A friend of mine asked an interesting question several months ago.

We were talking about the Church and about many of the challenges that congregations in America are presently facing. We talked about the fact that it’s getting harder to find volunteers and people who are willing to commit to serving on the Church Council. We talked about the financial challenges that many congregations (including our own) are facing, and we talked about inactive members of congregations who continue to expect churches to meet their needs when a baby is born, when a child wants to be married, or when a parent (or other relative) dies. And then, our conversation shifted.

We talked about the very real difference between being a “member” of a congregation and being a “partner” in that congregation’s ministry.

Many Christians define their relationship with the Church through “membership.” The national office of my denomination asks me to send them an annual report each year; and, on the very first page of that report, I’m supposed to share how many “members” belong to my congregation. Many of the older members of the congregation that I serve refer to their weekly offerings as their “dues.” Many people, who have not maintained a relationship with any congregation, still refer to themselves as “members” of a church and speak of a specific congregation as their “home church.” Of course, we can’t escape the fact that “membership” in many organizations also brings member-benefits. National Geographic sends a magazine. Phipps Conservatory allows me to visit their flower shows as often as I desire. My membership at the YMCA allows me to use the gym and the pool, and an annual “membership” fee paid to Ancestry.com will give me open access to a vast storehouse of genealogical materials.

“Membership” in a local church can be seen in the same way. “Membership” gives people access to free counseling and the use of the worship space for weddings. “Membership” ensures that a pastor will come to the hospital when he/she is called, and that there will be someone available to baptize and to bury the dead members of your family. But the concept of church “membership” can also be problematic as we move through an Age where it’s becoming harder and harder to find volunteers who are willing to offer their time and talents, and as even “members” of congregations divide their charitable gifts between their “home church” and other worthy charities.

I, sometimes, wonder if “membership” in a congregation is a concept that’s problematic; and that if the concept of “membership” emerges from a misunderstanding of baptismal vocation (at least in Christian circles).

The Lutheran baptismal liturgy speaks of: living among God’s faithful people, gathering around God’s Word and Holy Communion, proclaiming the Good News of Christ in our words and deeds, serving others in the same way that Jesus did, and striving for justice and peace in all the earth.

That sounds more like “partnership” than “membership” – at least to me.

“Partners” in a church gather together and work as a team, while “members” don’t have to do that. “Partners” work together and dream together. “Partners” join hands to make sure that the work that needs to be done is completed, and that the bills are paid so that the ministry can continue. “Partners” see that serving others in the same way that Jesus did requires people to “take up their Cross” and invest their time and energy in ministry. “Partners” sometimes struggle to make sense of what it means to strive for justice and peace in the world; and, even when they disagree about what that means, they continue to work together as a Team because that’s what “partners” do. “Members” just search for another place where they can be “members.”

My friend asked an interesting question while we were eating lunch one day: “What if people just want to be members of a church, and have no interest in becoming a partner in ministry?

I guess that I can’t help but wonder what that means. I can completely understand that we all travel through seasons of life; and that, sometimes, the circumstances in our lives keep us from doing things that we’d like to do. I can completely understand people when they speak about the challenges of aging and disability, about physical limitations, about overwhelming commitments at work, and about the tremendous responsibilities that we face when we find ourselves being swept into the role of a caregiver. But, we also make decisions and choices based upon our personal preferences and priorities. I can’t help but wonder what it means to organizations of every kind (including the Church) when people see themselves as “members,” and have little or no interest in being “partners.”

Is organizational life sustainable in an atmosphere where large groups of people focus upon the value of “membership,” but have little interest in “partnership”? Can local fire departments continue to exist in an atmosphere where “members” of local communities want fires to be extinguished, but don’t want to hold the hose or pay other people to hold the hose for them? Can local congregations continue to find sustainable paths in ministry in an Age where fewer and fewer people understand their baptismal vocation is one that calls them into “partnership” and where large groups of people simply want to know that their pastor will answer the telephone when an emergency arises, and that an attractive building will be available when their child wants to be married? How can organizations engage people who consider themselves to be “members” and invite them into the kinds of “partnerships” that are needed for ministry and mission to be sustainable? Perhaps, we just need to wait for the “individual vs. community” pendulum to swing in the other direction (but that’s a topic for a different post) realizing that many organizations (and congregations) are going to simply disappear while we’re waiting for that to happen?

The essence of “partnership” is a necessary component of sustainability in any type of organization; and, speaking from a Christian perspective, the essence of “partnership” is inseparable from baptismal vocation.

My recent conversations have convinced me that the distinctions between “membership” and “partnership” are a very real part of the challenge that organizations are facing, and that how organizations (and churches) build bridges that span that distinction is critical to their sustainability, growth and future.