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.