1985 Membership Polity

Membership Polity

Membership Study Committee Report

1985 Church of the Brethren Statement



For several years winter residents who live here from three to seven months out of the year have been requesting “associate” membership in some of the churches in this District. To them being an associate member means that they could become actively involved in the total life of the church while they are living here and at the same time retain membership in their home church. It means having some rights and privileges of full membership, but not all.

We have struggled with knowing how to appropriately respond to this need of winter residents, students, persons transferred here by work for short periods of time. It possibly could even relate to scattered Brethren.

Because no guidelines or standards (no Brotherhood policy or polity) exist for the category of “associate” membership, churches have found it necessary to establish guidelines on their own, each according to their own thinking. Consequently, the guidelines (including limitations) for “associate” membership are different in each church which has established this category. If this method were to continue, it could become confusing at best and disastrous at worst.

The District Board voted to recommend to District Conference the adoption of the Query on Associate Membership, to be passed on to the 1981 Annual Conference.


The desire to be faithful in practice and spirit to the commitment of church membership by those persons who seasonally reside in geographic areas other than their home communities has prompted some congregations to offer “associate” membership to such persons who wish to retain membership in their “home” congregation.

In order that some standards and guidelines be established, and to facilitate the process of receiving persons as “associate” members, the Florida/Puerto Rico District Board of Administration, meeting in session on August 23, 1980, requests District Conference, meeting in Bradenton on October 10-11, 1980, to request Annual Conference to develop policy/polity for “associate” membership in the Church of the Brethren.

The Florida/Puerto Rico District Conference voted to pass this query on to the Annual Conference meeting in Indianapolis in 1981.

L. Wayne Fralin, Moderator; Lester E. Kesselring, Clerk

Action of 1981 Annual Conference: The recommendation from Standing Committee was presented by Wanda Callahan. The delegates approved the recommendation for “the acceptance of the query” and asked “the Parish Ministries Commission of the General Board to bring a recommendation regarding polity to the 1982 Annual Conference.” A further recommendation was “that the districts having these problems be involved in making suggestions.”

This item was referred to the Congregational Renewal Team, lodged within the Parish Ministries Commission. The work of the team is not completed, and they respectfully request another year to bring recommendations regarding polity.

Curtis W. Dubble, Chairman; Robert W. Neff, General Secretary

Action of 1982 Annual Conference: The request for an extension of time to 1983 for the completion of the work for the General Board by the Congregation Renewal and Development Team, lodged within the Parish Ministries Commission, was brought to Annual Conference by Curtis W. Dubble, chairman of the General Board, and Merle Crouse, convener of the Congregational Renewal and Development Team. The request for an extension of time to June 1983 for the completion of the work was granted.


On behalf of the General Board and its Parish Ministries Commission, the PMC Congregational Renewal Team studied the question of associate membership, in response to the query accepted by the 1981 Annual Conference. Our research included both an examination of the past Conference actions on membership and consultation with districts and congregations for whom associate membership is a pertinent issue. As we pursued the specific question of associate membership, we became aware of a much wider range of questions about church membership and membership polity. It is our conviction that it would be profitable for the church to appoint a representative study committee to explore this wider range of questions in a wholistic manner, that it would be appropriate for our limited assignment to be transferred to that committee as one part of its total agenda, and that this committee should propose such adaptations of our membership, polity and practice as seem warranted. A recommendation to that end will be presented through Standing Committee from the General Board and its Parish Ministries Commission.

Action of the General Board: VOTED that the General Board request that Standing Committee recommend to the delegate body the appointment of an Annual Conference Committee to study the meaning of membership, to question the adequacy of current definitions of membership categories, and to propose recommendations for updating our polity statements on membership.

Curtis W. Dubble, Chairman; Robert W. Neff, General Secretary

Action of 1983 Annual Conference: The report was presented for the General Board by Richard B. Gardner, a staff member of the Parish Ministries Commission Congregational Renewal Team. The report was accepted.



In the process of dealing with the assignment on associate membership, the PMC Congregational Renewal Team has become aware of a number of unresolved questions on membership. These questions include but go beyond the concerns of the query on associate membership. For example:

  1. When persons such as winter residents or students participate on a seasonal basis in a congregation, what is their membership status in that congregation? What rights and responsibilities should they have?
  2. When persons belong to a congregation that is dually aligned with two or more denominations, do we need a special membership category for such persons—and does each denomination count them as full members for statistical purposes?
  3. Are the present polity statements on inactive members clear, sufficient, or helpful? A growing number of inquiries in this area suggests a need for clarification here. If we have such a category at all, when and how should we use it?
  4. What does it mean to be a member of the church in the first place? Is an answer to this question a prerequisite for deciding what specific categories of membership should be recognized?

It is the conviction of the Congregational Renewal Team that it would be most appropriate for these and related questions to be studied together, rather than dealing with them piecemeal. Any polity recommendations on membership categories should grow out of this wholistic study. In short, the limited work we have done thus far on associated membership needs to be subsumed under a broader study of membership and membership categories in the Church of the Brethren. The group to carry out such a broad study should not be a program unit of the General Board but rather a representative committee of persons from various levels of the denomination.


Parish Ministries Commission, through the General Board, requests therefore that Standing Committee recommend to the delegate body the appointment of an Annual Conference Committee to study the meaning of membership, to question the adequacy of current definitions of membership categories, and to propose recommendations for updating our polity statements on membership. We would further request that the present assignment of the CRT on associate membership be transferred to this committee. If Standing Committee concurs with the request to appoint a study committee, we would suggest the following categories or persons as appropriate persons to serve on it:

  1. Someone from the Florida/Puerto Rico district related to the original query on associate membership.
  2. Someone from the Southern Pennsylvania district, which is considering a proposed query on membership along the lines indicated above.
  3. Someone related to a congregation which is affiliated with two or more denominations.
  4. Someone with special biblical and theological expertise in addressing the meaning of membership.
  5. A member of the staff of the General Board, to be named by the Board.

Action of the General Board, June 1983: VOTED to request that Standing Committee recommend to the delegate body the appointment of an Annual Conference Committee to study the meaning of membership, to question the adequacy of current definitions of membership categories, and to propose recommendations for updating our polity statements on membership. Curtis W. Dubble, Chairman; Robert W. Neff, General Secretary

Action of 1983 Annual Conference: Chris Tobias, a Standing Committee delegate from the District of Northern Ohio, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee. The delegates adopted the recommendation for “the appointment of an Annual Conference committee to study the meaning of membership, to question the adequacy of current definitions of membership categories, and to propose recommendations for updating our polity statements by the 1985 Annual Conference, and that the present assignment of the Congregational Renewal Team on associate membership be transferred to the appointed committee. Further, it is recommended that the committee be appointed by the election of one person for each of the following categories: 1) someone from the Florida/Puerto Rico district related to the original query on associate membership 2) someone from the Southern Pennsylvania district, which is considering a proposed query on membership along the lines indicated above; 3) someone related to a congregation which is affiliated with two or more denominations; 4) someone with special biblical and theological expertise in addressing the meaning of membership and by the appointment of a member of the staff of the General Board by the General Board.”

The following persons were elected/appointed to serve on the committee: 1—Hubert R. Newcomer (Florida/Puerto), 2—Harold E. Yeager (Southern Pennsylvania), 3—Judith Hershey Herr (Western Plains), 4—Howard A. Miller (Mid-Atlantic), and 5—Richard B. Gardner (General Board staff).


The Membership Study Committee has met twice since the 1983 Annual Conference to explore various issues related to church membership. Through an article in Messenger and a hearing at the 1984 Annual Conference the Committee hopes to involve the larger church in its deliberations. The Committee will present its final report in 1985.

Action of 1984 Annual Conference: The moderator reported that the Annual Conference Study Committee for Membership was working with its assignment. A report is to be presented to the 1985 Annual Conference.



1. Procedure

Since its election at the 1983 Annual Conference in Baltimore, the Membership Study Committee worked at its assignment in several ways. These included:

  1. Research by Committee members on the various issues to be addressed.
  2. Solicitation of views and opinions on membership through a questionnaire on membership published in Messenger.
  3. Conducting a hearing on the subject at the 1984 Annual Conference in Carbondale.
  4. Meetings of the Committee to discuss the issues, to reflect on data related to those issues, and to prepare a report to Annual Conference.

At its first meeting the Committee determined that the final report should consist of three parts:

  1. How and why we got involved in this study.
  2. A revised statement on membership polity.
  3. Recommendations to accompany and help implement this revised polity.

The paper before us follows that outline.

2. Major Themes

As the Committee explored the issue of church membership, a number of themes kept surfacing in our discussion. Among these themes, which membership polity needs to reflect, are the following:

Community. Church membership means living in community, a community of covenant relationship with God and with one another. This community also has an institutional reality. Institutional affiliation is not optional but rather an essential outward expression of the covenantal relationship.

The Committee struggled with the question of how we can encourage the growth of strong, supportive community, and also how the community can establish guidelines for faithful membership. The latter question was more troublesome as we recognized that institutional affiliation is not synonymous with covenantal relationship. Yet we are called to be responsible to one another. Our faith is a gift of God which is highly personal; but it is not exclusively personal, and it calls for a faithful response in the life of the community in service to one another and in mutual discernment of God’s will.

Mutual Accountability. We are not the final judges of each other’s faith; that is up to God. But we are accountable before God and each other for the ministry into which we have been ordained by baptism and to which we commit ourselves when we enter into membership in the body of Christ. Mutual accountability also means that just as congregations call individual members to be accountable, individuals may need to call the congregation to be accountable.

Convictions about mutual accountability led us to recommend the new category of “separated” members. The older term “inactive” identified a symptom of a deeper reality, and it also tended to fault the individual. “Separated” calls attention to the deeper reality of what has happened. It fits the family and body metaphors we commonly use. It affirms the reality of the relationship and the tragedy of the brokenness. Finally, it urges us to look at the congregation as well as the individual when we seek the causes of brokenness and as we seek reconciliation.

Radical Discipleship. How difficult should it be to get in/get out of membership in the body? How do we call each other to be accountable? What discipline is called for as we count the cost of discipleship? How do we challenge each other to continual growth in the faith? How do we present the vision and yet recognize where we are so that persons are challenged to grow toward the vision? These questions pursued us as we struggled with requirements for entering membership, guidelines for preparation, and ways of nurturing members. Although we have not fully answered these questions, we have tried to articulate an approach to membership which invites congregations to wrestle further with the meaning of discipleship.

3. Recommended Action

The Committee’s recommendations to Conference are found in sections II and III, which follow. Section II proposes a new statement on membership polity, which if adopted will replace the sections on church membership in the current Manual of Organization and Polity. We are proposing that this polity statement become effective on January 1, 1986.

Section III contains more specific recommendations to help the church work at some of the membership issues which the Committee looked at. These include an appeal for a resource to guide congregations as they deal with membership concerns and some proposals in the particular areas of (1) associate membership and (2) membership in congregations aligned with two or more denominations. If adopted, these proposals would serve as guidelines for congregations but would not be considered polity in the strict sense.

An emerging issue that the Committee did not address is the growing number of ethnic minority and cross-cultural congregations in the denomination. There are many unanswered questions on what it means to incorporate groups whose cultural background differs widely from that of our traditional constituency into membership in the Church of the Brethren. While this concern lies outside the scope for our study, we note it here as an area calling for attention in the immediate future.


1. Meaning of Membership

According to the New Testament, life in Christ means life in the body of Christ. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), so that we, “though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). Membership in a local fellowship of believers, the congregation, is the way in which we affirm and live out our membership in Christ’s larger body, the church universal. In our interrelatedness with other Christians in the local church, we experience the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit, we discover ways to be faithful to our covenant with God and each other, and we are able to support one another in carrying out our common calling as the people of God. So it was in the house churches of the earliest Christians; and so it is in the life of God’s people today.

From the time of its beginnings, the Church of the Brethren has affirmed the importance of church membership and sought ways to make church membership more meaningful. It is appropriate, therefore, for the congregation and its members to reflect on their mutual accountability to one another. On the one hand, the congregation has a covenantal responsibility to care for its members, to encourage growth in freedom and discipleship, to help members discover their gifts and find ways to serve, and to provide ministries which respond to both spiritual and physical needs. On the other hand, each member has a covenantal responsibility to participate regularly in the life of the congregation, to seek the counsel of the church in living out the way of Christ, to challenge the church to greater accountability to its calling, to respond to opportunities to serve in the congregation and beyond, and to contribute to the church’s ministries in every way possible. Congregations may use these general guidelines as a basis for developing more specific expectations for their membership.

At the heart of our calling as members of Christ’s body is the summons to follow Christ as his disciples. Christians do not live unto themselves but are called to seek first the kingdom of God, to risk themselves for Christ’s sake, to take up the way of the cross. To accept and practice the costly grace of radical discipleship is no easy task. In the community of faith, however, we find courage and strength to live out our discipleship in solidarity with others.

2. Entering Into and Renewing Church Membership

Membership in the local church is open to all persons who, by their own act of faith, say yes to God’s offer of new life in Christ and accept the vocation of the covenant community, as taught and practiced by the Church of the Brethren. One of the responsibilities of the congregation is to reach out to persons irrespective of race, national origin, or status in life, to share with them the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and to invite them to enter into the life of Christ’s body.

When persons respond to this invitation, the church shall take steps to prepare them for membership. Part of this preparation should consist of classes of sufficient length on the meaning of church membership. Such classes offer an opportunity for persons to explore the faith and history of the wider Christian community, to study the particular story and distinctive emphases of the Church of the Brethren, and to become familiar with the life and expectations of the congregation they will be entering. In addition to providing membership classes, the congregation may choose to identify persons who will serve as sponsors of new members to assist in their orientation into the life of the church. In whatever ways the congregation chooses to prepare persons for membership, the pastor or minister has a key role to play here.

When persons seeking membership have completed their period of preparation, the board or committee overseeing their preparation shall recommend them for membership in the congregation. Following a congregational confirmation of acceptance as members, persons may be received into the church in one of three ways:

  1. Confession of faith and baptism by trine immersion as practiced by the Church of the Brethren.
  2. A letter transferring membership from another congregation of the Church of the Brethren or of another Christian denomination.
  3. Reaffirmation of faith and renewal of the commitment to membership made at an earlier time in another congregation.

Whatever the particular mode of reception, the act of receiving new members should be a festive moment in the life of a congregation. It is a time for old and new members to affirm their relationship with one another, a time to celebrate the joys and responsibilities of living in covenant in Christ’s body, and a time to lift up the lifelong process of growth to which baptism should lead.

The sequel to entering into membership is the renewing ofmembership. Only as we regularly renew our covenant with God and with one another does that covenant function in a vital way. Historically, Brethren worked at renewal of membership through an annual visit by the deacons to the homes of members to reflect on the health of each person’s relationship with Christ and the church—and through the love feast which traditionally followed that visit. Whether through this practice or through other models of calling one another to accountability, the congregation shall provide its members with annual opportunities to examine their faith and calling and to renew or reaffirm their relationship with the church. As a part of this process, members may be invited to make specific commitments related to their participation in the life and work of the church.

3. Membership Classification

Members shall be classified in one of three ways for statistical purposes and reported accordingly on annual report forms:

  1. Members. Members of the congregation shall consist of those persons who have been received into the church by baptism, letter, or reaffirmation of faith, and who choose to continue their membership when the congregation invites them to examine and renew the covenant relationship, thereby confirming their intention to fulfill the responsibilities of members as described above.

    In congregations which are aligned with two or more denominations, members shall be regarded as full members of each of the related denominations, nurtured in and oriented to the traditions of each church, and encouraged to enrich one another through their differences, seeking strength and unity together. Annual report forms shall provide a way for such congregations to identify their multiple affiliation, so that statistics on membership and giving can be understood in the light of dual or multiple commitments.

  2. Associate Members. Congregations may grant associate membership to two categories of persons:

    1. Temporary residents, such as students and winter residents, who participate in the life of a congregation on a seasonal or short-term basis, and who continue to hold membership in another congregation in the community of their permanent residence.
    2. Former residents, persons who have moved to a new location in which there is no Church of the Brethren, and who wish to continue a relationship with the Brethren at the same time that they become members of another Christian community.

    Associate members have the right to vote and hold office in the congregation granting their associate status, and have a responsibility to contribute resources to support the ministries of that congregation. Associate members are not eligible to serve on the church board or to represent the congregation as delegates to district or annual conferences. (For more detailed guidelines on the rights and responsibilities of associate members see section III.2 of the 1985 Annual Conference Membership Study Committee report.)

  3. Separated Members. Separated members consist of those persons who were received into the church as members, but who no longer participate in the church’s life or carry out the commitments expected of members, and who for three consecutive years fail to respond to invitations to reaffirm or renew their relationship with the congregation. Whether the causes of separation have to do with the individual, the congregation, or both, the congregation shall continue to explore ways to restore the broken relationship. Guidelines for working at reconciliation and restoration may be found in the 1976 Annual Conference statement on “Discipleship and Reconciliation,” which is reproduced on pages E-9 through E-15 of the Manual of Organization and Polity. For statistical purposes, members whose residence is unknown and cannot be ascertained for three consecutive years will also be designated as separated members.
4. Membership Termination

Membership in a congregation of the Church of the Brethren may be terminated in one of the following ways:

  1. Death.
  2. Transfer of membership by letter. A letter of transfer is the property of the congregation and shall go from the granting to the receiving congregation. Either the letter or accompanying note should indicate whether the member for whom the letter is being sent is a member or separated member.
  3. Withdrawal. This action shall be taken by the congregation at the written request of the individual.
  4. Removal. The congregation may act to remove a person’s name from the list of members when:
    1. A member has joined another church, but failed to request a letter of transfer.
    2. The congregation determines that all attempts at reconciliation have failed.


1. How We Work at Membership Concerns

ISSUE: Congregations frequently feel ill-equipped to deal with the range of membership issues which surfaced in this study. A handbook addressing these issues and providing practical suggestions for congregations could prove a useful resource. Among the subjects which such a resource might address are the following:

  1. The meaning of concepts such as radical discipleship, counting the cost, taking up the cross, and bearing fruit, and how these concepts relate to church membership.
  2. The relationship between salvation and our baptism into and continuing life within a local community of believers.
  3. The responsibilities that a congregation and its individual members have in relation to one another as they take seriously their covenant with God and each other.
  4. Specific steps that congregations can take to prepare persons for membership in a manner consistent with the view of membership which the church holds.
  5. Recommended celebrative services (or suggestions for services) for congregations to use in receiving new members into the fellowship of the church.
  6. Plans or models for congregations to use in working at annual renewal of membership, including the annual visit by deacons and other options for calling one another to accountability.
  7. Ways the congregation can foster the development of “Christian community” in the congregation as a whole and through special groups within the church.
  8. Guidelines for relating to separated members, including suggestions on how to restore broken relationships within the church.

RECOMMENDATION: That the General Board ask one of its program units to develop a handbook for congregations on meaningful membership, dealing with the subject areas listed above and with other areas which the Board feels merit attention.

2. Associate Membership

ISSUE: Members of the church who locate temporarily in communities away from their home church need an option for relating to a Church of the Brethren in their temporary location in a way that is more meaningful than that of a “visitor” status. Such members may include students, workers whose occupation require moving from one location to another, retirees who choose to spend part of the year in a different geographic area, etc. The concept of associate membership affords such an option and provides a way for both the members and the congregation to join in a mutually benefitting ministry while the members retain their primary membership in their home church.

RECOMMENDATION: That congregations which find the granting of associate membership relevant to their ministry observe the following guidelines:

  1. Associate membership
    1. should never become a substitute for transferring one’s membership to a new congregation when a relocation is permanent;
    2. may be offered to temporary residents only on the basis of a minimum three-month stay in a community;
    3. may be made available to members of other denominations;
    4. may be continued from year to year in those instances where associate members take up temporary residence annually in the same community;
    5. may be terminated by either the member or the congregation and automatically terminates when the member no longer returns to the community where the associate membership is held.
  2. Congregations providing for an associate membership option should
    1. amend their bylaws accordingly;
    2. receive associate members with vows, recognition, and celebration equal to receiving persons into full membership;
    3. provide opportunities for associate members to be meaningfully involved in the congregation’s life and ministry;
    4. be responsible for providing appropriate and needed pastoral care and congregational support for associate members;
    5. keep appropriate records of associate members and place their names in the congregation’s annual directory and on the church’s mailing list.
  3. Persons received into associate membership
    1. should be prepared to enter fully into the life and ministry of the congregation, including the practice of the stewardship of their time, abilities and material resources, sharing their commitment with both congregations in which they are involved;
    2. have the privilege of both voice and vote in congregational business meetings;
    3. are eligible to serve in appointive and elective positions which would not be disrupted by extended absences;
    4. are not eligible for election to the local church board or as delegates to district or Annual Conference;
    5. may not assume ministerial status in the Church of the Brethren on the basis of ordination in another denomination.
2. Membership in Congregations Aligned With Two or More Denominations

ISSUE: These congregations have unique needs, dilemmas, and strengths which should be identified, more fully understood, and communicated.

RECOMMENDATION: That opportunities be provided for sharing emerging membership issues in multiply aligned