Membership, Part 3

Our plan was for the Membership Discernment Team to be present at the Leadership Team meeting where we would present our membership proposal. I would give the presentation and the rest of the team would be there to answer questions, and to symbolically represent that there were myriad different voices from the church involved in the process.

It was my first Leadership Team meeting to attend since the shift from a shared-leadership to a Senior Pastor model. I was taken aback and felt uneasy when I walked into the room where we were to meet. Instead of being set up in a circle, as was the case in the past, the room was configured like a congressional hearing– Tables for the members of Leadership Team (complete with name cards to mark their place) were placed directly in front of tables for those on the Membership Discernment Team, also with name cards. My first instinct was to chalk this up to Josh’s quirkiness, which was legendary by that point. I later discovered this set up was the recommendation of some on the Human Resources team, who gave guidance for Josh to cut down on “needless conversation” and facilitated everyone “getting to the point.” The result was that those of us on the Membership Discernment Team felt like strangers in our own church. Ironic, since this was one of the impetuses for wanting to adopt a membership proposal in the first place.

At the meeting, I gave a thorough presentation of the membership proposal we had created. I knew there would be some questions, but I assumed they would be primarily procedural. The Leadership Team had voted four months before to move forward with this process, so my understanding was that they were already on board. And during the meeting, I had little reason to believe otherwise.

There were some important questions and concerns. We fielded each with an understanding that there would be logistical issues we would need to hammer out as we moved forward. At the end of the meeting we were told the Leadership Team would consider the proposal and let us know about their vote.

The vote seemed to be that the church would not move forward with a membership policy.

In the weeks to come, I would learn there were differences of understanding among those on the Leadership Team concerning what their vote actually meant. Some believed the decision was for us to address all their concerns before bringing the proposal back for a final vote. Others thought it was an outright rejection of a membership policy and process altogether. I believe the fact that there were two different understandings of the vote was indicative of a broken system. It was a new system, but it was broken.

Their issues were fourfold. The first, and most easily remedied, was a concern about the logistical work needed to pull off such an involved membership process. Who would meet with all the prospective members? How would we keep up with a membership roll? How would we handle communication? These were all great questions, but since we weren’t the first church to propose a system of membership, (we were actually one of the last,) these answers would be easy to figure out. The proposal stated that the Community Pastor for Formation and Small Groups, (which was me,) would be responsible for the implementation of the membership process. I had time on my hands, especially after our move away from flat leadership took many responsibilities off my plate, so it wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with a plan.

Second, and a more substantial critique, was a belief by some that in the absence of a firm statement excluding LGBTQ individuals from membership, we were opening ourselves up to unneeded attention by denominational associations we were part of. This was important because several of our congregants were employed by Baylor University and Baylor’s Truett seminary, which receive funds from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a denominational body that restricts participation of congregations who practice an open and affirming stance toward LGBTQ individuals. Employees of Baylor, and especially Truett, are required to belong to a church that is connected to the BGCT, meaning their jobs, or their church affiliation, may be in jeopardy without a clear exclusionary statement. Better to not have a statement at all than to open ourselves up to those headaches, some reasoned.

But my response is that the  BGCT has operated under, basically, a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on LGBTQ inclusion. There are over 5,000 churches in the BGCT, and I can name at least a dozen who open their membership to LGBTQ individuals. They have no clear “Open and Affirming” policy, it’s just not a question they ask people seeking to join their church. The only times this becomes an issue is, strangely, when the church publishes a pictorial directory that includes pictures of all the families in the church, as well as when they select LGBTQ members to positions of leadership.

Not to mention that there is a church in Waco that is dually aligned with both the BGCT AND the Alliance of Baptists, a denomination that exists for the sole purpose of embracing Open and Affirming churches. This church consists not only of Baylor professors, but several prominent religion faculty, including the chair of the department of religion at the University. If the BGCT hadn’t already cut ties with this church for their explicit openness, there wasn’t going to be a problem with our implicit openness.

(An aside– Since writing this in the summer of 2015, I have learned a couple of things. 1. Baylor professors not teaching at Truett do not have a restriction on what Christian churches they may attend. 2. The church mentioned in the previous paragraph, though practically Open and Affirming toward LGBTQ members for many years, is only now working through a potential official statement, which was set in motion, in part, after the 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. However, it’s involvement in the Alliance of Baptists was enough of an explicit statement to set it apart as an Open and Affirming church, in my opinion.)

(A second aside– As I have reflected on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion in the church, I have found it interesting that if a church wanted to institute a membership policy 20, even 10 years ago, there would not be a need to make a statement one way or the other, regardless of where the church stood on the conversation. Because it has been such a prominent subject over the past few years, younger churches are operating under more complicated understandings about inclusion than older churches. More is required of a newer church than of a more established one.)

The last concern of the Leadership Team about our membership proposal was equal parts legitimate and baffling. Some were worried that the presence of a membership policy would make many people feel left out. What if people visited the church after a window of opportunity had passed to enter the membership process, or were hesitant to begin the process during one of those windows? How could we be assured that they didn’t feel isolated?

It’s vitally important that churches, especially those created in response to the restrictive traditions of modern evangelicalism, do everything they can to make visitors feel welcome. Radical hospitality is a much-neglected Christian practice. Concerns that some may feel left out of an “inner circle” should be heeded and addressed. But my response to this was that we WERE addressing this with the proposal for membership. We were ALREADY a church where people felt left out of the “inner circle.” The only difference between us and other churches with that reputation was that all other churches at least had an official “doorway” to walk through, that would at least give people wanting to belong the possibility of connection. A system of membership not only requires a lot from members, it requires that the congregation as a whole be held accountable to care for those who raise their hands and say “I am a part of us.”

In a way, our openness, the free-flowing manner in which we chose to do things, made certain types of people automatically feel welcome, but it excluded others who respond better to an official “This is how you become part of us” welcome.

Lastly, and this was the most disappointing and deflating response for me, we were told there was resistance within the UBC community toward this. Not only that, there were people on staff that didn’t want it to happen.

I felt sucker punched. Wasn’t the permission to explore this, the creation of a team from different contingencies within the church, and the wide net we cast in vetting the proposal, proof that there was support for it? Furthermore, no one on staff communicated to me opposition to the membership proposal. In fact, everyone was AT LEAST tentatively enthusiastic. Most were effusively enthusiastic. Apparently, though, someone had communicated something different to the Leadership Team after my presentation.

In an organizational structure without open, transparent voting on the part of all stakeholders (in this case, members,) what “the people want” will always be open to interpretation. And the unspoken laws of influence are that the interpretation of those in positions of decision-making authority will always take precedent over what “the people” actually want. The membership team had spoken to dozens of people in the church about this, but because the Leadership Team had spoken to a handful of others, they felt empowered to take charge of the narrative concerning “what the church wanted.”

Which was also a disappointment, because if it were up to me, we WOULD have had a system whereby every stakeholder in UBC could make his or her voice heard, and the consensus voice would be given strong consideration over what the Leadership recommended. But that wasn’t the system that had been created the year before. Everyone who pushed for a Lead Pastor model wanted a system where exciting things happened because a group, under the guidance of Josh, would lead with passion and authority, not getting bogged down with the complications caused by including a lot of people in the decision-making processes. I believed the Membership Discernment Team was bringing to the table exactly what the Human Resources Team had asked of the staff in previous years.

I believed wrong.

I asked for clarification about the decision. Was this a “We want to do this, but fix these few things and get back to us,” or was it a “No. Not in a house, not with a mouse, not here, not there, not anywhere?” The answer I got back from Leadership Team wasn’t clear. I asked Josh how he interpreted it, and we both understood their reply as a “Punt,” which for all intents and purposes is a “No.”

The most disappointing thing about this process was that Josh never gave the proposal his stamp of approval the way he suggested he would. He did what many Christian leaders do so well– He read the room and made a calculation that this wasn’t something he was willing to spend his social (and spiritual) capital on, regardless of what he had indicated before.

***

At this point, I should have seen the writing on the wall.

I felt defeated. The previous few months had been some of the most fulfilling of my time at UBC. After the Leadership Structure change, and my handing over of the liturgical duties to Tye, I needed something that could make my work feel consequential. And, frankly, I needed something to do. The system of membership we created would have given me good, necessary ministry to perform, beyond organizing small groups three times a year. It would have helped me live into my calling, and my ministry title as “Community Pastor for Spiritual Formation.” All my planning, budgeting and hopes for the coming year hinged on us creating a membership policy. Without it, I felt my hands were tied.

In the months to come, I would feel aimless.

***

This was the best, and really the only good thing that happened during those times:

We were nearing the end of the Baylor academic semester, which is when all our groups go on hiatus. I announced in late April in our Wednesday morning communion service that the first week in May would be our last one for the semester. Instead of understanding, I got groans. Many of those who had been attending for the previous two years had grown close. Most of them would be graduating soon, but because two of them, Tyler and Hannah, would be getting married at the end of May, they would all be staying in town for a few more weeks. They wanted us to continue communion. I obliged, with joy.

Rather than the normal, formal service, we ate breakfast. I created a liturgy around a feast of cereal, oatmeal, bacon and eggs. We sat around the table, laughing and looking into each other’s eyes. Remembering the previous years, reflecting on what we had become. Remembering Christ’s body and blood. Hearing the words, “Do this in remembrance of Me” a few more times, together.

Most of those around that table were freshmen in 2010 when I became community pastor. They were the first group of students who I had the honor of walking alongside as one of their pastors during their undergraduate years at UBC.

They were also the last.

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