Church sanctuary looking down the center aisle.

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Dis-Membership: religious leadership in a season of squishy commitment

October 4, 2023
In 2001, I became the campus minister for a large state university in Wisconsin. The ministry was on the rocks. A year before the board hired me, it had gone through deep discernment as to whether to continue in its ecumenical mission, caring for students spiritually and connecting them with local churches. The group had then hired a campus minister who’d left after just a few months, so hope was not abundant.

When I began in that campus ministry role, we had exactly zero students participating regularly in our program, and I was given to believe that the way I could demonstrate the ministry’s viability — which was utterly fused, in my mind, with my own relevance as a person — was going to be through growing participation numbers. I succeeded. We succeeded. Then some wires started to twist in my brain in ways from which I am still recovering. A combination of multiple factors made a turnaround possible, but that medication had a serious side-effect: I became neurotic about participation numbers.

I have a particular poignant memory that causes me to feel sorry for 2001 Sarah. We had learned through getting to know and working with students that they sought a sense of belonging. They wanted to be summoned to live up to high standards, but they needed commitments that were manageable for young adults who were, in most cases, working long hours in addition to attending college.

We created a program called “DEVO,” which was both an acronym for something (no recollection what), and the name of a niche 80s band whose songs were becoming cult classics. The DEVO-tion required of students was that they had to fully commit to the program, but for short periods of time. They’d sign a covenant that they’d attend 4–6 sessions on a particular topic, missing no meetings: no excuses. That way, students would really get to know each other. Externally, it worked and helped students to grow in faith in God and relationships with one another. Internally, for me, it was a nightmare. Why? I lived in fear of what I’d have to do if a student broke covenant.

The ministry center where I worked, and whose second floor was my parsonage, had a storm door with squeaky hinges. I would note that a particular DEVO-tee wasn’t there, and I’d listen for the squeak. The minute I heard it, I’d relax, but not a second earlier. I don’t remember a single time a student bailed with no communication from a DEVO in the three years I led that program, and yet I can still summon up the what-if dread of the conflict and confrontation such an offense would necessitate. How would I handle it, I wondered, when students realized that the only teeth in their covenant commitments were in their own mouths?

I thought of my DEVO anxiety earlier this week when a question came up in the UCC Polity course I teach. A student with significant ministry experience asked if we, in this course, would learn where the denomination stands on membership: what constitutes it, and what rights and obligations attend unto it? I said yes, we’d talk about membership, but then I referred to a point I’d made earlier in the class that the UCC — like other mainline Protestant traditions — had gotten in-bed with the institutional structures and strictures of Modernity. The concept of membership in something so personal and spiritual as belief in Jesus serves as an example of how uncomfortable that cohabitation has been.

Members pay dues, and dues help institutions predict their income so they can plan how they’ll carry out their missions. That’s good. Treating Christian ministry like a fee-for-service function? That’s bad. Members have easy access to a sense of belonging. That’s good. Those who rely on some being “in,” and others being “out,” to sense belonging are set up for misery. That’s bad.

I don’t know of a ministerial leader who is confident and comfortable amidst the highly voluntary nature of religious participation today. We want our constituents to have free will. We want to know that those who are out there in our pews, or meetings, or classes, or DEVOs, really want to be there. But we also have high highs and low lows that give us motion sickness. High highs: everybody showed up and loved what they experienced! Low lows: we offered a great experience, but hardly anybody took us up on it, and… (we sniff our armpits, wondering if the repellent is us).

The unsettled nature of voluntary participation is by no means limited to religious professionals. Most people who serve communities adjudicate their success or failure based on how many folks show up to receive what they have to offer. Religious professionals have a special role, however, and a special vulnerability in the face of squishy participation in faith communities.

The unsettled nature of voluntary participation is by no means limited to religious professionals. Religious professionals have a special role, however, and a special vulnerability in the face of squishy participation in faith communities.
Their special role is that ministers must encourage and empower those in their care to take initiative and claim agency, following Christ in the way they see fit. When a religious leader’s constituents feel called to follow Christ right out the door, those leaders need to remember that the matter of participation is not between people and their ministers; but between people, alongside ministers who are also people, and God. If the people are thriving, whether they do so inside or outside the community shouldn’t matter.

Faith leaders’ special vulnerability relates to their location at the intersection of calling and occupation. A calling requires them to take professional satisfaction in, and only in, how close their constituents feel they are growing toward God’s vision for them, whether that’s inside the institution, or out. An occupation comes with boards, and reputations, and membership dues that patch the leaky roof and replace the boiler every 25 years or so. In the occupation, membership matters; God help us.

Here are some trends to which I’m bearing witness, and which my minister colleagues are sharing they’re seeing as well:

-Our stakeholders and constituents report hunger for community and belonging. Those same people express reluctance to join anything that requires them to put their name on membership rolls, except in cases of one-directional transactional relationships, where their appetites for membership are insatiable (streaming services, gyms, cat toy of-the- month club).

-Constituents expect their leaders to sell them on why becoming a member is good and worthwhile, but if the ministerial leader is too obvious or eager, the minister’s behavior is considered to be in poor taste.

-Culture-wide awareness of burnout is tending to cause people who once sought renewal in communities to back away, which leads to their loneliness, which accelerates or compounds their burnout.

Joining can feel restrictive, and it can also cause us to feel loved and seen. Membership comes at a monetary and an opportunity cost, but it fosters belonging like nothing else can. Leaders who encourage folks at the margins of their communities to join risk appearing to have an ulterior motive to prove their own success. In other words, a season of squishy commitment to membership, amidst hunger for belonging, is making leadership of voluntary societies difficult in new ways today.

Jesus invited and welcomed. He reframed the rules of who was in, and who was out. He told stories about how those who wanted a full house at the wedding they were hosting should get out into the streets and invite the least and the lost. He healed ten lepers, and only one came back. He didn’t give leprosy back to the nine ingrates but rather celebrated that the one who said thank you, and joined Jesus’ ministry team, was bound to find his life enriched.

The moral of the story? If you have a minister in your life who must build and rebuild their own constituency, year-on-year, don’t ask them how many they serve, as you’ll make them sad; they’re never going to think it’s enough. Instead, ask them what transformation they are seeing in their people, their community, and the communities touched by their people.

Perhaps if we value the right things, ministers and other servant-leaders will burn out less often, as they will have a chance to talk about the difference they can make. Sometimes that difference starts off looking like a speck of dust that’s actually a mustard seed, and that’s as God intends it.

Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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