02 Commitment in Ethical Societies

Introduction by Joy McConnell, AEU Director of Growth and Development

AEU Commitment to Growth and Development

In 1990 the American Ethical Union — the federation of Ethical Culture and Ethical Humanist Societies across the country – decided that we wanted our movement to grow, to live out the promise and potential of its original vision. We believe that Ethical Culture is a religious/life-stance perspective that speaks very relevantly to today’s world, a world tnat is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly devoid of solid ethical values, and increasingly dehumanized.

We envisioned our present Societies’ meeting the challenges to grow more effective in helping people learn about and commit themselves to more ethical living, as well as to grow in numbers and influence in their communities. We also envisioned new Ethical Societies across the country, spreading beyond our East Coast concentration into the Midwest, Southeast, South, Southwest and West Coast. We envisioned a truly national Ethical movement providing authentic, meaningful communities for “unchurched” but ethically alive people. We envisioned having an impact on contemporary society through ethical action and significant service — a renewal of the great social traditions of our history. That vision is alive. It is embodied, in part, in this handbook.

Living Ethical Culture Is the Key

In 1991 the AEU hired its first Growth and Development Director whose task it was to help Societies grow and to help spread the movement beyond its current borders — a formidable task. In the four years since I have been working in this focused effort, I have learned much by paying close attention to what is actually happening in our Ethical Societies, what they are doing well, what they are not doing well, and what resistances there are to growth and change. I have watched Society boards struggle with financial difficulties and issues over professional leadership. I have worked with Sunday schools, membership committees, canvass committees, presidents and leaders to help them build creative programming, learn techniques for growth, develop an effective pledge campaign, solve problems and resolve conflicts, and train and manage volunteers. What I learn over and over again is that Societies grow when their members truly want to welcome new people and the changes that brings and when members are living in ethical relationship with each other.

Let me say that more loudly: What I learn over and over again is that

Societies grow when their members truly welcome new people and the changes they bring and when members are living in ethical relationship with each other.

As my acquaintance, Swami Chetanananda of the St. Louis Vedanta Society, once said to me, “You can have all the membership growth techniques in the world, but, if people come through your doors and don’t find God [Good] there, they will walk right out again.”

Stephanie Dohner writes to those of you who are using this handbook, “You already are committed, and find the good here. You know that the techniques in this book are to be used to share the joy you find in Ethical Culture and your society. You are open to new people and new experiences, and want to bring out that flexibility in others. You want to work together with your society to make authentic community in order to make a better world. You are committed to bringing out the best in others, and yourself. You know in your mind, and in your heart, that your society is the place that renews your ability to bring out the best. If you act authentically out of your deepest values, techniques will internalize as ethical action, and not be a superficial, and ineffective, quick fix.”

One of the most consistent criticisms about Ethical Culture that I hear from Society members, friends and former members as I travel around the country is that Ethical Culture folks love to talk and discuss but often don’t do anything about it. We are great at solving the problems of the world in our heads, but we have a more difficult time devising effective action and then just doing it. I believe that, if we are going to grow as Societies, as the Ethical Movement, we need to do more than discuss and critique. We need to put our ideas and ideals into action. We need to take a stand, provide the service, be the witness, and work for change and betterment in our communities and the world as we proclaim in our Statement of Purpose.

Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society.

Our faith is in the capacity and responsibility of human beings to act in their personal relationships and in the larger community to help create a better world.

Our commitment is to the worth and dignity of the individual and to treating each human being so as to bring out the best in him or her.

Members join together in ethical societies to assist each other in developing ethical ideas and ideals … to celebrate life’s joys and support each other through life’s crises … to work together to improve our world and the world of our children.

Several questions arise when we are talking about commitment in Ethical Societies:

1. Do we function as high-commitment congregations or low-commitment voluntary organizations?

2. Which do we want to be?

3. If, among five main motivations for people joining congregations, commitment may not be the highest priority, why do we stress this in a membership handbook?

Are Ethical Societies high-commitment or low-commitment?

My observation of our Ethical Societies is that we are ambivalent on this first question. We most often, however, act as low-commitment voluntary organizations. Traditionally Ethical Societies have been hesitant about demanding very much of our members. This may be because we cherish religious freedom. We want it for ourselves and we want it for others. We confuse our choice to be an religious and ethical common ground – not to make claims about ultimate reality and theology, our lack of expectations about issues of dogma and creed — with lack of expectations about many other aspects of life in our societies.

For instance, we may hesitate to expect real financial commitment of our members. There may be several underlying reasons for this.

  • We don’t want to be equated with television evangelists who prey upon gullible people for contributions which are then used for their personal aggrandizement rather than their holy mission in the world.
  • We may be afraid that we will turn off people who have negative experiences of other religious groups who demand tithing or expensive pew rentals as a price of belonging or churches who grow rich on the backs of the poor.
  • We may think our members are too poor to give generously.
  • We have a naive belief that somehow money is, in itself, dirty or unethical and that we can accomplish ethical works without it.
  • We may not understand that under-giving can undermine one’s commitment to the Society.
  • We my further, by our reluctance to challenge people, the idea that Ethical Culture is just another “paper membership.”
  • We may fail to draw connections between people’s demands for quality programming and the support needed to make that quality possible.

Another instance of our hesitancy to have high expectations of our members comes in some Society’s or lay-leaders’ laissez-faire attitudes about member involvement. We sometimes assume that other people are not as willing to work as hard as we are, that we would turn them off if we expected more, that they don’t have the time or the competence to do it right, and that it’s just easier to do it ourselves. This attitude leads to new members’ feeling left out of the process, believing that they are not seen as competent or worthy. They wonder why they are not being asked to help when so much needs doing. They may feel that they don’t really belong, that they are not needed and, sooner or later, attend less frequently, drift away or leave altogether. Another by-product of our hesitancy is that we rely on the same proven volunteers who often are over-used and may burn-out.

In other cases, lay leaders are so desperate to have relief that they pull new members into heavy commitment before they have fully understood what Ethical Culture is about. It is very important that new members have had time and opportunities for reflection and development of a positive and shared Ethical Culture philosophy before becoming core lay leaders.

We may also pull new members into heavy responsibility before they are well enough informed about what is being asked of them and before they have the

appropriate skills or have been prepared or trained for their task. Those “volunteers” who have commitment thrust upon them may feel used and abused by a system that does not seem to take their needs, gifts or preferences into consideration. Some either learn to say “no” or may eventually leave because they believe they don’t have the right to say “no” in this community.

Which will Ethical Societies choose to be: high-commitment or low-commitment?

It is imperative for the good of ourselves, our fellow members, those who will join us in the future and our Societies that we find effective ways of developing and communicating appropriate attitudes and practices around all kinds of membership commitments.

There is no easy answer — no quick fix  no deus ex machina who will save us.

What we need to know is that, without the financial and personal commitment and generosity of our members, we cannot thrive and grow as Societies and as a movement. But that financial and personal commitment must be appropriate to the resources, time, gifts and talents of each person. We need to recognize the uniqueness of each person and develop ways of helping each member find the commitment level tnat is right for them. We must help our members discover an appropriate balance between serving and being served, giving and receiving. We must not make others’ choices for them or make assumptions about what others can or should do, what others need and want. What we need to do is provide plenty of opportunities for involvement, learning, action, giving and serving as well as many opportunities for receiving, being nurtured and supported, fellowship and caring.

The reality in denominations across this country is that high-commitment congregations are growing faster than low-commitment congregations.1 That many of the high-commitment congregations are also very conservative or fundamentalist could indicate that the same dynamic may not prove true for liberal or humanist congregations. But we will never know that, if we don’t try it. And it is important for us to know that there are, indeed, many examples of high-commitment, liberal, growing congregations across this country.

What I have observed from my own experience in recruiting and interviewing new members in a growing Society is that new members who are informed clearly about what is expected in financial, personal and ethical commitment often become generous givers from the beginning as well as core lay leaders and supporters of the Society and the wider Ethical Culture movement. Those people who are not informed, who are led to believe that joining an Ethical Society is no big deal and that not much will be expected of them, will often fulfill those expectations by being inadequate givers, having poor attendance, declining any volunteer commitments and expecting to be served and taken care of. Often it is those people who are also the biggest critics and the least committed to living in ethical relationship to others in their own lives and within the Society.

Our Ethical Societies can make a conscious choice between being high-commitment congregations or being low-commitment voluntary associations.

If our Societies consciously choose to become high-commitment congregations rather than low-commitment voluntary associations, our expectations and practices must reflect that choice. We must inform newcomers that Ethical Culture is a something, not just a “not-something-else.” We have a strong history and tradition. We have foundational principles and commitments. We expect our members to commit themselves to more ethical relationships and ethical living, to life-long learning and growth, to fulfilling their own potential, their own unique excellence. We expect that our members will be sophisticated enough to understand that all organizations, including Ethical Societies, need financial and material resources to remain viable and vital, even more if we are to increase in effectiveness, excellence, size and influence. We expect our members to give their fair share, to give to the best of their ability, placing their money and resources where their values are. Ethical Culturists know that “where our treasure is there will our heart be also.” We also need to let newcomers know that we are a lay-validated, congregational movement. Only with the dedication and commitment of both lay leadership and professional leadership working together as a team, each making her/his own unique contributions, will our Societies flourish and grow.

If, among five main motivations for people joining congregations commitment may not be the highest priority, why do we stress this in a membership handbook?

According to well-respected congregational researcher and developer, Kennon Callahan, there are five main motivations among congregational members and leaders. They are:


In his research he has found that all five motivational resources have equal value and weight and are found in every congregation. “Churches with a strong track record of action, implementation, and momentum have an excellent match of 2-5 motivational resources between key leaders, the pastor (and staff), and the grass roots in the congregation. Wherever there is a mismatch of motivational resources, there is a weak or nonexistent tract record of implementation.”2

Callahan finds that in each person two of the five motivators are usually dominant with the others playing a lesser role and that often newcomers entering a congregation for the first time have different motivators than the current lay leaders or the professional leader.3 Often lay leaders are motivated by challenge and commitment, whereas newcomers are often motivated by compassion and community. If lay leaders appeal to new members on the basis of challenge and commitment, they may turn new members off. But, if the Society can meet new members’ desire for community and provide pathways for their compassion, they may be able to elicit the kind of commitment that it takes for the Society to continue offering those crucial elements.

It is important to develop a congregational community that offers what newcomers and new members most need and want while also meeting the different needs of long-term members. Those needs can be discovered by surveying newcomers and new members as well as current and long-term members informally (or formerly) and compiling that information for use in planning programs and activities.

When canvassing new and grass-roots members, and we know their greatest motivators are community and compassion, we can make pledge campaigns great fun, community-building occasions. We can focus the fund-raising campaign on all the kinds of community programs and compassionate services that will be supported and enhanced by generous giving on the part of members.4

In other words, one can build commitment in an Ethical Society by meeting important needs and appealing to those things that most motivate our members. One does not need to talk about commitment in order to build it.

If we, committed lay and professional leaders, build the kinds of Societies that are meeting our needs and fulfilling our expectations, then we will draw other people to us who are equally capable of great commitment. If we have the kind of Society where people are living in ethical community with each other in service, learning, celebration and joy, then we will attract and keep members who want to share in this wonderful community, this wonderful way of life.

And a final word from Stephanie Dohner, “Share your joy of commitment, so that others can find their joy. Use this book and authors like Callahan for perspective, and then translate what you have learned into helpful encouragement that comes from delight.”

lLyle E. Schaller, 44 Ways To Increase Church Attendance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), pp. 104-107.
2 Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: The Leaders’ Guide (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), p. 76.
4Ibid., p. 79.

More ideas, plus tools you can use: