Cleaning Up the Rolls
Though I hear stories from church leaders around the country almost every day, I was still stunned by the following email from a faithful deacon in a Baptist church:
“I would appreciate the opportunity to talk with you regarding cleaning up the church roll. I began compiling a list of widows from our membership database yesterday and found that of the 141 total widows in our database, 38 were deceased and 4 had transferred membership to other churches (not counting the ones who are classified as “Inactive” or “Non-Resident Members).”
You can just imagine how the late-night talk show hosts would poke fun at this: “Did you hear about the thirty-eight dead members of Faith Alive Baptist Church? Talk about the need to change the church’s name!” This might be funny if it did not characterize churches around our nation and others.
Bad records and outdated rolls trouble any faithful pastor’s existence. Yet before you sweep things clean, consider both why and how this should be done.
Why should churches clean up their membership rolls?
1) Christ’s name and honor is at stake in the world. Think about the Apostle Paul’s passionate concern for who was associated with the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5).
2) Membership in a church should reflect, as best as possible, membership in Christ’s Kingdom. We should neither receive nor dismiss members lightly. “Dropping someone from the rolls” should be treated with utmost care, even if the member himself has been careless.
3) Pastors, elders, and leaders will “give an account” to God someday for their shepherding (Heb. 13:17). God took Israel’s shepherds to task for repeated unfaithfulness (e.g. Ezek. 34).
4) Congregations will also give an account to God for how they receive members. Consider who Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 5!
5) Less mature Christians are at risk of being confused about the importance of the church in the growing Christian’s life and could be led toward complacency themselves.
6) The member who has moved out of the area should be encouraged to link arms with a church in his new hometown and make himself known to believers there. If he does not, his former church should encourage him to do so by letter or phone. If he remains unresponsive, the church should inform him that they will remove his name in the next members’ meeting, thereby sending the message that they can no longer account for his life.
How should churches clean up their membership rolls?
If you tackle all the problematic membership cases at once, you will run into fire. But it’s difficult to predict where. Will your members be happy to remove local non-attenders? Out-of-the-area members? The dead? Pastor, be wise and only do what your people can tolerate. Be patient and teach until they are ready to move.
So where do you start? Picture multiple concentric circles (like a dartboard) with the center (the bull’s-eye) representing meaningful membership. The outer rings represent meaningless membership, and hopefully they are easiest to clean up. As you move from the outer rings to the bull’s-eye, your membership rolls should increasingly consist of confessing believers who are actively involved in your church. Let’s start from the outside and work in:
1) Members who are dead. (At my church we found 10!) This outer-most ring should be the easiest to clean up. At you church’s next meeting for conducting business, put these names before the congregation with a motion to remove them from membership in the following meeting. Don’t ask the congregation to immediately remove these names, but give them time to think about the motion.
2) Members whom you cannot find. Probably the next easiest group to remove. Two women in our church hunted for seventy members for six months in vain! These names were then put before the congregation asking for help. When all efforts were exhausted, a motion was put to the congregation to remove them.
3) Absent and disinterested members. Our church had dozens of members who we found but who wanted nothing to do with us. We found one woman in Germany who had become a Unitarian and was upset that we contacted her.
4) Members out of the area. These are people who are unable to attend on a regular basis due to distance, and any meaningful accountability is near-impossible. You will no doubt encounter people who have a wrong understanding of membership in this group: “I’ve held my membership in that church since I sang in the Junior Choir in 1959” or “I walked the aisle in that church in 1970, and I promised my mother I would remain a faithful member.” Despite their emotional attachment to your church, this group needs to be taught a right understanding of church membership. Remember pastor, you will give an account for these individuals. Don’t be caught with names on your rolls of people whom you have never met. Make a motion to remove these individuals “for non-attendance” at your next business meeting.
5) Non-attending members in the area. Certainly we’ve reached one of the toughest circles. These people want to maintain their membership and they can attend; but they want little to do with the church. This circle is often difficult because of the relationships these individuals maintain with attending members. Maybe it’s a grown child or an old friend from the choir. Again, teaching is required and movement must be slow.
These first five categories are the biggest and most obvious targets. There are other categories like “attends, but won’t sign the statement of faith” or “in the area, but cannot attend.” Old age or an infirmity might prevent a member from attending; they should not be dismissed, but specially cared for! Also, we encourage special charity toward elderly members who have moved out of the area and into retirement homes. Why? They often grew up with a different understanding of church membership and are unlikely to change. Out of love, consider allowing them to remain on the rolls.
Once again, out of love for your people, do not clean the rolls more quickly than your congregation can handle. For some, this may take years to work through the different rings. Churches are too often divided over careless pastoral exercises when the goal should be unity. Remember, each listing on your roll is more than a name; it’s a soul.