When Church Membership is a Joke

It’s hardly a revelation that people don’t take church membership as seriously as they used to. Certainly there are blessed exceptions, saints who give their time, talent, and treasure faithfully, but these examples are fewer and farther between. The effects of this have been particularly devastating for faith communities intent on pretending that nothing has changed.

The reasons for this depreciation of church membership are myriad. For some it is theological as most traditions are less inclined to knot salvation, if they speak of it at all, with membership. For others, it is an unfortunate byproduct of a mobile society where people develop shallower roots. And sadly, it is also further evidence of a consumer mentality that sees church as exchangeable commodity rather than sacred community.

Membership expectations vary greatly from tradition to tradition but it is fair to imagine that those who commit to a church and strive to be faithful members are sisters and brothers to be cherished.

That is why this news story from the United Methodist world disturbed me so much. As a big tent denomination, The United Methodist Church has long been embroiled in the culture wars and prolonged, painful debate over its positions on human sexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular. This is just the latest in a sad series of salvos.

Recently, Ginny Mikita, a lay member and certified candidate for ministry in the West Michigan Annual Conference, sought online ordination through the Universal Life Church to help a pastor, who had recently been removed from service for being gay, get married to his partner. A number of United Methodist clergy would have celebrated the service themselves except for the prohibition the church currently holds over its clergy.

Seeking such credentials to perform any marriage is suspect; certainly it would be very problematic in a tradition that held marriage as a sacrament. For the record The United Methodist Church does not. If I was a traditionalist, I would likely see Mikita’s actions as underhanded just as some progressives see it as a necessary act against injustice.

What came next was somewhat surprising. Three United Methodist clergy from North Carolina, Texas and New Jersey, with no known connection to the situation, wrote a letter to Mikita’s District Superintendent and Bishop asserting that she had “automatically forfeited her standing as a member in The United Methodist Church and as a certified candidate for ministry.” Subsequently, the District Superintendent in question, the Rev. Bill Haggard, informed Mikita that each had indeed been revoked.

Before we move forward, it’s important to separate some things from each other. That Mikita’s actions might throw her candidacy into some jeopardy should cause no one surprise even if they agree with her actions. Despite the diversity of positions within The United Methodist Church, this is a conference whose leadership has shown where it stands on the question of enforcing the denomination’s current set of rules regarding same-sex marriage.

What is truly shocking to me is that first, three self-appointed inquisitors, and then conference leadership, would so negligently equate the membership vows of The United Methodist Church with a highly suspect ordination in an online church which demands absolutely nothing of its ‘users’.

I use the term users intentionally because I could find nothing to help me to understand what membership would entail in the Univeral Life Church. I decided to look into this “church” to try to see if there was something I was missing. I went to their website and after examining it for some time I didn’t find much that impressed me that this was indeed a real church. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find the word member, or any common equivalent, anywhere.

John Wesley signed up as a minister with the Universal Life Church in 23 seconds.
John Wesley signed up as a minister with the Universal Life Church in 23 seconds. John has never used a computer and has been dead for centuries.

So I called the phone number at the bottom of the page.

After speaking briefly with a receptionist I was routed to “the office” to speak with a man who identified himself as Gilbert upon prompting (he refused to give his last name citing privacy). To be honest, I was surprised to speak with anyone and could have been better prepared for the conversation that followed.

I explained in brief the situation Ginny Mikita had encountered and sensing some hesitancy, as he quickly asserted that they took no positions on marriage, tried to impress that I had no issue with the Universal Life Church. Gilbert explained to me that the Universal Life Church sees no conflict with people belonging to other churches as they “act more as a service.”

Gilbert added further confirmation of my suspicions about the veracity of this “church” by adding:

“I try not to look at it as people belonging to us. We work well with the county clerks across the country to help people to do this thing [marriage] for their friends.”

Later in our conversation, I asked if they have any records of the ordination of anyone. He replied that they do but they don’t release them due to a privacy agreement. When I asked how a member might discover if they were ordained in the church, Gilbert added, “If you can’t remember if you are ordained with us, or remember the email address you used, it is easier to just sign up again.”

Throughout our short conversation, it felt more like I was talking to a hastily trained customer service representative than a member of, or believer in, anything. Gilbert was nice enough though and sounded sincere in sharing their interest in providing a service with no strings (except that $15 for a printed copy).

I’m quite used to the differing opinions in The United Methodist Church on human sexuality. For a while, I zealously participated in the debates but like many, seeing them go nowhere, I’ve found better places to exert my energy.

But then I get dragged back again, kinda.

I find it deeply troubling that these pastors, and the leadership of the West Michigan Conference involved in this matter, could confuse the dubious ordination service of the Universal Life Church for anything akin to membership. It speaks to bias, supervisory neglect in the process, or a strange or underdeveloped understanding of membership. I really hope there is more to their decision than what I’ve seen.

To be a user or recipient of the Universal Life Church’s offering, one only needed to offer their name and an unverified email address. You don’t have to subscribe to their newsletter and the printed copy of your clergy credentials are $15 if you actually think that you need them. Costco asks more of its members and, with the temptations of regular mailings and sales, it is far more likely to cause a conflict with my membership vows.

So, really, the Universal Life Church is a church just because it says it is? 30 seconds filling out a web form is truly equatable to membership in The United Methodist Church? Canada, and at least the IRS on some years, calls this reality into question.

"Matchbox - Mazda 2" by Leap Kye via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
“Matchbox – Mazda 2” by Leap Kye via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.

My kids have some Matchbox cars they play with occasionally. These toys roll like a car, and some even have little tiny doors that open and close in an approximation of a car. My children call them cars and we understand that they are, in a manner of speaking. But I would never confuse them for the same thing as a real car and I would never imagine that I could drive one to work.

Those who are arguing that the revocation of Mikita’s membership is simply a necessary consequence of filling out an online form are guilty of being presumptive of people’s intent and reductive of thoughful people’s ability to understand that two things can bear the same name while being radically different. That this action was taken without conversation to discern Mikita’s intent is belittling of the meaning of church membership.

So let us consider Ginny Mikita’s own words:

“Membership, as we stress in The United Methodist Church, is not simply about signing up and calling one’s self a member. It has meaning. My membership in The United Methodist Church represented my sacred and holy commitment, made by public profession of faith during worship, to remain loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church and to do all in my power to strengthen its ministries by my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. My commitment has not changed.”

You can read all about The United Methodist Church’s membership vows Mikita affirms here. A quick survey of their thoughful presentation, and of the requirements, should clarify for any open mind the completely different category within which the service of the Universal Life Church lies from the membership requirements of The United Methodist Church. And if you are an honest person, conservative or progressive, you’ll likely be reminded of how far you fall short in at least one way of these vows; thank God for grace.

The ways people relate to the church in today’s world are varied and I’d never want to suggest that membership is the only faithful way people connect to, or contribute greatly to, faith communities. At least some of this situation is related to the tension many people feel between their primary committment to the Gospel of Jesus and their relationship to a church that sometimes falls short.

Still, this isn’t the time to belittle those who are earnestly seeking to be faithful members. For membership to have meaning, it does needs to have some definition and how it is defined is a very serious conversation. But when “we play “gotcha” with the rules” as United Methodist pastor Eric Folkerth points out, we risk making church membership not only endangered but also a joke.

And if you are following any of the stories about shifting perceptions on the church in the United States, you already know that we can ill-afford becoming the punchline yet again.

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