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Question and Answer

Church Membership From a Distance

Question:

Why is it necessary to transfer church membership when moving to a new state? Is this mandatory? Why can't one be a lifetime member of their home church, since they will be buried in their home state and would prefer having their funeral from their home church? As long as one is worshiping with fellow believers in their new state of residence, I don't see the need to transfer membership. Your thoughts and comments, please.

Answer:

I am put in mind of one of the foundational texts for the modern doctrine of Church membership, Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

In one sense, no, a transfer of membership is not necessary in that a session may allow a member to remain on the congregation’s rolls even when that member lives in another state. However (and here I speak from personal experience), it’s very difficult to keep watch over the soul of a person with whom one has very limited contact. Pastors and elders know we must give an account for each person under our care; the reality of not providing pastoral care can lead to a burdened and groaning conscience.

Sessions have the option of forcing members off of Church rolls through a process called “erasure” (OPC Book of Discipline chapter II). The effect of that process, though, is identical to excommunication: the person erased is no longer a member of a Church and cannot participate in the Lord’s Supper. Because we know the people who do not transfer their memberships to be Christians, this option would be unacceptable to most sessions.

In my pastoral tenure, elderly members have moved out of state to live with family members, and have left their memberships with us for the reasons you mention. Others, not as old, have not requested transfers because of family connections. To be blunt, it can take a long time for some people to get around to dying, and these situations leave sessions in a difficult position.

I don’t want to speak for every Presbyterian pastor, but I can’t imagine very many of us would refuse to conduct a funeral for a former member. In fact, I’ve known a few to return to a former pastorate for that purpose. I appreciate your concerns, but I believe submission to our elders is best demonstrated by transferring membership to the congregation where one worships regularly.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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