Listen To Article
Long term pastorates are often recognized and celebrated for the depth of relationships, the continuity and trust that develop over the years. Having served nearly 20 years in the same congregation, I can confirm that this is true and this is good.
What might not be recognized is the quiet toll taken by broken relationships and the inevitable departures from a congregation. Over the years, they add up. Hang around long enough and you know where the bodies are buried.
I’m not talking about major conflict, congregation-splitting divisions, but rather the people who slip away, often quietly—sometimes not—disappointed, disapproving, angry, or hurt about something that happened in church.
If congregations are honest, there is always a slow trickle out the back door. Maybe even more so in today’s society dividing, comparison shopping, church hopping world. Some departers are very tangential people that you were never fully sure were with you in the first place. Others are vital members whose absence is obvious to all. Either way it leaves you puzzled, disheartened, worried, hurt—and sometimes, a little relieved.
It can be puzzling because you think you’ve been a good pastor to them. Sometimes you had no sense they were itchy or unhappy. Sometimes you’re shocked, even angry, because the church has provided so much assistance, walked with them through one crisis or two. Over the years, I’ve observed that being the church mascot for neediness must become burdensome. The family that received hours of free childcare, countless casseroles, rides, financial assistance, hugs, and prayers quietly slips away a year or two after their crisis. Do they feel shame? Do they feel like they can never repay, that they don’t want to be forever labeled as “needy”? Did they feel like they didn’t receive enough care? There is no way of knowing.
That’s pretty true of most departers. You never get much of a sense of why they left. They never say anything to you. Different members hear different things, other concoct their own theories and use the departure to further their own agenda. But basically, you just don’t know.
A small minority do come to talk to you, to tell you that they’re leaving, and why—sort of. I appreciate their integrity in coming to talk with me. Almost never are these conversations hot and confrontational. Equally rarely do you feel like you actually heard the real reasons for their departure, even if they do tell you. Sometimes this is because the departer is too nice to be honest. They just don’t want to go there. Other times it is because you’re not convinced that what they tell are the real reasons, or that the departer has enough insight into their own reasons, to see their deeper motives, or recognize the back story.
“It’s not about you…” is a wise mantra for pastors—in both good times and bad. When someone tells you they didn’t feel included, or disagrees with your preaching—there may be an element of truth in that. This is usually not the time to share your observation that most of the rest of their life is unsettled and unhappy. Rather than own the issues in their family, at work, with health, it is simpler for them to say “the church isn’t as friendly as it used to be.” Of course, psychoanalyzing the “real” reason for someone’s departure risks ignoring your own blind spots. Saying “it’s not about me” can too quickly absolve you, hiding the painful truth that sometimes it actually is about you.
If it is about you, then the worries and the erosion of confidence and trust begin. Is this departer an isolated case? Or do they represent a growing view, a quiet-but-not-to-remain quiet-for-much-longer contingent? Second-guessing, anxiety, catastrophizing often ensue.
Small town settings mean it is likely that you’re going to encounter the departers on the street, in the store, at the school. It is awkward. You may not hate them with red-hot hate, still it is often easier to duck down a different aisle in the store. Obviously, hate is not a healthy response, but being chirpy feels so contrived and demeaning.
When beloved, longtime people depart there is sorrow across the entire congregation. “What did we do wrong?” An easy answer is, “Well, they were always an unlikely fit here.” That may be true, but it can let yourself off the hook too quickly. If there is no obvious reason why someone left, then “It must of have been something the pastor did” is the go-to answer.
“Is there a way to convince them to return?” is another common question. As a pastor, I know that getting departers to come back is almost always a fool’s errand. Letting them know that they matter, that they’re missed, that they’re always welcome to return are good practices, but not likely to bring them back. “Experts say” that if congregations spent as much time and energy reaching out to new faces as they do wringing their hands over departers, well…
A colleague tells me that he guestimates it takes about three new faces or families to undo the emotional toll of one departure. A three-to-one ratio, huh? Sounds about right. As a pastor you often know—but can’t say—that the very reason the one longtime member left is the same reason the three newcomers arrived. What drove one away, attracted three or more. It seems crass to do that sort of arithmetic, but we do it nonetheless.
I feel rather vulnerable putting this stuff out there. Just as I wonder about the departers, “what is this really all about?” so you may be asking the same of me. Do I seem petty? Defensive? Self-serving? Where does realism stop and cynicism begin? What does Jesus’s parable of leaving the 99 sheep to seek the one say to me?
All fair questions.