Tuesday, October 6, 2015

On Leaving

I want to talk a bit about church membership, and what it means to be part of a congregation.  I’ve heard lots of stories lately – some from my own life, some from friends and colleagues – about members leaving churches. 

As a pastor, this always stings.  It doesn’t really matter why you are leaving – whether you’re moving to a new town, or slowly drift away over time, whether you storm out to a slammed door after a contentious meeting or clearly and politely announce that you’re leaving for Reason X – we take it personally. 

We pastors have been called by God and the congregation to serve this particular flock of sinner/saints, and we love you – even if we haven’t always gotten along, even if we disagree with each other, even if you don’t come to worship all that often.  In the wake of your departure, we reevaluate every aspect of our ministry, and of the church.  If we had visited more, preached shorter (or longer?) sermons, sung your favorite hymn, taught more or different Bible studies, had more youth programming, the list goes on and on – would you have stayed?  But after we’ve done that for a few days…

After we’ve wondered and cried and prayed and paced the floor and not slept and prayed some more…after that, the news starts to spread.  We have to tell the secretary to take you off the email list, and cross your name out of the directory.  Your request to cancel your electronic giving filters its way to the congregation’s treasurer.  And pretty soon there are more people wondering what they might have done…the nursery volunteer, the quilting ladies, the person who said hi to you the first time you visited here, the Council President, your child’s Sunday School classmates.  And when they ask us, we pastors really never quite know what to tell them.  How honest should we be? 

See, here’s the thing.  While I really dislike the term “community of faith”, the reality is that we – all of us, the congregation – are a community.  We get together once a week to hear about the most important thing in the universe.  We pray for one another, we cry with one another, we celebrate with one another.  We play together, we eat together, we come up with basic policies to manage our life together.  We trust one another with our kids, our money, and our hearts. 

So obviously, if you’re going to go to church, it’s important to choose one where you feel relatively comfortable and safe.  Undoubtedly, with all the church options out there, some will just “fit” you and your family better than others.  You’re looking for one where the content of worship and teaching is more about Scripture than pop culture, where you find the people to be generally friendly, and that strikes you as a place you want to come.  Because when you join, when you decide to stay, you become part of the family.  And just like everyone sitting at your Thanksgiving dinner table, or around the tree on Christmas morning, each of you is different, each of you brings something special to the group. 

When you join a church because of what it has to offer, you become what it has to offer for the next new people to join. 

Which is why leaving – for apathy, or for another congregation – is a bigger deal than perhaps you think.  To be sure, there are legitimate reasons for leaving a congregation.  And I know that almost no one leaves without a great deal of thought and prayer.  But before you go, consider whether you yourself could contribute to fixing the problems you believe your congregation has.  For example:

  • If there aren’t enough kids at this church – have I invited any of my friends or neighbors with children to worship here?  Have I considered that my children provide hope to the older people of the congregation?
  • If the youth programming isn’t up to par – have I volunteered my time or suggested ideas to make it better?
  • If I don’t like the music or other things about worship – have I spoken to the pastor or worship coordinators about singing, playing, helping plan, or contributing in some other way?
  • If I’m concerned about the pastor leaving and the time until we have a new one, have I offered to be on the search committee?
  • If I think there should be more Bible studies – have I suggested any to the pastor, and offered to help lead, or host one at my home?
  • If I disagree with the pastor’s teaching – have I asked him or her to explain it and show me from Scripture?
  • If I’m frustrated with my denominational leadership, have I spoken to the pastor about my concerns? 
  • If I disagree with how the church spends money, have I volunteered to serve on a finance or stewardship committee?
  • If I feel the pastor should visit me more often, have I called the church to request that she do so? 
  • If someone at the church said or did something hurtful, have I approached that person and sought reconciliation? 
  • If I believe the church is full of hypocrites, have I considered that I, too, am a sinner who doesn’t keep God’s word perfectly?
  • If I feel our church should be more involved in the community, have I initiated any projects and invited others to be part of them?
  • If I’m offended that someone asked me to help with something, have I politely said no and considered another area for which I have interest or time?

As I said – there are legitimate reasons to leave a particular congregation.  One of them may be, “Yes, I have done the above, and to no avail.”  But no matter how understandable your reasoning, your congregation will be poorer without you.  For the sake of the community to which you belong now, consider how you might make the situation better, look around at your family, ask what it would take to “make it work”. 

We need you.