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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Letters of Transfer

I often get questions from clerks of session about letters of transfer.

So, what is a letter of transfer, anyway?

I can tell you what it’s not.  It’s not one letter amongst a whole file of letters that clerks of session keep on hand, ready for the day when a member may want to transfer to another church.

Sometimes you hear church members say, “I moved my letter to another church.” This is a complete fallacy, for three reasons. First, such a file of letters does not exist - at least, not in any church I know of. Second, even if there were something to move, the member doesn’t move it; the clerk of session does (or perhaps a church secretary, operating under the clerk’s direction). Third, even when such a letter is issued, it’s not “their” letter.  It’s the church’s letter: a piece of correspondence from one clerk of session to another.

Often, it’s not a custom-written letter, but rather a half-completed "Certificate of Transfer" form sent from the new church to the old one.  Upon receipt, the clerk of session or session moderator of the old church signs the form, confirming that the person transferring is a member in good standing, and sends it back to the new church. Then, after the person has become a member, the new church sends a little, tear-off "Certificate of Reception" form back to the old church, confirming that the transaction has been completed. The Session of the old church must then vote (if they haven't already) to direct that the name be removed from the membership roll. You can order blank forms from Cokesbury.

The form is optional. The transfer could just as well be accomplished by an exchange of custom-written letters. But most churches find the form to be a convenient way to accomplish this little piece of routine ecclesiastical business.

The best way to think of a letter of transfer is as a courtesy to the old church, notifying them that they can now remove their member’s name from their roll. That’s pretty much its sole purpose.

You may find that the reverse side of the form includes a place to indicate whether the member being transferred is an ruling elder or a deacon. Don't neglect to mention that! The member's ordained status continues, whether or not he or she is currently serving on your church's Session or Board of  Deacons at the time of transfer. Presbyterian churches and other churches of the Reformed tradition that recognize our orders of ministry need to know that the person they're receiving is a church officer, so they can add that person's name to their own roll of ordained officers. Not all transferring members will mention this to their new church, so you need to make sure the new church knows!

I just received a question today about what to do when a transfer request arrives for a person who’s on the inactive roll.

There is no longer a requirement in the new Form of Government that a Session maintain an inactive roll, but most churches I know of still do, as a local option defined in their own manual of operations. Under the old book, only active members could be transferred. The new book makes no such stipulation: as far as it's concerned, there's only one membership roll, the active roll. If a local church does make use of an inactive roll, and its manual specifies that those people cannot vote in congregational meetings or hold office, then those on the inactive role are, de facto, no longer members as far as the larger church is concerned.

If a Session is inclined to respond positively to a letter-of-transfer request anyway, it's a relatively simple thing to vote to restore the person to the membership roll, then issue the letter of transfer. (Even if the Session uses the older word "reactivate," rather than "restore," the meaning of that action - as understood beyond the walls of the local church, where the Session's manual of operations has no authority - is to restore the person to membership, rather than to move him or her from one roll to the other.)

In the case of a request to transfer a person on the inactive roll, therefore, the Session has two choices:

1. Write back to the Session of the other church, explaining that it's not possible for you to issue a letter of transfer because the person is no longer on the membership roll; then, since joining another church is imminent, you should suggest to the Session that they vote to delete the person's name from the inactive roll.  You could say something like this in such a letter: “We thank you for notifying us and celebrate with enthusiasm John’s decision to join your church, but in fact we have already removed his name from our membership roll.” The only way this affects John's reception as a member of the new church is that he would be listed as being received by reaffirmation of faith, rather than by letter of transfer.  Once the membership-reception Sunday is over, no one will much care what the difference is.

2. Ask your Session to vote to reactivate the person’s membership - understanding that this is really a restoration to membership, as far as the larger church is concerned - then immediately issue the letter of transfer. Then, once you hear back that the transfer is complete, you can remove the person’s name from your roll. (It's up to your Session to determine the criteria for membership, within the general guidance of G-1.0402.)

I usually recommend that sessions take option #2. The rationale is that the desire to join another church is sufficient evidence to justify restoration, for the brief time it takes to accomplish the transfer - and, besides, we're just glad to encourage anyone who wants to join a church.

Now, in case anyone's wondering, option #2 will probably have no impact on your church's per capita apportionment. Unless this process stretches from one calendar year into the next, on December 31st - when the membership-numbers "snapshot" is taken , producing the (active) membership total on which the per capita apportionment will be based, one year hence - you will have added a member, then subtracted one, so there’s no net change to your membership total.

There's only one exceptionally rare circumstance in which, upon receiving a letter-of-transfer request for someone on the membership roll, the Session of the old church would decline to issue such a letter. That is a case in which a complaint has been filed against a person under the Rules of Discipline. While such a case is pending, the old church needs to keep the person on the roll until the investigation (and possible trial) is concluded, so the Session retains ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

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