Membership and Belonging: Young Professionals at Church

I recently read (via Facebook) a well-meaning article questioning why some young people are attending church but not becoming members.

I don’t have the link anymore, but the concept – or maybe the complaint – has really stuck with me. My husband and I are regularly attending a church without being officially on the membership roll, and after some careful consideration, I’m still okay with that. I think it’s worth discussing, though, because it’s part of a disconnect that exists between churches and a particular part of the population.

I’m talking specifically about young professionals, married or unmarried. What does this segment look like?

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  • We relocate frequently for our jobs – every 1-3 years. Or, we may change employers frequently. Either way, we’re trying to establish ourselves in life and in business, and we’re not especially tied to any one area.
  • We travel for business regularly, and we may also accept temporary assignments (say, 3-6 months’ duration). It’s a Lean In kinda thing: we’re young and relatively unattached; now’s the time to get those types of experiences.
  • Our friends and family are located all over the place: in our hometown, in our college town, in the last place we worked. We are not living in any of those places, and there’s a lot of family expectation and social pressure to maintain those relationships and show up at key events like weddings and birthdays. As a result, one, two or even three weekends out of the month, we’re on the road.
  • We’re dating or married to other young professionals who are also dealing with the above. Chances are, they’re  not the same denomination as we are.

As a result:

  • We’re not able to be in your church every weekend, so when we are, please don’t come up to us with big sad eyes and say how glad you are that we’ve decided to ‘come back’. Remember, we may have been to church somewhere else. You’re not the only church in the world.
  • We can’t come to your Tuesday afternoon Women’s tea or your 7 AM Men’s breakfast. This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to participate or that we are “Sunday Only” Christians. Nor does it mean that we aren’t adults yet (even though not being able to participate in adult activities can make us feel that way).
  • It’s exhausting to search for, join, and commit to a church every time we relocate. Ideally, we stick within our denomination or to more open churches. (I’ve found United Methodists wonderful at being open – but that’s just me.) It’s much worse if we also have to ‘convert’ or go through classes to join. The effort does not seem worthwhile when we’re just going to pull up our stakes in a few months and go somewhere else.
  • We really just want to be able to participate in authentic worship in a welcoming and inclusive environment. No gimmicks and no sign up sheets. We’ll give, we’ll come to potlucks and church events when we can, and we’ll sing super loud if that’s what you want. Just don’t ask for more than we can do at this moment in our lives.

With all that: I’m thankful that I have found a welcoming church where I haven’t been pressured in any way, and where my husband and I can both fully participate together. I would love to feel more like a member by being included in the life of the church – yes, I’m talking about those teas and service events – but they seem to be geared towards housewives and retirees. So I’m letting that go, for now.

And please, when you see me at church after a two-week absence: just say hello. No intervention required.

 

 photo credit: Matthew Wilkinson, “Montreal Steps”, via Flickr. license

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What Works… and how to make it work

Career advice books aim to change you. It’s no secret. The only way they can produce results is to influence the reader, so they’re going to tell you how you’re doing it wrong (whatever ‘it’ is). On the one hand, you have Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. On the other, Winning Nice: How to Succeed in Business and Life Without Waging War.

 
On the other end of the spectrum you have the studies in sociology that tell you why women can be at a disadvantage in their careers. Books like Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders describe the world as it exists today, and give you little advice about how to actually navigate it. In my opinion (and despite the titular advice), Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg falls mostly in this camp, too.

 
What Works for Women at Work bridges this gap. Through an NSF grant, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey identified four key patterns of gender bias that women face in the workplace. Then – and this is the wonderful part – they advise you on how to deal with them, without making the bias your fault.

 

The four key areas they address are:

  • Prove It Again bias: women are judged on their performance, while men are judged on their potential
  • The Tightrope: women are either too nice or too mean.
  • The Maternal Wall: how motherhood, or the potential for it, affects women’s career paths
  • Tug of War: how women fight each other

The authors also do a wonderful job of broadening their audience, and along with it, their message. They emphasize that this book is not just written for women, but also for men to recognize these unconscious patterns that play out over and over again.

 

At the same time, there is recognition that in many cases (as in my example of “too nice” and “winning nice”, above) that opposing strategies can both be effective. It’s all about recognizing the situation and understanding your response to it. For example, they warn against taking on office housework, but also offer ways to turn those types of tasks to your advantage. My shortened version of their list:

 

  1. Take something else off your plate.
  2. Negotiate for a higher-status team member to help you out, so that you build valuable connections with someone at your company.
  3. Ask for a direct report to a higher-up.
  4. Secure a budget (money is power).
  5. Establish a sunset and succession plan.

 

And finally – realistically – the end of the book focuses on how to know when you need to leave.

 
Overall, this book both opens your eyes and puts tools in your hands. It’s enthusiastically recommended for both men and women professionals.

 

Giving Back, part 1

Young professional dilemma: How do you give back to your community?

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You work all day. So the ladies’ social improvement clubs are definitely off the list. Not that they were ever on the list in the first place, really.

You travel for business, and it’s unpredictable. So anything that requires a recurring weeknight commitment is going to be a problem.

Weekends, well, that MIGHT work – assuming you haven’t relocated for your job. Adrift in a city and away from your support network, you might find yourself traveling most weekends to visit family and old friends.

And speaking of weekends? Good luck finding – and participating in community service with – a church when you’re gone half the time. Even if you can brave the storm of church ladies asking where you’ve been.

So you look for one-time opportunities, and schedule things in where you can. Except for some reason, even after doing buckets of paperwork for the Girl Scouts and the local women’s shelter, who are advertising like mad that they need help, you never get a call back.

You’re about to reconcile yourself to only being involved through your checkbook when you see on the library website: Better World Books community service project. They’re accepting book donations (YES!) and also need volunteers to sort and pack books. Schedules are (wow) flexible. How perfect! Sharing your love of books with the world, uncluttering your bookshelf, and spending more time at the library.

Problem solved. Maybe. (Part 2)

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about Better World Books: “Better World Books uses the power of business to change the world. We collect and sell books online to donate books and fund literacy initiatives worldwide. With more than 8 million new and used titles in stock, we’re a self-sustaining, triple-bottom-line company that creates social, economic and environmental value for all our stakeholders.”