us UU converts have been wounded by the faith communities from which we came, so we don’t readily trust religious institutions.  Plus, liberals by definition don’t trust authority.  We prefer to trust our own perspectives and judgment over that of others.  So when religious liberals come together to try to form community, it’s like trying to herd cats.  We can be a finicky bunch.  We prefer to have our own individual litter boxes and to use them when want to, where we want, and how we want to, and you can’t make us do otherwise.

So finding community may be easy, but building community is laborious, and there are no short-cuts.  Yet you 14 brave souls have taken the leap of faith into disillusionment because you realize that an imperfect community made up of imperfect human beings is better than no community at all.  You realize that even imperfect community is something that each of us needs in this mobile, transient society of ours, where no one stays put long enough for roots to grow and connections to be made.  You sense that a congregation, even this congregation, is a grand experiment in which we bring our life experiences, our hopes and dreams, our foibles and frustrations, and pull them all together in a form that creates meaning, gives each person an identity, and allows us to expand our perspectives and occasionally experience transformation.  When the experiment works, we successfully construct a cross in which the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our lives come together.  When it doesn’t work, we stick with the experiment and try again in the hope that some day it will.