How can we lovingly remove members from the roles of our churches without causing division and hurt feelings among the members who remain? A pastor may be rightly concerned about bloated membership lists that do not accurately reflect who is actually involved in the church. But it is difficult to predict how the very ones he wants to protectthe active believers!will respond when he recommends trimming down the list.
In more than one of our churchs members meetings, I and the other church elders found ourselves faced with members who were suddenly hurt or even upset when we presented a friend of theirs for removal (discipline) from membership. Invariably, the upset member said the same thing: "you elders are moving too quickly; you dont have all the data!"
Several years ago, a woman named "Kate," once a fruitful and active member, grew unhappy with our church. Over several months, her activity lessened and her communication narrowed. We elders heard second-hand reports that she was upset about our complementarian view of men-women roles or about funding for certain missions projects. Yet she never directly addressed her concerns with any leader. Whenever a leader asked, she always responded with pleasantries and nothing forth-telling. Finally, she asked for a meeting with our senior pastor, where she announced her resignation from membership. Again, she voiced no particular criticism. Our senior pastor took the notice to the elders, who then took a motion to accept her resignation to the entire congregation at the next regularly scheduled members meeting. Thats where it got messy!
After the elders presented the motion to accept Kates resignation, a member raised her hand and said, "I just had lunch with Kate this afternoon, and she said she didnt want to resign." No further evidence was given. The congregation felt stuck between the conflicting stories, and it became a very awkward position for the elders because it raised questions of integrity. Was someone not telling the truth? Were the elders trying to push Kate out before she was ready? Was this loving? Was this right?
Kates situation involved an actual resignation, but generally we found that active members tended to object when an individual was being disciplined for non-attendance. Non-attendance is one of the most difficult sins (Heb. 10:25-26) to discipline because its common and it does not seem flagrant, like adultery or fornication. Not many people will object to disciplinary actions taken against an unrepentant adulterer. Yet it is the member who is on the periphery of the church, who has not attended in months, who has been dabbling in other churches, yet who still relates to a few of his or her old friends in your church that is the most difficult and, frankly, dangerous. He is neither in nor out! Hes disaffected, but for some reason he wont let go.
Two good things came out of the situation with Kate that have removed much angst among both the elders and congregation. First, our church now requires a written notice of resignation. It can be an email, letter, or a sticky note. Yet having something written eliminates embarrassing moments in members meetings like the one with Kate and her friend who said she didnt want to resign.
Second, our church created something called a "care list." Before we recommend an individual for discipline, we announce the individuals name to the congregation in a members meeting as part of this "care list." So the elders will say something like, "Bill has not been at church in five months. Elder Bob and pastoral assistant Ben have both pursued Bill by phone and email. Yet Bill wont return anyones messages. So we are placing him on the care list. If you are friends with Bill, please get in touch with him. Tell him that we love him, and encourage him to once again join our fellowship. Otherwise, we will remove his name from membership for non-attendance in our next regularly scheduled members meeting," which, incidentally, occurs every other month at our church.
Notice, we state the name (Bill), the reason why we are concerned (non-attendance), the steps we have already taken (Bob and Ben pursued him), and what the congregation should expect in two months time (a motion for discipline). We also tell people to speak with us after the meeting if they have any immediate informationnames on the care list are announced, not discussed then and there.
Why go to all this trouble? Too many times, we had seen Satan exploit the newness or suddenness of a motion for discipline in our meetings. The elders would have worked with a disaffected member for months and months to no avail, and often we had done so without informing the congregation of the struggle. When the motion for discipline was then brought to the congregation, the information felt sudden to many. Sometimes, the body absorbed the news without a peep. But sometimes, it shocked their system. And even if the congregation was inclined to follow the elders recommendation, you could feel a certain reluctance. Unanswered questions hung in the air, and the whole process seemed to undermine the congregations confidence in the elders. With the institution of the care list, however, we began to go to the congregation with our concerns about an individual prior to calling for a formal act of discipline.
The care list has grown to include more than upcoming discipline cases. We now will address other matters like member needs resulting from health issues or finances. Sometimes members have even asked to have their own names placed on the care list, so that the congregation knows they are in a season of needing special care.
We do not publish the care list, but verbally tell the members of the church at a members meeting (closed to non-members!) who is on the list. This avoids potential undue embarrassment.
This simple idea has had many benefits. First, it has removed the "shock" value Satan regularly seemed to exploit. Second, it has protected the elders from unwarranted charges. Third and best of all, it has involved the entire church in praying and pleading with their fellow member to come back to the church and live out their covenant pledge. I am delighted to say that, after years of working with the care list, issues that were once divisive are now used to unite, strengthen, and protect both the church and leader-congregation relationships.