(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)
For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”. Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day. But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August. After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.
What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August. We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts. A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back. And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.
That, of course, is the natural progression. A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again. That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong. And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October. That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters. (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.) And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.
Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else. It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble. It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook. It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter. It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU. It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it. It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.
I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters. Here’s the first.
Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation. Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.
Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does. That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.
So here’s the obvious question: If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?
Here’s another perspective on why this matters. Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors. I know I’m not alone in this. One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers. It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were. Here are some of those reasons.
Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.
Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.
Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.
Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.
Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.
Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist. But reasons for joining a congregation as a member? Compelling, necessary reasons? I’m not so sure. Again we come back to the obvious question: If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?
Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits. That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole. After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for. So let’s think about that for a moment.
In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand? Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth. For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year. That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building. For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.
Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food? Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more. Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year. And what about the price of Sunday service? Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service. And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year. Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.
Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount. I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash. We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.
So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?
Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone. It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity. It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars. It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.
That’s no small order, of course. As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”. Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book. Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast! And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member. But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime. We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable. That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.” And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.
Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial. Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not. We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place. We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member. We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here. We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship. What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done. Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.
So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member. Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member. And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.
I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week. Talk about good timing! It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.
This is the liberal church:
a place to go where you know you belong;
where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;
where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,
where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;
where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;
where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;
where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;
where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.
A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.
A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.
A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.
A place to go where you know you belong.
This is the liberal church.
To these words I would add the following: This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago. This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits. And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world. This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.
So may it be.