December 2, 2021
Membership Covenants and the Pandemic
A lot has been thrown at church leaders since the onset of this pandemic. I don’t need to rehearse all the ways we’ve turned on a dime, improvised, and modernized. It’s been amazing to watch The Episcopal Church toss on its lifeless head that worthless, old adage: “We’ve never done it that way…”
All that said, however, there are a number of things we’ve truly lost during the pandemic. Or things we’ve nearly lost, and can very well lose entirely if we’re not intentional about actively working to cultivate and restore them, once again.
One of those things is our bonds of fellowship – “church membership” is the institutional term that comes to mind. Pre-pandemic, we were loosey-goosey about membership requirements, even though we all read the literature that growing churches are growing, in part, because they have clear and high membership standards. Some Episcopalians thought about trying to work on better, higher standards (I’m in that group) but we were just as soon reminded of those sweet, if not dated Anglican values – how important it is to the quality of my ministry that I am also locally planted and available, and thus we consented to that funeral or welcomed that baby at the font.
We always assumed that there were bonds of fellowship that connected us to one another, and the lot of us to this-or-that church, although we left them unspoken and often mysterious. Further, we Episcopalians believed (though we are often reticent to state) that these same bonds are what connected God to us, and us to God. In this Thanksgiving season, we’ll soon sing “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” and even though it’s patently obvious how silly it is to sing that on Zoom or Facebook live, it’s equally odd to sing it in half-full churches with so many persons, still, somewhat adrift, disconnected, fearful of the pandemic but not entirely sure what they’re afraid of any longer.
A few years ago, my two congregations wrote a membership Rule of Life. We had to draft a new set of by-laws anyway – one of the requirements in merging our two parishes into one parish – so we said, “Oh, why not try to draft some rules for membership while we’re at it!” In point of fact, I tried to use the monastic term, Rule of Life, at first but our people got weirded out by the term “rule” – so it got modified to “Membership Covenant.”
In Article II of our by-laws – entitled “The Members of the Parish” – we have four sections. Isn’t it interesting that so many by-laws, after the standard opening statements about conformity to diocesan and TEC Canons and state law – immediately jump into a discussion of Vestry or some other leadership body? Why don’t our by-laws also deal with parishioners and membership? Why should it be only an official document for leadership concerns? Why not, dare I say, a membership Rule of Life?
Our first section commends membership in the church, the Body of Christ. “In the name of Christ, Resurrection Parish and its constituent churches, Ascension in Lexington Park and St. George’s in Valley Lee, welcomes all persons. Resurrection Parish seeks to lead people into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. We commend deeper membership in the church, the body of Christ.” All are welcome, in short, but if you want to be a member more is expected.
The second section delineates “two levels of membership.” First, we define a “communicant of the Parish” as “…one who feels connected to Christ’s body, the church, through Resurrection Parish and its constituent churches, but does not regularly attend corporate worship and has not been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, nor has made a commitment to Resurrection Parish’s Membership Covenant, below. Communicants are welcome to participate in the life of the church, but do not receive full privileges of membership, which for the purposes of these By-Laws include access to stand for election in positions of leadership and free exercise of voting rights.” The second level is “a member of the parish”: “…one who has been drawn more deeply into Christ’s body, the church, through Resurrection Parish and its constituent churches, and who has been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, and who has made a commitment to Resurrection Parish’s Membership Covenant, below. Members in good standing shall receive full privileges of membership, which for the purposes of these By-Laws includes access to stand for election in positions of leadership and free exercise of voting rights.” Note the clear use of TEC canonical language.
The third section presents our Rule of Life, er, “Membership Covenant.” It’s a five-fold, rooted in scripture, the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal covenant, and the Canons of the General Convention. As a member of Resurrection Parish, we write:
1. I will engage in a daily conversation with God through prayer and scripture. Psalm 55:17-18 & Psalm 1:2.
2. I will keep the Sabbath by the weekly practice of corporate worship. Exodus 20:8 & Hebrews 10:25.
3. I will grow in Christ through ongoing spiritual formation. Matthew 5:14-16
4. I will serve the church and the world by sharing my unique God-given gifts. James 1:22, 3:13
5. I will give generously in support of the mission of the Church. 2 Corinthians 9:7-8.
In shorthand, our Membership Covenant can be summarized this way:
1. I will pray daily.
2. When I’m in town* I will be in my church to worship on Sunday (*and not otherwise sick, or other valid excuses etc. etc.).
3. I will grow spiritually.
4. I will take on some leadership in the church and/or, in the name of Christ, in the world.
5. I will give generously.
The final section spells out the way parish leadership determines membership: “Membership will be determined on the basis whether a person gives evidence that s/he has been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and has been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God and has committed to Resurrection Parish’s Membership Covenant for a time period of no less than six (6) months preceding the determination of membership status.” As a tangible benefit, these clear membership standards give a very helpful starting point for determining that list of voting members at the Annual Meeting. Working from the Membership Covenant, one eligible to vote at a meeting of the parish would have (1) given something financially to the church in the course of the past year (that’s an easy list to come up with); and (2) sat in a church pew and/or showed up on Zoom or Facebook as well at least three times, hopefully more (also easy to determine). If neither of those two things are true, the person in question is simply not an eligible voter in the church’s Annual Meeting or any Special Meeting of the congregation.
To be fair, the ink had hardly dried on our new by-laws before the world shut down in March 2020. Even if that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have been exceedingly dogmatic in implementing these membership standards – not as much as it might seem at first glance on paper.
But the deeper point in all of this is that we’re at a critical juncture now. More and more people are re-engaging life outside of their bubble; shopping and travel and entertainment. More and more people, at least from what I can see from my front-row seat, are re-engaging church – and they’re re-connecting with the life of the church after months, indeed years of being away, out there, in many cases like a wilderness. So what shall we do, now? What is the leadership gift and opportunity, now? Repeat old patterns of behavior: “all are welcome…” but we’re not going to tell you when you should be here? Keep hoping beyond hope that “they” will come back and feel guilty if you’re coming on too strong?
No, this would be a sad moment if we were to miss what people are really, truly wanting – a guide, a path, a series of steps and patterns by which to re-engage. It’s not only about restoring those bonds of fellowship among us, the people of the church. It’s about those deeper mysteries, that one core truth so many Episcopalians deeply believe and yet were never so good about stating out loud: this is nothing less than they way in which we connect to God, and God with us.