It will soon be congregational annual meeting season. Do you look forward to these meetings? Are they well attended in your congregation?
In my congregation, the number of people who participate in voting meetings is small compared to the number who participate regularly in worship. Participation in voting meetings is limited primarily to older people and multi-generation Canadians.
On those occasions, I long for the Anglican definition of membership.
I was baptized by immersion at 15. I moved around a lot, and so I have been an active part of 10 different congregations since my baptism.
I was not involved in the Ottawa congregation where I was baptized because it was the mother church for the church plant my family helped start. I didn’t know what membership meant because, as a teenager, I never participated in voting meetings in either congregation.
I went off to Bible college in Winnipeg. When I was 20, an outspoken member in my fiancé’s congregation loudly told me that because I was not a member, I could not voice an opinion on issues facing the church—even in the foyer.
I had been actively participating for two years, and I was embarrassed to be singled out as a non-member.
On moving to Toronto, and then Lesotho, we joined Anglican congregations.
We learned that there are minimal membership requirements to be a voting member of an Anglican church. People are eligible to vote if they have attended that congregation’s worship services at least three times in the past year. Quite simple!
I could not become an officer (“warden”) without going through confirmation, but I could still be involved immediately, as well as vote. I served on the church council and helped lead the young adult group.
After returning from Lesotho, I officially transferred my membership between various Mennonite Church congregations every time we moved.
Given that I was baptized as a youth this was simple; all it required was an affirmative letter from the pastor of the previous congregation to the new one.
Official membership meant I could vote and participate in leadership roles in each new congregation.
I value baptism from an Anabaptist perspective. Baptism is based on one’s own public declaration of a commitment to follow Jesus, as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s transformation, and is linked to a specific faith community.
The early Anabaptists rejected baptism as a marker of (the infant’s) membership in the civic community.
I struggle now with equating voting to official (legal) membership, without any link to active participation.
I struggle with our reliance on government-approved bylaw formats, although I appreciate good leadership and good decision-making processes.
I struggle with electing/appointing a long slate of people to official roles, when maybe we only need some coordinators who find volunteers as needed.
I think these tools are too often ways of enshrining what we think democracy should look like in our charitable structures. These tools and structures are not working very well anymore in many Canadian charities, who cannot find the volunteers to keep the whole infrastructure going.
Is this really how we want our churches to operate?
I believe that participation in any congregation is a journey, not a destination. I long for us to be more inclusive on membership, voting and participation, like the Anglicans.
My life would be very different if, at 20, I had been welcomed into the congregation I attended for two years. Instead, I was welcomed into Anglican congregations.
How might we think theologically more inclusively about congregational participation and membership as a journey?
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, and can be reached at email@example.com.