In the past two posts I’ve written about some of the ways that people may self-identify as members of ISKCON; and I’ve also written something about ‘layers’ of membership defined by low or high commitment. Commitment, that is, to both personal spiritual practice and to sharing one’s spirituality with others – or resourcing those that do. I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. ISKCON’s membership is important to me because I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to increase it – the better part of my life, actually – and I know that our founder would be happy with a large, flourishing membership. A big, juicy, healthy ISKCON apple.
If only life were as easy as a diagram.
The course of any organization never runs perfectly smoothly, and in the case of spiritual movements you can double or triple the lack of smoothness. Why?
People change. And spiritual movements, generally, turn into religious institutions that fixate on their formative period and refuse to change. Not a good combo.
In the beginning, people like answers to their questions on spiritual matters; they like meditative practises and the transformation of consciousness that comes with it. They like the peace that a fresh, spiritual perspective on life gives them, and they like to make new friends. And devotees can be great friends.
But after some time their needs change. They want to go deeper philosophically; they have lingering, unanswered questions that niggle them and they’re just not satisfied with simplistic answers. Their needs as people change; they’re no longer twenty-somethings, but thirty-somethings with a whole different take on life – and now they have a partner and maybe children. They need a greater level of personal care to help see them through a faith crisis that often accompanies a radical shift in life’s priorities. And ISKCON seems unprepared or incapable of meeting those fresh needs.
Or they feel disappointed by some moral weakness in some highly-placed member of ISKCON. In some cases they may be outraged by some scandal or other, and this becomes compounded with their own faith crisis and the movement’s inadequate systems of membership care. And then it all becomes too much. They cannot keep up even a pretence of membership.
So they drift. They still turn up to major festivals and reunions. But their spark has gone and with it their level of commitment. And they tend to sigh more, or shrug their shoulders more, or complain more – and make friends with others who articulate their concerns for them. And this is a great shame because, you know, they are our own people and they deserve better.
From the perspective of organizational growth, this repeated phenomena means that many people join ISKCON, and many leave. I don’t know any figures (I wish I did) but I would hazard a guess that the average period for this turnaround is between three to five years. This means that ISKCON is a really fuzzy apple with members coming and going all the time. Even those who have made lifetime professions (initiated members) often change their level of participation so radically as to all but invalidate their vows.
People join groups in order to have pressing needs met. And they stay members of a group until their needs are no longer being met. Then they leave. In the business of being a spiritually healthy, growing movement, it is just as important to retain members as it is to create them. If ISKCON were simply a society for introducing people to the teachings that would be one thing, but it is much more than that. We need to keep members, and we need to meet their needs and help them preserve their identification as members. Otherwise we don’t grow. And because members die, and because there are now other, competitive organizations we actually become smaller.