Diary of a Free Range Priest: Congregation for life?


This is the actual state of my family's church involvement: about once a month, my husband, his kids, and I attend an Episcopal church where we are members (well, they are. Very technically, as a priest, I am not considered a member of any congregation). Every other week, the two younger kids go to non-denominational church with their mom - although they attend that church's youth group every week. A couple times a month, it's Jeff and the kids at our church. Sometimes, it's just Jeff. Jeff's oldest son, who is 18, very faithfully attends his own church, where he goes on his own and holds leadership positions. He is there a few times a week, whether or not he is worshiping with us. At Christmas and Holy Week, we all attend another Episcopal Church downtown, because we really love the liturgy there.

And because of the nature of my vocation, at least twice a month I serve as a supply priest in various other congregations, several of which feel like home to me in various ways. I also have my own 'congregation of origin' in another city, the place I became an Episcopalian and I visit as often as possible, and the place that feels most like my own religious community. Jeff's Roman Catholic parents live in California, and when he visits with them he attends the local Episcopal Church, a place he has now been to enough that the priest knows his name and his basic story.

Individually or as a family, we make financial contributions to every one of these churches, and in some ways consider ourselves members, whether that term is official or not. It is making me re-think the very notion of church membership, and our definition of it.

Maybe my family is the exception, but I am starting to think we are not all that rare. Beyond being a blended family that includes a priest, it seems I keep encountering people who, for instance, go to the Methodist and the Presbyterian church; or whose kids or spouse attend a different, or additional, church, with or without them; or who consider themselves members of more than one congregation. Not to mention those who feel the need to take a break, for whatever reason, from one congregation and worship with another for awhile, and then they return to their church of origin, sometimes spending years at one place or another.

All of this has made me really ponder the presumed notion of joining one congregation and being a member there forever. The church system is set with this as the norm, and any other experience can be seen as temporary, abnormal, or even unhealthy (especially when someone leaves a congregation during a time of transition or conflict, although I am starting to question whether this is always and everywhere an unhealthy choice).

But in the same way as there seems to be a mental idea that 'families' consist of a married couple with children, despite the fact that most adult Americans are single and/or live in some other configuration than the standard nuclear family, I wonder if most congregations' membership is really as unified and stable as we think. Or even should be.

My family gets huge benefits from our itinerant worship life - we have many different experiences, which leads to excellent discussions on faith, Christian practice, and various interpretations of what is most important to us in terms of belief and worship of God. We meet and engage with all sorts of different people with different perspectives, and have relationships across denominational and geographical borders. We have the stability of long-term relationships and the variety of something different almost every week. We learn what is important to question and what is important to embrace when it comes to our relationship with God and each other.

Part of my 'free range' experiment is contemplating the assumptions of mainstream Christian life and worship and wondering if everything has to stay the same all the time. How might we be called beyond the standard congregational ideal of one (or more) ordained leader serving full-time for a community of people that remains more or less the same over time, except when someone dies, moves, or we make a concerted effort to bring new members in? And are we already being called in different ways that we have not fully acknowledged yet? What actual benefits, in terms of evangelism, formation, and community dynamics, might there be from moving around and/or attending different congregations? Are we in some ways called to move beyond the sense of 'my' congregation or denomination or membership and into the sense that all Christians have the same mission and we are all supporting the same 'team'?

Not everyone moves around, or feels any need to be anywhere except the congregation where they feel at home and find the love of God. Some people are born, live their lives, and die as members of one church in one place, which is a lovely thing. Some will claim membership in 2 or 10 or 100 congregations over their lifetime. I am starting to see the loveliness of this, as well.