Taking a Small Risk for Big Growth
How Smart Congregations Grow Members
This summer at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly, our Youth Media Volunteers interviewed a number of youth about their personal histories with Unitarian Universalism. As I reviewed their footage, something stuck out to me. Almost all of the youth said something along the lines of “I’ve been a member since I was two,” or “My whole family has been members since my parents got married in our church, before I was born!”
Our interviews at General Assembly reminded me that membership is more than just signing a book and making a pledge. Being a part of a community is about relationships, it isn’t about signing the membership book and serving on a committee. The youth interviewed expressed a more comprehensive understanding of membership, a membership model of belonging and personal ownership of the community. What does it say about our congregations and their relationships that those who grow up in them aren’t considered members until they sign “the book?”
Youth membership isn’t a new conversation; the UUA Commission on Appraisal examined membership in our congregations 15 years ago. So what are the obstacles to youth membership in congregations?
The three major obstacles that congregations bring up when talking about youth membership are minimum age limits, concerns about maturity, and worrying about dues related to membership numbers.
Many congregations have a minimum age limit for membership, some because they mistakenly believe the myth that you have to be 18 years old to vote on financial matters (check out Appendix B in the Commission on Appraisal’s report above) and others because that’s what their by-laws say. I recommend that youth are offered the opportunity to join the congregation upon completing Coming of Age or turning 15, whichever comes first. If they choose not to become a member at that time, they should be offered the opportunity at least once a year. If an adult can join the congregation after a “New UU” class, then youth should be able to after an equivalent program. Remember, our young people grow up attending religious education classes and by the age of 12 are better versed in our theology than many of the adults in our congregations (sometimes even their parents).
As for the concerns around maturity, our survey of youth who visited the UUA last year showed that youth were very in touch with the “behind-the-scenes” of their congregations. From ministerial transitions to money woes, our youth care about what’s going on in their community. Who wouldn’t want someone that cares deeply about their congregation to be a member? If you are concerned that the youth in your congregation aren’t mature enough to be members, ask them what membership means to them. As Carey McDonald points out in a post over on Growing Unitarian Universalism about treating membership in our congregations as a spectrum, church engagement and relationship is something that builds up over time. As the relationship between the church and the individual deepen and strengthen, the next steps will become clear and their commitment to the congregation will deepen.
Lastly, the dreaded money question. An increase in members usually results in an increase of dues, that’s true. Financial contributions are also difficult for many youth and emerging adults, and pledges keep the lights on and the furnace or AC blowing. And yet, how are you cultivating generosity in the children and youth of your congregation? Many congregations that hold a Children’s Chapel take an offering just like in “adult” church. Is the youth group supported by the budget of the congregation? It’s a fact that when we give, we want to see our money being put to good use. If the value isn’t visible to the youngest people in your congregation, then something’s wrong.
Amelia Manning, member of First Church of New Orleans and former co-chair of the UUA Nominating Committee, joined her congregation when she was 11 years old after discussing with her mother the reason she had to hang out with the other children in a classroom during a congregational meeting:
I was indignant and asked why I couldn’t attend. She told me that they were going to be voting on an important issue and because I was not a member I couldn’t vote. “What do you mean?” I said. “I’ve been coming to this church since before I can remember. I even help teach the Sunday school classes every week. Of course I’m a member!”
My mother explained, “Of course membership is about giving your time and love and energy to the well being of the church. Being a member is about giving in all the ways you can, and a part of that is to give financially as well.”
I reminded her that I was 11 and had no money to contribute even if I wanted. We discussed what I got out of going to church and being a part of the community. My mother said if I was serious about becoming a member, I would need to think about how I could reciprocate everything I got out of it back to my congregation. I thought long and hard about it before I decided I wanted to make the step and give as much as I got. I pledged 50 cents per week to start, which was half of my allowance and that was a huge deal for me (at the time).
Now, as a young adult, I struggle every year towards increasing my pledge by 1% each year, and my goal is to reach a full tithe at 10% one day once I get a more sustaining job. For now, though, I give what I can and appreciate my faith community to the fullest.
Amelia started by pledging a mere 50 cents a week. $20.50 a year only paid a fraction of the yearly electricity bill, but to Amelia it was a significant gift and one that made her feel good as a steward of her congregation. Fifteen years later, she chaired the annual stewardship drive and increased her own pledge significantly. Amelia is also committed to increasing her personal pledge and to give as much as she can. If we remember that our ministries last lifetimes, we can expect that we will reap a greater return for taking a $100/year loss for four years on a youth member, in both financial and leadership growth.
Our faith calls us to risk faithfully, and on a risk scale of “Grumpy McGrumpyPants feels a little bit more grumpy” to “the complete and total destruction of your church” encouraging youth membership in your congregation is a no-brainer.
Honestly, what is there to lose?
-Check out your congregation’s bylaws and research your state and local laws
-If bylaws prevent youth from joining, ask why! If the answer is anything other than “State law says…”, change them!
-Further reading: Commission on Appraisal Report: Belonging