Most bylaws for membership organizations are very specific and detailed regarding how members are added to the rolls. This shows great concern and care about the best means of assuring that members meet expectations of the organization. Never is this more true than with churches, where the details on how to qualify for membership, and the procedure for becoming a member, are thorough and deliberate. Strangely, however, many of those same sets of bylaws are deficient, or even lacking in a description of how one ceases to be a member. This can create great problems for organizations when critical votes by the members are closely decided and could be contested. The lack of a clear means of determining how to terminate a membership can mean that the rolls include people who have had little or no contact with the organization in a very long time. Sometimes, organizations have so many disengaged members that it is impossible to even gather a quorum for making a decision.
The standard for effective maintenance of membership records is that an officer of the corporation should be able to report the precise number of members at any given day. This number is critical to some decisions that are made by the membership.
Generally, membership can be terminated by the member affirmatively asking to be removed, failure to follow some standard of conduct, such as failure to pay dues or to attend programs, or a disciplinary measure, whereby the organization takes an action to remove the member. While each of these are critical to effective management, they are often not addressed in bylaws at all. While there is a presumption that the person who asks to be removed from the membership roll can have that requested granted even where the bylaws are silent, that only takes care of actions initiated by the member. Where bylaws do not require attendance at meetings or services, then once an individual becomes a members, there is a presumption that the membership lasts for a lifetime. This can be very problematic at an organization that is very old.
At the Church Law Center, we advise all membership organizations that have a membership to review their bylaws to see if the method of terminating membership is clear and complete. If there are issues in the bylaws that need to be addressed, we recommend that you contact us. Changing the standards for membership can be complicated by the need to assure that existing membership rights are honored if promises were made to past members that cannot be modified. As always, we are ready to help out at the Church Law Center of California.