Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Associations Can Learn from the Dorton Experience

Local Chapters are Building Blocks for Association Engagement
I was going to write today about declining church memberships and closing colleges and suggest they could be a forerunner of trends impacting associations too.

But then, my son, brothers, cousins and nephew attended the Memorial Day services at Dorton United Methodist Church in Crossville, Tennessee. We were on a golfing weekend.

I may still write about church numbers and college closings but not today.

I’ve spent my entire association career at large, national associations. While I occasionally attended a local chapter meeting, I infrequently engaged with members as the local level. 

As a national staffer, I met and interacted with the few who became national board members or who attended national meetings. (Note, I did serve on the board of the St. Louis Institute for Association Leadership but my focus is and has been at the national level.)

Participating in Dorton’s Sunday’s worship service showed me a new perspective that could benefit national associations.

Engaging. Caring. Sharing.


I’ve attended churches of all sizes (small rural churches, suburban churches, urban mega churches) and faiths (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, non-denominational). 

Dorton United Methodist Church, Crossville, Tennessee
Dorton UMC is small and rural: it has 74 members and 42 attended Sunday (not including the seven of us who were welcomed guests). It’s Sunday morning leaders included a worship leader, a song leader, a pianist and a pastor. 

Sunday’s bulletin outlined a pretty typical worship service.

The worshipers and service; however, were far from typical. From the beginning, they were engaged, really engaged. During the “caring and sharing” time, the room exploded. Nearly everyone either asked for prayers or responded to a prayer request or other announcement.

Here are a couple of discussion items I remember:
  • Someone announced they had purchased a weed whacker. And, that weed whacker lessons for anyone who wanted to volunteer to whack weeds.
  • A couple tearfully requested prayers for a friend who was severly injured in a weekend auto accident and had been airlifted to Knoxville.
  • The picnic chair said they were thinking the year-end picnic should start at 5 pm rather than 6 pm as printed in the bulletin. The group said, “yes, let’s start at 5.”
  • The seven of us were introduced individually and welcomed. The song leader even said “you all look familiar; welcome back.”
In just 60 minutes, I realized the importance of locally-based, engaged members.

Dorton UMC represents just 74 of the United Methodist Church’s 12.8 million members. I doubt anyone from the UMC national has visited Dorton. They may not even know Dorton exists. But these engaged 74 members – and the millions like them in small churches – are the key stone of the UMC denomination.

Don’t national associations offer the same locally-based experiences that determine the viability of the national organization?

Over the last decade or so, I’ve watched the demise of many local chapters that I’ve labeled as “noonday lunch clubs.” Clearly, the decline has damaged the viability of the national association.

For national organizations to thrive, they should be doing “whatever it takes” to boost the viability of their local chapters.

What is your association doing to support local chapters and events?
  • Does your dashboard include a metric that measures local engagement? 
  • Do you invite local leaders to participate in leadership workshops?
  • Do you or others at the national level visit with local chapters?
  • Do you provide support materials to help local chapters recruit members?

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