Members(hip) Matters

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was written before the events of last week on our Facebook Page. I will write more about all of that, maybe as soon as this week, but for now, this was the follow-up we had planned, presented as intended when it was written.

Last week, I wrote a post about the importance of choice in what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. No one is born a UU. Even those raised in our churches have to choose membership for themselves. Covenant cannot be handed over, and it is not something you do once and carry forever. Membership is a choice we make, and we make it time and again.

Friends, membership in Unitarian Universalism is down. Now, there are things that the UUA can do to help increase the number of visitors to the local congregation, but there is not a lot they can do about membership. The UUA is not in charge of the congregations; it is supposed to be exactly the opposite, in fact, that the UUA reports to and acts on the desires of the congregations as expressed at General Assembly. But not all congregations participate–they are not all being counted, and I believe that our faith suffers for that.

You see, our Principles, as they currently exist, affirm and promote the democratic process, but that process must be voluntary; people vote, or do not vote, as they see fit. And within Unitarian Universalism, only members can vote. Only member congregations vote at General Assembly and only members vote on congregational affairs. The direction of our time, skills, and money is dictated by those who choose to show up. And it was a problem for me, when I was a member of the General Assmbly Planning Committee, that we had congregations that chose to be members of the UUA but didn’t choose to participate in our governance.

The problem is much deeper, though…

Because we have thousands of people who call themselves UUs but don’t participate in our congregations. They may come to services, they may come to fellowship events, they may even pledge, but they don’t participate in governance. They support what we do, generally, but don’t want to do whatever those last steps are to membership. And that is a problem, because we need them. We need their ideas, their energy, and their commitment to a better world. Unitarian Universalism is better for involving them more fully.

And that problem falls on the Congregation, as the arbiter of what membership means. You all can vote to be more inclusive. You can find out what is keeping those folks from making that firm commitment, and you can change the rules if it seems reasonable. The UUA understands that more members improve congregations and even dropped the per-person dues plan in favor of one based on budget, so that if you have a lot of members who cannot give, the UUA does not punish you for letting them remain members! It is that important to them that you all be free to set requirements that make sense.

I m not saying that membership should not come with responsibilities, though. It takes time and resources to accomplish anything in our culture, and I want us to be a faith that has a mission. There should be some expectations of people who choose to be members, but our covenants are living commitments that need to be flexible and recognize that people who are given grace and community now might be able to give more later.

Membership needs to mean something to both the individual and the community, but you all can decide together what that looks like. We should be thinking about how to bring more people in without diluting the meaning of membership. And whatever the various ways of fulfilling the responsibilities of membership are, there should be options that people give and feel good about having contributed.

This is an issue where we can do better. And if Congregational membership is too much, we can even direct the UUA to think up and allow other kinds of membership; new kinds of community that count as “congregations” for the purpose of participation. Because democracy is always better when more people care enough to take part. We should be very concerned that there are people who care who don’t have a voice. We can’t bring them all into covenant and community, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from trying.

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