If You Find my Sheep in your Meadow
by Janet Landwehr (November / December 1998 — Volume 14, Number 6)
Membership should mean something these days, even at those awkward times when a letter of transfer is requested from a neighboring congregation.
It was a formal, one-sentence letter from Pastor Johnson, who served a parish five miles down the road. "Please issue a letter of transfer to this congregation for Mrs. Emily Lyons, who has been worshipping with us and wishes to join our congregation," it said.
I called Pastor Johnson and explained to him that it was not my practice to issue local letters of transfer until I had a chance to speak with the person transferring. I wanted to ask their reasons for transfer, and perhaps to resolve any "unfinished business" if such had caused the wish for transfer.
Pastor Johnson was indignant. How dare I refuse a letter of transfer? Mrs. Lyons had been worshipping at Pastor Johnson's congregation for several months and she wanted to join, so there! She hated her old congregation and was never coming back again.
After the pastor described me with a few choice epithets and threatened to report me to the bishop, he then mentioned that Mrs. Lyons was hospitalized. I used that as a convenient excuse to bend my rules and I promised to send the letter of transfer by return mail. But I was very saddened by our exchange.
It's not just that my parish lost Mrs, Lyons to the parish down the road. I had known she was unhappy about the parish conflict that caused the previous pastor to leave, and I had known she had been worshipping at the other congregation. If she can be better nurtured in her faith at her new congregation, well, God bless her there.
But still, there's a right way of getting there and a wrong way, and this way just wasn't right.
Our Family Ties
Congregational membership should actually mean something. Congregational membership is not just a matter of having one's name on an organization's mailing list. It is much more akin to membership in a family. When people join a congregation, they make a commitment to work together, yes, with people of the whole church, but specifically, with the other members of that congregation, for the good of the Lord.
Congregations fight and congregations fail, just as families fight and fail. And sometimes, it is even necessary for a person to take leave of a congregation, or a family. But a person does not just walk out of a family, saying, "Take my name off your Christmas card list." Neither should a person walk out of a congregation with no more notice than a formal request to be removed from the mailing list.
When we issue transfers like we hand out Sunday bulletins, we weaken the fabric of the entire church. It is not just the loss of one member to one congregation — it is the loss of what it means to be a member, to all the members of both congregations involved. It is the loss of a sense of commitment in an age where commitment is a precious and rare virtue to be nurtured.
Need for Closure
When a person leaves a congregation, some sort of closure is needed, particularly for people who, like Mrs. Lyons, had previously been very active. If nothing else, the congregation needs to know how it failed the departing person so that it can keep from making that mistake again.
When I was being trained for the ordained ministry, my mentors taught me a deep respect of the integrity of congregational membership. I was taught that when another pastor's sheep became regular visitors in my congregation, I had a responsibility to let that pastor know that his sheep had strayed into my meadow — and I have lived up to that responsibility.
I usually get one of three responses from fellow pastors. Sometimes the pastor will say, "The Jones? Never heard of 'em! You're welcome to 'em!'"
Sometimes I hear, "Yes, I know, the Browns have had a real dust-up here with our organist (or Christian education director, associate pastor, you name it), and they probably need to find a new congregation. If they are comfortable at your place, I'd understand if they wanted to transfer."
But sometimes a pastor will say, "The McDonalds? Oh, good heavens. Until two months ago they had been one of our most active families. Something must have gone wrong! Thanks for letting me know. I'll call them this evening!"
That little pattern of church-visiting may be an early warning sign to another pastor that some problem needs to be tended to, and the pastor communicating that sign to the home pastor is helping to strengthen not just another pastor's ministry but the ministry of the entire church.
Working through Crisis
This is especially important when a parish is in transition or in a time of crisis. It's easy, and tempting, for parishioners to just "cut and run," leaving the problems behind them and escaping to a calmer parish. Unfortunately, that is not what our Christian commitment is about. The time of transition or crisis is when the parish most needs faithful parishioners who will "stick it out" through difficult times and help to heal and build for the future.
A responsible neighboring pastor will explain that to wandering parishioners looking for calmer waters. Unfortunately, too many pastors in our church act more like looters in the midst of a riot, merrily carrying off from the parish-in-crisis as many parishioners as they can catch, baptizing, confirming, and marrying their children even before asking for a letter of transfer.
There clearly are times when persons do need to transfer out of a parish to a neighboring parish. But some sort of closure is absolutely necessary to the old relationship before the new relationship is begun. If a person just walks away from problems without some attempt to resolve them, that person will simply transport those problems to the new congregation, and infect a whole new group of people, while the first congregation is simultaneously deprived of a chance to face and fix problems and grow into the future.
Lay members of congregations don't always understand the concept of commitment implicit in congregational membership. It is up to the rostered leaders of the church to teach and to model that commitment. It isn't sufficient to say, as Pastor Johnson did, "I didn't solicit Mrs. Lyons' transfer; she requested it herself."
When a pastor receives such a request, the first response should be one of trying to aid in reconciling the member to the congregation where he or she already belongs. If that is honestly tried and seems futile, then the new pastor has the duty to help the parishioner make a good and complete ending at the first congregation before receiving that parishioner into the new congregation.
A "good and complete ending" may be as simple as a five-minute phone call from the parishioner to the former pastor, or a letter of explanation from the parishioner requesting the transfer — but not a one-sentence formality typed by the secretary of the now parish.
A lack of sensitivity to the sheep-stealing issue builds walls of mistrust among neighboring congregations (and neighboring pastors) that keep them from cooperative programming and mutual support. For many of the small and medium-sized congregations in the ELCA, cooperation and mutual support are their only hope for survival.
Being a Christian these days is not easy, and we all need support in our commitments to stand firm in times of difficulty. If we undercut the commitments people make to church congregations, we undercut their entire sense of what it means to be committed to the gospel. A lack of integrity in the understanding of congregational membership harms the entire church.
Two Closing Points
Two closing points about this issue: I am specifically speaking about neighboring ELCA congregations. However, I have always considered that I owe the same courtesies to neighboring congregations of other mainline Christian denominations. Often, I have found their pastors have shown such courtesies to me as well.
Also, I am speaking specifically about local transfers, where a person has not moved but has chosen to worship at a different congregation within driving distance. Long-distance transfers usually are a matter of necessity, and those I will issue even in response to a secretary's formal request.
Even there, however, a good and complete ending is appropriate and necessary for congregational membership commitment. Often this is taken care of before the family has moved, using the "Farewell and Godspeed" rite or similar recognition. Often the family requesting the letter of transfer includes a kind personal letter of thanks to the former congregation.
Good closure in one place aids good start-up elsewhere, no matter what the circumstances.
Janet Landwehr is a trained interim pastor, presently serving an intentional interim ministry at Christ Ascension Lutheran Church, Chestnut Hill/Mt. Airy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).