Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Little Rant about Church Transfers

When I started in the ministry – church transfers were handled in this way. If someone wanted to transfer their church membership within the ELCA and its predecessors – the new church where they were attending would write a letter to the church they were a currently a member and ask for a transfer. As a pastor I would not approve transfers until I had heard from the church itself that they were indeed taking responsibility for that person. That was an orderly way to ensure that the person was entrusted to the care of a congregation.

Well none of that happens anymore. People call up the church and ask for a transfers all the time. I used to try to fight it and get confirmation from the church to which they were transferring but people treated me like I was crazy and when I didn’t even get support from my bishop in a former synod when people in my congregation complained that I was doing that I gave it up. So now I just sign the transfer papers having no idea if these people really are going to join the church or not.

When I moved into this synod and the Bishop told us  pastors that if someone from a nearby colleagues’ church was showing interest in transferring we were to CALL that pastor and have a discussion, with the idea in mind that there may be some sort of misunderstanding or reconciliation that could take place to keep the person in their original church. That never happens here either. There’s a church a few miles away that is leaving the ELCA and that pastor never calls me to tell me that my folks are going to church over there or that they are thinking of transferring. I just get the call from the folks asking for a transfer. I once even marched into his office and confronted him about it, quoting the bishop and he gave me no satisfactory answer. Now that they are leaving the ELCA I suppose I’ll see even more of those transfers.

It’s not about being possessive about members. It’s about community. It’s about spiritual care of one another. It’s not good for people to be able to just hop around from church to church because they don’t like what this pastor is saying or what hymns this church is singing or if someone looked at them funny after church. It’s about seeing ourselves as part of the larger church and individual congregations are expressions of that so we can work together to make sure people are care for. My secretary just looks at me and says “Nobody does thinks that” Oh well. At least my bishop sees things my way.


  1. We've had a similar experience with churches in the Des Moines area. In part, I think it's lame that church members leave a church without directly informing their former congregation. That said, I wish people in our church would have an awareness that certain people are no longer attending, and would call the missing members and see what's up. There's plenty of blame to go around.

    It makes me wonder - what's the point of church "membership" in the 21st century?

    My experience is that Baby Boomers (and younger) will attend a variety of churches in their life without regard for their official membership. They might visit one congregation for a few weeks/months/years, and then move to another one when their needs change. It's a lot like consumerism (which sucks)...but it is reality for many people who are 50-and-under.

    Gone are the days of "civic religion" where all upstanding members of the community were expected to belong to a church, even if their attendance was spotty at best. They were long-time members of a church in the same way they were members of various clubs & organizations in their community. No real ties to "being church" or "doing church"...just "belonging to a church". This is where institutional loyalty becomes a priority instead of living out the gospel in radical ways.

    I can see how church membership rolls served a purpose in previous generations, but I'm not convinced that they do anything for us today...especially when the average membership / worship attendance ratio is 4:1 in ELCA congregations.

    I'm curious - what would it look like if churches did away with church membership rosters and focused on making disciples among those who are present?

  2. Well I know one pastor who says the church is whoever is there on Sunday. Of course that doesn't take into account shut ins....but if we didn't have membership list how could we have a legal vote to leave the ELCA? ;-)

  3. To tell the truth, I've always thought the transfers were a meaningless bureaucratic exercise. I never felt a need to get such a transfer from the congregation I grew up in to the one I started attending as an adult in a different part of the state, nor when I moved and found a new congregation in a new state. I figured if it was important to the new congregation in some way, they'd contact the old congregation for the transfer letter.

    I think the significant concern you raise is the one in which people are attending another congregation where there may be issues of misunderstandings and reconciliation that can be addressed. It would be in the best interest of both congregations that any such pastoral issues not be allowed to fester. Situations like that can be prone to such unhealthy silences.

    Erik's comments about formal membership also make for good food for thought. For many years I've questioned what the point of keeping a permanent formal record of membership. I can understand recording baptisms, marriages, funerals and the like. But the keeping of record of when people commune and who is formally a "member" seems odd to me. I suppose a membership roll is useful so that the church has a mailing list, but I don't see much use beyond that, and as a mailing list it would seem limited.

  4. Your policy was my policy, too, when I was in a congregational call. I had a woman call about transferring to our church because she had a disagreement with the pastor of a local congregation. I told her she needed to talk to him before trying to transfer. I never heard from her again.

    It IS about community. It's about having respect for one another as colleagues in ministry and members of the Body of Christ. Sure, it's bureaucratic nonsense sometimes, but the root purpose is proper, compassionate care for all of God's children. I think you're right about this one, Joelle!

  5. Now a word from a pastor of 42 years, who has done everything "by the book". Call me a traditionalist. Letters of transfer are sent on the request of the out-going member or the congregation which will receive them. The member is not removed until the certificate is returned from the receiving congregation. Besides "community" which has been mentioned, it is also a matter of pastoral care and concern. Then, when an interim pastor arrives and attempts to update the rolls prior to the arrival of the next pastor, there will be no need to have the council remove 150 inactive members (some of which cannot be found after sending letters and making phone calls). As a trained Intentional Interim, I know how important this matter is.
    Robert D. Kitchen, D.Min.

  6. Of course, then there was the time when our pastor offered my husband a rapid transfer for me to the other ELCA church in town without ever asking me if I wanted to leave. And no that isn't a joke.

    About the question of membership though, I see the good order of it for keeping track of baptisms and such. However, there is such a broken understanding of what being "membered" means in the Body of Christ. I read one pastor's argument as to why pastors should be the ones doing all the visitation if they were to authentically preach/preside (aka "Pastors are more than magic hands" argument). However, that devalues what it means for each member of the local Body to be in care of each other.

    Sometimes I see my generation's lack of attachment as fear of vulnerability in a society of transitivity. Why be rooted if you could get hurt by moving again? What does it mean to be connected to physically bodies versus digital ones?

    Thanks for the question, Joelle!

  7. You had a pastor who WANTED do to ALL the visitation? That's nuts. Would LOVE to have some help in that department.

  8. I had a family that just stop coming to my church, and I heard only rumors that they were going elsewhere until I saw their picture in another church's pictorial directory during a sales call from Olan Mills. When I called this "community church" about it,they said that they really don't have membership rolls, if you show up you are a member.