05 Congregations

Introduction to Congregations

by Stephanie Dohner, former chair, AEU Membership Committee

What’s a congregation?

According to definitions la and 1b(1) in Merriam-Webster’s tenth Collegiate Dictionary (1993), it is (la) “an assembly of persons…met for worship and religious instruction”; (1b 1) “a religious community: as an organized body of believers in a particular locality.” In Ethical Culture, we would substitute “community” for worship” and “the committed” for “believers”.

These two definitions: “an assembly of persons” and “an organized body”, illustrate that all people have two distinct relationships with the congregations to which they belong. They are: participation in a renewing group experience and membership in an organization.

In the landmark Handbook for Congregational Studies (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986) the following is noted:

More individuals belong to congregations than to any other voluntary association, and they provide as much financial support for the work of the churches as is given to all other philanthropic causes combined. Congregations influence in varied ways both the individuals who belong them and the communities in which they are present… In services and gatherings for fellowship, congregations draw community residents out of their isolation and differences and into relationship with one another in communities of friendship and mutual support Through their educational programs, congregations not only transmit knowledge of the faith tradition and its meaning for contemporary life but also transmit values that promote community solidarity and continuity…. They have supported community values and institutions, but at times they have challenged these values and institutions in an effort to reform or transform them in light of the congregation’s convictions. Thus congregations have significance not only for the individuals who belong to them but also for the society beyond their membership. (p. 7)

These characteristics have been seen in Ethical Societies from the beginning.

Renewing Group Experiences

A renewing group experience can be educational or celebratory; occasionally, both. Some people prefer education for their renewal experiences; others prefer celebrations. Of course, many people enjoy both. Many of the most effective programs combine them.


The major, usually weekly, educational experience in Ethical Culture is called a platform. During platform, and the coffee hour which follows, the attendee may be entertained, stimulated, enlightened, supported, challenged, inspired, refreshed, and/or renewed. There are usually readings to focus attention, a speaker, or speakers, music and some sharing of community news or events. The speaker may be a guest leader, an activist, or an authority of some sort. In larger congregations, the speaker is often that society’s professional leader. Sometimes members speak. There are other kinds of programs which refresh and renew members, but the platform experience is the one central to Ethical Culture.

As congregations grow larger, they offer more educational opportunities for their members including life-span education that helps members and their children understand Ethical Culture ideas and history, build knowledge of the world, expand their experience, build relationship and leadership skills, and encourage their own potential for growth and mastery.


In addition to the platform, celebration in Ethical Societies also includes life cycle events: naming of infants, coming-of-age ceremonies, marriages and memorial services. They may also be festivals, such as seasonal or holiday celebrations. Occasionally, there is no platform speaker and the program is given over to the fine arts. Such experiences also stimulate, enlighten, support, inspire, (I recoil from the word “entertain” here) and refresh.


The second relationship of a new member to his or her congregation is membership in an organization. In Ethical Culture the organization is generally called a Society. The Society is responsible for making the platform and other programs happen, and announcing them to the public. It ensures that there is a place to meet, hires staff, maintains a Sunday School, manages the finances and encourages members to contribute funds to the organization and volunteer on its behalf. It also develops groups, activities and programs which will draw members more deeply into reflecting on and enhancing their own relationships and interactions in the world. These elements cannot be present without the organization to develop them, staff them, and support them.


The congregation meeting as an “assembly of persons” celebrates Ethical Culture and each other. The “organized body” ensures that the institutions of Ethical Culture are maintained. It also works to expand the “assembly of persons”, so that the “organized body” is maintained and lives more fully the purposes of Ethical Culture.

If someone is sufficiently refreshed, moved, and supported by the programs and the company of the members of a society, he or she will likely commit to membership. If the new member finds roles in the organization that are pleasing and that allow for personal growth and mastery, he or she will become a consistent volunteer, will pledge appropriately and will maintain a long-term relationship with the Society.