Becoming a Member: Writing Congregational Bylaws
To become a member, some congregations require only that individuals sign a membership book or register. Other congregations provide for official acceptance of new members by a formal vote of the governing board, the congregation, or both.
Some congregations require specific donations of time or money to retain membership, whereas other congregations do not have such requirements. Of the congregations that require a financial contribution, some specify a minimum contribution level, whereas others do not. In some congregations, making the required financial or service contribution does not affect whether an individual is a member but might affect the person's eligibility to vote. Some congregations require a membership process, such as attending a class or learning about commitments to anti-oppression work.
Some congregations provide a waiting period between the signing of the membership register and attaining the right to vote at congregational meetings. This policy can be helpful in difficult times, but it also can mean that people find themselves unexpectedly disenfranchised if the policy is not carefully publicized. Unitarian Universalists tend to be inclusive and try to provide sanctuary for all, and congregations often do not review who is joining them. Being so open sometimes causes us to ignore situations that threaten the safety or survival of the congregation.
A congregation's bylaws can prevent two adverse situations a congregation could encounter: (1) membership by persons who prove to be a risk to the physical or mental health and safety of others in the congregation or of the congregation as a whole and (2) groups that wish to take over a congregation. These subjects are particularly touchy, as our Unitarian Universalist congregations have long prided themselves on openness and inclusion of diverse populations.
To prevent membership by persons who prove to be a risk to the health and well-being of others in the congregation or of the congregation as a whole, the bylaws can state that the board will vote to approve new members at its monthly meetings. In practice, the board basically ratifies most memberships, but board vetting helps ensure a safer congregation. Not admitting such individuals in the first place saves the congregation from having to revoke their membership (see "Removal of Membership"). The congregation must carefully draft such a provision to ensure that a good process is in place for confirming a person's membership. A positive aspect of the board's voting to approve membership for each person is that board members are made aware of each new person joining the congregation and thus can send a letter of welcome to each new member.
Groups that wish to take over a congregation-that is, people who wish to compromise the integrity of the congregation and its purpose-are the second group to whom membership should be denied. Admittedly this situation is rare, but it is not unheard of. Takeover attempts may be by other religious groups, by secular groups interested in the land on which the church is situated, or by single-issue groups that wish to make the congregation a force for their particular causes. The goals of these groups go against congregational polity and violate the purpose of the congregation, yet they could be legally accomplished unless the necessary safeguards were written into the bylaws.
Unless there is a waiting period for voting rights, these takeovers can be accomplished on the day of a congregational meeting. People can sign the membership book in such numbers that they outnumber the members of the congregation and push through their particular agenda by forming a majority in the voting. If having a waiting period is problematic in your congregation, it would be wise to beware of the signing of the membership book in large numbers on the day of a congregational meeting.