stewarship-no-parking-zoneHow accommodating is your congregation for people who want to park at your church? And I’m not talking about how many spaces you have in your lot.

Recently a question was forwarded to me from someone who had been a member of a local church and had moved away, whose name was going to be removed from the church’s rolls, but who had not reconnected to a local UMC in the new location. The question was, could this person’s church membership simply be transferred to the “general United Methodist Church” until a church was found where the membership vows of “time, talent and service” could be fulfilled?

It was not an unreasonable question, but one that raised all kinds of other questions. Did the church that was removing the name do all that it could to try to reconnect that member in the new location? Had the individual truly been away with no contact or support of the church for two years, as required by the Book of Discipline (see ¶228) for removal by Charge Conference action? Were there United Methodist churches within reasonable distance that could offer ministry, discipleship support, and an opportunity to serve Christ and the community?

There is a provision in the Book of Discipline (¶223) for certain persons who may be located where there is no UMC, to have their membership held by the General Church –this mostly involves those in military service, endorsed chaplains, and so on. That did not apply in this case, nor was this a case of no UM churches being available – there were multiple UM churches located in the same zip code.

My conclusion was this was a case of “membership parking.” Where can I park my church membership until at some point I decide to get involved?

In deference to the person who asked this question, I admire the fact that there was implied the understanding that to transfer your membership to a new local church should involve becoming active at some level, being faithful to membership vows, and being generous with gifts of time, talents, gifts, service, and witness.

In truth, many of our churches have folks who have simply parked at the church. They are numbers in our statistical reports, but their impact on the vitality of church and our ability to transform our community and the world is just not realized.

Do you have this kind of parking problem at your church? Do you agree that we as United Methodists suffer from this – if not across the whole denomination, at least here in the U.S.? What’s the answer?

Let me suggest three things that I believe might help us deal with the parking issues and lead our churches to a place of stronger vitality.

  1. Let’s agree that membership and attendance numbers alone do not give a complete picture of the health of a congregation, and let’s not be immobilized by declining membership numbers. One of my favorite stories to share is about the Sweet Home UMC in the Oregon Idaho Conference. The church had 70 members and attendance around 30; but every week they served a meal to the homeless in their community, with around 75 gathered around the tables. Which number is the best indicator of the health of that church?
  2. Let’s shift our focus to what happens when our people leave church, when they enter the mission field, and find ways to measure our impact.  I have long contended that the most important visual symbol in our church buildings is the EXIT sign. Why, though, do we seem to make worship attendance a prerequisite for participating in the mission of the church? If we are to reach an emerging generation, we should get used to the idea that they may be inclined to find our mission work more engaging than our worship. Can we agree there should be more than one door to enter our church?
  3. Let’s open our doors wide to welcome anyone who wants to worship and be involved in the life of our church, but let’s also raise expectations for what it means to be professing member of a United Methodist congregation.  In so many places, we have set the bar so low on church membership that it shouldn’t surprise us when we wind up with members who are content to simply park at our church. How well do we teach what it means to be a disciple? Jesus’ disciples laid their very lives on the line, and they changed the face of the world. Our polity allows persons to not attend and not support the church for up to two years before their membership is challenged! What kind of world change can we ever produce when the expectations are set this low? I believe churches can create their own culture of higher expectation by starting with buy-in from leadership to set an example of what it means to be a committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the great membership rolls purge. These parking lots are full of people who at one point felt the tugging of God on their hearts to live a life in the footsteps of Christ. There is a great opportunity there for outreach. What I am suggesting, though, is a conscious decision to make our churches a “no parking zone” when it comes to membership. Let’s convince ourselves and the world that being a member of The United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ is something that matters, to God and to the world!