Seek balance in membership development

The most effective Membership Development Program will be balanced.

Churches will give equal emphasis to recruitment, retention, and transformation. Put another way, that means equal emphasis on helping people through the front door, helping them to avoid the back door, and helping them to discover the new life that they probably came seeking.

An effective recruitment effort will lay a foundation of solid incorporation procedures. You will notice visitors and greet them, but not pounce. You will obtain basic information for follow-up, mainly name and e-mail address, possibly phone number. A pastor or designee will contact the visitor right away and encourage further conversation. You will invite visitors to regularly scheduled membership classes and celebrate their decision to affiliate.

Retention takes over from there. It’s more complex, but the general idea is to engage the new member, lead them into a small group or similar relational experience, learn their interests for possible ministry assignments, give them some stake in the functioning of the faith community, and respond consistently to their needs.

This needs to be personal work — not a computerized form — and it is more time-consuming than the typical pastor can manage. Laity needs to be trained and deployed for retention work. It can’t be left to chance, or else any human community’s tendency to form closed circles will prevail and the new member will feel frozen out. 

Transformation is even more complex. It’s often mistaken for pastoral care. While pastoral care-giving is essential, transformation concerns change of mind and change of life, not solution of a specific immediate problem like an illness. Transformation means classes, spiritual direction, opportunities to serve and to reflect on that service, retreats, small relational community, stewardship (in its larger sense, not just fund-raising), and personal reconsideration of values and choices.

In the Membership Development section of the Church Wellness Project (, we go into much more detail about these three phases. My point here is to encourage balance.

A warm Sunday greeting is just the start of a sustained process. Otherwise, you will find your church membership a “revolving door,” with as many leaving as arriving and a general disengagement over time, leading to the net loss of membership that most congregations are experiencing.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is president of Morning Walk Media Inc., publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.