Restoring Integrity to Membership: My Church’s Story

March 28, 2008 — 16 Comments

When I arrived at my church, I had a few surprises early in my tenure. Unfortunately, one thing did not surprise me – the membership roll and the active body were imbalanced. Such is the trend in too many churches today. In my own denomination, 16 million people are claimed as members, yet only 7 million attend church on any given Sunday. Somewhere along the way, we forgot that membership matters.

Our church is no different. In fact, we are one of the worst offenders. Our membership was inflated by a factor of 6 when compared with average attendance. We had 11 (yes, that’s eleven) categories of members, including the following: inactive possible, inactive likely, inactive unlikely, non-resident unknown, non-resident known. Don’t ask me what each of these categories mean. I honestly have no idea.

While God has provided growth to our church and the membership gap has closed some, the spread between “member” and “active churchgoer” remains large. Needless to say, we decided to do a little spring cleaning this year. We’re still working through the process, but I’ll share some tips that worked in my church in restoring integrity to membership.

1. Love the people: If you have an agenda to “purge the rolls,” then you’ve already missed the point. As a pastor, you must first love the people and gain their trust. If you have not built valuable and loving relationships with your church, your members are justified when they cry, “Who are you, pastor, to tell us who’s supposed to be a member!? You don’t even know us!”

2. Start a new members’ class: One of the best way to assimilate new members is to have a class that details the expectations, doctrines, and culture of the church. The first time I taught this class at our church, I intentionally asked the new folks how many people they thought were members of the church…

“Do you guys know how many members we have?” I asked.

One lady responded with a guess close to our average attendance.

She was obviously thinking way too healthy. “Nope,” I responded. “It’s about six times that number.”

I saw the look of disgust on her face, “THAT’S NOT RIGHT!” She exclaimed. “We’ve got to get them back. Do we have their addresses and contact numbers?”

“Of course we do. We’re Southern Baptists…and they’ve all got to get the monthly church newsletter.”

“Can we call them?” she asked.

“Sure.” A light bulb appeared above my head. “Would you like to contact all of them?”

Within two months this new member had written letters and called hundreds of inactive members. She returned the membership roll to me with detailed notes about each person and her conversation with them.

Amazingly, the process of cleaning up our rolls began with this woman in a new members’ class.

3. Follow-up is critical: The best outcome is for inactive members to return. So don’t start slashing and burning. Try and find out from people why they haven’t been attending. Perhaps your church has the ability to meet their needs. And sometimes all people need is a simple invitation to return.

4. Clean the rolls in stages: If the matriarch or patriarch of your church has six family members that haven’t attended since 1965, then you might want to avoid an attempt to scratch them from the membership. The cleaning of membership rolls does not have to be an all-or-nothing process (that’s how pastors lose their jobs). Consider cleaning the rolls in three stages:

Stage one: remove the people that nobody has a clue who they are, as well as those that moved out of the area.

Stage two: remove the people that have not been to church in years.

Stage three: remove those that are still close to other church members.

*Note: I wouldn’t attempt stage three unless you’ve been at a church for at least a decade.

5. Enlist key members in the church: Instead of personally marking through the rolls, I handed them to a few key members and asked them to verify independently those whom they do not know. Not only does this place distance between the pastor and the process of eliminating members, it gives pastors back-up and buy-in from the people the church trusts the most.

6. Challenge Sunday School/small groups/connect groups to help in the process: After one round of removing members, take the remaining inactive lists to Sunday Schools and small groups. Ask them to point out anyone they know. If they know someone, then make that class responsible for getting the person back into fellowship with the body of believers.

7. Take it slow: Without sounding redundant – TAKE IT SLOW! Pastoring a church is a marathon, not a sprint. Removing people from membership rolls is an ultra-marathon process.

8. Parallel an outwardly-focused missions strategy with the process of cleaning the rolls: If you are attempting to clean your rolls without also thinking outward as a church, your process will not go as well as it should. Only churches that are connecting with their communities and living incarnationally should attempt to clean their rolls. So if your church is not evangelistic, does not have a missions program, and does not do outreach, then do not even think about cleaning the rolls. Pour your pastoral energies into getting the church to obey the Great Commission first.

In about a month we’ll be finished with stage one. Our eleven categories of members will become two: inactive and active. And we’re expecting our rolls to decline by hundreds of members. Who ever thought that such a statement about a church would be healthy? Regardless, I’m proud of my church for being honest and having integrity.


Sam Rainer

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Sam S. Rainer is the president of Rainer Research and the Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Rainer Publishing.

16 responses to Restoring Integrity to Membership: My Church’s Story

  1. Great post, and great advice.

    My church had a providential accident when it comes to roll-cleansing: after a split a couple of years ago (before I got here), the Elder who had all of the minutes from the past 15+ years left, and he doesn’t respond to requests to get them back. So, our Session has taken the approach that our membership roll is in a state of rebuilding– and anyone who isn’t KNOWN to be a member was/is considered removed from the roll due to inactivity.

    (We have as a benefit that our denomination’s Book of Church Order requires Sessions to attempt to keep the rolls clean, in part by allowing them to remove members whose inactivity of more than a year is reflected in the church’s attendance records.)

    So I inherited a relatively short membership roll– and there’s only a couple of families that are inactive on it that I don’t really know about. I plan to visit these families myself in the next month or so, and learn their circumstances.

    I knwo that not every Pastor has such good fortune. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. I wish all church leaders would follow your biblical and common-sense approach. Some leaders will not touch the rolls because they enjoy the inflated numbers. Other leaders spend more time on roll-cleansing than they do the Great Commission. And still others tackle the issue without demonstrating any love toward the congregation. Your approach should be emulated by all of us: love the people, stay outwardly focused, and restore biblical integrity to membership rolls at a pace that does not destroy the church.

    One of your best posts yet. Thanks!

  3. Thank you for this excellent post. I have been thinking about this issue for quite a while. The problem of the inactive members in the SBC is just out of control.

    In particular, I appreciate your first point. Without loving the people, and the trust that comes from that, this process would be a disaster for a pastor.

    I’m going to keep this post on-hand for when I will be dealing with this. Thanks!

  4. Michael A. Jordan March 29, 2008 at 10:54 am

    An excellent post – I have been pastor of this church for 6 months – I know that you say to wait a decade before stage 3…when would you begin stage 1?

  5. Michael – much depends on the church. My church was ready for some changes when I arrived (it’s one reason they called me). But I still waited a year to begin the process. One thing I did first was to talk about all the “former members who are still on our rolls.” It got people thinking to say the least…

  6. I rarely save blogs, but this one is a keeper. I plan to make hard copies and give it to my church leadership. I just don’t see ministry leaders advocating the Great Commission and integrity in membership. It seems like many have created a false dichotomy. Thank you Sam for your biblical balance and your love for the local church.

  7. Great topic and I love the steps you’ve outlined. Something I can put into practice. My situation though is a little different. Our membership is half of our regular attendance. I’m not exactly sure why that is. Maybe its partly due to only being a 10 year old church plant. I think also because a whole new generation of church goers see no need for membership. Any thoughts on this situation or know of similar situations?

  8. Mike – You’re correct, many church plants have more in attendance than members. The goal for you is to encourage “casual attenders” to become “active members” without making the same mistakes as established churches – that is, creating a back door bigger than the front. Letting people know of your church’s high expectations upfront (best accomplished through a new members’ class) will enable you to assimilate them at higher rates.

  9. I like a clean church row! Maybe you should clean up some church staff as well.

  10. T – I like my staff, and they all take showers regularly (at least, I think so).

  11. I’m actually intrigued by the concept of church membership…when did it start? why do we do it? is it even biblical? It seems that membership is something we’ve added to the process of meeting together for corporate worship and accountability. I understand the logic of it but I wonder if its just man’s rules that have been overlaid on God’s original plan.

  12. Jim:

    I ask myself and others those same questions. What is the history of church membership? I will research it. Some would sat its biblical in principle, citing “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Hebrews 13:17). But I would ask, if my elders (those who rule over me) told me to do something non biblical, then its my obligation to speak out against it, rebuke reproove with His word. I fail to see how this scripture justifies membership into a local church. I’ve read Acts over and over, looking for indication of membership into the local church and can not find it.

    Some will say that it is a form of obedience and even liken it to baptism, which I have a hard time justifying.

    I understand the desire (not the Biblical mandate) of membership, for logistical purposes.

    But if my family and I corporately worship regularly (very very very seldom do we miss church), if I have fellowships at my home (130 people last time -we Baptists can eat), if I am active in my mission fields (Habitat, abused kids and addicted adults) and proactively try to get members of our Sunday school class to join in with those missions, am I just being prideful by not becoming a member.

    I mean, I get all the tithe envelopes and mailings, etc,so the only thing I am not included in is voting…but when is the last time you saw a vote in church that came down to the wire?

    I am not anti membership at all, and I do think new membership classes are hugely important (to new believers especially), yet I fail to see biblical principle justifying it. I pray its not pride in me that leads me to this belief.

    Blessings.

  13. Rev. Karl Stumpf September 4, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I am working on my Doctorate of Ministry degree. My project/paper is on the subject of ministry to inactive members.

    Does anyone have a good bibliography on this subject?

    Please copy and paste and send along.

    Thanks for your assistance and may the Lord bless your ministry.

  14. Absolutely fantastic post. I am going to use it as I consult with a young SBC pastor of a church with this exact problem.

    As for Jim’s comment above about whether or not church membership is biblical or just another man made rule, I think he misses the pastoral flavor of your post. However a church defines membership, moving our attenders or the people in the community who identify our church as their church, we want to help all “members” become more incarnationally involved in the community and more connected within the body of Christ.

    Applying what you have written will help all churches, no matter what denomination or how membership is defined, to think differently about missional engangement inside and outside the church. Thanks.

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