River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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A Sermon on the Responsibilities of Membership

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, March 12, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander


Perhaps few of you have actually noticed, but the Membership Committee, the Board of Trustees and I have actually been making it more substantially more difficult recently to join our church. "What?" you might say to yourselves, "Making it more difficult? I thought we wanted to be very welcoming of new members. I thought this is a free and liberal church with open arms for anyone who wants to come to it on any basis. I thought you were the minister who has a national reputation of urging Unitarian Universalist congregations to grow? Why in the world would we be making it more difficult for newcomers to join our church?" Well...we're making it more difficult to become a member of this congregation (by setting up a series of what I shall call "positive barriers" -- which I'll explain in a moment) because we believe that joining a church should be an important decision, a meaningful and momentous step in one's life -- entered into with thoughtful consideration and real personal commitment.

Not too long ago -- in this congregation as in most Unitarian Universalist congregations -- it was easier to find the membership book on Sunday than it was the bathrooms! Most UU congregations (believing that it was a warm, inclusive and welcoming thing to do) placed their membership book out in some highly visible place each Sunday with some cheerful volunteer ready to assist ANYONE who might wish to sign it). In our case, this meant the book was laid out at the Membership table in the front foyer, ready each Sunday for the signatures of any and all comers. But about a year and a half ago, we put the membership book away (unfortunately we haven't yet figured out a way to make our out-of-the-way downstairs bathrooms any easier to find, but we've remedied half the problem!). Now when people come to the membership table and express interest in joining the congregation, we try to slow people down a bit, encourage them to take some time and make an effort to familiarize themselves with the church and our Unitarian Universalist faith, and carefully weigh what it means to join a church before they actually afix their signature to the dotted line. Under this new "positive barrier" policy we strongly encourage newcomers then to attend the extensive "New UU" class (in which Lori Rottenberg and a wide variety of church leaders including myself spend the better part of a day explaining Unitarian Universalism and River Road Unitarian Church, and what it means to be a member)...and to drop in on a Saturday session of "Coffee and Conversation with Scott" (we had one yesterday!) which is another opportunity for them to ask questions and learn more about our faith and community (and by the way I encourage everyone -- newcomers and long time members alike -- to join me for these regular free ranging discussions). If some who visit the membership table are ready to proceed to membership (say, if they are longtime, active UU's from another congregation who have moved to Bethesda or are folks who have already been attending and participating for a very long time and truly understand who and what we are), we ask them to sign an "intent to join" form, which will lead to a phone call from someone on the Membership Committee (to further explain the details of what membership means). Eventually, people who are ready to join receive an invitation to one of our monthly Sunday "Member Signing Ceremonies" between services when we DO bring out our membership book and ceremoniously invite people to step forward and make this important commitment. I call these new membership procedures "positive barriers," because they are gentle and appropriate hurdles we put up in front of newcomers to help them thoughtfully consider what we want to be an important and meaningful decision - whether or not to cast their spiritual lot with our serious religious community.

For decades, most Unitarian Universalist congregations across this continent thought that the way to be truly open and welcoming to new members (and thereby honor our free church tradition) was to (in effect) say to them, "Hey, whoever you are, whatever your level of interest or commitment, sign the book, come on in, we welcome you on whatever basis you choose to join us...we're a liberal congregation with none of those hoops to jump through like in traditional churches." But now a lot of Unitarian Universalist congregations (especially the healthy and growing ones) are realizing that this casual, laissez-faire approach to welcoming new members has lead to a "revolving door syndrome," a pattern of low-commitment, low-participation members who neither give or receive much from the congregation before they eventually drift away. Under the old (easy and lackadaisical) approach, people joined our congregations all right, many people, but because it didn't necessarily mean anything substantive, many of them went right out the back door after a period of months or years. Rev. Edward Frost, my friend and colleague at our big Atlanta church, describes the purpose of the "positive barriers" to membership his congregation has recently put into effect (which are very much like the one's we have instituted here at RRUC), listen:

Put positively, [we're making it harder to become a member of UUCA] because[we] want it to become more meaningful for people to become members [of our congregation], [we] want becoming a member of UUCA - actually signing the membership book - to become part of a process in which careful thought is given to a serious commitment. [Before, when we laid our membership book out in the open each Sunday,] my impression was that people were signing [it] as if it were a guest register. The act meant little to many people. They had little understanding of what membership in a religious community might mean - what it should mean. Consequently, the membership list was unstable. New members often disappeared within a few weeks. Others were amazed, even offended, when asked to pledge financial support. [Now that we have new expectations and positive barriers in place, our] ranks will continue to grow because people have a fuller understanding of the meaning and responsibilities of membership [and] will stay with us longer...Our goal is not simply to add numbers of people, more importantly our goal is to increase the numbers of members who are involved, supportive and committed to our mission.

It may surprise some of you to learn that since we have instituted our "positive barriers" to membership here at RRUC (asking people to take the time and trouble to learn about our church and faith before they join, making responsibilities and privileges clearer, urging them to think about whether or not they are really ready to make this serious life commitment, including a financial one) we have had some of the most rapid growth this congregation has ever experienced. In the last 12 months, for example, 65 people have joined our congregation, with more folks poised to do so soon. [note: Between the two services this morning, 10 additional people joined, bringing the total to 75.] It's counter-intuitive, isn't it? You'd think the more you ask of people before they join the fewer would be interested in going through the trouble...but that is not (thank goodness) the way it works. When it comes to joining a church, people respond favorably to clearly articulated expectations and responsibilities. And this is as it should be, because this church is (in my mind and I pray in yours as well) a serious and valuable institution (with a vast and sacred mission in the world. Here at River Road, we are working (through Sunday worship, lifespan religious education, our social justice taskforces, and our service projects to those in direct need) to make ourselves and our wider world better, kinder, finer, nobler...and that means we (as members of this congregation one with another) should be serious about our commitment to, and responsibility for, this institution.

Every religious congregation in America, of course, (be it Jewish, Christian, Moslem or Unitarian Universalist) has its share of casual, low-commitment, low-participation members. That is the nature of the beast...and no one (in a Unitarian Universalist setting, certainly not here at River Road) is going to actually turn people away (or refuse them membership, or constantly scold them) if they choose not to take their membership with real depth, intensity or seriousness. Every congregation I know has a certain percentage of its members which are (essentially) "casual consumers" -- people who come when they feel like it to partake of what the church has to offer...volunteer every now and again, and throw a few dollars in the offertory plate (or make a small pledge) when they feel like it. But what we are increasingly aspiring to do here at River Road is to positively "Raise the Bar" everywhere around the institution...and encourage members (new and old alike) to dare and achieve more in their spiritual and religious lives...to get genuinely serious about their relationship with the congregation they belong to.

Yes, "Raising the Bar" is a sports image - track and field to be precise. "Raising the Bar," is what happens in the high jump event. As the competition begins, the bar is set so low everyone can easily jump over it, it doesn't require much of any skill, passion or effort. But as the bar is progressively raised -- and as lackluster participants fall by the wayside -- finally only those with a lot of skill, energy and commitment are still in the game. The way you win at the high jump is by really focussing and exerting yourself - with lots of practice, purpose and passion! I'm not sure the metaphor is precisely right, but I do know that healthy, growing, mission-effective congregations are congregations that positively "raise the bar" - dreaming and expecting much for both their members and their institution.

Every minister or other religious leader I know dreams of serving a congregation full of seriously committed members who: 1) take their faith with a passionate, daily seriousness; 2) participate actively in the weekly life of the congregation; and 3) give (first and foremost of course, of themselves -- whether by teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, serving on the finance committee or on a social justice task force - as well, of course, as giving financially, by a generous pledge which sustains the religious institution so that it can do its worthy work in the world). As I have repeatedly affirmed to you since arriving a year-and-a-half ago to be your minister, this is already a great congregation. River Road Unitarian Church is blessed with an unusually high percentage of active and committed members - a far higher percentage of serious, engaged and generous members than I think probably exists in no more than a handful of other UU congregations. But this doesn't mean that I don't want us - together - to substantially "raise the bar" for ourselves even higher.

To that end, I want this morning to briefly articulate for you what I believe the CORE RESPONSIBILITIES OF MEMBERSHIP should be here at River Road (if we are to achieve all that we can become as a religious congregation). I owe a debt of gratitude to my colleague The Rev. Barbara Wells (who with her husband Jaco) serves our Paint Branch congregation over in Adelphi, Maryland. Her list of essential responsibilities for membership in a UU congregation (which I included in my book "Salted With Fire") is, I believe, all we really need here at River Road to properly fulfill our mission in the world./P

THE FIRST RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP is as simple as it is obvious: ATTEND CHURCH REGULARLY. Attend church regularly...Duh...imagine that...a church that expects you to attend church! Now what precisely do we mean by this? When it comes to being a good, engaged, responsible church member, maybe Woody Allen had it right when he said, "80 percent of success is showing up." Now it is not, of course, enough just to warm a chair here on Sunday (so you could get one of those little "perfect church attendance pins" Protestant churches used to give out). For regular attendance to mean anything it has to mean that you come to church as frequently as you can...ready and willing to lend yourself fully to the work and spirit of the congregation. You have to come in the door ready and willing to lend yourself to the GROUP DYNAMIC of people coming together here to grapple with life's largest concerns, struggling with humanity's vexing ethical issues, patiently passing values on to our children, gathering canned goods for the hungry, singing and meditating and greeting strangers and friends alike who venture in. The first way you express your commitment to and caring for this church (and the faith which animates and informs it) by REGULARLY SHOWING UP...it really is that simple.

THE SECOND RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP (which is inextricably is tied to the first) is: WORK ON YOUR OWN SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT. Now this is sort of obvious, isn't it? Being the member of a faith group means that you have a responsibility to actively and regularly work on your own spiritual development - to grow in moral and human stature...as you shape your life evermore in accordance with your religious values and principles. Now spiritual development is going to look different for each one of us, but some possible paths to a deeper, fuller spiritual life would be things like: coming here regularly on Sunday (as I have already said) to join with others to reflect on and celebrate your life through worship, singing, meditation and prayer...attending (during the week) personal enrichment classes, workshops, educational opportunities and seminars -- where with others you expand your mind and open your heart -- (incidentally, did you all see our wonderful new Adult Enrichment book?...chock full of WONDERFUL new classes and other personal enrichment opportunities...sign up for some of it today!)...educating yourself (at informative venues like CC&C and Chalice Tuesdays) about the world's problems and how you might help...participating in support or self-improvement groups...learning and then engaging in new spiritual practices...working to improve your relationships with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers...finding new ways to directly serve others in need - within all these things we regularly offer here at RRUC the life of the spirit comes into bloom. Incidentally, one of the primary duties of our new Associate Minister will be to help us create a wide range of new and exciting small group, spiritual development opportunities - to enable this church to be all that it spiritually can be. To be a Unitarian Universalist means that you perpetually understand yourself to be a creative "work in progress," someone who can never just sit back in smug self-satisfaction, but rather someone always thinking, growing, and moving in the deepening ways of the spirit. Membership in this congregation means that you should be constantly re-examining, tinkering with and fine-tuning your own life, moving yourself as a Unitarian Universalist to deeper, finer, more compassionate places...how could we expect anything less here in this religious community?

THE THIRD RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP is perhaps a bit less esoteric than the first two, SERVE ON A TASK GROUP. What this means, of course, is that we expect members around here to directly help with the many concrete tasks that need completed if our complex church is to continue to function and make a difference in the world. All religious congregations are fiercely dependent upon active, committed VOLUNTEERS to accomplish their work, and that is true here. Our staff could be 4 times its size and we still wouldn't be able to take care of everything that needs to be done around here! If you are a real member of RRUC, you have a responsibility to be more than just a "Sunday consumer" of the road show Clif, Ginger, the Choir and I manage to pull off each Sunday...you have a responsibility to cheerfully take your turn at the greeters table or ushers stand...to offer yourself to teach a Sunday School class or chaperone at one of our big Friday night teen coffee houses (did you hear we had over 500 kids here last month?)...to volunteer time to serve on the finance or music committee or get involved with the Central American Taskforce. A central responsibility of membership is to roll up your sleeves and get involved in the often-unglamorous work that is involved in keeping a church up and running. No one, of course, is going to scold you or tell you to leave if you fail to contribute personal time and energy in this way...but it must be obvious that you will be spiritually the poorer if you just consume here and do not contribute. Besides, it is through serving on a task group that you will make friends here at church, lasting friends who will (every time they see you) make you feel what in fact you are: an essential part of a good and caring organization.

THE FOURTH RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP is also as obvious as it is essential, BE INVOLVED IN DIRECT SERVICE TO OTHERS. How, I ask you, would it be possible for someone to be a Unitarian Universalist (to swear allegiance to those compassionate, justice-seeking principles we reprint in the order of service each Sunday)-- and NOT seek (in their daily living) to somehow concretely serve human beings in need? It doesn't really matter if the members of this church avail themselves of one of the outreach service projects we provide through our church program (like taking a turn volunteering once a month with our group that prepared dinner at the Shepherd's Table soup kitchen which feeds hungry men, women and children here in Montgomery County...or becoming an after-school tutor down at our UU ministry at Beacon House...or serving on the Board of the UU Affordable Housing Corporation) or whether members find their own, individualistic avenues of human service through other local agencies and organizations (like volunteering to work with the homeless at Bethesda Cares, or a battered women's shelter, or teach English to recent immigrants at Catholic Charities). What is important is that every last member of this church understands his or her personal responsibility to actually EMBODY the compassionate service values of our faith tradition. It is not enough, in our religion, to simply have the right, compassionate ideas about the human family...you must also live and serve them. What could be more obvious?

THE FIFTH RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP is the one which no one (least of all ministers) particularly enjoys talking about...but it is terribly important (and you all knew it was coming on this Sunday in the middle of our All-Church Pledge Drive...PLEDGING AT A STEWARDSHIP LEVEL. This responsibility too is really pretty straightforward and obvious. If you are serious about being a member of this congregation (if you believe in what this institution is all about, value its principles and programs, participate in the rich life that is the fabric of this community, and want to contribute to that on-going mission) then each year you will find a way make a generous financial contribution to keep this place pumping! That's what this word "STEWARDSHIP" means. The dictionary I keep in my office offers this as the second definition of Stewardship, "The aspect of the religious life and church administration dealing with the individual's responsibility for SHARING SYSTEMATIFCALLY AND PROPORTIONALLY [their] time, talent and material possessions in the service of [the mission of the church]." Just like all Jewish, Christian, and Islamic congregations, we Unitarian Universalists believe individual members of our congregations have the responsibility to generously give of themselves (give their time, their talent, their heart and, yes, a portion of their yearly income) for the sustenance of the whole community. You know Unitarian Universalist will talk about almost anything -- sex, death, politics, their intimate personal problems - but for the better part of a couple of generations have tended in our congregations to take offense when church leaders have talked frankly about the financial needs of the community...calling upon the members to each do their "fair share" in sustaining the community. But what is a "Stewardship" level? Well, as you have already heard from John Kelly last week (and seen in the pledge brochure which was mailed to your home), here at River Road Unitarian Church, we hope members will be committed enough to invest 2% to 4% of their family income in the ongoing work of this community...that's what we mean here at RRUC as a stewardship level pledge...that is the level at which we ask committed members to financially contribute. While there are of course always a certain number of individuals in any church community who will be unable (due to real economic or personal hardship in their lives) to contribute at this substantial level (and we cherish the other contributions of time and energy such struggling folks almost universally make, bless their hearts) but most members of a church like ours are able (if it is a true priority in their lives) to make a stewardship level pledge.

Let me be personal for a moment Last year, Collins and I gave 3 and 1/2 percent of joint income to this, our church. This year, we are raising our pledge to 4% of our joint income, which means that we will be contributing $5,680. As I have said on previous occasions, both Collins and I (like John and Lynn Kelly) are working (as a part of our religious lives...as a developing spiritual practice if you will) to increase our charitable giving, increase the percentage of our personal financial resources we willfully give away to worthy causes and institutions. We believe this is a way of enriching ourselves as we care for causes and institutions we deeply believe in. I or no one else, of course, can or would tell you what a responsible level of pledging is for you, but we are unequivocally suggesting that 2% to 4% of your income is what we hope and expect from committed members. What we are unashamedly now doing here at River Road is suggesting levels of giving, by way of responsibly challenging you to think more boldly about your giving, more boldly about your commitment to this religion and the work it aspires to do in the world. Again, let me say it, as your minister I don't want to be scolded for things I do not say...no one (Not John Kelly, not your canvasser, not me) is going to tell you what to give. River Road Unitarian Church is a VOLUNTARY ASSOCIATION. You have to choose to be a part of it, and you have to decide how much it means to you. All stewardship giving comes FREELY FROM YOUR OWN HEART, not from the scolding or chastising of others. But John and I (and others on the canvass committee) will be honest with you. One of the core responsibilities that comes with membership in this community is generous financial giving. You all know how expensive it is to run a complex, lively organization like this one. So if you believe in what we do here...if you care about our programs and principles -- things like instilling compassionate values for life in our kids, caring for the world beyond these walls through our social justice taskforces...providing inspiring worship and music each Sunday to give us energy and direction for the week ahead - if you care about these and all the other aspects of our program and mission then we ask you to gladly give your "proportional share." Again...no one is going to bully you about this...the decision is totally and blessedly yours...but we are going to challenge you to rise to this responsibility, period.

NOW AT LAST, THE SIXTH AND FINAL RESPONSIBILITY OF MEMBERSHIP, CONNECT TO THE WIDER UU MOVEMENT. When you join this church, you also become a part of a larger, worldwide movement that seeks to heal, transform and serve all of human life. We want you connected up with that larger movement, so that you understand it, and will (in literal fact) be a part of something larger than the work and fun of this particular congregation. This may mean you will attend District meetings, or the UUA's General Assembly (held each year in June, this year in Nashville). It may mean you will take one of Rev. Gary Gallun's Chalice Tuesdays UU theology classes (it's listed in the new AE brochure, why not register today?), order some book on UU history and theology from our denominational bookstore in Boston, or get involved with the new area-wide UU social justice program that is now being set up. There are so many ways to connect with the wider UU movement, and serious members of River Road find a way to do just that.

Alright, so there you have it, MY short list of the fundamental responsibilities I believe members have here at River Road Unitarian Church. No doubt someone could (and someone probably will) take umbrage (of one sort or another) with something I have suggested this morning (how could it be any different in a free church like ours?) In this free thinking community almost everything is open to conversation, debate and interpretation, and this list I have built for you this morning is nowhere written in stone. But what is unmistakably true (and in my view terribly important) is that finally, finally, Unitarian Universalists all across the North American continent are talking seriously about what it means to be a responsible member of one of our congregations. We here at River Road would be woefully remiss as a religious community (would we not?) if we did not: 1) regularly articulate, and then 2) systematically create the opportunities for each member to (as the Army ad slogan puts it) "be all that you can be" in religious community? We are finally telling people that 1) by regularly attending church, 2) working on your spiritual life, 3) serving others in need, 4) serving on a task group here at church, 5) pledging generously at a stewardship level, and 6) staying connected to the wider UU movement -- you not only become a SERIOUS member of River Road, but also an enriched and blessed one. We are "raising the institutional bar" around here (for new and old members alike) because we believe it means something precious and valuable to be a member of this congregation. Again...no one will exclude or scold you if you decide NOT to rise to the challenge of being a truly committed and engaged member here. But I have to tell you the truth, fellow River Roaders...if you choose the path of casual membership, you will impoverish yourself, and miss much of what this precious place so eagerly wishes to provide you. Won't you journey the intense Unitarian Universalist journey with us? Won't you become a passionate, serious, engaged and growing part of all we are as a religious community? Why do less, dear friends...why do less?