By Eddie Pipkin

A pastoral friend recently made a trip to provide some pre-marital counseling to a couple whose wedding service he is officiating a few months from now.  I did not really know what was involved in the run-up to the big day and his role in helping them prepare for this sacred commitment, so I asked.  It involved some reading they were assigned and a series of sessions in which he helped them explore their understanding of relationship, communications skills, and how to negotiate priorities.  And, of course, some wedding logistics.

He talked about one question that was a focal point of one of the sessions: “Where do you see yourself as a couple five years from now?”  He described how the answers a couple gives to that one question provide so many (often unexpected) insights into core values, unspoken assumptions, and unexplored tensions.

That’s cool, I said.  This one-on-one conversation between spiritual guide and prospective newlyweds turns out to be really useful and provides some healthy structure for moving the relationship forward with purpose.  It’s a covenant relationship, so that kind of thoughtful foundation is critical to its success beyond the fireworks and googly eyes of the initial romance.  It lays the groundwork for a deep and lasting connection, the path forward to a shared vision of the future.

Wow, I continued.  When people join a local church, that’s a covenant relationship, too.  Imagine if as much care and counsel went into launching that connection.

Most churches have a pretty perfunctory process for getting hitched with members.  They step forward, get recognized, fill out a form—definitely a pledge card—and maybe trade some words with the congregation, pledging their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  It is common for there to be a class, maybe an extended session, maybe even a series of classes—though this is more rare—that explore a little denominational history, a little local church history, a little theology, and a little “meet the staff and lay leadership.”

It is, however, rare for there to be any one-on-one conversation in the sense that is pre-covenantal counseling like the betrothed experience.

I have never heard anyone ask prospective members to imagine how they see the relationship five years in the future. How will they see themselves growing?  How will they see themselves serving?  How will they see themselves transformed, and how will they see the church and community transformed because of their commitment?  What are their expectations?  What expectations is the local church allowed to have of them?

It is way outside the box for prospective members to be presumed to have an individual vision for what the relationship between congregation and member will look like.  The operational model for visualizing such relationships is almost exclusively built around how the prospective members can serve the institution.  As leaders, we are relentlessly focused on how individuals can bring their talents, gifts, and resources to bear on filling our available ministry slots and needs.

We preach about the sacred calling of individuals, but individuality, customization, or entrepreneurship are seldom encouraged or empowered (except for within the context of traditional, conventional ministry roles).

We know that every person has unique perspectives, unique gifts, unique challenges, and unique needs, but we are constantly shoehorning them into existing structures and forcing them to adapt in ways that downplay their individuality.  (Read that sentence again, and then think of it in terms of a marriage—how long would that relationship last?  With no dialogue, no flexibility, no adaptations over time, no process for negotiating conflict?)

Imagine instead a process that was truly covenantal: vows that enthusiastically flow both directions—I pledge this to the institution (which really means the fellow individuals who comprise the institution) and the institution pledges this to me (which really means those individuals with whom I am entering this unique and sacred partnership).

Imagine a conversation that begins as people are considering the membership commitment and continues faithfully over time.  Members could begin that journey with clear expectations, a clear path to discipleship and discernment, and strong connective tissue that helps them negotiate the peaks and valleys of life in the church community.

Some churches have identified this movement from formulaic membership recruitment to a deeper process as one of the keys to health and long-lasting commitment.  Phil Maynard (founder and head of Excellence in Ministry Coaching) writes extensively about this in his book, Shift (a new edition and updated edition of which is just around the corner).

Here are some of the strategies these churches are employing:

  • Mentors and Guides: New members need someone to help them navigate your ministry. A friend and shepherd can make an enormous difference in helping get connected and stay connected.  They help folks make connections with other church members, encourage them to try out different opportunities, and keep them from getting lost in the cracks.
  • Membership Covenants: A written statement clarifies exactly what is expected from both sides and acts as a tool for accountability as we grow together. They move us from a place of hazy intentions to a place of clarity.  (Here’s a link to a great example of a membership covenant that you can download from us here at emc3.)
  • Individualized Discipleship: Every disciple has shared responsibilities to grow and serve, but the ways that we find to fulfill those responsibilities are endlessly unique and creative.  The faith family we serve should help us discover the distinctive patterns of our growth and service.
  • Conversations, Not Convention: Staff and ministry leaders should be focused less on the logistics of programs and events and more on one-to-one conversations about how each individual fits in as part of the greater community.  (With this goal established, we should hold ourselves accountable to “unclique”—that is, we should develop an awareness of just how much of our time we spend with the same core group of people and strive to share our time more equitably).  The larger our church family, the more focused we will need to be in raising up leaders who are raising up leaders who are multiplying this effect.
  • Regular, Intentional Follow-up: We should be committed to the goal that membership is not a one-and-done occasion.  Anniversaries matter for church members as much as they do for married couples: at least once a year, someone in leadership should have a follow-up conversation with members to see how the relationship is going.

Strong relationships don’t happen by accident.  Not in marriages.  Not in local churches.  They are the product of clear, shared vision and solid communication.  We cannot assume that vision is shared.  We cannot assume that needs our being met.  We cannot assume that just because we haven’t heard complaints, everything is hunky-dory.  If there is one thing that kills ministry relationships, it is our willingness to make assumptions rather than have actual conversations.

What have your own experiences been with things that work (or don’t work) in helping new members find their way?  Does your ministry offer any one-to-one counseling for those who are considering becoming part of your family?  Do you have organized means for following up with such people over time?  Share your own stories below.