For most of us, joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation involved less with an an experience of conversion than of confirmation. “This is what I always was, but I didn’t realize there were others like me, who felt the same way,” many of us have said. Back in the 1950s, a Unitarian newspaper advertisement asked,
“Are You a Unitarian and Don’t Know It?”And the people who join today will frequently say they spent years being a UU and not knowing it – not knowing that how they felt, what they valued, was called Unitarian Universalism. They are glad to find there is a name for people like them. They begin identifying as UU.
Identification (identifying oneself as a UU) is the first stage. Hundreds of thousands of self-identified Unitarian Universalists stop at this stage. We know this because the membership rolls of all 1,000 UU congregations total less than 250,000 people, yet nationwide telephone polls consistently put the number of people who identify themselves as Unitarian Universalist as about three times that – around 700,000. So about two-thirds of self-identified UUs are not on the membership rolls of any congregation.
But membership isn’t simply identification; isn’t merely a matter of choosing a label that seems to fit.
After the phase of
“UU and don’t know it,”sometimes comes the phase of
“UU and don’t show it.”To choose membership is to choose a process of showing it.
To choose membership is to choose to be on a path of gradual progression from lesser to greater commitment, which neither begins nor ends at the point of formal joining. For both the member and the congregation, the meaning of membership changes over time. Both member and congregation are continually in process. While "community" is a happy-sounding word, “building an authentic human community is never easy and only fleetingly happy.”
To choose membership in a faith community of those on a path to grow and deepen through commitment to each other is to choose to discover and create belongingness. The original meaning of “blessed” is “to be situated, to be in place, to be located in a context of purpose and meaning” – in other words, to belong. Therefore, membership is the blessing of life.
And life and growth are not always about warm, fuzzy, happy times.
To choose membership, belonging within a community of fellow travelers on a faith path, is also to choose presence to the sadness, grief, and loss that comes with life.
Congregational life certainly encompasses weddings and child dedications. Congregational life is also the place of belongingness when it is time for funerals and memorial services.
Unlike at the Super Bowl, in congregational life you always get a good seat. Through the festivals and the games, and through the funereal commemorations of loss -- through all that life is, becoming all that we each are -- we need to belong.
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This is part 4 of 4 of "The Meaning of Membership"
Previous: Part 3: "Process of Enlarging Understanding"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Super Bowl and Simulacra of Community"