07: Great Expectations: Membership Growth Handbook

AEU Membership Committee

Great Expectations is a society growth and development handbook which contains a wide variety of materials on creating and maintaining healthy growing Ethical communities, including articles written within and outside the Ethical Movement, and forms and good practices examples from societies across the country. Great Expectations was first produced in notebook form in 1995, by Joy McConnell (former AEU Growth and Development Professional) and Stephanie Dohner (former Chair, AEU Membership Committee). The handbook is a very significant resource which is now available in digital format through the AEU website. A CD version of the handbook is available directly from the AEU Office.

Chapters 1 through 17 of this first digital edition may contain organizational data, such as societies addresses, officers, committees and its members that are not currrent. For current information, you may visit the rest of the AEU website.

This digital project was initiated and directed by Jeremy Herman with the assistance of the AEU Membership Committee. The project’s cost was covered by grants and contributions from the AEU and from the Membership Committee’s budget. Marty Hedler, of the Riverdale Society, did the technical work — building and uploading the website and making the CD’s. He also made a significant financial contribution to the project through a substancial reduction of his fee.

In 2009, Tim Beardsley wrote “an easy-access guide to the online version of Great Expectations” which is recommended reading either before or during the study of Great Expectations. This guide is accessible directly from the AEU Library or from inside the password-protected GE pages. Each section of the guide is also accessible under a link, [overview], that appears at the beginning of each chapter in the table of contents of GE. The guide can be found below.

Because the handbook contains sensitive copyrighted information, access to the materials is granted by permission of the AEU Office. If you have obtained such permission, you can proceed to the handbook by going to following location: 


Tim Beardsley, 2009

An easy-access guide to the online version of Great Expectations

  • Introduction
  • How do we grow authentic communities?
  • Commitment: bringing out the best in members
  • How can we make ourselves and our values known to searchers?
  • Providing easy stepping-stones to membership
  • Testing the waters: will I come back?
  • Affiliating: getting to know you and the society’s philosophy
  • Joining and involvement: the importance of a good invitation and follow-up
  • Key tasks and tips for a membership committee
  • Evaluating your society’s membership programs
  • Key roles in congregations large, medium, and small
  • Group stages: handling personality and power
  • Going forth: becoming an agent for ethical change in the world
  • Going deeper: stepping forward to a leadership role
  • Planning a pledge drive: good organization is the key
  • Avoiding the perils of leadership: the centrality of trusting relationships
  • Attracting willing volunteers and preventing burnout
  •  The Original Great Expectations table of contents


Great Expectations, available on this Web site, is a growth and development resource developed by the AEU that contains a wealth of ideas for fostering healthy ethical culture communities. It includes discussions of research findings from other types of religious congregations and examples of documents and discussion of good practices from many Ethical Societies. Great Expectations (GE) was originally produced for AEU members in notebook form by Joy McConnell, former AEU Growth and Development Professional, and Stephanie Dohner, former Chair of the AEU Membership Committee. Except where noted below, these two authors wrote the core content; they also edited materials from other sources. A full preface to GE giving its history and credits can be found at [4].

GE is divided into 18 sections. The easy-access guide you are now reading links to each of GE’s sections and briefly describes the contents of each one. In this guide, the sections are presented in a sequence that, after two introductory overviews, follows the process of finding and joining an ethical society, stepping forward to leadership, then growing the society and recruiting volunteers for projects.

Most of the sections include a focal essay or overview as well as various excerpts, checklists, graphics, and comments collated from societies, consultants, AEU members, and others. Each section addresses a crucial issue for a society that is to thrive, and shows how some societies have attempted to deal with that issue. Most sections include recommendations for further reading. A full table of contents is at [0].

The AEU encourages all its members to use the ideas presented in GE in their own societies, and invites them to provide feedback about their experiences and their suggestions for additions. Short discussions of the sections follow.

How do we grow authentic communities?

The Ethical Culture movement has always consisted of separate societies, with a Sunday morning platform being the main weekly event. But how can we know that our societies are authentic and satisfying to members, so we can grow membership? GE’s first section [1] provides perspectives on that question from a variety of sources. In a focal essay, Community Life, Lois Kellerman explains that “The common ground for Ethical Societies is the desire to encourage the growth of ethical behavior in a caring community and in the larger world.” She suggests that Ethical Societies provide a learning forum for a shared ethical quest, supporting members as they face life’s tragedies as well as share its joys.

Commitment: bringing out the best in members

Societies of different sizes face different challenges, and members of a society that aims to grow should have an understanding of the particular difficulties it is likely to run into. A section on Commitment [2] starts by setting down some well-known problems, putting these in the context of Ethical Culture. The author stresses that “Societies grow when their members truly welcome new people and the changes they bring and when members are living in ethical relationships with each other.” Commitment is more than just money pledged, and more than just the number of members. The section includes checklists and a discussion of growth principles by Jone Johnson Lewis, as well as research findings and Q&A-style discussions on the often-difficult subject of pledging.

How can we make ourselves and our values known to searchers?

This section [9] asks: How can people find us? It discusses how to reach and welcome searchers. It is crucial that societies let searchers know of the society’s existence and values. Simply inviting friends to attend an event and telling people about enjoyable Ethical Society experiences are known to be good ways of reaching searchers. Making sure the media know about events and renting out space to other groups may also be helpful.  All members should take seriously the task of making first-time visitors feel appreciated, and procedures should be in place to ensure follow-up. Numerous examples of literature for new members are also included in this section.

Providing easy stepping-stones to membership

When someone approaches a congregation, his or her relationship with the group generally moves through well-known stages. An Alban Institute graphic that depicts these stages sets the stage for this section [8]. It is important that society leadership understands the stages so that effective support can be provided to people moving through them—hopefully keeping the prospective member engaged during transitions. A grid charts typical areas of spiritual development in a new member. Narratives discuss the stages of membership as experienced in one small society and in one that is in transition.  This is followed by a “Steps to Membership” document that has been used by one large society.

Testing the waters: will I come back?

Visitors will often attend several events at a society before they start to think about becoming members. What should societies do to ensure that these “testers” will return and deepen their commitment? This section [10] provides explanations of the essentials, as well as a checklist for societies of all sizes. The single most important attribute of a society for bringing “testers” back is the enthusiasm of members. Other important aspects include platform, fellowship, education/Sunday school, ethical action, and involvement with a project that reaches out into the larger community.

Affiliating: getting to know you and the society’s philosophy

This section [11] poses the question: How do newcomers know if they really belong? Do they identify with Ethical Culture (Ethical Humanism)? The most important process for newcomers is forming friendly relationships with members and leaders, as well as exploring the philosophy of Ethical Culture. It is vital that societies provide opportunities for these processes to happen. Recommendations from an AEU membership growth workshop are followed by an argument by Joy McConnell that societies should always encourage enthusiastic members to start new activities, even if there is little support at first.

Joining and involvement: the importance of a good invitation and follow-up

Here  [12] the question is asked: Why should e question is one that all prospective joiners of an Ethical Society must ask themselves. Recommendations include having a clear process for inviting visitors to join and then for welcoming and acknowledging them as members. Also presented are documents that several societies have used to ask new members for information about themselves, to explain the responsibilities of membership, and to track new members’ interests and involvement.

Key tasks and tips for a membership committee

Here is a list of essential tasks for a membership committee or equivalent group within a society [7]. The section also provides examples of concrete steps that can increase membership. A variety of documents contributed by different Ethical Societies follows, ending with a description of the AEU’s consensus procedure.

Evaluating your society’s membership programs

This short section [3], contributed by Hank Gassner, stresses the importance of a frank evaluation of how well your society is doing at bringing in and welcoming prospective members. It provides a questionnaire that can help a society understand its own strengths and weaknesses.

Key roles in congregations large, medium, and small

This section [5] provides an introduction to the key concepts behind what constitutes a congregation. Education and celebration provide essential renewing group  experiences. This discussion is followed by references for further reading and edited notes from an Alban Institute workshop on congregational growth by Lynn Hunt. Studies point to vital differences in the operation of congregations of different sizes, in particular in the relationship between the leader and most members. The workshop notes identify major hurdles to growth and list developmental tasks for congregations at different stages of a typical life cycle.

Group stages: handling personality and power

Ethical societies and their committees are groups, and as such, well-studied processes typically occur during members’ involvement with them. In this section [6], the authors introduce some key concepts relating to group life cycles. They point out the importance of understanding one’s own personality type and learning how to deal with conflict as one steps into a leadership role. A grid outlines basic concerns for any group. Later articles discuss common tensions and how societies can address disruptive behavior, which can be a serious threat.

Going deeper: stepping forward to a leadership role

This section [13] starts by asking the question: Why should someone commit himself or herself to ethical growth and transformation? Numerous spiritual benefits ensue from stepping forward to lay leadership, and societies should decide what routes they are going to offer members who want to follow this path. Societies should take care to avoid exploiting such willingness to serve in unfair ways, and provide support and recognition for the leadership efforts of those who are willing to work for their communities in this way.

Going forth: becoming an agent for ethical change in the world

This section [14] is about living Ethical Culture in all we do. Many people joined Ethical Societies because they want to be agents for change in the larger world, and Ethical Societies should support and inspire their members in these aspirations.  The discussion gives examples of outward-directed projects that could be supported well in societies of different sizes.

Planning a pledge drive: good organization is the key

This section [15] starts with a resource listing, then proceeds to a discussion by Lois Kellerman of how to organize an effective pledge drive. This is followed by a list of suggestions for assigning volunteer roles and deciding the timing of such a drive. A wide variety of ideas and specimen documents are offered for a pledge campaign as well as other types of fundraising. An earlier section of Great Expectations, about commitment [2], also has valuable information about pledging.

Avoiding the perils of leadership: the centrality of trusting relationships

Leadership—professional, volunteer, and designated, terms that are defined in this section [16]—is known to be crucial to any society. Pitfalls and confusion over the proper role of leaders abound, so it is essential for professional and lay leaders to nurture a trusting relationship to avoid boundary violations that can deter volunteers. Lois Kellerman lists some dangers and provides recommendations on how the relationship between professional and lay leaders can be kept healthy. The essay is followed by a suggested reading list for AEU board members.

Attracting willing volunteers and preventing burnout

Although staff provide essential help, Ethical Societies rely on volunteers  to create a compelling program. People have become busier, so finding volunteers has become harder, particularly so for some jobs. The introduction to this topic [17] discusses ways that societies can minimize volunteer burn-out resulting from over-reliance on a few dedicated individuals.  This is followed by thoughts on an Ethical Culture philosophy of working with volunteers, and  handouts for a workshop given by Joy McConnell on how a society can assess what its actual and potential volunteers want. The section includes examples of volunteer participation solicitations, as well as of recognitions given to volunteers.