I’d guess it’s the reason your church rolls are five, six, even seven times larger than your average Sunday attendance. Everything in life gravitates toward disorder and deterioration without attention. If you need evidence, look at your lawn. Healthy grass is a product of attention. You must pull weeds. Water in the morning. Mow often. Spray and fertilize. Neglect the yard and entropy follows.
Likely, pastor, you inherited a decade or more of inattention to the rolls and, by this point, have probably added to it. As my high school coach used to tell me, “Josh it’s really not about where you are … it’s about where you’re going.” I find that encouragement helpful and hopeful as we think through this essential area of membership that has been neglected in Baptist life.
Before you begin evaluating your membership roll, here are three words of caution:
1. Be patient
Love is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4a). It takes years to build relational trust in a church. Take time to build trust by preaching God’s Word and loving God’s people. Tackle books of the Bible and never skip hard passages. Live out what you preach by loving your people. Answer phone calls. Attend different Sunday school classes. Counsel struggling couples. Visit the sick. Volunteer in the children’s and student ministries. Disciple faithful men. Equip leaders. Pray for your people. Be patient.
2. Work within your system
You (most likely) aren’t the first pastor of your church. Godly men, women, and children have prayed, served, taught, evangelized, worshiped, and systematically organized your church into the coherent and vibrant body it is today. The coherence you experience flows from your constitution and bylaws.
Before you start skipping merrily on your way in an effort to trim the rolls, get to know your system. Learn how your autonomous congregation organizes herself. Talk to seasoned saints who can give you greater insight into why certain structures are in place. Don’t break your constitution and bylaws to get to the finish line sooner—that will lead to discord and a loss in confidence.
3. Practice regenerate membership
Managing the rolls is deeply doctrinal. According to Article 6 of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, we confess: “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel ….”
Membership is for baptized believers, which means we must have practices in place that support our doctrine. This may mean tending to your constitution and bylaws. Make candidates take a class on membership essentials. Have them sit with a pastor to share their understanding of the gospel and personal testimony. In most cases, don’t baptize anyone who isn’t moving into membership. Cleaning the rolls without having meaningful practices that support regenerate membership is like mowing a yard full of weeds. It only appears to have solved the problem. The weeds continue to spread.
Now that you have prepped the ground, here’s a few practical tips to help you get started:
Recruit a team
When I began trimming, I began with a team. I looked for people who had four characteristics: They understood and supported the vision; they were knowledgeable about the history of our members; they were willing and hardworking; and they possessed wisdom in handling potentially difficult or awkward conversations. Get like-minded people around you to help share the load.
Teach the team the basics of church membership. Guide them through the doctrine of church discipline. Coach them on how the roll is a tool to identify who the pastors are to lead. Encourage them with the tremendous opportunity of reclaiming straying members.
Think concentric circles
Our team started with non-resident members before we moved to resident members. Not only will this keep your efforts organized, but it prepares your team for more difficult cases later in the process.
Get to work
It’s much easier to talk about removing members from church membership rolls than actually doing it. But do it we must. Pastor, go after your sheep.
Our team spent hours finding good contact information, drafting countless emails, making hundreds of phone calls, messaging dozens of people on social media platforms, and having face-to-face conversations with local relatives. Then we took all our work to member meeting after member meeting and had the church look over our recommendations and vote. Our hope through it all was to reclaim as many sheep back to the fold as possible and give the pastors clarity on who they were to shepherd.
Peter writes to the elders of the persecuted church, “So I exhort the elders among you … shepherd the flock of God that is among you ….” (1 Peter 5:1-2). The membership roll is your flock. Pastor, you will give an account for how you shepherd them (Hebrews 13:17). Get to work.
But remember, member care is never finished. It’s a lot like a lawn. It will always need attention. When you cultivate a healthy lawn, in time, weeds become the exception. You notice them and it takes less effort to remove them. So, begin the good work—the hard work—of tending to your member rolls.