In the first year of one of my pastorates, I removed about 200 people from the membership! It’s true—but let me explain. Although the church constitution included a clear statement about inactive membership and a careful process of removal, somehow action had not been taken for many years. I had the unhappy task of leading the church in contacting a couple hundred inactive members. Some hadn’t been to church in over a decade; others we simply could not locate. Eventually we acted as a congregation to remove those we could not restore. What a way to start my ministry . . . but I survived!

Sadly, many churches that have constitutional statements about keeping their membership rolls clean do not follow through. Cleaning up the church roll can be a challenging effort, because it can create hurt feelings—especially when family members or close friends are involved. (“They just might come back if we don’t offend them,” I sometimes hear.) The task can also become overwhelming and discouraging. (I’ve found most congregations prefer adding rather than subtracting members.)

Some may wonder, Why go to all that trouble? Is the responsibility really all that important? I think so, and here’s why.

It affirms what membership truly means—for the congregation.

Removing absent members provides a great teaching moment. In doing so, leaders remind people that church membership is not merely about having one’s name on a roll. Choosing to join a church means that those individuals attend, they serve, they give, they pray, they support, they help. If leaders allow disengaged people to remain members, they are communicating the former rather than the latter. There are obvious exceptions, of course, when it comes to missionaries, college students, and those who are homebound, but general commitment to the process of removing members displays what membership is all about.

It affirms what membership truly means—for the inactive member.

Working through the sensitive process of contacting inactive members is an act of care. Leaders show interest in the inactive members, making sure they understand that church membership involves responsibilities designed for individuals’ growth. Leaders also express sorrow that those people have not remained active, along with their desire that they reconnect with their church family. Some may have joined other churches—perhaps just forgetting to let you know of their decision—but even then leaders’ contact can encourage them about future faithfulness . . . wherever God has led them.

It provides a genuine basis for congregational care and accountability.

Accurate membership records will aid church ministries that focus on congregational care. Such ministries—often through deacons or Sunday School classes—can spend time serving those who are truly connected to the church. And Biblical church discipline’s restorative purpose can be more effectively administered.

It helps protect church unity.

Because our fellowship believes in congregational government, the makeup of the local congregation is a crucial matter when it comes to church decisions and direction. Failing to keep the membership roll current could lead to division if disgruntled inactive members suddenly appear in order to influence decisions and ministries negatively. Those who are not committed to the church and active in its ministry should not be given a means whereby they can create disunity. Keeping the membership roll updated prevents this from happening.

It demonstrates leadership integrity.

I have always believed that, as a pastoral leader, I have a responsibility to follow my church constitution (or work though the proper channels to change it). Some church constitutions may not have specific statements about removal of inactive members, but when they do, leaders are obligated to follow through. Such actions reflect integrity and communicate volumes to our church families about leaders’ character!

Jim Vogel (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) was a pastor for 30 years before becoming associate national representative of the GARBC.