We spent the next few months discerning what it would look like at UBC for people to have a chance to formally enter into membership with us in a way that was consistent with our historical values of authenticity and freedom, as well as with a renewed commitment to discipleship and spiritual formation that was a result of the Elite Conversation. On the one hand, we didn’t want a laissez-faire approach to membership that many of us grew up with. This usually consisted of prospective members walking down the aisle at the end of a service to join whenever they saw fit; prayer with the pastor and a presentation to the congregation; a formal vote, which was really just a formality, (the “yea’s” always had it, and the “nay’s”, of course there was none); then the new member’s name being placed on a spreadsheet in the office; with no expectations or accountability of the individual to the church, or vice versa.
On the other hand, each of us had seen churches that require a type and level of commitment from their members that completely obliterates the personality and uniqueness of the individual, in an effort to bring everyone “in line” with the mission of the congregation. These churches, while not technically cults, attract and produce followers with glazed looks on their faces, unable to process any information outside the template of the worldview prescribed to them by the leadership of the congregation. Being in Waco, TX, we had seen plenty of the damage done by that, and we were cautious to avoid those pitfalls.
So we studied churches that we thought did membership thoughtfuly and gleaned elements from each. From another local congregation, we were intrigued by the practice of having prospective members meet with current members before officially joining the church. This would ensure some amount of connection was being made before membership was established, so that no member of UBC could legitimately say “I’m a member, but I don’t know anyone.” Conversely, it ensures that at least someone in the church knows, and is invested in the new member. So we proposed a series of three meetings—one with someone that was in the same general demographic as the potential member, one outside their demographic, and one with a pastor or Leadership Team member.
From Vox Veniae in Austin, we adopted a couple of elements. There, all prospective members go through a yearlong period of discernment to discover if joining the church was right for them. We loved the idea of bringing a higher sense of intentionality to the decision of joining UBC, but thought that a year was too long for the highly transitory nature of a college town such as ours. (Of course Austin is also a college town, but one with a greater sense of permanence among its residents. ) So we created three “membership windows” throughout the year, which consisted of four-month periods of discernment.
During those three months, (this also came from Vox,) the prospective member would attend a retreat and work, in collaboration with others, on creating a Rhythm of Life for themselves. The idea of a “Rule of Life” is taken directly from Christian monasticism, which has a set Rule for each monastic order. The word “Rule” in our culture can be scary, so we decided that the term “Rhythm” worked just as well. We wanted all members of UBC to have an intentional program for spiritual development they committed to. But we wanted it to be individualized for the person, though created within community and using our mission statement as a guide.
Toward the end of our membership discernment process, we knew we would have to deal with the great dilemma that churches find themselves in when thinking about membership: Who gets in and who is left out?
As a staff we had been having this conversation for years, but it was all theoretical until membership began to be a real possibility. When you have no members, you have no requirements for those who are a part of your church. This was advantageous for one big reason: Without requirements for members, we could always remain on the fence of many hot-button issues, most notably the biggest of all hot buttons in American evangelicalism over the past two decades—LGBTQ Inclusion.
Everyone on the pastoral staff agreed on at least one tenet of this controversy: None of us would deny anyone wishing to follow Jesus the sacrament of baptism, regardless of their sexual identity. Here, we were essentially making a statement about the nature of God’s Kingdom. Namely, that it is open to everyone.
But without a system of membership, what we believed should happen after baptism was always open to interpretation and disagreement. And we all knew our church well enough to know that our congregation was split on the subject, roughly, in thirds. One third believed that same-gender sexual activity, regardless of the origin of LGBTQ orientation (nature vs. nurture, etc.,) is sinful and should be avoided and moved away from, either through celibacy or attempted change in orientation. Another third believed that same-sex attraction as an orientation is not just acceptable in God’s eyes, but that it has been blessed by God in the same way opposite-sex relationships have been. The last third were either somewhere in the middle, or trying as hard as they possibly could to be agnostic on the subject.
LGBTQ Inclusion was the biggest conversation with regards to who is allowed to be included in membership, but it wasn’t the only one. Would someone going through the process of a divorce be accepted into membership? What about a known child abuser? What about a Texas A&M Aggie? All important questions to figure out.
We toyed with the idea of leaving out of the membership policy any language concerning inclusion or exclusion. But there was a general feeling in the group that we needed to make some sort of statement. So we came up with the following as the requirement for membership at UBC:
Anyone making a conscious choice to move in the direction of God’s Kingdom, as revealed to us by Jesus, would be accepted into the community of UBC. Anyone not desiring to move in the direction of God’s Kingdom, as revealed to us by Jesus, or who makes it reasonably difficult for someone else in our community to do so, will not be a candidate for membership.
The latter statement was geared toward those who had no desire to follow Jesus, but who just really liked our community. It also accounted for outlier situations; such as if a known abuser wanted to join UBC, and the person they abused was also a member.
In addition to this, we also placed a requirement for Baptism in the membership procedure. This is a big one in Baptist life, obviously, complete with many nuances, variations and possibilities. We decided that we would accept a previous baptism, including those who had been baptized as infants, but if someone had not yet been baptized, they would be required to do so at UBC. Our baptism liturgy would be codified to include an acknowledgement of the Nicene Creed, which assured some level of orthodoxy of our members.
We never intended this from the outset, but in the end we knew what we had done– We created a system of membership that was, essentially, Open and Welcoming of anyone wishing to follow Jesus, including those in the LGBTQ community who believed their orientation was given and blessed by God. By not deliberately saying they would be left out, we were saying implicitly that they could “get in.” But we were ok with this. Most churches that have had a membership policy for a long time, even very conservative ones, don’t have intentionally exclusive language, so we felt this was appropriate for us as well. If we made a statement either way— either explicitly proclaiming that openly LGBTQ individuals are welcome to join, or not welcome to join—we knew we would be causing a large portion of our community, people we loved dearly, to leave UBC because of it.
We were proud of the work we had done, and everyone on the membership discernment team felt we were moving our church into a direction that had remained elusive in the past, one that took into account and respected our history as a church for the bruised, broken and beat up, yet also carried seriously the responsibility of discipleship and Spiritual Formation. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive, but they had been for us.
Before bringing the proposal to the Leadership Team for approval, we wanted to visit with several contingencies within the church to present what we were proposing. Each of us on the team represented several distinct groups of people, so we committed to share with those we were close to what we had developed, and to ask for their thoughts and feedback. In total, we all met with several dozen people, representing a large chunk of the church.
In addition to those in the church I was close to, I presented the proposal to the staff several days before the Leadership Team was to vote. Their support would be crucial in communicating and implementing the new policy. This was especially true of Josh, whose new status as the Lead Pastor gave him a sort of “bully pulpit” within the new Leadership Team structure.
Among the staff, there were a few minor concerns, such as who would be responsible for the logistics of guiding prospective members through the process, and whether we should have some sort of requirement of a statement of faith (which is when we placed the baptism clause in the document.) But aside from that, I came out of that meeting feeling very good about the response I received. At least a couple of people on staff said it was the best pastoral work they have ever seen me do. Josh gave it his blessing and even said that he would be communicating to the Leadership Team that he didn’t think UBC could do discipleship and formation in a meaningful and effective way if they didn’t approve our proposal.
I left that meeting ecstatic and confident. The previous few months had been some of the more intentional, meaningful and joyful times during all my years at UBC, both as a layperson and pastor. After years of struggling with grief over Kyle’s death, disagreement with the church’s Leadership over key issues, and going through the emotionally tumultuous time of changing our organizational structure, I felt I had finally contributed something to the life of our church that was not just consequential, but was also good. I believed what we had done would affect the lives of many people seeking out a community of faith that was both authentic and intentional about Spiritual Growth, that was rooted both in the past and hopeful about the future.