When there was a Re-Imagining Community (based in Minneapolis/St. Paul), Circle of Grace was a member. The Re-Imagining Community was an ecumenical movement working to challenge the patriarchy in church and society. One amazing year about half of us were able to go to Minneapolis and attend the Re-Imagining Conference. Feeling like we had set out on a journey without a map (creating feminist, progressive, spiritual community) we eagerly looked forward to meeting people who might loan us a compass.
What we found was an amazing community of mostly women who were wrestling with our common issues in the setting of their traditional churches. The lectures we attended, the workshops and worship experiences were all forward looking. As amazed as we were to share the energy and the excitement of our time there and to meet others who shared our passion for ‘new wine’- we found that we were the ones actually doing/living the work. The ones living the theory. Independent of the mother church. (that includes: independent of mother church paycheck, healthcare, retirement benefits, physical structures, developed educational materials, polity, et. al.- the price we pay for apostasy.)
That means we reinvent a lot of wheels. One of those wheels is the idea of membership. People bring a lot of baggage to idea of membership.
I’m leading up to something here. Last Tuesday we had our monthly council meeting. At it we welcomed a new member. That may seem very ordinary, but coming up with a concept of membership has been a long evolutionary process for us. Early on, people had a lot of negative feelings about ‘membership’. The baggage they brought with them was that membership was coercive and restrictive. Membership, we were clear, did not mean a person signed on to a list of theological tenets. No indoctrination. What we ended up with as a statement of membership is that someone became a member ‘by declaration’- meaning: you’re a member if you say you are. When we applied for our 501(c)3 status our statement of ‘membership by declaration’ ignited a flurry of letters back and forth with the IRS.
It worked for a while, but there are problems inherent with that idea. The main one is that it is hard to value a relationship that asks nothing of you. It’s also difficult for a community to work when there is no stated accountability or mutuality. Our understanding of membership didn’t jive with our understanding of community.
Over the years our elected council has had numerous conversations about membership: how does one become a member? what does membership mean? Our most recent agreement is that to become a member a person is invited to meet with the council and share her or his spiritual journey, give time for the new member to ask questions of any council member, for one or more of us to share parts of our spiritual journeys (to reflect our commitment to mutuality). and then for us to read and commit to our covenant together, the council representing the entire community. (see our covenant on my first post)
This past Tuesday was our first actual experience of receiving a member this way. It was amazing! Our friend came with her daughter and shared her journey of spirit, her struggles, her joy, her anger, her passion. Then two members of council shared some of their journeys. We talked about making a place together for many different understandings and beliefs. What ties us together is not that we all believe the same things, but that we covenant to journey together.
Then came the time to read the covenant together and make those promises to one another. Any questions? Oh yes. We talked and wrestled and took seriously what we were covenanting together to do. And when our newest member felt she could, with integrity, covenant with us, we did. Together. Then we prayed and thanked Godde.
I experienced something profound in our sharing and covenanting. Something meatier and deeper can happen now. The ‘demands’ of our covenant on me, if I take them seriously, can and do give me structure for my journey, challenge me spiritually, and connect me more deeply with those whom I have made these promises.
We probably still have a lot to learn about what membership means. We will probably continue to have conversations about it, may even change our understanding of membership again one day. But as I sat around the table the other night, I found myself thinking that it is not such a bad thing to re-invent or, better yet, re-imagine the wheel every once and a while.