Opening Words from Sun. March 12 by Brian Vandenberg

I come to you this morning on behalf of the Membership Committee. I joined this Committee because this is one of the most important ones we have; it is the key to strengthening our community and ensuring our future. And our future is very much at stake in this turbulent time of transition. Covid has impacted our membership, our attendance, our budget, and our practices.

We are now in a hybrid world, where Altar enables attendance without having to move from our couch or change out of our PJ’s. Virtual attendance allows for the possibility of larger audiences but also one where a proportion are less personally engaged and less connected to our community.

The Covid disruption is amplified by our loss of leadership, which Kate and then James provided for 17 years. We also have almost a totally new staff: Music Director, Youth Group leaders, Building and Grounds manager, Membership Coordinator, and are seeking a SEEK Director.

Times of turbulence and uncertainty about the future allow us to grasp the significance and meaning of what we have. It can be an invigorating time for pursuing new opportunities and remaking ourselves to meet the changing conditions. Fortunately, we have Amy to help us.

We are also most fortunate to have Laura Nottingham as our Membership Coordinator. She brings fresh ideas, engaging manner, and a passionate commitment to the mission of the Ethical Society.

One of the main reasons people become members and stay members is because they have established personal connections with others (there is much research that supports this). We have given considerable attention to outreach, including previously hiring an Outreach Coordinator. While we have had quite a few newcomers visit us each week, membership has not increased because we have not given sufficient effort and attention to “in- reach”; giving individual and institutional attention to helping newcomers find a home.

We, the Membership Committee, want to quickly and deeply integrate new people into our community. To do this, we have launched a mentorship program to introduce new members to those in our community who might share common values and concerns. We also are providing a “Visitors Table” in the Becker Room after Platform where one of us greets visitors, answers questions, and offers a welcoming hand.

But we cannot do this alone. A handful of people cannot welcome newcomers, nurture them, and embed them in our community. No. This can only be done BY ALL OF US.

All of us are on the Membership Committee, even if we don’t think we are, or want to be. Indeed, if we think this is not our Committee, not our responsibility, then we are helping to create the conditions that contribute to visitors and new members feeling unwelcomed; convincing them that this is not the place for them. The health, strength, and future of our fragile, precious community rests on the shoulders of each of us.

Consider newcomers to most Christian churches. They are greeted with open arms because of a larger spiritual vision and responsibility to save souls, and do so with the blessing and command of God. For them welcoming visitors is not simply a social act of politeness or an effort to grow the community, but a sincere desire to save people from eternal damnation. What a powerful incentive!

We cannot offer such otherworldly rewards. But we can offer them a home in a community that is committed to living a life with meaning, purpose, generosity, and kindness; to a community that values difference, diversity, equity, and social justice; a community animated by the awareness of sacredness of this life, here, now, in this present moment. Newcomers, like many of us, are refugees from traditional religions, sojourners unmoored from conventional society, or outcasts in their own community. Offering a welcoming hand is not just an act of politeness—it is a quintessential expression of our core values.

Many of us find it challenging to reach out to strangers and make conversation without feeling awkward or intrusive. But there are other ways that we can contribute, including assisting with behind-the-scenes tasks and activities that facilitate our being able to offer a robust institutional welcoming hand.

The Membership Committee invite all of you, now deputized members of the Committee, to join us next Sunday, March 19, at the 9:45 Forum to discuss how we can best work together to welcome and integrate fellow wayfarers into our community. We look forward to your energy, ideas, and help.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.