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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Taking It Personally

Is there one of these for everything?
Somewhere along the way, someone surely said it to you, too: "Don't take it personally."

It almost doesn't matter what area of ministry is our specialty, or how long we have been engaged in the work. Everything we do feels personal, and every negative response we get has the potential to feel personal, too. This week's questioner tells a story we might all recognize. The longer you stay in one ministry setting, the deeper the relationships become, and the more personal feeling is potentially at stake.

I've been serving my current parish for almost seven years. The Head of Staff has been here about three times as long. I recall that when I first began serving here and would ask about some folks on the membership rolls who I learned had left our parish to attend elsewhere (some without telling us) he'd remember them and express disappointment and almost take their departure personally - especially the ones he'd served through intense pastoral care (death of a loved one or severe illness.) I remember thinking how strange he should take it personally that someone would leave our church, even if he did provide them excellent pastoral care in years gone by. As churches grow and change it is natural that some folks will move on.

Well, now I'm regretting those early thoughts, as I find myself in his shoes! One family stopped attending our church in April and is now attending another local church. I emailed to check in on them and learned in the reply that they'd enjoyed the decade they spent at our church but, "Changing churches was a big decision that had been on our hearts for a couple years...and we feel strongly that where we are now was God's plan for us."
My first thought thought was, "Really, it's been on your hearts for a couple years? Because if you'd moved on a few years ago it sure would have saved me a lot of gas visiting your family at the hospital an hour away when your daughter was born and spent months in the NICU." I know that is an absolutely terrible thought/feeling to have...and I realized that I was taking it somehow personally that someone I'd invested so much time caring for changed churches and had felt that need "for a couple years."
I'm still trying to sort out my feeling about investing such time and energy into pastoral care situations and then feeling as though those relationships are essentially meaningless after a time. (Maybe I'm mostly bothered that they "slipped out quietly" and didn't bother to let us know they'd found another church home until I contacted them?) Thanks to any matriarchs who've worn these shoes before and can offer wisdom!
We have a great set of responses this week, so many thanks to the Matriarchs!

First, some thoughts from Sally-Lodge Teel, aka St. Casserole:

I keep a special place in my heart for members who move to other churches. I miss them. Most slip away and I don't find out why until they tell another member. Only once did I get a letter explaining why they dropped us and moved to a new congregation. That family felt I didn't talk about hell enough and wanted to find a place with the "real truth". For those who know me, when did I ever preach with hell as the focus? Even so, I miss this family, too.

I leave people, too. When I finish a pastorate, I'm gone. All the conversations and closeness of a pastoral relationship end. I do not return for weddings or funerals or a visit, without the permission of the current pastor.

Consider yourself, as pastor, one of the many workers in a garden. You offer your love, time and abilities, then someone later takes up the work of loving the people. You can't be replaced, you were there for the NICU but now you commend the family to God's good care and trust/hope they will find the growth they seek.

Next, a regular contributor, Muthah+ says:

It is normal to take someone's leaving personally, but is not helpful when it does not come from your own failure. People change; their family needs change. You did not visit them for you. You ministered to them because Christ called you to do so. Rejoice that they are finding Christ elsewhere. Many don't. 

Many do not see the pastoral relationship as central to faith. They see it as our job. Lamentably many of our judicatories see it the same way! Sigh!  But you know differently. 

All I can say is to thank you for your fidelity and ask you to continue to share your faith. We often think that membership is up to us. It isn't. It is up to us to proclaim the Gospel, be faithful, help others act upon the Gospel in their lives. Jesus didn't say anything about keeping them in the pews. 

Sharon adds:

When members leave the church, it hurts. It even sucks.  They do tend to leave at times of crisis, theirs or the church's. They tend to sneak away &/or leave a trail that stinks.  Every time, it's painful. I wish that your members could have told you how much your ministry surely meant to them, even if they did feel they had to leave.

The hardest part -- you identified it! -- church members quite often don't get what we do, why we do it what it costs us, and what they mean to us.  They don't consider that their leaving is a re-membering of the very Body of Christ.  From where they sit, their church-shopping decision has nothing to do with you.  It's not anything you did; it's not anything you needed to know about; it's not personal.  This is how they may see it.  We clergy can feel betrayed because "we are here until we find something better over there" is not the deal that was made between God and member at baptism and in church membership covenants.  And we gave until it hurt.

The ministry approach that is helpful to me is this: The ministry things I do, especially the "above and beyond" things, I do in response to God going all out for me.  I minister to them as a gift to God, not as a gift to church members.  Church members will disappoint and betray, and they very often don't intend to.  And then they will go and do something amazing and be the church, for a moment here or an hour there, beyond what you dared to pray for.  Noticing those miracles and shining the light on them -- that's the antidote I've found to becoming cynical about church members who disappoint, or worse.  

Let them go, and keep the faith!

New addition to the Matriarch group, Ruth Everhart at Work in Progress, has these words:

Oh, I feel your pain! Every now and then our pastoral role can take a real toll. It's the nature of the beast. The pastoral role feels like friendship, but it's not (it lacks an easy reciprocity). The pastoral role feels like a professional exchange, but it's not (it lacks clear boundaries and a fee structure). Instead we are spiritual leaders to a community, often working among people who are overwhelmed and confused. Sometimes our efforts don't generate the return we expected, so of course our feelings get pinched up in the middle of it all, we are not automatons. 

But you don't know anything about what this family is thinking/feeling. It sounds like the family is in the middle of changes that they're not able/willing to communicate to you. You will need to be okay with that. Their leaving isn't a referendum on the quality of your ministry, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Good for you for expressing your disappointment, hurt and anger. Perhaps this is an opportunity to reconsider the boundaries of your role, I can't tell from the letter. But I do know this -- none of what we do is about us, even when it feels that way. Peace to you!

And Jan Edmiston (a church for starving artists) recommends offering a blessing:

Leaving a church is complicated and it happens in countless ways:  from slamming doors and throwing keys to "slipping out quietly." Sometimes it happens because someone merely got out of the habit, and after choosing bed over pew too many Sundays in a row, it stopped being an option.

It's natural to take it seriously and we've all done this.  Who wouldn't feel hurt to "lose" a family that we've invested our very best skills and time in - not to mention the lost relationships?  But the bottom line is that this is not about us.  It's about the reign of God and if people can connect better with God in another congregation, we should bless them on their way.  It still hurts - but that just means we loved them.

Readers, what do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

If you have a question for our panel, please send it to 


  1. I agree with what has been posted above and just wanted to add that I understand your disappointment/emotion about loosing the family you had gotten close to. Of course the loss hurts - when you love others and they leave for whatever reason it is not easy. It does say something positive, in my opinion, that they went to another church. I think that the saddest loss of all is when we lose someone and they leave church all together - it is then that it feels like our (and the churches) human limitations and brokenness has been destructive or hurtful.

  2. I would agree with the wise counsel of those above, and add that during my three decades of ministry, we are all "in process," all in a state/on a journey of becoming; that's why I take comfort in Paul's words about one person planting, another watering, and God is the one who harvests. Much of our ministry is invisible-we don't see the consequences over the long haul. Of course it can hurt, and discourage us, however it goes with the territory in that Jesus made it quite clear when he called us what we were getting into-cross and suffering, as well as resurrection, but there is no resurrection without the cross and suffering. Blessings.

  3. This is a conversation I needed to hear today. Thank you. I am an interim pastor serving a congregation where many have chosen to not be present during the interim times, so some see me as the reason the others have stopped attending. Not taking it personally can be very difficult even when I know it is not me that is the problem, but rather the many issues that have not been faced and named.

    I remember too, the family who stopped attending a small membership congregation I was serving who told me that they loved the congregation and would like to someday be involved, but they had stopped attending because they recognized how much they were needed and were not ready to be needed by any congregation in the ways the small congregation needed people to be involved. I was amazed by their insight and ability to speak it.

    Thank you all for this forum.

  4. So much good wisdom in this array of responses, wow. I am reminded of a senior colleague in ministry in a medium-small parish where the complaint was made that he/his personality/his ministry had DRIVEN AWAY a total of TWENTY-ONE households or individuals in the previous year. So finally he took the parish list and checked the twenty-one departed. To his amazement, twenty of them had moved out of the community altogether -- and, as he said with a laugh, "the twenty-first person was so mad at me, he actually up and DIED."
    Somewhat more seriously...haven't we all in our lay-existence left churches? parishes? denominations, even? And how often did we do that because of a failure of the pastoral relationship? Didn't we feel entitled to get up and get out? And why shouldn't others?
    Finally... what if it IS ... us. It's just another manifestation of the knobbly and inconvenient reality that we have no accurate notion of the effect we have on other people just by being who we are. Some people will think we are just wonderful. Some will think we are utterly useless. What we can do about that is very little. So I concur, send them on their way with a blessing, and prepare to greet the next who come through the door.

  5. Muthah+ says: "Jesus didn't say anything about keeping them in the pews." This is profound! Thanks, Muthah+.

  6. Occasionally people will warn you of their departure, sometimes before, sometimes during and sometimes after the event. In all three situations, I encourage them to be farewelled, and blessed, which requires them to be brave and to say why they feel called to be elsewhere. I do this because of some wisdom I read once in a book by two New Zealand nuns. They said that farewelling people properly creates a safe space for them to return if they change their mind. Being bitter about them leaving closes the door forever. Grace begets grace. RevR


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