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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.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

14 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Oh, this is a great post. You’ve got it all down. You rang all the changes and parred all the holes. Nothing more to add, except to suggest that one of the reasons that the Lord Jesus needed time away among the Syro-Phoenicians, and then that he snapped at the Syro-Phoenician woman, was how discouraged he was at his rejection by the very people he had come to save.

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Good thoughts. I deal with these all the time.

  • Pete Byma says:

    Great essay. After pastoring for almost 30 years, these thoughts all ring very true. The call to be faithful remains strong but it is still an emotional drain and a few sleepless nights.

  • Dale Buettner says:

    Thank you, Steve. Good words.

  • Holly T. says:

    I’m grateful you were both thoughtful and unshrinking in posting this entry.

    Some additional thoughts and observations: Sometimes the pastor sets up a system that prevents productive dialogue and the only “winning” move is not to play, where feedback or conversations are turned into “ain’t it awful” gossip headed by the pastor so the pastor can continue to feel ok about his or herself. I work therapeutically with many Christians and many clergy and have observed that departures are often about interpersonal problems on the pastoral staff or within the lay-leadership, problems ranging from merely awkward to massively abusive, and very rarely about theological differences (unless there was duplicity about what the theology actually was and discovery led to a sense of betrayal or a crisis in personal integrity).

    That said, I too have observed the same; departures are often about folks’ highly (!) unrealistic expectations of the human community within the church or of the pastor. Often people leave for all the reasons you mentioned and I am glad you spelled them out and reflected on the need for pastors (and congregants) to find a balance, to be self-reflective without giving in to personal helplessness and hopelessness. Thank you.

  • James Schaap says:

    I’m so glad I’m not a pastor, but maybe it’s like handing back a test. A dozen kids did well, but one or two of them flat-lined. I could go sleepless the night before handing back the bad tests, forgetting completely about the good ones. Wonderful, warm piece!

  • Anne Weirich says:

    Amen. I’ve moved around quite a bit in ministry – and haven’t had the chance to experience 20 years in one place. But it happens everywhere in any length of time. When I read the 23rd Psalm, sometimes I imagine that when the cup runs over at the table prepared for all – but within the presence of enemies (a metaphor for those who stand against us- sometimes for good reasons that we are blind to) – when the cup runs over it overflows with all of the kinds of things you write about. There’s a sense in which we humans can only hold so much – and then it overflows our ability to hold it all. And what I or we can’t hold, flows into God’s abundant mercy and love. To me – that’s a comfort. No matter if I’m called away or members of the congregation are called away, we are all held in God’s care. Helps me let go of some of the sting and bewilderment and sadness that comes from leaving. It makes it feel more like the next step along the way.

  • Van Rathbun says:

    You nailed it Steve. Having spent 13 years in one congregation and now 17 in another I can attest that the body count does become high.
    The count climbs exponentially when we include people that left but never truly belonged. They are the lookers, visitors, the ones that “visited got away” like a fish slipping off the hook. The guilt, hand-wringing, and conjecture over why someone or some family came and went but didn’t stay is defeating and life taking.

    When considering the unhealthy of interpersonal relationships. Within what many would love to celebrate as a healthy, happy and well adjusted congregation are long standing rivalries, employer-employee relationships, head-to-head business competitors, and family spats that make their way into committee meetings and consistory rooms it’s a testament to the amazing that the Grace of God can even some semblance of a Christ honoring congregation can be held together for more than a few months.

  • Mary Huissen says:

    I’m a recently departed congregant, not clergy. My response to a lovely hand written note from one of the pillars-of-the-church inviting me to return is waiting for a postage stamp and on the table near my front door.

    I was there for 25 years. I was an involved member. I contributed. My children were baptized, raised and confirmed in the congregation.

    This post and the responses are thought provoking. But instead of sharing all the reasons that led me, after many months (actually years) of struggle, to leave, I can sum it up this way: I became spiritually out of sync with the leadership in the congregation and grew tired of being the lone voice at the table that asked “What about thinking of it another way?”

    It feels similar to divorce. Sometimes, paths diverge despite efforts to work it out. And like divorce, there is often not a succinct summary answer, an easy way to explain or understand. It’s more likely a lot of different things all combined into a complicated cocktail that makes a split seem like the best way forward.

  • Ann says:

    Interestingly enough, if you take this from the perspective of a lay person- most of the above rings true when a minister/priest leaves too.

    • Peter Dykstra says:

      That was my thought, reading the article as a former elder and search committee member who has watched a few pastorates end (I thought) too soon over the years. It can feel like abandonment. But then I’ve also changed churches (twice) without moving my house in the last 30 years. Changes have been bittersweet, but there can be good reasons for moving to another church. Neither pastors nor parishioners marry individual congregations; though painful, leaving is not really like a divorce. It might not even necessarily be a failure. Re/ being open and honest, it can be hard to even know which reasons are valid or real. We’ve just tried to leave with discernment and love.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    As a non-minister (just an Elder) I wonder if there are other reasons people leave…and I’ve never been sold on the idea of pastors staying in a parish indefinitely.
    I think the Spirit brings a pastor and congregation together…sometimes for some specific needs. That woman or man take their flock as far as they can go, but sometimes it takes new blood to move people beyond where a particular minister can bring them….I’m talking about spiritual/theological growth.
    It’s a wise person who recognizes when it’s time to say farewell.

  • Dick Stravers says:

    Steve, I think nearly every pastor, if truly honest, feels your pain. I surely do; and I am proud of you for being very open about it. Hurtful departures happened during each of my four pastorates. It was rare that I was actually able to say, “Well, good riddance.” One of the most disturbing departures in my ministry came to my attention before a two week trip to Israel. The sadness that followed that information made it difficult for me to enjoy, and learn from, my time in the Holy Land. This couple were members of another congregation/denomination but were attending the one I was serving with the intention, I thought, of becoming members. I liked them so very, very much. But away they went, because they thought I preached too often about two particular issues: sin and death. (I learned that second hand.) A week before my retirement from the ministry (while serving that same church) the woman in that relationship came to say goodbye and, with a big hug, apologized for hurting my feelings. That turned out to be the frosting on a cake that, without my knowledge, had turned a little moldy.

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Larger contexts which include socially and politically divisive issues can also drive people away. After November 2016, I could no longer worship with my home congregation, 90% of whom voted for Trump, who represents the polar opposite of a good Christian. In addition, the United Methodist church has dragged its feet on the gender issue since I began following General Conference outcomes in 1980s. As a result, my sister, who is a UM music minister, was fired only weeks after her transgender son “came out.” There was no other good reason to fire her, since she had had a good performance review only a month before this happened. As a result, I not only stopped going to my local church, where Trump regularly appears at the top of the prayer list, but I do not feel I can return to any United Methodist church, where other-gendered persons are condemned for who they are.

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