Setting Up a New Member Orientation Class

Setting Up a New Member Orientation Class
James Cowell

A new member orientation class is an excellent way to introduce people to the beliefs and history of a denomination, and to acquaint them with the various options for spiritual growth and nurture offered by a particular congregation. Such classes may also be called the pastor’s class or an inquirer’s class.

The name given to the class is important. Calling a class an inquirer’s group may convey to a newcomer that a person is invited to attend the sessions even though he/she may decide not to officially unite with the congregation. It is important for a person to know what is expected of participants in the class at the end of the session(s), and what the class is likely to accomplish for the seeker. Communication of intent and purpose to prospective members is important whatever name is chosen for the class.

Robert Bast, of the Reformed Church in America, lists five purposes of anew member class:

1. Orientation in which the history, tradition, and purpose of the congregation are explored.
2. Evangelism in which the meaning and challenge of commitment to Christ are explored.
3. Teaching in which the faith of the church is explored, and the worship and sacraments of the church are explained.
4. Relationships in which the bonds of friendship are developed.
5. Challenge in which opportunities for involvement and service are explored.

It is important for each congregation to determine the primary purposes of the orientation class. If fellowship and building relationships are important, then more than one session will be advisable and a small group program can be built into the orientation class follow-up procedures.

Some questions to consider in setting up an orientation class are listed below.

1. What is the primary purpose of the membership orientation class?
2. How many sessions will be held?
3. Is it possible to have what is envisioned in orientation to be held in one extended session?
4. What is the outline of each session? What material should be presented in each session?
5. Should all or any of the membership orientation sessions be mandatory?
6. Who will provide the leadership for each session?
7. Should a small group program be tied in with orientation, i.e., should a small group be formed out of an orientation class?
8. Should orientation sessions be open to the present membership of the congregation (not only new members?)
9. Who will follow up with new members when membership orientation is completed?
10. Whose responsibility is it to make the final decision related to the structure of membership orientation classes?
11. Who will evaluate the membership orientation sessions?

An example of a multi-session orientation class or pastor’s class is outlined on page 29. A more detailed class outline form Christ Church, Mobile, Alabama is included in Appendix B, page 73.

Another shorter, multi-session class, that could be used in any size congregation, might include four sessions:

1. A brief history of the Christian church dealing with the development of the early church, the Protestant reformation, and theological debates.
2. A brief explanation of a particular denomination’s history and beliefs.
3. The meaning of key words in the Christian faith, such as grace, justification, reconciliation, sanctification, and the meaning of commitment.

Pastor’s Class

Session One: Our understanding of God
A. Basic beliefs regarding God
B. Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity

Session Two: The person and work of Jesus Christ
A. Teaching and ministry of Jesus
B. Crucifixion and resurrection
C. Significance of Jesus Christ for Christians

Session Three: History of the early church
A. Acts 2
B. Persecutions
C. Spread of the early Christian movement
D. The role of Paul

Session Four: History of the Christian church to the present
A. Early Middle Ages
B. Later Middle Ages
C. Protestant Reformation
D. Role of Martin Luther
E. Post-reformation era

Session Five: Understanding the United Methodist Church (or other denomination)
A. John Wesley
B. History of the United Methodist Church (development, mergers, and key persons)
C. Marks of a United Methodist

Session Six: Understanding the sacraments
A. Baptism/infant baptism
B. Holy Communion

Session Seven: An introduction to the local church
A. History of this congregation
B. Goals of the congregation
C. Program options of the congregation

Session Eight: the meaning of church membership
A. Commitment to Christ/church/world
B. Expectations
C. Supporting the church with prayers, presence, gifts, and service

4. How to become involved with time and talent in a particular congregation, including a discussion of expectations

An example of a single extended session membership orientation class could look like this:

6:00 PM – Complimentary Dinner
6:30 PM – Community Building/ Introductions
6:45 PM – Our Christian Faith (a brief look at the Christian faith and beliefs.)
7:30 PM – Our United Methodist Heritage (or other denomination)
8:00 PM – Coffee Break
8:15 PM – What Our Church Offers (handouts and explanation of various church programs)
9:00 PM – Invitation and Challenge (inviting persons to unite with the church and challenging them to be disciples with a testimony given by a layperson: what it means for me to be a Christian.)

Membership orientation classes can be conducted in numerous ways, but one starting point for curriculum is the resources provided by the denomination. Many excellent resources are available from Discipleship Resources, P.O. Box 189, Nashville, TN 37202. For a partial listing of some current resources, see Appendix C: New Member Resources, page 77.

Many congregations present a new member packet or booklet to newcomers in an orientation class. The packet may include such items as: a map of the church building; a copy of The Upper Room or other devotional guide; some pertinent facts regarding membership, the sacraments, or the denomination; and perhaps a more detailed history of the particular congregation. A listing of Sunday school classes and other church activities, and the names of persons in the congregation to contact for various activities such as Scouts or choir, may also be a part of the packet.

What happens following a membership orientation class is extremely important. It should be assumed that a person has attended the required sessions and now is ready to find a niche in the congregation. The follow-up procedures will vary depending on the size of the congregation.

In a smaller membership congregation, the pastor will probably have led the series of orientation sessions, but now he/she designates a key layperson to adopt each new member. That layperson continues to tell the stories that are significant for the congregation for example, the new member is informed about who is buried in the church cemetery (if there is one) and the relation of those person to each other and to persons still living who are participants in the congregation. The pastor, however, continues to maintain significant pastoral care for new members.

In a larger congregation, a sponsoring family or ‘fellowship friend’ may be assigned to each new member or family. The fellowship friend:

1. Stand at the altar with the new person as that person unites with the church
2. Offers to arrange transportation to and from the church building if necessary
3. Introduces the new person to numerous members of the congregation
4. Assists the new person in finding a Sunday school class or other group to attend.
5. Monitors the new person’s worship attendance and participation in other activities, informing appropriate persons if attendance is inconsistent.
6. Listens to any concerns or question the new member may have regarding the church and seeks to provide answers
7. Takes the new person to lunch or invites the person into his/her home to become better acquainted
8. Accompanies the new member to an annual new member banquet (if one is held)
9. Evaluates the fellowship friend experience with the appropriate person or committee.

Sponsors or fellowship friends are usually assigned to a person for 6-12 months. Fellowship friends/sponsors might be recruited by a task force working with the evangelism work area in larger congregations. In small to medium-sized congregations, one person or couple could be designated to recruit sponsors/fellowship friends.

In some congregations, a small group may be formed out of the orientation class, especially if the participants have met together for several sessions and have already established friendships. The small group is officially formed following the last orientation session. Sometimes the pastor meets with the fledgling group for one or two weeks until someone in the new group can serve as facilitator or other leadership is secured.

Channeling persons into specialized Bible classes or other study options following orientation is a valuable follow-up procedure. Options include a short-term class on a particular book of the Bible, a series of lessons on denominational beliefs, a more extensive course on church history, or a class on spiritual disciplines. Cloud of Witnesses, an eight-book series with leader’s guide, explores the history of the Christian church. This excellent curriculum is available from The United Methodist Publishing House. The Workbook of Living Prayer by Maxie Dunnam (available from The Upper Room, Nashville, TN) or other workbooks by the same author can serve as the basic resource for a spiritual growth group. Faith-Sharing (book and videocassette) by H. Eddie Fox and George E. Morris can be used as an excellent six-session follow-up after orientation to develop the ability of participants to share their faith story.

More extensive Bible studies, such as Disciple, Bethel, Trinity, or Kerygma are offered by numerous congregations. Disciple, a Bible study developed by The United Methodist Church, involves a 34-week study in which groups move through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.

Each Disciple group is limited to twelve persons. A different major theme is discussed each week. Through sharing of various theological views, group discussion, and the use of video presentations, persons are challenged and inspired to be better disciples of Christ. A special Disciple curriculum is available for senior high youth and post-senior high youth. A youth class could be the logical follow-up to a confirmation class.

A follow-up card, such as the one found on page 24, helps responsible persons and committees chart the participation of new members.

The above article, ‘Setting Up a New Member Orientation Class’ is written by James Cowell. The article was excerpted from Incorporating New Members: Bonds of Believing, Belonging, and Becoming. Discipleship Resources.

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