Rev. Neal: I seek your opinion regarding removing an individual from membership of the church. Earlier this year, our Lay Leader resigned his position due to difficulties with the pastor; he and his wife subsequently started worshipping in another church. As the year progressed, our pastor informed the Church Administrative Board / Council that she was going to try to contact inactive members in an effort to start purging the roll via Charge Conference. Members of the Council generated a letter and had the understanding that it would be sent to those who have been inactive for years (for some reason,the pastor alone determined who would receive the letters and disregarded information that was given her by some members of the Council), but the pastor sent the letter to several who had been in attendance within the past few months instead, including the former Lay Leader and his wife. They stated to some members that they had not planned to move their membership, but after having received the letter from the pastor, the WIFE sent the letter back with the request to remove BOTH of them from the role and to cease any future correspondence. It has now come to light that the HUSBAND says he is still a member and that he never requested his name removed from the role. Upon reviewing the letter, it is signed by the WIFE only. The question is: can a wife or husband speak for both in removing their names from the role, or does each individual have to speak for themselves? Our pastor contends that if he wants to remain a member he needs to send a letter to have his name re-instated, but the members of the Council believe that he should not be required to take any action to remain a member since he didn't request his name removed. All of this came to light as we are preparing for Charge Conference and the Council reviewed the Report of the Pastor to be presented. Please advise us on how best to handle this situation. I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing your opinion.
Dealing with matters of church membership can, during times of church conflicts, be trying for the Pastor and the membership alike. The Discipline invests within the pastor the sole responsibility and authority for both receiving and removing members of the church. The Pastor is charged with keeping the church's membership roll updated, and for making the determination of how to process Charge Conference action for removal of members who have fallen inactive or out of contact with the church.
Keep in mind, Church membership is not a right but involves the making of vows to support the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. If someone has no intention of carrying out those vows, their membership comes into question. The purpose of Charge Conference Action is NOT, principally, to authorize someone's removal from the roll -- the authority to do that is already vested in the Pastor -- but, rather, to provide a forum through which those who have fallen inactive in fulfilling their vows can be contacted to inquire as to their wishes: do they wish to fulfill their membership vows or do they wish to be removed form the rolls? If they cannot be contacted or if they don't respond to the inquiry, then they can be removed without their approval by approval of the Charge Conference. If they ask to be removed or to have their membership transferred, this can be done. If they ask to stay on the roll, they are going to need to fulfill their vows to support the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. If they are unwilling to fulfill their vows, they should be encouraged to do so, and if they further refuse -- by attending another church, supporting that church through their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness -- then they should be removed even if they'd otherwise like to stay. The UMC allows for Affiliate Membership but not dual membership (neither in name nor is practice).
In the circumstance you describe, I'm afraid that the former Lay Leader and his wife had already, and effectively, removed themselves from membership by going to another church. Clearly, this is how the Pastor has interpreted the situation prior to the sending of the charge conference action letters (hence, the reason for sending the letter to the couple in question). The disagreement between the husband and wife over removal from the church roll is a matter for them to settle, as a family; the pastor, acting upon the information available to her, did as requested and removed them from membership. Now that the husband wishes to be re-inststated, the Pastor is not under obligation to do so unless the husband either states that he intends to fulfill his membership vows or, in fact, does fulfill them. The Pastor has the obligation to hold members accountable to their vows, and to not re-admit someone to membership who refuses to fulfill those vows. I know this sounds harsh, but accountability and discipleship is sometimes not easy.
Did the wife have the authority to request that both she and her husband be removed from membership? Strictly speaking, no. Membership is an individual matter: we join the church as individuals, not as groups. However, practically speaking, the wife clearly did have that ability. The simple fact is that no Pastor is going to question such a request, nor is it unusual for one spouse to speak for the couple in such matters. Would it have been better for both to have signed such a request? Absolutely, but it is nevertheless reasonable for the Pastor to conclude that such a request actually reflected the wishes of both individuals.
And, finally, should the husband have to send a letter to request re-instatement? According to the Discipline, yes. Had he continued in active fulfillment of his membership vows -- or if he comes back and fulfills those vows in fact -- then such a removal could be considered a clerical error and reinstatement would be automatic. But, since he was and is violating his vows -- not keeping his promise to support the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness -- not having specifically requested to have his name removed is irrelevant.
Please give thought to the meaning of church membership, the vows that we take when we enter into membership, and the harm and pain created by internal church fights. Also, the critical factor of grace also needs to be considered. The objective should, in the end, be reconciliation and peace.
[edited to correct typos and amplify one point]