Lay Leader Lines

September 30th, 2015 by Kali Lewis

Q: I have a friend who goes to a church of another denomination.  She mentioned that sometimes people are excommunicated in her church.  What is that?  Do we excommunicate people in the United Methodist Church?

A:  To be excommunicated means to be cut off from communion or membership, and to be prohibited from taking the sacraments and participating in the fellowship of the church, usually for violating basic church rules or flagrantly acting in opposition to the stated beliefs of the church.  Some denominations use this much more than others.  In the past it was not unusual for Roman Catholics who divorced to be excommunicated, since divorce is prohibited in that church.  In the United Methodist Church, a person, including a lay person, can be denied membership (the term excommunication is not used), for serious offenses, but the process is a lengthy one, involving procedures much like those used in a court of law, with a trial before the church’s judicial body.  (The procedures are explained at length in the Book of Discipline.)  The standards are different for clergy and laity.  In all cases, every attempt is made to resolve the problem before getting to the point of dismissing a person from membership, because to cut a person off from the fellowship of the church in effect excludes the possibility of working with that person to bring about a reconciliation between the person and the church body.  In Methodism, it is much more common to drop a person from membership than to dismiss someone.  To drop from membership is to remove a person from the church rolls, generally after a long period of inactivity and lack of any involvement with the church.  This is generally done by a local church with the agreement of the person being dropped, or when attempts to communicate with the person about his or her wishes in this regard receive no response.  If an inactive person does not wish to be dropped, his or her wishes are respected and the person is continued on the rolls, even if he or she remains inactive.  Dropping a person from the rolls does not imply any punitive intent, but rather, is an administrative action taken to maintain an accurate membership list for the church.  If a person is dropped and later wishes to rejoin the church, he or she may do so without prejudice.  This is not generally true when a person is excommunicated, although there are means of reinstating a dismissed member in the United Methodist system.