Does membership connect us to the church?

Open vintage membership book in front of a brown church register book Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Pentecost Sunday in our congregation is known as Covenant Renewal Sunday.  Present on the central table is a blank piece of paper on which attendees, including children, who wish to covenant with Pilgrims Mennonite Church (Akron, Pa.) for the year ahead will add their names during the worship service.  The covenant now awaiting signatures was revised in the past year through small group and congregational conversations and efforts to state our convictions and beliefs succinctly, while still inspiring us to action.

Annual preparation for Covenant Renewal Sunday involves reflecting in small groups on questions that focus on how persons have observed God’s action in the congregation. People also share what God is calling us to now.  Persons are encouraged to discuss with their small group their response to the covenant statement, the guiding questions, and their intention to commit or not commit to the congregation for the upcoming year.  

Typically by the end of Covenant Renewal Sunday, a majority of adults and children have signed the paper, and some individuals who are out of the area have asked that their names be added.  In our congregation, one can fully participate in the life of the church without signing the covenant; however, one cannot block a consensus decision in a congregational discernment process.  

As congregations, we have practices that support our definition of membership.  Traditionally, identifying points of entry, clarifying expectations, and reviewing lists of names and involvement were elements of membership management.  Today many congregations also attempt to identify the central beliefs and values that define their unique faith community.    They operate as a centered set with more emphasis on the direction people are headed than on people’s exact conformity to a given norm.  

The tools used in managing membership vary by community and congregation.  Asking for a church letter is likely foreign to younger suburban persons, but it may still may be of value for a person entering a larger traditional congregation.  Hopefully, regardless of the tools, people will experience a sense of belonging as they engage our faith communities. 

I think of the Catholic couple who fell in love with the local Mennonite congregation where the woman helped with child care. She had a pleasant surprise when she discovered that she and her husband were welcome to attend worship.  The couple experienced the group’s welcome and eventually formalized their membership, even as they frequently verbalized expressions of their mother faith.  For this couple, belonging led to the formality of membership.  

The danger with membership is when formal membership implies belonging but there is no meaningful relationship.  An example is the congregant who has not been active in the congregation, but who responds to a letter of inquiry about interest in ongoing membership by attending one Sunday morning, contributing to the offering, and informing congregational leadership not to bother him. 

A sense of belonging is fluid, moving as life changes, and yet rooted in core values and beliefs.  I see society accepting membership in a shopping club and gym while being ambivalent about the need for membership in a church. Ideally we will have a high sense of belonging in the groups of which we are members, and the tasks of managing membership would occur organically.  When we have lost the sense of belonging, the task of managing membership can be experienced as controlling.

Perhaps having the practice of annual Covenant Renewal Sunday makes the problem all of ours, not just congregational leaders’.  Do I sense belonging to this faith group?  What do I commit to with this faith family for the coming year?    

Nelson Yoder

Nelson Yoder is pastor at Pilgrims Mennonite Church in Akron, Pa.

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