Church Transfer Letters: Harmless or Bane of my Existence?

March 20, 2007 at 3:50 pm 9 comments

I am having a small dilemma. When we receive transfers from other denominations, do we really have to track down their Church letter from Applesnort, Kentucky? Maybe I’m a product of my generation, but I need to know if there is any real reason we need to get transfer letters for folks who join our congregation from other denominations.

I mean, does this help in the annual trans-denominational member count or what? If we don’t do it, are we in grave danger of counting the same member twice in scientific accounting of membership rolls?

Don’t worry, I do my job sending and receiving these letters, but sometimes I’m just not sure it’s worth the effort. Sure, I sometimes get the occasional letter that says,

“Dear friend in Christ, we didn’t know Ralph was still a Christian. Come to think of it, we didn’t know he was still alive! I hope you have better luck with him than we did. Grace & Peace….”

I know someone out there knows the answer, and I know you’re going to tell me. I look forward to being enlightened.

Entry filed under: Religion.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Todd  |  April 11, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    You didn’t get this lesson in seminary? That’s the title to their soul.

    Technically it is a shepherding issue. My guess it goes back to a time when church membership was a more tangible thing. It would seem to be proof of baptism and confirmation of acceptance into another church. That way, no baptized person went without pastoral care.

    But that is just a guess.

  • 2. Taylor Burton-Edwards  |  April 11, 2007 at 5:16 pm


    Yes, the hope is that indeed you will make contact with the congregation from which the person coming to you claims to be a member. The current provisions for this are outlined in the Book of Discipline, Paragraph 225.

    What is often missed, but that the 2008 proposed revisions to this paragraph will clarify, is that a transfer of letter in itself does not provide the certification necessary to receive someone as a PROFESSING member. All persons who become professing members in our churches– whether they grew up among us or come from elsewhere– are to be received by taking the vows of professing membership for themselves. This can be done using Baptismal Covenant 1 or 4, but not 3 (the vows there are superseded as of the 2004 General Conference).

    Why do this? Because membership in our church is either baptized or professing. If baptized, we need some certification that someone has received Christian baptism. If professing, we need some assurance that this person has become part of our church under the form of the baptismal covenant used by our church.

    I hope that helps!

    Peace in Christ,

    The Rev. Taylor W. Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    GBOD | The United Methodist Church

    Equipping World-Changing Disciples

  • 3. Matt  |  April 11, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks for the comments Todd and Taylor.

    These comments were off the cuff and are in no way meant to diminish or demean our pastoral role as shepherds of Christ’s flock.

    Just so there is no confusion, I use Baptismal Covenant I for all who come as Professing Members.

    I am, however, surprised at the idea that we should get certification of baptism. With our stance on “re-baptism”, do we not accept people’s memory of their baptism as valid?

  • 4. John-Mason Shackelford  |  May 6, 2008 at 6:31 am


    I am glad you asked. Letters of church transfer are, in my view, critical to the good health of the church. A receiving church needs to know what kind of care a new member needs, and the letter of transfer creates this opportunity. In a healthy church it is often the case that a member is in the midst of counsel for a particular issue, or it sometimes the case that a member is under discipline. If the church is really going to help people it needs to be involved in its members lives enough to provide genuine care for them and it must have a united front when it comes to discipline cases. If letters of transfer seem perfunctory, then it suggests that as the larger church we are not really doing our job in caring for our people.

  • 5. Keith  |  June 7, 2008 at 8:58 pm


    I’m a layman who stumbled on to your question while Googling for letters of transfer because, like you, this practice baffles me. I’m 50 years old and grew up with these formalities, but brother, I have to tell you that the closer I grow to the Lord, the less sense this practice makes. You are a pastor and are doing your best to be faithful to those given to your care, and it warms my heart to see you dealing with this issue and getting counsel from your fellow ministers. I hope that you will allow this layman to weigh in also.

    I mean no disrespect to those who have posted before me, but I totally disagree and I feel strongly that this is legalism and is part of why mainstream churches are dying on the vine. I wonder why your conscience alerted you to ask this question? Could it be that the Holy Spirit that lives inside your heart and gives you counsel is speaking to you? Oh, that you would listen to Him before any of us!

    Personally, I have not seen much “church discipline” practiced, but assuming that someone WAS under discipline for, say, cheating on his wife. And let’s say he lives in open rebellion by attending his church services as though he were doing nothing wrong and he rejects the warnings of his church leaders. Eventually he skips town, moves to your neighborhood, and asks to join your church. Lets say you find out where his last church was and you get a letter from them saying that he was unfaithful to his wife. Would you then reject him immediately? You will know a tree by its fruit. If he comes to you, why not take him in without his baggage? Who knows, YOUR congregation may have the vessels that God can use to bring true repentance. And if not, his fruit will reveal his heart eventually and you have nothing to fear by offering him the sweet hand of Grace in the meantime.

    As for receiving members through baptism or profession – I grew up as a Methodist & was baptised Methodist. Mom kept my baptismal certificate in a the family strongbox, along with my confirmation certificate when I reached that age. At the time, it seemed so important and official, like it was part of my “permanent record.” Looking back, I realize that the only permanent record that matters is the one kept by God, and I know that He knows EVERYTHING about me, even my darkest secrets. The baptismal record shows that my parents made a promise to raise me in a Christian home and as part of a Christian community. As an infant, I had no idea what was going on. What I know now is that I am a sinner in need of a savior, and it is to the cross of Christ that I must fall on my face, repent, and take hold of the grace laid out for me by His blood. Some day, it is Jesus to whom I must answer for the life I have lived, not the United Methodist Church or any other. If my life takes me to a new location, a new church, or even a new denomination, I have no qualms about publicly professing my faith to a new community and being baptised all over again. My wife and I, and both of our daughters, have been baptised as adults, even though we all underwent infant baptism, out of obedience to Christ’s example. Not that it saves us by itself, but that it is a public statement of purpose and obedience to Christ.

    That said, I see no value for a letter of transfer for a person coming from another denomination. The only value I see for one from a person in the same denomination would be if the person did not want to profess their faith again to a new community, but why wouldn’t they? Would they be ashamed to stand in front of their new congregation and say, “I love Jesus, I accept His gift of life, and will obey His word?” I’ve heard adults say that they would be ashamed because some people may think that they were not baptised and infants or that they were not already Christians. Again, the only one whose opinion matters is Jesus.

    Those are my thoughts, Matt. God bless you, and thank you for giving your life to care for God’s people!!

  • 6. Paul  |  August 14, 2008 at 7:49 am


    I totally agree with Keith. This has become nothing more than denominational legalism. Praise God! when are church pastors going to wakeup and preach the Gospel of Christ? I find nowhere in the bible, where I need a letter to be saved! We are to be imitators of Christ and not denominations. If a denomination is not caring for their on members, how are they going to care for others? The only letters that should be transferable are those of Gods word.

  • 7. Polity is Popular? « mattjudkins  |  August 29, 2008 at 7:30 am

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