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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ask the Matriarch—Was it you? Was it me?

Two years ago, a family of five moved to town and became a part of our church community. They were directed to our congregation by a colleague of mine who had been their minister prior to their move. The parents are lovely people, professional, energetic and fun. Their three children are delightful. Mom helped with Sunday School, Dad led the youth for awhile, but dropped it when work commitments increased and he felt he was unable to give the youth group the attention it needed.

And then, last spring, gone. Just gone. I called several times and left friendly messages saying we missed them. I sent a personal note in their spring newsletter saying that I hoped they were well. When I returned from holidays in late September, several people asked me, “Where are the Smiths?” I said I didn’t know, but would try again to contact them.

A woman in our congregation has called them also, as has the Sunday School coordinator. At first, Mom Smith, said, “Oh yes, we’re coming back, but it’s been a rough summer, illness in the extended family and other issues....but we’ll be back.”

More recent contacts have been met with a bit of a chill. I have called at different times, never getting an answer, just the machine. (Call me paranoid - Caller ID???) At this point, I don’t think we will see them again.

My first response is: “What did I do or say to alienate this family?” It may not be about me at all, but that doesn’t mean I will stop feeling responsible. Does anyone else experience this?

Karen says:
In my experience this happens fairly frequently. Mostly it has little to do with the pastor. Among the reasons I’ve observed: the family got too involved too quickly and feels the need to pull back, the kids are getting busier and busier with weekend sports and/or the parents’ work pressures are increasing and they are feeling the need for down time more than for church on Sundays--especially if they are usually put in charge of something when they show up, someone else in church has done something that offended them or put them off, the kids have gotten involved in the larger, stronger youth group at another church and the parents want to be with the kids so they are all going there, or there is a big family problem they don’t want to be public about: marital problems, kid on drugs, etc. And yes, once in a while the pastor has done or said something that caused the rupture.

I think you have to make the effort to contact them and give them an opportunity to share what the issue is--though they may not be able/willing. (Also be aware that the reason given may not be the real reason.) It’s also nice if someone other than the pastor contacts them, so they know it’s not just the person who is paid to care that misses them and is concerned. But if they are not open or responsive, I think persistent pressure to come back or explain why not can cause an even more pronounced and permanent withdrawal.

What often happens when an active, young family leaves, however, is that other church leaders globalize this departure as an opportunity to say: See, our church is failing in every way. One thing you can do as a pastor is to help these folks put things in context. Our culture is becoming more and more transient. Over the course of time, members will come and go as their needs and priorities change. This may or may not mean there is a huge congregational problem.

Jan says:
It’s not about you.

Yes, it’s possible you preached a sermon that hit a nerve, or somebody made an inadvertent but hugely offensive comment, or a stranger thoughtlessly criticized their delightful children. But sometimes things happen and we can’t let it get to us personally. (Which is of course exactly what I’d be doing in spades if this situation were mine.) It’s quite possible that something has happened deep within the private lives of this seemingly perfect church family and they are too mortified to fill you in so they’ve gone MIA. Think: scary secret life.

It sounds like your congregation did all the right things: called, showed interest and concern. The only thing you might do at this point, simply to soothe your own mind is to write a brief, genuine note and say that you miss them and “whatever they are praying for, you are praying for.” And leave it at that. You may never hear from them again. Or you might.

Abi says:
I concur with what the other matriarchs have said. Yes, sometimes the person or family leaves because of what the Pastor has said, not said, done or not done. But more often than not you will know that, they will let it be known somehow or another, not always.

Like Jan, I think that you all have done a lot to reach out to that family. And I think it is important that the laity does a lot of that, because they are the church, they are the caring hands of Christ in the community. It may be that these people come back when they get through whatever they are going through, and it will have helped them stay connected through others.

In asking around about my church and listening, one of the things I have found is that this church has not been a youth friendly church. So it has had a history of families leaving this church to go to the church down the road with the bigger youth group. This is something important to know, and to deal with.

But to say it is you, yourself, maybe the old tapes of criticism playing in your head, that won’t stop playing. Perhaps writing that note like Jan suggests, or going to talk about the critical tapes to someone else. Even if it is something you said, it is something that can be dealt with. But the “not knowing” makes it hard to figure out—much less address—what’s wrong. Perhaps it is time to begin to let go. If you continue to hold onto the idea and the feeling that you are the responsible one, you’ll wind up miserable, hating yourself, and blaming yourself all the time. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves, our choices and decisions. If I left a church because I disagreed with the preacher, I would have left every one I have ever belonged to.


  1. Great advice from everyone! I concur -- it *isn't* about you. I bet everyone here can tell at least one story about a parishioner leaving the church because of something the pastor supposedly did. I truly think that in 99% of those cases, the person was just looking for an excuse to leave... Hugs to all who've been hurt in this way -- myself included. :)

  2. really good advice! And you seem to have done all you can.

    I had a young family leave last year who told me it was because the dying grandfather felt like I was giving him the Last Rites when I took him communion (we don't do Last Rites!) But then they told everyone else they spoke with a different story - they moved too far away to drive in every Sunday, they felt alienated from the congregation, the daughter had too much homework, no one called to find out how they were doing (they didn't think the fact that their phone was disconnected and their new address unlisted was a good enough excuse) Whatever the real reason may be, I've finally decided it's not all about me. :-)

  3. Listen to all of us! Yes it sometimes is the pastor (I have had this happen, hated it, didn't get a t shirt even), it still haunts, but not as much. I amazed at how much you did to get in contact with these folks. And it probably isn't about you, but that has never stopped me from being miserable about people leaving. Blessings on the matriarchs--- again this is my favorite place to come and get laughs, love and well, community. Gail

  4. this is such hard stuff. thanks for the wisdom.

  5. We had a very faithful member of our congregation abruptly stop coming to church because, in the course of a Lenten teaching series, our pastor had mentioned process theology -- he hadn't endorsed it, mind you, but simply described it as a way that people in academia were thinking about God these days. This individual confronted the pastor afterward and said, "My God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow!" and stomped home. Well.

    At least that's a discernable "goodbye." When I think about my own estrangement from the Church, many years ago, it was a much longer process that really, in retrospect, had far more to do with me and my own internal processing at the time than it had to do with the congregation or even with the Church in general. But...with that one from my congregation "came back for" me. No one called; no one visited. Would it have made a difference? Maybe. At the time I was feeling very alone and alienated, and some friendly contact -- "If you're taking a church break, that's okay, but know we're hanging with you and praying for you" -- may have made a difference. So those of you who do those things are doing a good thing, even if you don't experience a positive result, at least in the short term.

  6. I've seen this from the other side too - as as people connected to church leadership, can I make a plus for encouraging our friends to try not to do this? I had a really good talk with a friend who has essentially left her church - partly because of something the pastor did, partly because very good friends of theirs with kids the same age go to this other church. She didn't want to say anything because she didn't want to hurt people's feelings, but we talked, and she ended up sending the pastor a quick email just saying where they were and what was going on. I think we can help people understand from the pastor's perspective that it really is okay to choose another church, but that church should be a place where we can be honest about that.

  7. okay, i haven't been at this long (2 years unordained, two months in a "real" job), but I can say this:
    I have bad filters. I sometimes do and say things I don't even mean, and I occasionally make people angry. But I have yet to discover that anyone has left because of something I did or said.'s not you, it's them. If only there was a Dear Pastor John letter. ;-)


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