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?
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.
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.
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.