When It's Time to Remove a Member

Being a pastor is one of the most fulfilling jobs that one can be called to do. The responsibility of being a pastor is full of both ups and downs, as well as both good times and not-so-good times. There are times when everything just seems to be going right, and then there are times when tough decisions must be made. One such decision is knowing when, as well as how, to respectfully dismiss a church member. This is no doubt one of the toughest decisions pastors have to make, but at times, it is also one of the most necessary decisions pastors must make for the overall well-being of their church.

Unfortunately, it is not an uncommon occurrence for pastors to have to ask a member of the church to leave. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for us to receive questions from pastors pertaining to the removal of church members. I can also say that as a former pastor of a congregation, it was something that crossed my mind a time or two.

With that being said, I want to take some time with this blog post to address this delicate issue. I fully understand that no pastor wants to ever encounter the situation in which he/she has to ask a member to leave, but as we will see, there are times when it will be necessary. Because instances like this occur, I want to also give you some strategic tips on creating and implementing a membership program that will not only benefit the church, but also your church members. Then, I want to discuss how you can respectfully dismiss members from your church when it is necessary. To begin with, let’s look at a court case in which the court sided with a church in its decision to dismiss a member.

Howard v. Covenant Apostolic Church, Inc.

In this court case, a member of Covenant Apostolic Church, Inc. claimed that when the church attempted to dismiss him from church membership, “...they subjected him to conduct that caused severe emotional distress, that some of the appellees (church leadership) defamed him, and that he felt in physical danger when he attempted to attend church services...”

In its final opinion, the court stated that:

“So long as the appropriate church authority has made the decision, the issue of whether the church followed its internal procedures is a matter of church governance and discipline into which a secular court is prohibited from inquiring.” Furthermore, relying upon previous court precedence, the court opined that “church discipline, ecclesiastical government, ‘the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them’ is beyond the scope of review by a secular tribunal.” (Click here to read the case in full.)

Since Covenant Apostolic Church, Inc. had a prescribed method in its bylaws for dismissing members, when necessary, the court determined that such matters were ecclesiastical in nature and that the court, therefore, lacked subject-matter jurisdiction in the matter. Thus, from this case, we can gather that it is imperative to have clearly defined in writing a prescribed method for dismissing members. Let’s examine next what it looks like to create a defined membership program.

What do your bylaws say?

Your bylaws generally contain the core beliefs and governmental structure of your church. In regard to your church members, you may want to consider including a membership article and a mutual interest clause.

What to include in your bylaws

1. Membership article: Within this article you will want to include a statement pertaining to the type of voting membership your church chooses. In regard to the spiritual membership of your church, you may want to consider including the following statement:

“The board of directors may create a membership program that details the requirements of membership and procedures for dismissal.”

This statement simply indicates that if the church chooses to implement an official membership program, the board of directors will be responsible for creating the program, and it will be detailed in a separate document. You may, however, choose to detail the program in your bylaws.

2. Mutual interest clause: This clause states that actions, whether in the church or out of the church, are of mutual interest to the other members. With the implementation of this clause in your bylaws, it is essentially requiring anyone who wishes to become a member of the church to abide by the mutual interest clause.

A mutual interest clause may read as follows:

“The behavior of anyone in fellowship with this church is of common interest to the board of directors and membership. (Gal. 6:1) This church requires every board of directors member and congregational member to adhere to a lifestyle that is consistent with the doctrines of this church as taught in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, this church reserves the right to refuse service to any individual, whether member or not, that is not submitting his or her lifestyle to this scriptural mode of conduct. This refusal would include services, benefits, and any use of church assets.”

This clause is important because it can help protect the pastor and board members from defamation lawsuits in the event of member discipline or membership revocation. Without this clause, the church could potentially be held liable for slander, defamation, or discrimination.

Creating a membership program

Obviously, it is not required that churches have “official” membership programs. However, when churches establish membership programs, it allows for both church leadership and congregants to be fully aware of what is expected of them. Therefore, I want to give you some strategic tips on creating a membership program.

1. Establish a set of standards that an individual must adhere to as a member of the church. This can be done in your church’s written doctrines.

2. Create a membership application. This does not have to be anything substantial. Some typical information to have on your membership application includes, but is not limited to: individual’s name, spouse’s name, children’s name(s), address, contact number, email address, and date of birth just to name a few.

You may also want to include the following language on your membership application as a type of “disclaimer”:

“By applying for membership, you agree to abide by the following:

  • You agree to abide by the bylaws of this church and to live a lifestyle consistent with our doctrines, ecclesiastical order, and sincerely held beliefs, which may change from time to time as directed by the pastor of this church.
  • You agree to submit to the leadership of this church and to the pastor who is the highest ecclesiastical authority.
  • You agree that membership in this church is voluntary and that your acts, whether in church or outside the church, are of mutual concern and interest to this church and its members.”

3. Establish a member discipline process. Member discipline was often spoken about in the New Testament. Therefore, maintaining standards for members within a church is crucial for the development of cultivating a biblical congregation and church. In essence, you want your church’s member discipline process to be based upon Scripture. Below is an example for you to consider:

“Divisive persons shall be confronted according to the pattern outlined in Titus 3:9-10. At least two elders, or those whom they designate, shall meet with the divisive person and warn him/her to repent. If the person does not repent, at least two elders, or those whom they designate, shall meet with him/her again and warn him/her a second time. If the person still refuses to repent of his/her sin of divisiveness, the presbytery at either a regular or special meeting may excommunicate him/her from the church in accordance with the Word of God (Romans 16:17-19).”

So, now that we have a better understanding of what to include in your bylaws regarding membership and what to consider when creating a membership program, let’s look at how to respectfully dismiss a church member when it becomes necessary.

Goodbyes are never easy

I would venture to say that no one really enjoys having to say goodbye under good circumstances, much less bad situations. However, there are times when it is necessary. This is also true within the church. There are times when it is simply the best option for both the church and the member to say goodbye. Yet, how can pastors do that and still remain respectful and tactful in the process? Below are 6 things to consider if you have to ever dismiss a member from your church.

  1. Put it in writing. Doing this allows you to keep a paper trail of all events and circumstances leading up to the dismissal. This can also help prevent a “he said - she said” battle.
  2. Cite specific instances where the member’s actions were not in line with the church’s moral values.
  3. Cite the bylaws. Reference what the bylaws say on the matter, and how the member’s actions violated his/her responsibility as a member according to the bylaws.
  4. Cite Scripture. Using Scripture to support the method of member discipline can help your church, should it find itself being sued like we saw in the court case previously mentioned.
  5. Provide a plan for reconciliation. This will allow for the member to have the option to truly change his/her ways should he/she choose. Giving members this option essentially puts the dismissal decision into the hands of the church member.
  6. Have it approved and signed by the board of directors. When such a decision is approved by the church’s governing body, it shows that this decision was one that was made with much thought and conviction.

Conclusion

No one ever said that being a pastor is easy; however, I fully believe that being a pastor is one of the most fruitful callings someone can receive. Although there are times when pastors have to make tough decisions, such as dismissing a church member, the Lord has provided wisdom through His Word and will carry the pastor through the process.

I want to invite you to attend one of our conferences. Other pastors and church leaders will be in attendance. Not only will you receive empowering information to help guide your church in the world of church compliance, but you will also inadvertently become rejuvenated from your time with other pastors who are in the same boat that you are.


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