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Statistical Information

Maintaining Church Membership Rolls

Statistics and Information Forms

How To Maintain And Use Your Church's Membership Rolls

By Douglas L. Flanders.

Many congregations within The United Church of Canada have difficulty keeping accurate membership records. There is often confusion around terms and appropriate administrative procedures. The Manual -- our denomination's book of rules and procedures -- provides general guidelines as to how local churches should maintain their membership records; see The United Church Manual, 31st edition, 1998, sections 10 to 15. Church leaders wrote these sections around the time of Church Union in 1925 and they phrased them in general terms. Today, local church administrators are asking for more specific direction in record keeping.

Why is there a problem?

When The Manual sections about membership were first prepared, people had more understanding of the underlying principles behind church membership and how to maintain membership records generally. Times have changed and this has in turn clouded understanding of this administrative function and the general principles behind it. There are several reasons for this and your congregation has undoubtedly been affected by them.

The tenor of life in Canada has changed. Our population is far more mobile than it once was and keeping track of our church members has become more difficult. Today, there is also a greater movement of people between denominations. Persons come into the United Church for many reasons, some without a formal United Church background; and there is generally less understanding of our denominational practices and ethos.

Also volunteers are changing positions more often. In earlier years it was customary for congregations to have one person in charge of congregational membership records, filling the position known as Roll Clerk. This person often held office for years and developed knowledge and procedural comfort through long practice. In my home congregation of Trinity United in Ingersoll, Ontario, one person maintained the membership rolls for over 20 years. This person was a long time member of the congregation who knew its families very well.

Maintenance of membership records now tends to be supervised either by the secretary in the church office, if there is one, or by the congregation's minister. The persons in these positions move on. New staff don't know the congregation's people intimately and, in the case of the church secretary, they may not be of United Church background. A minister in a large church once related how difficult it was for the church secretary to keep membership records. The secretary came out of a strong Anglican tradition whose systems are completely different.

In some cases, the evolution of alternative forms of church government away from the traditional Session/Committee of Stewards/Official Board system has clouded just who is responsible for keeping records. Membership records always have been under the jurisdiction of the Session. When a congregation changes to a unified board or council, traditional functions can sometimes disappear. For example, many congregations no longer have Roll Clerks as a distinct position. My home church is one of them.

Church membership records are important. The names on your roll are people, not just statistics or names on a list. One congregation refers to its members as the number of "souls" on the congregational roll. Your church has the responsibility to provide pastoral care for its "souls." To do so, you must have a system that allows you to know who and where your people are in order that you can provide them with Christian nurture and outreach.

What follows is an attempt to create order out of administrative confusion, to clarify terms, to amplify (not replace) information that is outlined in The Manual, and to provide some practical suggestions to those responsible for maintaining membership records in your local congregation.

Terms relating to membership records


What does "member" mean?

When a person is baptized in your congregation, usually as a child, the person becomes a baptized member of the church universal. A United Church person who affirms as a teen-ager or adult through a public profession of their faith their baptismal vows, becomes a confirmed member of your congregation and hence of The United Church of Canada. For the purposes of this article, the word "member" refers to confirmed member.

How does one become a confirmed member?

A person who has been previously baptized becomes a confirmed member of your congregation by making a public profession of faith (usually after a course of study) and being confirmed through a public service of worship called confirmation. The person's name is then added to the membership roll of your congregation. Adults who have never been baptized are received into membership through a service of adult baptism which, according to our denomination's polity, is concurrently a service of confirmation.

In our United Church tradition, if you move to another community and decide to attend a different congregation, you take or transfer your membership to a new congregation. This act of transfer is done at your request through the church office or your congregation's minister. Your congregation will issue a formal written certificate or a "letter of standing" to you personally, or will send it to your new church home. The certificate gives your name, verifies that you are a member in good standing and commends you to the new congregation. "Letters of transfer" are also known as "certificates of transfer" and less commonly referred to as "letters of demission," or "lines." To be "received by transfer," or "by certificate," or "by letter" are synonymous.

In United Church tradition, church membership is not a given for a lifetime. Once a member has been confirmed, they must continue an active interest in the life and work of the church. Otherwise, their membership is subject to review and possible termination by the governing body of the church.

If you were at one time a member of a local congregation and for some reason you let your membership lapse (probably because you moved away or became inactive), you may renew your membership vows and return to full membership through a process called reaffirmation of faith. Sometimes, reaffirmation involves taking a course of study. Reaffirmed members are usually received back as members during a worship service when other members are being received.

Occasionally, new members are received into the church through the action of the governing board of the congregation -- by Board or Session action. This procedure isn't used very often. It is usually invoked when the person concerned is not able to take formal classes in preparation for confirmation, or when record of one's membership within the church has proven impossible to obtain or verify.

In the United Church tradition, new members are received into the fellowship of a local congregation at specific services of worship, usually at or around the time the sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated. When new members are to be received, their names must be presented to the governing body of the congregation and formally recorded in the minute book of that governing body.


What is an adherent?

An adherent is a person who is known to your congregation and is affiliated in some way with your congregation, but is not a confirmed or professed member of the congregation. Hence the person is not on your congregation's membership roll of confirmed members and would not be considered a member of The United Church of Canada.

Are adherents the same as inactive members? No. Some adherents can be very active in the life of your local congregation. However, for whatever reason, they choose not to make a profession of faith and become confirmed members of the church. Other adherents may be totally inactive and have only the most tenuous of relationships with the congregation, usually for the rites of passage such as marriages and funerals.

Should we keep a list of known adherents, separate from the formal membership roll?

Yes, you could and probably should, although it is not required by church law or tradition. Some congregations use their list of adherents as their primary source for potential new members. Your congregation would certainly want to include active adherents on the congregation's mailing list. Many congregations choose (and wisely I think) to include inactive adherents in order to keep in touch, if only occasionally. Together, your list of adherents, combined with your list of confirmed members, will form the basis of a comprehensive mailing list -- an invaluable administrative and communication tool.

Historic roll

What is an historic roll?

An historic roll is a comprehensive record of the names of all persons who have been confirmed/professed members of your local congregation throughout its history.

What physical format does the historic roll take?

The historic roll is usually a handwritten listing of names, recorded in a bound book or ledger called an Historic Roll book. If your church was organized many years ago, a complete listing of all persons who had ever been confirmed members would obviously encompass several books. UCRD sells Historic Roll membership books.

How can we include the names of all persons who have ever been members? Our records don't go back that far.

Including all names is the ideal; most congregations can't do this because a formal recording system was not followed from the founding of the congregation, or because records have been lost. An historic roll of members can be started at any time by recording all those who are currently members of the church. The historic roll is maintained by adding the names of all new members as they join the congregation.

What information should be included on the historic roll?

The historic roll is as its name suggests -- an historic record. The roll should include as much detailed information as is asked for in the bound roll book itself and as much detail as is possible for you to obtain. For example, include the full names of persons as they joined your congregation; the date they joined; how they joined (whether by profession of faith/confirmation, by reaffirmation of faith, by action of the Session/Board, or by certificate of transfer from another congregation). The historic roll would also indicate by date, how those persons removed themselves as members of the congregation (whether by transfer to another congregation, by death, or by action of the church Session or Board). When you "remove" a name from the membership list, you should record in the roll book, in the space provided after the name concerned, what action was taken to remove the person from membership. The name should never be erased. The name plus pertinent information is left as the permanent historic record that the person was at one time a member of your congregation and when.

Is the historic roll the same as your current membership roll?

No, and one should not confuse the two. The names which appear on your current membership list or roll will include all names from your historic roll which have no indication of removal recorded beside them. The two rolls are separate records and should not be used interchangeably.

Current membership roll

What comprises the current membership roll?

The current membership roll, or list, contains the names of the current members only, that is, the names of people on the historic roll beside which there is no written indication that their names have been removed from membership by reason of death, transfer or for some other reason.

According to United Church polity, you must divide your current membership list into two sections -- a list of members who are resident in your congregation's community; and a list of members who are non-resident, that is, living outside your community. Put together, your list of resident members and your list of non-resident members make up your current membership roll.

Is the current membership roll the same as a communion roll?

Yes. At one time, it was the practice in the United Church that only confirmed members of the congregation could take communion. The current membership list of the congregation was thus sometimes called the communion roll. You can buy a formal, bound Communion Register book as distinct from an Historic Roll book. It has spaces after the name of each member where his or her attendance at communion is recorded. This custom emanated from our Presbyterian heritage, but in the last 20 years, with changes in the form of local church government and the trend towards more frequent communion, it has largely disappeared as a practice within the United Church.

What physical format should your current membership roll take?

This can vary. It depends on what you prefer to use and/or the needs of your local congregation. Some congregations maintain bound volumes in which names and addresses of current members are handwritten. Others keep their members' names on an alphabetical, indexed card system and at least annually prepare a typed list of names and addresses for easy reference. Still others keep their entire membership record system on computer, with a formal hard copy of the congregation's membership list prepared at least annually.

What information should your current membership roll contain?

Include as much information as you need to make your list viable for the administrative purposes of your congregation. For example, include the full names and addresses of your members, their telephone numbers, and so on. Some lists give additional information on members' activity in congregational groups. Your list can also include financial information and other personal data. You would of course have to be selective as to what information kept on your current membership roll is circulated beyond the church office. All congregations with which I have some familiarity print and circulate only a list of members' names, addresses and telephone numbers. UCRD offers a selection of membership index cards and computer programs pertaining to membership information.

Is the current membership roll the same as the congregation's household or mailing list?

No. Your current membership roll lists the names of all confirmed members of your congregation, be they resident or non-resident. A congregation's household or mailing list includes the names of all households -- both member households and adherent households -- as opposed to individuals who are related to the congregation in any way. The household list is used for mailings and the two terms -- household list and mailing list -- can be used interchangeably.

Resident member

What is meant by the term "resident member"?

By definition, a resident member is a confirmed member of the congregation in good standing who lives close enough to the church to take part in its worship services and activities regularly.

Is the term "resident member" synonymous with "active member"?

No, and the two phrases shouldn't be used interchangeably. Most resident members are the active members of your church. However, many resident members of a local congregation can be inactive or totally disinterested in the church.

Non-resident member

What is meant by the term non-resident member?

By definition, a non-resident member is a confirmed member in good standing of your congregation who has moved to such a distance from your local church that the governing body of the church no longer expects that person to attend regularly. For example, if your congregation in Halifax has a member who has moved to Winnipeg, but has not yet transferred their church membership, the member would be non-resident. The non-resident is still considered a full member of your congregation because no certificate of transfer has been issued to the person, or the governing body of the church has taken no action to remove the name from the current membership list.

A congregation should be in communication with its non-resident members at least yearly. Unless there are specific reasons to the contrary, the congregation should encourage its non-resident members to transfer to the closest United Church congregation in the new community of residence.

Is the term non-resident member synonymous with inactive member?

No, and the two phrases shouldn't be used interchangeably. When a person is listed as a non-resident member of your congregation, they are usually not involved in the life of the congregation because they live too far away. Hence they could be deemed inactive. However, some non-residents continue to support the work of their congregation financially and ask to be kept on the church's mailing list: for example, a senior member of long standing who has moved to a nursing home facility in another community. Some congregations include all non-resident members on the congregational mailing list in order to maintain contact and generate interest.

How far away must a person live before they become a non-resident member?

This is determined by the local congregation. Each member's situation should be reviewed individually. For some inner city churches, members of the congregation may gladly drive for many miles to attend church, more than would normally be expected. My current congregation, Bloor Street United in Toronto, has had members drive in from a 40 mile radius and the church office considers these members as resident. However, the church could have deemed these persons non-resident members and been technically correct. Again, the congregation must decide either through a formal decision of the governing body or, more likely, by a sub-committee of the governing body in conjunction with the minister or church office. The degree of activity and interest can thus influence whether or not a person within potential commuting distance of the congregation could be classified as resident.

Why should a congregation bother to differentiate between resident and non-resident members?

Differentiation will help you to clarify the actual strength of your congregation. Also, conference and presbytery financial assessments -- amounts that the higher courts of the church determine each congregation should pay to support conference and presbytery ministries -- are based on the number of resident (and, thus, presumably financially supporting) members. Because of assessments many churches choose to include as many names as is legitimately possible on their non-resident membership list.

Should non-resident members be retained on a congregation's membership roll?

Yes, but not indefinitely and not without reason. For example, it would be inappropriate to remove from your non-resident list the names of students who are away at school and senior members now resident in a distant nursing home. Other persons who are living temporarily out of the country may wish to keep their membership in your church until their return. Ultimately, members' names should be removed from your non-resident membership list when their whereabouts is unknown or when, after time has passed, they show no interest in transferring their membership even after being contacted and encouraged to do so. Such removal of names should be noted in the historic roll.

Active and inactive members

What are active and inactive members?

In United Church polity, there is no such thing as an active or an inactive member. It has no legal status, but it does have a long tradition of popular use. For example, many congregations indicate in some way on their current membership lists the names of those deemed to be inactive either by the governing body of the church, a sub-committee of same, or by the minister and/or office secretary. Some congregations have even divided their current resident membership list into active residents and inactive residents sections.

How does one decide whether a member of the congregation should be deemed inactive?

This should be determined by each congregation since the criteria vary from congregation to congregation. However, there are some common denominators: non-attendance at worship, particularly the sacrament of Holy Communion; non-participation in church activities; lack of financial support.

Are inactive members still considered to be confirmed members of the congregation?

Yes, as long as their names appear on the current membership list, either as resident or non-resident members. After a period of inactivity, the congregation's governing body can vote to remove inactive persons from its membership. These persons, if their whereabouts are still known to the congregation, would now become adherents of the congregation. They would no longer be considered confirmed members of the congregation or of The United Church of Canada.

Should inactive members of a congregation be retained as members?

Yes, but not indefinitely. The Manual states that the governing body of the church must revise annually the current church membership roll of resident and non-resident members and remove those who have absented themselves from public ordinances for three years. The three year period of absence is flexible. Some congregations have a shorter time; the majority allow a longer period of inactivity before names are removed. Removal for inactivity should be done systematically, regularly and following guidelines as prepared by the governing body. A congregation should review its membership lists regularly. If it is not done, membership rolls will become inflated with inactive members, or members whose whereabouts are unknown. This is an unrealistic indication of your congregation's strength. It can also adversely affect your congregation's assessments paid to conference and presbytery. You cannot include inactive members who are resident in your community as part of your non-resident listing in order to avoid paying assessments.

How does one go about removing the names of inactive members?

Each church's governing body, or more usually a committee of same, should review the congregation's membership list regularly. The names of members who have been inactive without reason for the time period as pre-determined by your governing body should be gathered together and presented to the governing body of the congregation. The governing body would then vote to formally remove the names from membership in the congregation and hence from membership in The United Church of Canada. The names of persons removed should be recorded in your governing body's minutes. The fact that these members had been removed by action of the Board would be written in the historic roll. The roll would indicate the tenure of membership for these people if at some time they wished to reactivate their church membership.

Handle the removal of names from your church's current membership roll sensitively, tactfully and carefully. Names on a membership roll reflect people -- people who at one time expressed enough commitment to the Christian faith to make a public profession of faith. The church has an obligation to honour that one time commitment and try to bring these people back to an active fellowship with Christ within your congregation. Your congregation should make personal contact with those members whose names are about to be removed. Be patient, be kind and listen. If after a time the members continue to show no interest in fulfilling the obligations of membership, then the governing body of the congregation should feel free to remove the members from full membership. A member thus removed or lapsed can return to membership again through the reaffirmation of faith process. This procedure would again be noted on the historic roll.


Is it important that we computerize our membership records?

Helpful might be a better word than important. In time, most congregations will either have their own computer and word processing facilities, or will have ready access to them. Computerizing your current membership records will save you a tremendous amount of time, particularly when you have a large number of people under pastoral care. Information stored on computer can be changed and updated quickly and easily without having to do massive amounts of retyping or rewriting. Computerization will enable you to use, with flexibility, the information you have accumulated about your congregation.

What information should we computerize?

As much as you can! The current membership information and related data and even the historic roll can be computerized. Having this information on computer will make life easier. Just be sure to keep a paper record of the information and a second, backup copy of the computer information as a safeguard in case of loss or damage.

What equipment would we need to computerize?

The answers here are beyond the scope of this article, but there are resources to help you. Check with UCRD or your Presbytery Resource Centre. One approach is to contact other congregations in your area and see their computer equipment.

Accurate and Easy to Use Membership Records Will Help You

Gathering information about your congregation's membership and maintaining it will take time. However, the benefits to you and your congregation will be significant. Remember that the membership records are not just names on a list -- they are people -- "souls" -- and keeping this in mind will help you put the sometimes challenging, if not onerous, administrative task into a wider perspective.

Imagine for a moment a certain congregation. This congregation for years has maintained an historic roll, showing the comings and goings of their membership. This same congregation also maintains current lists of confirmed members and of non-confirmed adherents along with the following information: name, address, telephone number, date of birth for each person, date each person was formally received as a confirmed member or affiliated with the congregation as an adherent and a record of congregational activities in which each person is involved. Here are some of the things this congregation has been able to do by having this minimal information about its constituency on file.

  1. Quarterly lists of members, their addresses and telephone numbers are prepared for general congregational use.
  2. Quarterly lists of committee members, their addresses and telephone numbers are prepared for committee chairpersons and secretaries.
  3. The coordinators of the Sunday school are able to obtain the names of all young people within the congregation and invite them to classes and to other youth related activities.
  4. Young people of confirmation age are invited by personal letter and visit to attend membership classes.
  5. Birthdays of all members and adherents over 80 are remembered with a letter from the minister.
  6. Letters of congratulation are sent to persons on the milestone anniversaries of their affiliation with the congregation.
  7. A comprehensive listing of members and adherents provides a useful resource to those responsible for finding committee volunteers. Knowing a person's age or date of affiliation enables committees to obtain a balance of older, younger, long term and more recent members.
  8. Accurate records allow for better pastoral care. The congregation realizes that you can't possibly nurture people if you don't know who they are and where they live.

The possibilities are endless; the results are useful. Those congregations which include financial information in their confidential records can do any number of configurations on giving patterns, current and projected trends.

Douglas L. Flanders was Director of the Department of Education and Information, Division of Communication. This slightly different version of this article was first published in the Winter 1992 edition of "Exchange" magazine, pages 29-35.

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