Membership Transfers in a Modern Age

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I am sure that all churches and elder boards struggle from time to time with issues of members transferring out and not requesting that their papers be sent to another church, with times when the "rolls" are looked at with a difficult mixture of administrative necessity and pastoral concern, with seeking to understand what their role and responsibility is in this situation. Nationally, the concept of membership seems to have changed greatly from 50 or even 20 years ago.

In light of that, I ran across an interesting tidbit from the first edition of Montsma and Van Dellen's Church Order commentary from 1932 or thereabouts. It was mentioned that when people immigrated, they were often ... here's the point ...*given a copy of their membership papers themselves and were told to bring them to the church where they would settle.* Elders certainly have a role in the guidance, care, and direction of members, to "guard all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers".

But such a practice as the one that Monstma and Van Dellen comment on would seem to say that within our history there is a countering truth, that membership is the responsibility of the individual, and they should be encouraged to take an active role in the process. What do you think? Are our current practices adequate? Is the practice that Montsma and Van Dellen note just a quirk of history or something that could be adapted to the transient nature of our modern world? How would pastoral care and oversight be blended with such a practice?

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Hey Jeff......great thoughts/questions. We're facing the reality in our church that my generation (20-30-somethings) aren't really very interested in membership at all. They're not uncommitted - in fact they are some of the most committed people in our church - they just don't feel it necessary to work towards membership and if I didn't think it was a requirement to work there, I'm not sure I would either, so its tough to blame them! I think part of it stems from a generational perspective that places heavy emphasis on authenticity - and we grew up watching some church "members" not act in a very authentically Christian way without any ramifications....so we wonder where the value is.

Then this question arises....can only members be leaders (ie, elders, deacons, ministry area leaders). If so, the leadership pool we have to select from is necessarily older and non-representative of our church as a whole (especially when we're passing up great up-and-coming leaders due to their membership beliefs/practices).

...just another wrinkle.

In our tradition, membership is absolutely the responsibility of the individual. The Belgic Confession even says so: "all people are obliged to join and unite with the [church]" (Art. 28). But it is also the responsibility of the officers of the church: e.g., "excommunication, with all it involves... is required." (Art. 32). The question is, of course, whether "paper" membership is all that important. Do we really have to keep books of names and dates?

You're both right that many people don't value "paper" membership much anymore. I think Mark is right that people are skeptical of it because it seems to have little value -- you can be active and committed to the church without having your name written down in the council's book, right? And what about all those people who do have their names written down, but who are inactive within the body?

But this is exactly why the church must be counter-cultural by requiring documents for membership -- because without them, we would have nothing to say about those who no longer act like members of the body, except, "Well, they used to worship here." With paper membership, we can at least say, "They are not acting in line with their commitment to the body as a member of this church," and we can point them to a record of this commitment. If their membership in the body has at its earthly foundation only a subjective commitment voiced and practiced when they join, what happens when that subjective feeling of commitment fades? Have they ceased being members? Paper membership allows us to express the truth of Q&A 54 of the Heidelberg: "And of this community I am and always will be a living member." And it allows us to hold people accountable to that.

It's clear that "paper" membership has been misused and ignored by both councils and members of the body. But this is no reason to get rid of or radically transform the process. We need to be transformed. People are plenty accustomed today to being "members" of something or another. (Facebook, a local recreational club, etc.) What we need to do, both as the leaders and the members, is to be reminded that membership in the church is much more significant than these -- it is a life-long commitment. We often talk about how foolish it is for a man and a woman to live together and start a family without getting married because of the damage that is caused if there is a break-up -- damage which is much worse without the institution of marriage to help adjudicate claims. Isn't joining a church without "tying the knot" of official membership just as foolish? What we need is not a looser institution of church membership, but a stronger one.

And by the way, his name is spelled "Monsma." No 't'. I'm not related, but I felt like I had to correct it. ;)

I would tend to agree if I hadn't visited and been a part of congregations that operate perfectly fine without membership - still holding eachother to accountability and still differentiating between those who were part of the committed body and those who are less so. There are ways to do church discipline and honor articles 28, 32 & Q&A 54, I believe, without paper membership - many of us are already playing on that field out of necessity, if not principle.

At a different time in my life, it might have been a thing that I triumphed, as well, but I have trouble doing so when there's no real Scriptural precedence for this sort of thing. I'm all for being cross-cultural, but is paper membership really an area of the Church that we feel like we should be expending large amounts of energy to "preserve" when the Church is eroding in so many other areas? I'm not sure its realistic, necessary or even Biblical.

There's no reason that the argument for paper membership must come from scripture. We've always maintained that not all of the details of church order are given to us in scripture.

The question is not whether it is dictated by scripture, but whether paper membership is the best way (or a very good way) to put into practice the biblical truth about the seriousness of membership in and commitment to the body. Should a member's covenantal commitment to the body of Christ be sealed with a paper record of some sort? The long tradition of Western jurisprudence certainly suggests that paper records are wise "sacraments" of covenants. (Perhaps there are other traditions that would offer us some other solid paradigm...) I'm hesitant to think that a few anecdotes about churches that got along fine without them are enough to overturn this ancient wisdom -- especially when it comes to the most important commitment a person can make.

Excellent thoughts...there are many topics that come out of this! The relationship between "paper membership" and I guess what we could call "real" membership seems to have been at the center of the discussion so far. As you note, Nick, paper membership seems to have functioned as a "sacrament" of sorts of a person's commitment to and union with a particular body of believers. My original question, though, was not so much about eliminating or preserving paper membership, but rather something along these lines...when it comes to membership transfers, is there a way of preserving the importance of membership (and by extension, "paper" membership) while highlighting the volitional aspect of membership in an increasingly transient (and, one might add, postdenominational) age? Does Monstma and Van Dellen's observation of the Dutch practice, properly hedged in by pastoral oversight and due diligence, point to an alternative that already has precedent in our tradition? H. Bouwman also notes this practice in his work on church order, of "a person, after having moved to a new place of residence is supposed to hand in his "attestatie" to the church of his choice in his new home town." Or, here is an excerpt from a classical overture from the 1990s:

"A crucial component of membership is the willing commitment or choice that a person makes. It is that choice that constitutes a covenant with the local church to be a living member. When memberships are "transferred" from one church office to another, the choice of the member is often bypassed and the nature of church membership degraded. Since it is the commitment and not the paper that constitutes the membership, the papers the give a testimony of true membership in the previous congregation ought to be given to the person who is leaving. This person needs to bring it to the "new" church community and by that act makes a new covenant. He or she then becomes a member of this new communty of faith.

"Membership cannot really be transferred from one church to another. it is not like a club membership or a credit rating. Neither is it the property of the church. Membership papers are letters of testimony about the person's faith life in the previous church. Ideally they should not be form letters, but testimonies about faith commitments, spiritual gifts and participation in the previous church.

"The volitional aspect of membership has been recognized in reformed church policy by requiring: that membership transfers should be requested, that membership papers must be given to persons who insist on it, that membership can be kept in a church where one is not attending upon request. Even when a member is under discipline and insists on withdrawl as member it must be granted. However, we have not been consistent with this principle in our practice of transfering membership.

"We deem the Dutch method of transference of membership to be more effective if not more scriptural than the method of our own denomination, where transference is mainly an administrative act of the church office in which all too often the member plays a minor role. It seems that a personally expressed indication of the desire of membership in a local congregation is a confessional act which is far to be preferred above the merely passive and administrative transfer often practiced in our denomination."

Fairly strongly worded, but plenty of food for thought.

I see more clearly now what you were asking. In fact, I think an answer to the question you asked can help do what I would like to see: strengthen the institution of church membership and our commitment to it.

The practice of giving a "record of membership" of some sort to the person moving prior to the move does seem to have some strengths. If nothing else, it reminds the church member of the significance of membership.

I can think of two concerns:

1) Often, people take a substantial amount of time to settle into a church community. Would they fail to receive the pastoral guidance to settle in and commit to a specific congregation under this new system? Under the current system, the council of the previous church would (ideally) keep in contact with them (and bug them after a bit so they can tidy up the membership rolls). But if the member is removed from membership and given a record of membership prior to the move, they would have no one bugging them about settling down. They might appreciate that, but I'm not sure it is the best practice.

I'll suggest a solution to this one: perhaps they could be given a record of membership when they leave, but would remain official members of the former church until the usual membership transfer process was enacted (a kind of both-and with respect to these the different membership transfer procedures mentioned in your question). This assumes that they would transfer to another church with our kind of polity. In a neat and tidy world, this would probably be a good practice. But in the actual world...

2) The answer to your question applies really well to geographical moves. But would it be an improvement when people are restless in their current congregation and begin "church shopping"?

"Church shopping" is, of course, largely spurred on by post-denominational and consumer-oriented cultural trends, and I suppose part of answering your question would require us to evaluate those trends. Are they purely problematic when it comes to commitment to a congregation? And if they are, does this mean the institutional church should have, in its polity, a zero-tolerance policy toward such evils? Or should we accommodate? Perhaps a bit of accommodation can be combined with a strong stand against these things. A carefully crafted system could take a step toward where people are in order to bring them to a better place.

Community Builder

Membership
A few comments:
First, the church order and our process will always lag the changes we face. The way membership is treated in our culture is under change. I believe we need to address a few concerns:
1. Formal commitment to the church (membership) is part of taking full responsibility for the life of the church. To say that one belongs to this worshipping community without tanking legal responsibility and opening oneself up to taking leadership is a failure to understand the full scope of belonging.
2. Voluntary association is not the way Scripture talks about belonging to the church. By grace and through faith we become part of the body of Christ. To say that my only comfort is belonging to Christ and then playing loose with body of Christ is simply a misunderstanding of the way of Christ among us.
3. Selecting the ones we choose to do community with is a little odd when we remember that we are selecting/ deselecting people whom Jesus loved enough to die for.
4. We deal to deal with ecumenicity better. The body of Christ is divided. What does membership to a congregation mean when my community includes people of various denominations and congregations who are committed to living for Christ? Because membership is sometimes seen as separating me from fellow believers, membership can be seen as a hindrance to shared faith with other Christians.
Second, one common feature of dislocation (moving to another community) is the loss of community. Many who have moved stop going to church. They may have good intentions, visit a number of churches and show genuine interest. But moving is hard on relationships. Some find it easy to drop out. Whether we send papers with individuals or not, their connection with their previous community is an important part of transition. The previous community can and ought extend care to them for some time after a move. I remember one time when I visited a couple a year after a move. They had not attended church regularly since the move. Simply visiting encouraged them to reconnect to church life.
Third, there is church shopping and friendship that extend over various communities of faith. It seems to me that many members today have a core of Christian friends that go to more than one place to worship. One person can go to more than one church just to be with friends. This is different than church shopping. Church shopping is part of a consumerist culture. Church shopping is part of a culture that makes my needs central to the place I worship. The notion of a core of Christian friends that go to various churches on Sunday is slightly different. Their commitment is to their friendships. Institutions mean less. Both tell us about how churches are viewed. In both membership is seen as a hindrance rather than a help. Getting such believers to deal with their membership is counterproductive. I usually say to council to put such members who are no longer attending in a file – neither deleting them or counting them. Decisions of council can be reversed in circumstances change. Annoying people who think of our concern with membership as a strange obsession does not help their growth in faith.
Keep talking.
Neil

We certainly seem to have a healthy amount of material on this topic! As the former Clerk of Records for our congregation I am very familiar with the challenges of membership tracking. (See also my forum comments about Membership Software under the Administration section.)

We have discussed membership a number of times over the past few years at our Elder meetings. Based on these conversations and ones we have had with other churches, the priority of membership in the formal sense seems to have somewhat diminished within the denomination. If someone has found your congregation to be a place where they can meet God, as well as enjoy the communion of the saints, you may well have provided all that that person or family is looking for, at least for now.

Our Council decided a few years ago that regularly attending individuals may be a part of the various committees, but they may not chair that committee. In this way folks may develop a deeper sense of belonging, and have more time reviewing what ever is holding them back from becoming a member.

The idea of membership for myself is that it creates a stronger sense of commitment or belonging. I think this same theme goes along with the current "Form of Subscription" discussion. While we believe we are part of the true universal church as discussed in the Belgic Confession (art 27-32.) We also hold we are Reformed. Membership helps define who we are, and how we understand God's will for us, and what our congregation is called to do.

We have also discussed members who we don't see as often as we would like. As Elders, our job includes making a phone call to find out how things are going, and/or a letter or two to find out how that person or family is. We do keep track of members whose status could be considered "inactive" versus "lapsed." Some times you can't get an answer, and sometimes the answer is that they want their membership held at your church even though they don't worship there anymore. For some folks, they will always be a member of a certain congregation no matter where they are or how infrequently they attend.

Membership is the responsibility of the individual, but it also serves as a marker or guidepost for the elders as they try to minister to the needs of their congregation.

Since our church is small, I have been managing membership records instead of one of the elders. I have also seen the change. When older members change membership in the appropriate way, I try to welcome them even though they may hve been quite active already. This happens so that the younger set gets the idea that membership is appreciated. When a baby is born and wish to be baptized, membership papers are requested. However, since this younger set can be very committed we have not put any artificial barriers between members and non members. Our directory which comes out every two years is a good way to find out who is or is not committed by inviting people to add their names to the directory or e-mail list we have.  I have consoled myself to this view by thinking about Jesus' church as one church and not be too concerned if we have a lot of 'ex members' on our list as long as we know from family members that they are active members of another church or have moved away to another town.  It is always a challenge for elders to know who to include in their list and who have in effect transferred membership without letting us know officially.  There is always sufficient to deal with the members and others who do attend let alone all those who are no longer attending.  

Participant

Good comments!  We also wrestle with this reality.  When I came to this congregation, there were about 65 names of persons that hadn't been a part of the worship or ministry of this congregation for a few years or more (some many more).  After exploring the lapsing criteria of dealing with memberships, we worked through many of the names.  A few were contacted, mostly out of courtesy because someone still had contact with them.  Some simply were lapsed as we had no idea where they were (and some, who they were!).  Now we have about 2 dozen inactive members attached to this congregation.  And that list changes every year. 

Personally, I try to be proactive when people are moving out of our congregation's range geographically.  I ask them before and shortly after they have moved about finding a church home.  If there is no reply, we send them a double registered letter asking them the question again and for a repsonse in the next 6 weeks and being clear that if they are moving back here, we would love to have them rejoin this congregation.  (The double registered means they sign for the letter and we get a note back from the post office saying it was actually received by them).  If after the 6 weeks, we receive no response, we lapse their names off our membership list.  We do not make a big public display of this with announcements but simply make sure the care/elder teams are aware of this change. 

My experience with those locally who have ceased to attend, and especially younger generations (I am 46), is that by the time we have this conversation with them, they have already assumed they are no longer members at our congregation.  In other words, their sense of having left (because they did and are often attending elsewhere) goes hand in hand with their ceasing to be members.  Meanwhile our Council is busy trying to decide what to do about their membership.  We have had at least a half dozen in recent years, who in their minds ceased to be members well ahead of our Council's question to them of what they intend to do with their membership.  I have even had conversations with non-attending members (young adults) who talk about this church here as the church "they used to be a member of years ago" or "their parent's church".  Seems some of our members move on long before we realize they have. 

For me the paper work is not really a problem.  I don't think we should make official membership in a congregation so onorous a process to change that it smacks of getting stuck in a cell phone contract or some gym membership that simply won't let you go.  I would like some more fluid view of membership in a congregation that allows for efficient in and out of believers between churches when that is their desire, regardless of the receiving church's membership practices.  We have a menonite congregation in town which has a worshiping population on a weekend of about 3,000 but of which about 1,000 are officially members there. They are wrestling with what does that mean for them?

I think the closer we can tie the "local church membership" to "being a believer in and disciple of Christ" at its most basic levels, the more sense it makes that if someone cuts themselves off from the ministry and worship of the Body, then they cease to be members.  Right now,it can almost sound like our paper memberships are something apart from being in the Body of Christ, as if there is a Body of Christ that believers are a part of, and then, there is also this church institution thing that some of the Body (perhaps most) will become a part of as well.  I'm not sure the two are so separate.

My advice would be, we stop pretending certain people are members of the Body in a certain local when they are not.  It is a bit of matter of integrity.  Can you still minister to those who no longer are members.  Certainly, however, at present, a lot of our oversight ministry focuses only on members and as soon as a member ceases to be a member, we drop them.  Maybe we need a parish perspective on the local worshipping body rather than an institutional membership perspective.  Who are we called to care for in our locale?  Who are we repsonsible for?  Membership could be joining in the carrying out this ministry. 

And some residue of that old membership papers practice is that many folk think there is a filing cabinet in the church with a folder with their names on it and in that folder are "membership papers" akin to "baptismal certificates" or something.  No such thing exists here.  It is simply the list we keep of who we feel we have oversight of.  Or, another way of saying that, is the list of who has submitted themselves to the mutual oversight (led by the elders) in this congregation.  When people stop attending and being connected with this congregation, we try to determine the nature of what they mean by that.  Are they leaving Christ and His Body (an admonition and discipline reality), or switching places where they will submit their lives to the care and admonition of fellow believers in Christ along with those servants set part to oversee that ministry (then just acknowledge their decision and bless them in their new place of ministry and move on)?