April 8, 2015

Shepherding & the Transfer Letter

by Eric Davis

letterIt was pretty early on in my ministry when this guy, John, arrived at our fledgling church. With the addition of one person, our church grew by about 5%. Needless to say, I was excited. But what John did when I first met him fascinated me. We met for coffee the following week. After some small talk and getting to know him a bit, he handed me a manila folder with a letter in it. “This is from my previous pastor,” he said. “He thought that the leadership here would want this.”

That week, I opened up the letter and read it. John’s immediate elder had written to our leadership team, describing him to us. He unpacked things like John’s ministry involvement, training and equipping classes he went through, and his overall character. As a leadership team, we still needed to get to know John, but it made transitioning him into our fellowship much smoother than if he had come without the letter.

I had heard of church transfer and recommendation letters before, but had not seen it in meaningful action. This was different. Though the letter itself does not guarantee all will be fine and dandy with the individual, if done meaningfully, it’s a huge blessing to both the individual and receiving church.

In light of that, here are a few reasons for local church leadership teams to keep the practice of meaningful recommendation letters alive and well:

  1. The example of the New Testament leadership.

scrollWhen Phoebe delivered the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul gave her a recommendation to that church (Rom 16:1-2). In doing so, he stated her ministry involvement, exhorted the receiving church to help her and meet her stated needs, and gave a personal character reference.

Paul did similarly with individuals such as Tychicus to the Ephesian church (Eph 6:21-22), Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippian church (Phil 2:19-30), and Onesimus to Philemon (Philem 10-21).

  1. It expedites ministry opportunities in that new church.

When a company hires a new employee, they plug them into a position best suited for their current experience and equipping in which they have demonstrated proficiency. Church recommendation letters can operate similarly.

Provided that the previous leadership team appropriately shepherded the individual, they can offer a detailed summary of his/her ministry proficiency and spiritual giftedness. That way, the receiving church need not reinvent the wheel with the individual, but can, according to their needs, smoothly transition them into a ministry suited to their experience and equipping.

  1. It serves as an overall character reference for that new church.

I’ve had a few friends apply for law enforcement jobs recently. During the interview process, I was both surprised and encouraged to receive calls inquiring into the character of the individual. The same happens when applying to rent a house or apartment. Owners require references from previous housing to serve as a character reference.

There’s no reason churches should do much different. A transfer letter can serve as a somewhat of an ecclesiological background check. Receiving churches will have an idea of the individual’s spiritual maturity, which will help them provide the necessary shepherding care and ministry direction. Sending churches open themselves up to the receiving churches should they need to be contacted regarding any questions pertaining to the needs and ministry of the individual.

  1. It communicates the individual’s shepherding needs.

helpWhen multiple healthcare providers are involved in treating an individual, they typically communicate with one another in order to best care for them. A cardiologist will communicate with a general physician who will communicate with a radiologist and a surgeon. Necessary records are transferred in order to best treat the individual.

Local church leadership ought to take a similar approach with the flock, including transferring members. Often people enter a new church with shepherding needs. If an individual was in counseling, the receiving leadership needs to know about it. If they are immersed in a trial, enduring some hardship, or are caught in sin, the receiving shepherds must be informed. Our goal is to be obedient to the Chief Shepherd so as to provide the most accurate shepherding for the individual.

Too often our leadership has received a new individual in the church, only to find out weeks, or even months, later that they had some significant shepherding need. Such things are not always immediately recognizable. But this can be avoided if previous leadership communicates with the receiving church.

  1. It protects receiving churches.

Sadly, people too often leave churches because they are spiritually sick or dead. Perhaps they are fleeing church discipline. Maybe the faithful, biblical ministry of the previous church was grinding on his/her flesh, so they are seeking refuge for their sin. Perhaps the individual is a wolf who recognized that he would not be able to do damage at the previous so he is seeking a more vulnerable flock.

You can bet that if a shepherd knew of a lurking wolf on the plains, he would inform shepherds of other flocks when at all possible.

Church leaders, then, have a responsibility to care enough, both for the individual and that receiving church, to communicate these things. Otherwise, we could be quietly and carelessly sending wolves into another flock.

  1. It’s a reminder to God’s people of the importance of local church commitment.

protectGenerally speaking, the significance of an organization can be observed in the ways someone joins, transfers within, and leaves the organization. Reference letters, resumes, membership, and the like, exist because belonging to that organization is meaningful.

For example, before someone is permitted to join a company as an employee, a process involving interviews, examinations, and references are required. If the individual is transferred to a different position or location, the sending and receiving management communicate. Among other things, all of this demonstrates that the organization, its mission, and belonging is meaningful and matters.

Christ’s people belong to the most significant organization in the universe. As such, our Lord has overwhelmingly communicated to us how important local church commitment is in many ways. Forty-some one another commands are hard to obey apart from commitment to one another. Submitting to a visible, qualified local church leadership is hard to do apart from local church membership (cf. Heb 13:17). We get traction serving as equipped saints (cf. Eph 4:11-13) and using our spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Pet 4:10-11) in the context of a consistent and candid commitment to a church.

God’s best for his people his meaningful commitment to a New Testament kind of local church. Church recommendation letters are one way to apply and display that.

  1. It can inform of poor previous shepherding.

Too often God’s people are inadequately shepherded in the local church. Church transfer letters can give receiving churches a heads up along these lines. For example, if a leadership team recognizes that they have not biblically shepherded the person, they can detail how to the receiving church. That will position the receiving leadership to pick up where they left off. Or, a receiving church will discern from the letter that the previous leadership did not appropriately shepherd the individual, yet did not know it. This could be discerned in a number of ways from a transfer letter.

good ideaA letter is not an end-all to faithfully shepherding Christ’s flock. But there are plenty of reasons to implement it as one of many care-tactics for adequately stewarding his people.

As a side, one example of a transfer letter could be something like this:

  • Introducing the transferring elder and individual (Who is writing/recommending and what is his ministry in the transferring church (ideally, the closest elder would write)? Duration of membership? Were they saved in that church? Or transferred from another? When? And an invite to contact the previous church.).
  • Individual’s ministries (In what ministry did they serve? How long? Were they faithful? What is their giftedness and how was this observed?).
  • Character observation (What level of maturity did they demonstrate in biblical relationships? Did they attempt to practice the one anothers? And show unity with the leadership?).
  • Any shepherding recommendations (Counseling or shepherding recommendations for the receiving leadership? Was the member in counseling?).
  • Membership standing and recommendation (Are they a member in good standing? Why or why not? Can the transferring church recommend the individual to membership at the receiving church?).

And a note to church members. If you are changing churches, please bug us church leaders to write you a transfer letter. We need to care enough about Christ, you, and the church to do so.

Bottom line: we, as church leaders, need to care enough about Christ and his church that we communicate to one another in order to best shepherd God’s people and those who may not yet be God’s people.

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:1-3).


Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Brian Morgan

    Eric, I appreciate this post very much. I must say, after nearly 13 years in the ministry, I have never seen a transfer letter. Have you requested one if they arrive empty handed?

    • Eric Davis

      Brian – thanks for the encouragement. Sorry to hear that you have never seen a letter in that long. And you bring up a great point. I have not been as faithful as I should have to request letters from incoming people. And looking back, I think that we would’ve had a much better handle on some bumpy shepherding situations if I would’ve asked for a letter and had a heads-up. Thanks again.

  • Alan

    Great article!

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you, Alan.

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  • Gary Walton

    Have been practicing transfer letters for ten years. Gotta say not very many churches care to reciprocate. Even had an elder under discipline when he decided to go to another church. When that church contacted us, we informed them of the discipline. Did not matter, they accepted him right into membership and leadership.

    • Eric Davis

      Gary – sadly, that is way too common of a story these days. Thanks for sharing. Press on.

  • I would have thought the above photo of a ball-point would have nearly amounted to apostasy, or are we strictly wet-shaving gurus here? 😀 Great post Eric!

    • Eric Davis

      Matt – they haven’t invented fountain pens in Wyoming yet, brother. Nor shaving.

  • Neill

    Helpful ideas. Thank you.

    Expanding a little on the seventh point, what (if anything) can we deduce about our potential shepherding of a new member of the flock if the sending church does not send a letter because they “don’t do that kind of thing”?

    • Eric Davis

      Great question, Neill. I would want to ask a few more questions before I concluded anything. For example, did the church practice meaningful membership? Discipline? What did discipleship look like? That would reveal more information. From those questions we could begin to discern the individual’s understanding of involvement in the body of Christ and accountability, for example. Those concepts might be new to them, at least, the NT idea. If they are regenerate, they will, over time, embrace a biblical approach to the one anothers, biblical confrontation, and accountability. If they are not and did not repent, then it will come as somewhat of a shock.

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  • wiseopinion

    I am late in posting this. I really like this idea and was thinking of what MY transfer letter would look like? I think there are many reasons why this practice may have been tossed to the side of the road…all the while depending on the doctrine and personality of the church or ministry, What I mean is, one church may think it is a worthwhile practice, while others may think it is a total waste of time. Letters of recommendation for the workplace are also meaning less and less these days as one can scream discrimination for any “negative” statement mentioned, even if it is the absolute truth. Some write positive recommendations for all the wrong reasons (a friend, a relative, a lover, a favor, or just to get someone out of ones hair). In these days of falsehood, corruption, iniquity and narcissism, even if you received a letter, how much truth is in it? Sad to say but so true. I personally believe that the church (not all, but a large number these days) is so enamored with numbers, they will take anyone as long as they “seem” decent and have come from a typical mainline denomination or church. Then they let them lead or serve in ministries because “bodies” are needed to fill in all the ministries and events offered to draw in more and more. How about a time of getting to know someone…a vetting of sort..a trial or even classes on the churches doctrinal beliefs, vision, and missions and then a test of some sort to make sure everyone is on the same page. I don’t know all the answers of building a strong, unified and committed body of devoted followers of Christ..but I sense that if I went to a few local assemblies, and gave a basic test to the pastor, elders, ministry leaders and teachers, of that churches beliefs and also throw in some questions about scripture…you would find some major differences of “opinion” and understanding. To the surface you will see some cracks…and cracks in any foundation, leaven in any dough, is not just unwise, but dangerous to the health of the body of Christ.