Baptism and Church Membership

I think I am going to think very seriously before baptizing any more babies of people who are not members or becoming members through catechesis. Several respected theologians I know would disagree, and say that the problem is not with baptizing but with pastoral care after baptism. Whatever. The point is, what’s the point of baptizing a baby that is not going to be raised a Christian or one that is going to be raised in a heterodox church? Would you believe that none of the babies I have baptized since I became a pastor (mine being the only exceptions) are now in the Church? One of them was at the request of the grandparents, who about had a cow when I hesitated. The parents were attending Faith family Church in Keokuk, and they didn’t baptize infants, so they asked me. I did it, trusting the wisdom of others, and I think now that I shouldn’t have.

The sad part is, we have all these people on our list of “Persons or Souls belonging to the Congregation.” Many of those were the children of non-members, baptized as infants, and now we have no idea who or where they are. What am I supposed to do with them on the membership roster? Count them as baptized members? I don’t think anyone can understand the kind of membership mess I have here, although you could get some idea by looking at the statistical data for my congregations (which some have and criticized me for not doing a better job–thanks a lot! As if it doesn’t already weigh on me enough. Some people are just like District Presidents. And no, I’m not talking about you PTM).

So, what do I do? I have GOT to get a handle on this membership thing. I don’t even know where to start. Do I start with the communicant “membership” first, and then go to baptized? What is baptized membership anyway? Is it equal to “List of Persons or Souls belonging to this congregation”? They don’t teach us this stuff at seminary, but they might be advised to. Suffice to say, I don’t know who my sheep are that I am supposed to be caring for.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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17 Responses to Baptism and Church Membership

  1. Past Elder says:

    I understand your concern. My first son was baptised before my wife and I were members or even professing Lutherans. However, we were at the time working with the pastor in Adult Bible Information Class, the WELS version of adult catechesis. His sponsors were family members who are not WELS (my wife’s family is LCMS except for the ones who married Catholics and followed suit!) but LCMS although whether that is a big deal to them I cannot say. My second son had Roman Catholics for sponsors, his aunt and uncle (I was still WELS then). To this day I am not sure what I think of this, though I expect they would see to a Lutheran exposure should I shuffle off the mortal coil (their mother already has). Even so it would not be the same as being raised in an observant Lutheran home.

    Point being, this is as touchy as the marriage thing that came up earlier. Funerals too. Where is the line between these things being simply rites of passage which some people observe for whatever reason in a Lutheran church and some don’t, and these things being sacraments and other observances which the Lutheran church exists to do?

    My suggestion? Get your elders on this. Have them contact the parents. For that matter, contact the sponsors — did they not too make promises? As to the baptisms themselves, maybe they are somewhat akin to an emergency baptism, brought about not so much by medical reasons as in times past but by the love of many growing cold. And in no case can this be done out of a concern for numbers, but souls, which one would hope is the concern of DPs too.

  2. Rebellious Pastor's Wife says:

    I think that is an interesting point above.

    All I can say, and I know some disagree with me, is that they are still under the care of the Holy Spirit, and He does not let them go easily.

    My niece was baptized when she was a baby. Her parents weren’t religious, but my mom didn’t give up on it. When they divorced, her mom and her aunt on the other side raised her Mormon. When she was eighteen, she was drawn back to Christianity, and that idea of being baptized as an infant always held her fascination for one reason or another. I do believe the Holy Spirit was drawing her back. The fact that this baptism was Lutheran also draws her. She asks questions sometimes. I pray that she eventually moves in that direction (because I know God hears my prayers).

    More than anything, I’d say pray for these children, for their parents, for their sponsors…and definitely pursue it, in a loving way, and let them know that God and you are greatly concerned for their welfare.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why not baptize whoever wants to be baptized and forget all about the numbering stuff? We believe that the Word is effective. It does what God promises. Baptism is always valid (as long as done by an orthodox church). If someone brings a child to you to have it baptized, they obviously have enough sense to think that it is a good thing, and that it should be done. Go with that. Place God’s seal on that kid. It’s never worthless.

    I agree, it should be followed up with catechism and training. But that is ultimately up to the parents. We can’t force them to do so–only tell them that it is their job to do so. If you are going to tie yourself in knots about people who may or may not continue in the faith, you’re going to have to question everything you do–baptisms, preaching, weddings, confirmations, etc.

    As for numbering, who gives a rip? The time David thought about counting his kingdom didn’t turn out so well (2 Sam 24). What good comes from numbering?

    scott adle

  4. Pastor Beisel says:

    It’s not just about numbering, it is about keeping track of the sheep. I could care less how many people are in the church, but I do care that I do not know who I am supposed to be a pastor to.

  5. Anonymous says:


    Our policy is not to deny baptism to anyone. However, I’ll often insist that before I’ll talk to parents about baptizing their child that they must come to church. In other words, I don’t schedule such things over the phone. They have to come to church and then meet with me about baptism. And then I catechize them about baptism, etc. If they aren’t even willing to do that, then they really aren’t all that interested in getting their child baptized, are they?

    I have to say that of the 20 or so children I’ve baptized in the last 5 years, maybe 25% are in church on a regular basis. Some come every now and then. Probably more than 50% have not been in church since the day of their baptisms.

    Our policy for baptized children of non-members is to “keep them on the rolls” for 3 years. If they they don’t come to church and their parents do not enroll them in Sunday School at age 3, we simply release them.

    Dan Grams+

  6. Anonymous says:

    I know it’s not just about numbering. But how does the numbering help? Does it help you to know that you may possibly have 500 baptized members or 450?

    Aren’t the ones who you pastor to the ones who show up, or who ask for your services in some kind of way? If someone drifts away from the church, and doesn’t even bother to give you a call to have a chat or have communion delivered, what really can be done? If they wanted something, they’d ask. It’s not that difficult. I don’t find it persuasive that people are just so afraid to bother the pastor that they wouldn’t even call him up to ask for communion, or to talk about a theological problem or question. That’s exactly what pastors are for.

    I mean, if you notice that a regular member doesn’t show up for a while, you would most likely call them and ask what’s up. But what if you didn’t–if it slipped your mind during this busy part of the year? Does that mean you were shunning your duties? I don’t see it that way. Luther (I think, you can correct me if I’m wrong, it’s not a direct quote) said something along the lines of “we should be eager to run 100 miles to confession/absolution if need be.” I can’t imagine that picking up the phone or driving to the pastor’s office or church service is much harder than actual foot travel to receive absolution.

    And again, I ask you about 1 Sam 24. Is counting in any form really valid? Where at all does it say we should be concerned about numbers? Granted the Synod likes it, but that by no means makes it kosher.

    scott adle

  7. Pastor Beisel says:


    The way I see it is that I am pastorally responsible for anyone that has been baptized, not just to those who have come to church regularly. So, unless those people are dropped from our roles, they weigh on my mind. It’s like a phantom when you’ve got 100 or so people’s names on the “List of Persons or Souls belonging to the Congregation” that you don’t know or have no idea how to find them.


    Maybe that is what we will have to do eventually. Maybe it would be best just to release those who have not been to church in 3-5 years or so. Still, I feel compelled to try to make contact with them.

  8. bad ice says:


    I would baptize them all. Jesus said, “do not hinder them” and, well, refusing to baptize is a bit of a hindrance. And even though you may forget them, God will never forget them. (can a mother forget a child she has nursed? Even though she may forget I will never forget you…quoting Isaiah from memory).

    I “cleaned up” my roles last year. Pastelder is right. Get the elders nvolved. They know that “joe and Mary moved along time ago.” They know that “Joe and mary went Methodist.” My elders were a HUGE help. I am now confident of my roster.


  9. Rabbi Jonah says:

    When I was a Lutheran pastor, I did my job: I explained/taught the meaning of the Sacrament in private counseling and of course in the service itself. Beyond that, extra catechesis will guarantee you nothing. People will do what they will. I have a sister in law who was proud of the fact that she had her baby baptized twice…once down south where she lived, and then again up north where the grandparents lived…for no other reason than to have two baptismal parties. I confronted them with my opinion that this was entirely abusive of the Sacrament, the clergy and the congregations involved, and she just chalked it up to me being a jerk again.

    So. You don’t know what’s going on with the people you don’t see in your pews…they’ve gone on somewhere. Why is that charge to “fix”, rather than your charge to hand over to faith? Why must it be “certainly true” that these people are “lost” even if they are not in your parameters. Does not G-d still pastor?

    I baptized my own daughter. I took my daughter with me out of the Church when our family converted to Judaism. The ELCA is not sweating where we are, nor does it even know. But G-d knows.

    It’ll be okay pastor. In Judaism we have a tradition that any Kaddish prayer we say, we say not only for the departed whose names we know, but for all who have none to remember them. In your prayer for the Church, pastor, you simply include “them all” (I, know…even me). G-d will take it from there.

  10. Pr. H. R. says:

    Hi Beisel,

    I struggle with just the same stuff here at my two little parishes. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

    Like many other folks have already mentioned, Baptism really is effective as I know you believe and trust. While it’s tough to do theology by anecdote, I’m going to second all those anecdotes above about God pulling in his Baptized years down the road. Indeed, that’s my story. At the time of my birth, my parents were completely delinquent church members. But they got me baptized. I never set foot in a church again for years. But eventually, God called me back…

    Around here, I take a Law/Gospel approach with the delinquent parents who come with their kids for baptism – they need to hear the Law and be called to repent. I warn them, I take the “sponsorship” questions from the LW rite and apply them to the parents, show them what the Scriptures say about raising the child in the faith, and insist that they do this; I talk about the spiritual life given to teh child and the need to nourish it; explain how God will nourish it in the Church, and call them to a life of faith in Christ. They usually nod and just want to get on with it. But they’ve at least they now have no excuse.

    (What I have not yet encountered, which I think you have, is someone who just says: “No, pastor. I don’t care about that stuff. I have no intention of raising this kid in the faith.” That’s a bit tougher…I think I would still baptize the kid for the reasons above. But I can see making that pastoral call the other way.)

    I’m also working on a “cradle roll” type of think where letters would go out to the parents of the child every so often. That’s at least one small way I can see of trying to keep that pastoral duty to the baptized that you mentioned fulfilled.

    One more think on the “to whom am I a pastor” question. One time I was sharing a cab with a Papist priest (we were both going to the same conference). I asked him how many members he had in his parish. He repsonded that they didn’t count members like that, but rather that his parish was a geographical area and that he counted all the people in that area as under his care. This is, of course, how the Lutheran Church has opperated in Europe as well and offers an interesting take on your question.

    We’re pastors to everyone in the geographical region of our parish – our regular attendees, our delinquents, and even the unbelievers and the heterodox. But we have different duties to each of these people.

    Well, like I said, these comments are “for what they are worth.” I’m struggling with the same issues and I know the weight you feel on your soul about it all. But I think you are doing a faithful job of it. The Lord will take care of his own.


  11. Pastor Beisel says:

    Thanks for all your comments and suggestions. I think that Bad Ice and the rest are probably right–don’t hinder the little children from coming to Christ. So far I have no denied baptism to any child. But, I also like Dan’s policy, that if they do not show up to church in three years, release them. If they come back in 10 years and want to be catechized, you can always add them back on.

    Rabbi Jonah, how does one go from believing that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus is YHWH, to not believing that? That amazes me. I have never heard of a Christian converting to Judaism.

  12. David says:


    There is much to be concerned with here. The second bit of making disciples is teaching them. If one is not regularly taught, and after confirmation communed, faith shrivels and dies. That does not fit well with the OSAS calvinists but unfortunately I deal everyday with coworkers who only have a baptism cert to depend on. Sadly many live lives with little or no thought of God until confronted with a problem.

    The ELCA deny so much it was a small move to become Juden.

  13. Pastor Beisel says:

    So what do you do with Jesus? Do you just sort of, set him aside?

  14. Past Elder says:

    When I was an elder everyone on the rolls was assigned to one of us and we compared notes monthly about the no-shows and sought them out, usually going in pairs.

    That’s elders. Pr HR is right. A pastor’s care extends to everyone in the boundaries of his parish. I don’t think that was at issue in the Reformation. I also don’t think numbers are proof of fidelity to the Great Commission, which was given without numbers or timetables but which seems to be a trap for the “passion for mission” and the “maintenance mission” types alike.

    As to Rabbi Jonah, I’m less fascinated with a Christian converting to Judaism, which is hardly unheard of in my experience, than with this. With the exception of my sparring partner der alte Schuetz, every Lutheran pastor I know of who converted to something else (usually referred to a swimming something, what is this, swimming the Jordan?) ends up a clergyman there too. What’s up with that? Is it something about Lutheran pastors, pastors by whatever name generally, or is Schuetz a statistical anomaly due to the peculiarities of the clergy in his present church, ie celibacy, though I hear they make provisions for Anglican clergy converts. I myself, coming from an RC background, spent about twenty years as a hanger on to Orthodox Judaism (a redundancy IMHO, like confessional Lutheranism, as if there is any another legitimate kind) and was hoping for stranger within the gate status but my rabbi said no, I was a Righteous of the Nations. He discouraged any conversion, weighing 613 in one hand, the number of commands in the Law, against 7 in the other, the number of Noahide Laws incumbent on all people and ratified for Christians at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, in the other, saying, who would do that? Not that Judaism doesn’t accept converts, but does so after much care that they understand what they are really doing.

    So let the pastors go on baptising, and let the elders go on helping them chase after the lost sheep, and let the numbers counters be, well, you know.

  15. Anonymous says:

    pastor beisel said:
    “But, I also like Dan’s policy, that if they do not show up to church in three years, release them. If they come back in 10 years and want to be catechized, you can always add them back on.”

    To which I say:
    Release them to whom? To what? To the “invisible” church? What does it mean to “release” baptized members of your congregation when you are not releasing them into the care of another congregation/pastor? That sounds more like excommunication to me. Perhaps that is the way to go—excommunication. But I don’t think I understand what it means to “release” members into the thin air, so to speak. We should tread very carefully here, imho.

    Tom Fast

  16. Pastor Beisel says:

    Uh, just a technicality, but how can you ex-communicate someone who is not a communicant? Are you suggesting that baptized children simply be left on the roster indefinitely?

  17. Anonymous says:

    My granddaughter hasn’t been baptized. She attends a church with her mother and her other grandparents that doesn’t ‘do’ infant baptism.
    I’ve been torn about it. If I were to see to her baptism myself, would it be only for my satisfaction?
    Chances are, she’d be baptized again, at that age of accountability her church so celebrates.
    Meanwhile, there she is, in the modern world of daycare and multiple homes and the constant hostility of her unmarried parents: who is more in need of the protection of baptism? Who is more vulnerable–and battered–than that spoiled little princess, who has a Barbie and Cabbage Patch doll for each house she ‘lives in’, her bike here, her dollhouse there, her puppy somewhere else.
    It’s tempting to want to join in and try to mitigate her circumstances, but that’s just believing it’s stuff and attention a child needs, and as near to structure as all parties can get.
    What difference would baptism make for her?
    I seem the biggest sinner of them all, because I’m the one who knows it’s necessary, but I feel like Peter, denying Christ for the sake of the ‘moment’s’ peace.

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