Characteristics of an Incorporated Member and an Incorporating Congregation

Characteristics of an Incorporated Member and an Incorporating Congregation
W. James Cowell

The term incorporation is open to several interpretations. Bill Sullivan, Director of the Division of Church Growth, Church of the Nazarene, makes a distinction between the concepts of “incorporation” and “assimilation.” According to Sullivan,

Incorporation [is] the process of helping newcomers feel socially comfortable with the church its people, programs, and facilities. “Incorporation” is very critical to making disciples. Contrary to what many church leaders believe, “incorporation” actually takes place at the front end of the evangelism process. When newcomers feel socially comfortable with church members they will listen to the message of the church and its people.

Assimilation [is] the process of helping newcomers feel cognitively assured that they are accepted, trusted members of the fellowship. While social involvement comes early in evangelism, assimilation follows later. The final test of inclusion into the fellowship is trust. Many have dropped out, not because they weren’t socially incorporated, but because psychologically they felt rebuffed. Church leaders did not trust them to chair a committee, to be nominated for office, or to give an opinion on internal matters of the church. No amount of social involvement can overcome the rejection felt by one who believes he or she is not trusted.’

Other persons distinguish between incorporation and assimilation in a different way. They would suggest that incorporation involves all that is stated above by Bill Sullivan, while assimilation is a subtle approach to dismissing differences and minimizing distinct contributions various persons can make to a community of faith. Many racial/ethnic persons, for instance, do not want to be “assimilated” into a congregation if that means they must lose the cutting edge of culture and tradition that makes them distinctly who they are as persons. Every person wants to maintain his/her individuality.

For this reason, many church leaders use the word incorporation to include the whole process of involving a newcomer in the social life and activities of the church, while at the same time developing that individual’s faith commitments and spiritual life. No matter how one defines “incorporation,” the truth remains that all newcomers want to feel “loved, comfortable, and accepted” as they move into the fellowship of a local church.

What Does an Incorporated Member Look Like?

How does a church know when it has done an admirable job of incorporating a new person? The answer to this question has at least ten parts. A well-incorporated member can be described as a person who

1. Has developed close personal ties with several persons in the congregation
2. Has become familiar with the church facilities and programmatic offerings
3. Understands something of the history and beliefs of the particular denomination
4. Has gained some knowledge of the history and present goals of the local congregation
5. Has been given a chance to serve in some capacity
6. Feels he/she has the right to voice an opinion that will be considered along with others
7. Is a meaningful participant in the worship services of the congregation
8. Is involved in some face-to-face group, such as a Sunday school class or intercessory prayer group
9. Feels positive enough about the church to invite friends to attend with him/her
10. Affirms that the church is preparing him/her to live out the Christian faith in society.

The comprehensive nature of the incorporation process needs to be stressed. While incorporation naturally implies the involvement of a person within the gathered congregation, such involvement should also enhance a person’s ability to live out his/her life in service and witness in the larger community. .A congregation that is truly effective at incorporation will help people discover areas of service and involvement outside the church building and then prepare persons for those tasks. Unfortunately, some people feel (with some justification) that only “specialized churches” prepare people to discuss or become involved in critical social issues facing a community.

In recent years, many new congregations have adopted a slogan to describe what the church is all about “A place to believe, to belong, to become.” While it is difficult to determine where this slogan originated, First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, under the direction, of senior pastor, Dr. James Buskirk, has for some time stressed this slogan as the basis for congregational life. The goals for every member of First Church reflect the emphasis “believe, belong, become.” The goals of First Church include the following:

Have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, an assurance of salvation, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Be equipped to share your faith and experience with others.
Be intentional about your personal spiritual growth. Participate each week in a learning experience and a worship experience.

Be intentional about where you are known and nurtured. Become a member of a church school class and a small group fellowship.
Pray regularly for your church: its people, its pastors, and its support staff.

Be intentional about where you serve. Involve yourself on a regular basis in at least one ministry where you touch the lives of others.
Be a tither or a percentage giver making progress toward tithing.

Within these broad areas, First Church Tulsa includes a great many opportunities for worship and Christian education (believing); for fellowship, healing, counseling, Bible study, and small groups (belonging); and for service in the congregation, the neighborhood, the city, and world missions (becoming). In fact, each year this congregation publishes a booklet that lists all of its program and service options; at the bottom of each page the number of new persons needed to allow a particular ministry or program to take place is also indicated. Newcomers can readily spot a niche they feel comfortable filling!

It is hard to improve upon believing, belonging, and becoming as the challenge every Christian should undertake in living out his/her faith commitments. These three words also describe the character of a fully incorporated member.

What Does an Incorporating Congregation Look Like?

The task of the congregation in incorporating new members is to meet the social and spiritual needs of new persons. A person who joins a congregation of any size, should, within one year, be given

A meaningful reception of membership
Instruction in the meaning of membership
An understanding of the history, traditions, and goals of a particular congregation
A meaningful worship experience each Sunday
An opportunity to serve in some capacity within the congregation
A chance to become acquainted with the pastor and/or staff
Encouragement to develop a devotional life
Assistance in becoming acquainted well enough with several persons to call them friends
Encouragement to join some small face-to-face grouping
Access to the church’s leadership to make his/her ideas known
Suggestions and preparations for involvement in community service
Support and nurture in living out one’s faith
A chance to reflect and report on the incorporation process and procedures to the proper leadership for the congregation

In every way possible a congregation should facilitate and enhance the entrance of a new person into its fold. Every congregation needs to fulfill the above criteria. Every congregation needs to be aware of ratios that have been established through church growth studies that impinge upon the incorporation process. A church seeking to reach and incorporate new persons needs to have its ratios in order. The following ratios are emphasized in The Win Am Growth Report.

Role/Task Ratio 60:100. There should be at least 60 roles and tasks available for every 100 members in your congregation. A role or task refers to a specific position, function, or responsibility in the congregation (choir, committee member, teacher, officer, etc.). Any fewer than 60 roles/tasks/ministries per 100 members creates an environment which produces inactive members.

Group Ratio 7:100. There should be at least seven groups in your congregation for every 100 members. The consequence of too few groups for members to build meaningful relationships is a high rate of inactives exiting through the back door. Creating an effective group life is a fundamental building block upon which growth and incorporation depend.

New Groups Ratio 1:5. Of the groups that now exist in your congregation, one of every five (20%) should have been started in the past two years. Groups tend to reach a “saturation point” somewhere between 9 and 18 months following their formation, and will, in most cases, no longer be able to effectively assimilate new people. The remedy new groups! New groups new growth new people. Maintaining this new group ratio will provide opportunities for new members to be involved, decreasing the number of inactives.

Friendship Ratio 1:7. Each new convert/new member should be able to identify at least seven new friends in your congregation within the first six months. There is an important time factor to this ratio, as well. The first six months are crucial. New converts/new members not integrated into the body within that six-month time period are usually on their way out the back door.

Board Ratio 1:5. One of every five board members should have joined your congregation within the last two years. Regularly review the board and committee structure in your congregation to assure this 1:5 relationship. In doing so, you will encourage an openness in the power structure and assure that your church remembers its real mission.

Visitor Ratio 3:10. Of the first-time visitors who live in your congregation’s ministry areas, three of every ten should be actively involved within a year. Studies . . . indicate that through an effective strategy, congregations are seeing four of every ten local visitors come back a second time. An incorporation strategy that focuses on these second-time visitors specifically will result in 70-75% joining within a year (hence the 3:10 ratio). Typical non-growing congregations see only 5-12% of their first-time visitors eventually join. Such a percentage is often the number a congregation can expect to lose each year through transfer, death, and falling away.

Staff Ratio 1:150. Your congregation should have one full-time staff member for every 150 persons in worship. If the ratio reaches 1:225-250, it is unusual to see any significant increase in active membership. While more persons may join the congregation, the back door will open wider and wider. Adding staff before this point is reached will help your congregation anticipate the influx of new persons and provide an environment to accommodate them.9

The organizational structure of some congregations simply does not allow a place for newcomers!

Many small membership or single-cell congregations need to expand. Parish consultant, Lyle Schaller, has described one way congregations can expand.” In the diagram below, the large outer circle represents the membership of the congregation, the inner circle represents the most active core group of the congregation, and the smaller circles with x’s represent groups that need to be started.

The solid circle represents, for example, the one existing adult Sunday school class. The x’s represent, for purpose of illustration, young adult persons in the inner core of the congregation’s membership, young adults on the periphery of the congregation’s membership, and young adults outside the present membership of the congregation. This latter group could be drawn into the congregation’s fellowship if additional Sunday school classes were started to specifically include
young adults.

In the diagram, some young adults from the core group, some from the periphery of the congregation’s membership, and some who attend the congregation but do not find their needs met in the one existing Sunday school class, have all come together to form two additional classes.

Experience has shown that starting more than one new class, as options to the one existing class, is the most effective way to move beyond the single-cell mentality. If some of the persons in the new class come from the present membership of the congregation, and/or represent children of families within the congregation, this can ease the hostility that sometimes occurs among long-time members who are threatened by the prospect of seeing their congregation change and expand.

In spite of all caution and pastoral efforts to be sensitive to the feelings of long-time members, the situation described in the second diagram (below) can still develop.

In this diagram an unofficial group has pulled aside. The “AAOEL group” represents the “angry, alienated, older ex-leaders” who are upset that changes are taking place in the congregation. Special pastoral care is needed for these persons so they know they still count! Even special attention may not prevent dropouts.

The expansion of congregational life is a necessity to reach a wide range of potential audiences. Warren Hartman, in Five Audiences: Identifying Groups in Ycur Church, states that most congregations are made up of five audience groups:

1. Fellowship persons who place a high value on interpersonal relationships
2. Traditionalists persons who are traditional in their views and expectations of the church
3. Study persons interested in learning about the Christian faith and life and how faith applies to their own daily living
4. Social action persons who have a strong commitment to the social dimensions of the Christian faith and life.
5. Multiple interest persons who have interest in two or more of the previously mentioned groups.

Hartman concludes:

The sharply divergent theological perspectives and the wide range of expectations concerning the way classes should be conducted and taught suggest that deliberate efforts should be made to offer several different options in every congregation, where space and leadership skills permit. . . It is much easier to recruit persons for newly organized groups than for existing classes and groups that have a long history, a commonly accepted way of doing things, and have often unconsciously reached closure.”

The unquestionable conclusion is that any congregation concerned about incorporating newcomers must start new classes or groups that meet the needs and expectations of various audience groups!

An incorporating congregation must remain sensitive to how newcomers experience the church. Appendix A (page 65) is a congregational survey instrument developed by Warren Hartman. Entitled “Congregational Life Perceptions,” it measures how a person perceives ten areas of congregational life. Such an instrument can reveal a congregation’s strengths as well as its weaknesses areas that need attention if persons are to feel comfortable and included within any particular congregation.

In essence, incorporating congregations will truly care for other human beings, not simply use them to fill pews or to help make building payments. The following words written about the way individuals should care for each other can apply to the way a congregation as a whole should care for individuals.

To care for another human being, in the most significant sense, is to help him grow and actualize himself. . . . Caring is the antithesis of simply using the other person to satisfy one’s own needs. The meaning of caring . . . is not to be confused with such meanings as wishing well, liking, comforting and maintaining, or simply having an interest in what happens to another. Also, it is not an isolated feeling or a momentary relationship, nor is it simply a matter of wanting to care for some person. Caring, as helping another grow and actualize himself, is a process, a way of relating to someone that involves development, in the same way that friendship can only emerge in time through mutual trust and deepening and qualitative transformation of the relationship.12

Congregations, composed of numerous individuals, must care for newcomers. It is not enough for just the pastor or one or two lay persons to care for new persons. The congregation as a whole must demonstrate a climate of love and concern or ultimately freeze a new person out with its indifference.

Incorporating congregations will provide space for new persons and will provide multiple ways for people “to believe, to belong, and to become.” The goal is to make each person feel special. I recall staying at a motel in Montgomery, Alabama one night while I was traveling as a staff person for my denomination. The next morning as I checked out, I found a note under my car windshield: “We have cleaned your windshield this morning in hopes that you will have a pleasant day and a safe journey.” I left that hotel not only feeling special but with a desire to stay there again the next time I was in Montgomery. Congregations should want people to return to their worship services as much as that motel wanted me to return to its place of lodging. The specific ways in which congregations make people feel important is the subject of the following chapters.

The above article, ‘Characteristics of an Incorporated Member and an Incorporating Congregation’ is written by W. James Cowell. The article was excerpted from the second chapter of Cowell’s book Incorporating New Members.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.