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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Building Community with Busy People

This week's question is one with which I resonate. Given the busy schedules of our church members, how on earth can the church build and nurture commitment and community? Here is our question:

A long-time lurker on RGBP (my blogging hasn't been consistent enough to join the webring) and so appreciative for this shared ministry!

I am 14 months into my first call, at little-church-in-suburbia.  We are starting to attract new worshipers, and it's about time for a new member class (a good problem, right?). The issue seems to be scheduling.  We schedule many things on Sundays, since life-in-suburbia is over-scheduled to the max.  It's the most viable way of getting decent participation.  Midweek events are easily forgotten and compete with kids' schedules (or bedtime for the littlest ones).

Coordinating the schedules of the new folks so we can get *them* in one place at one time has its own complexities.  Then, between adult bible study, confirmation class, and council meetings, I have very few options to schedule Sunday morning time with these prospective new members.

So, matriarchs, any suggestions on building Christian community - and building the body of Christ - when people have precious little time to commit?  How to set up new member classes to be meaningful and yet compact?

Grace and peace,

Ruth responds:
A previous church where I was minister had a wonderful influx of ‘new people’ at one stage – they took it upon themselves to meet up for lunch (or just a coffee if pushed for time) after the morning service once a month to discuss the sermon. It helped that one of them was more mature in the Christian journey (but you could always suggest an appropriate person to join the group). I tended to have this group in mind when I was preaching (which I think helped the whole congregation, to be honest); they would sometimes feed back themes they’d like tackled in future sermons. I joined  them when I could – but it seemed to be a place of enrichment & growth whether I was there or not (lesson for the minister, there!).

I think what made this group work well was:
A ‘light touch’ group (no extra reading required!)
Related to worship so no sense of ‘baby topics’, it was real stuff
It didn’t depend on any one person to be there – it had a genuine groups dynamic
It was about people following Christ, not church – but it fed people in their life as a church.

I wish I had a group like that going where I am now – maybe I should pray about that??

And Muthah+ offers:
Dear Growing Parish Pastor,
What a wonderful conundrum you have!  It IS difficult to schedule newcomers classes these days, but I have found that "If you schedule it, they will come."  See if you can connect with the majority of those who have expressed an interest and go for the most amenable time.  If other events conflict, see if you can adjust those schedules.  Except for board meetings and funerals, Newcomer events take precedence.  It is the least we can do when welcoming new folk to the faith.

I have always had some who just can't get to classes on a regular basis due to serious reasons.  I will often schedule a dinner meeting with them with a good time for discussing a book I have given them to read.  This one-on-one contact a good way to deal with those whose schedules are bizarre.  It also makes the connection with the pastor and answers their particular questions. 

I have always taught a course in adult education on "What you  always wanted to know about being a (Denomination) but have been coming too long to ask" to invite long-term members AND newcomers to share their experience and their questions about the faith.  It allows for good discussion from all members and a chance to share faith that they might not always have.

Wise and wonderful thoughts, Matriarchs! Thank you!! What about the rest of you folks? Do you have insight or experience that you might share? Please join the conversation in the comments section.

And thank you for responding to our call for questions! Without your questions, we don't have a column. Our queue has a good number of questions now, but there is always room for more. So drop us a line at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I'm another sincerely appreciative lurker since I can't seem to be consistent with my blogging.

    We encountered this very issue just last week, and the result is that we've started a facebook group called Faithbookers. This is helping not only the youngish
    (30-40 somthings) adults but also several older adults who are internet savvy and whose mobility is very limited.

    We are conducting the group like a small group. We have Covenant Guidelines. Its facebook classification is "closed" so that we have a sense of group integrity and privacy is protected. I post reflective questions for the members to discuss.

    Starting in Lent we will be reflecting on the lectionary readings which we'll be using in Sunday worship. And already...only a week into this...members of the group are inviting friends into the group.

    I'm feeling pretty excited about this...

  2. Ooh, Pastor Cherie, that is really cool!! What a great idea. I've played with online options from time-to-time, but nothing quite like what you are describing, which sounds fantastic. I hope you will check in sometime and let us know how it's going!

  3. I feel your pain on finding times to schedule anything.
    But I also acknowledge the correlation between how much effort is required to join the community and what kind of members they become. In other words, I've served churches where all you had to do to join was meet the pastor for 30 minutes and many of those new members joined and quickly faded (seeds falling on rocky soil, perhaps?).
    I once went through a new member class, on the other hand, that was 6 weeks long, 3 hours a week on Sunday nights. As much work as it was, by the time I joined, I really knew the other people in the class well and felt well plugged in to the congregation and became a very active member.
    So we do a 3 week class on Sunday nights that is 2 hours long and includes a meal. We assign veteran members to serve as sponsors for the new members and ask them to attend the class as well. By the end of the class, the new members know the other new members, the sponsors, and know how to get plugged in. If they need to miss a class, I meet with them at another time.
    Perhaps we have fewer people joining, but we have more active members once they join. (And, actually, I think we have plenty of people joining...)

    And I require the class from people who have only just heard about Jesus last week and also from people who were born in a sanctuary and have spent their entire long lives as church members.

    So, be confident when you ask them to commit to something. You aren't burdening them unduly, even though I think churches do feel guilty about requiring people's time. My sons' soccer coaches feel no guilt when they mandate their attendance at practice and games. How did we end up in a world where people will commit to sports teams and not to church?

  4. Why does the leader of a new members class have to be you? Look for a leader in the congregation (or a team) who could take this on. Provides an opportunity for new folks to form relationships in the congregation, sometimes helps to remove or lower that wall between old-timers and newcomers, and encourages the teachers to examine what they know/do/show about their faith.

    BTW - having spent my entire life as an active church member serving at local, regional, and national levels - it's not very likely I would join a congregation whose pastor required I commit to new member classes although I would probably be very happy to go voluntarily.

    Which leads me to a membership question I've started asking myself (which would eliminate the need for new member classes!) - are we moving toward a time when folks will not officially join a particular congregation but will nevertheless participate in worship, mission, study, etc? I'm seeing this in the congregation I currently belong to - about 400 members with over 500 adults in worship every Sunday, rising non-member attendance in adult SS classes, lots of community participation in mission projects...

  5. Anonymous, why would you not commit to new member classes? Just curious.

  6. Because they are "required" by the pastor. Because such a broad "requirement" does not recognize that someone new to the congregation may actually have a pretty good understanding of the theology, history, mission, and polity of the denomination. Requiring it for someone who's never been a member of the metho-epis-presby-disc church makes some sense - sort of. But, really, shouldn't the only "requirement" for membership be belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and a commitment to follow him?

    Don't get me wrong - I'm all in favor of new member classes and would probably commit to attending as a study/learning/integration-into-the-community opportunity. But the rebellious side of me would react negatively to this as a prerequisite for membership.

  7. Anon - we are moving toward the non-member, membership, as it were. However, there are things that only members should be allowed to do like teach a class, start a ministry, decide the direction of the church. Why? Because only they will have been vetted as to their understanding of a particular denomination. There are plenty of non-dom that people can go to if they want, but if they are worship with a main-line, they should understand it. That knowledge can be acquired in a variety of ways including required new members class

  8. Ruth and Cherie, great ideas. now to file them away for a few months until the current adult ed program is finished.

  9. My congregation is fortunate to have our denomination's national church officer for congregational development as a member. Not long ago, I was talking to him about this very problem, because we have a family service of very busy folks with young children, and it so hard to get any opportunity to help them get to know one another outside of snacks after church...and because of one thing and another, they often are somewhat sporadic in attendance.

    His suggestion was monthly to invite a handful of families, maybe four or five, to gather for an hour or so for a fun and simple activity: make Valentines for shut ins, or decorate cookies to take home, or fly kites in the park. Vary the families and make it quick and easy to participate. Could be just the thing to jump start some of those relationships and for me as their pastor to get to know them a little more...which is a first step toward getting them to engage the community.

  10. ooh, I like Cherie's idea and Betsey's too...

  11. I used to offer a more formal new member class, with me standing next to a whiteboard talking about the UCC and all that. After wondering for a while whether this was effective, I've moved to inviting those interested in membership to coffee or lunch, during which time we talk about their faith journey, what they'd like to be a part of as a member, etc. There's a danger of the "seeds on rocky soil" thing happening, but it seems to be working for us.

    Full disclosure: I'm in a "pastor-sized" setting. Whether this could really be done in a larger church is up for debate. But ministry is contextual, and it works in this context.

  12. I hear that, Anonymous. But what I wanted to communicate in my post is that the point of the new member class is only partially to introduce people to denominational polity or doctrine. It is primarily to integrate them in to the life of the church.
    Plenty of people choose to attend worship without becoming members, which is fine if that's what they want, but they tend to not have deep relationships or connections that way.


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