Ghosting the church


This week we asked our bloggers to reflect on criticism they have received. 

Occasionally, someone leaving the church wants to let the pastor know why. We hear their list of grievances, about the building project that ticked them off or the effort they put in that went thankless for too long. They lay it all out there. They are going out with a bang.

Occasionally, a hot button issue will be the tipping point. There is a parting of ways that in many ways one can see coming. When the General Assembly removed the provision barring gay and lesbians from ordination, one woman left the church, and as she left, she wrote goodbye letters to everyone in her small group letting them know why. She left with a whimper and a hug.

Sometimes everyone in the congregation knows that a person has left except for the pastor. They have spoken of a warm surprise of excitement that they felt at the church across town – it really spoke to them, moved them, and, well, one thing led to another.

Sometimes a person no longer considers himself or herself to be a Christian. There is a conscious, examined break from the teachings of the church. We received a rare but helpful letter from a young adult who grew up in our church that said something along the lines of, “Nothing against you. Church people have always been kind to me. My parents are still happy there. However, I am now an atheist. Please remove me from the rolls.” It’s not you. It’s me.

But more often than not, the church is “ghosted,” the modern verb for someone dumped without explanation, without a day in court, without so much as a text message. The person fades off or abruptly vanishes. All of a sudden, church people are left with an empty seat in the pews and uncollected boxes of pledge envelopes with names on them, set up in the narthex like tombstones of church friends who are no longer with us.

Ghosting the church happens for all sorts of reasons. A person moves away and, in the flurry of paperwork and moving boxes, never tells the church. A person gets divorced, loses their job, battles cancer or loses a loved one, and rather than healing, it becomes terrifying to face a group of people who do not know the news. Or, a person gets “out of the habit.” Other priorities claim their time, or they start to feel peace and joy at bagel café on a Sunday morning – neither of which are bad things, but all of a sudden, even if faith is no less a powerful and important part of their worldview, they aren’t really “church-goers” anymore. Then, after a few months or years, the fear of returning to a well-meaning Where have you been? closes the door for the long haul. Ghosted.

I wonder if there is a gentle way to name this reality, a process that is not fixated on “cleaning up the rolls” as if the person’s connection with the church, once meaningful enough to declare openly during worship, is now clutter like the boxes in a basement closet. But it also needs to be something that goes further than ignoring their absence or engaging wishful thinking that they will return one day like Lazarus. “They didn’t leave the church for three years! They were only sleeping in!”

Last year, Bishop Douglas Miles, a faith leader from Baltimore, challenged a group of us to set up at least one meeting with someone who no longer attends our church. Find out why, he said. He reminded us that exit interviews are standard practice in any institution. He said, “You’d be surprised. As awkward as you may feel about it, they hold a key to the church’s story.”

I cringed, imagining myself as Adele, leaving pathetic phone messages over and over again, “Hello from the other side!” I thought of how many pressing things I needed to tend to for the people who attended, much less for those who did not. I wasn’t sure about inviting that kind of potential discouragement into my life. But, with some fear and trembling, I started making phone calls. In a busy season when it is hard to get a call back from close friends and relatives, to my surprise, every single person returned my call. That alone was healing. I heard a few heartfelt confessions, a few legitimate suggestions and many honest questions.

Then, I had tea with one such person. I brought with me a heavy bag of hymnals that her family had donated years before that had been given in honor of certain relatives. They were lovely books that were no longer being used now that our church has adopted the purple Glory to God hymnal. She was grateful. Then, we talked for nearly two hours over pumpkin bread. I heard some of the story, maybe not all of it.

As I left, she said, with a sigh and some words of gratitude, “I guess if church is the people, the whole Body of Christ thing, no one really leaves a church… we are connected. Not sure what body part I am, maybe the feet, but I guess we’re always part of each other.”

As I drove away, I wondered if that explains some of the grief and the hope of these times. When many in my generation who grew up in the church have voted with their feet, when churches and individuals vote with their feet over leadership or political change, it can feel like an amputation, whole limbs of the Body of Christ chopped off, with ghost sensations of their presence. Theologically speaking, it is exactly that.

Not a few weeks later, when I visited a woman in our church who had just been diagnosed with cancer, the phone rang, with prayers and offerings of food from the same woman who had ostensibly left the church. A few weeks after that, cancer crashed into her life, and the phone rang at her house, with prayers and offerings of food and companionship from her “church friends.” Regardless of her membership status, she was part of the church.

I’m convinced that if the word “religion” is correctly understood, coming from religio, which has the same root word as ligament, God is in the business of re-connecting, of putting things back together and of re-membering. God is working inside and, perhaps more importantly, outside of the church building. And while church leaders don’t control what those reconfigurations look like, we can trust that where there is still love, we have to trust that there is no separation. And when love has frozen into resentment, we have to trust that the grace of Christ is sufficient for forgiveness to happen even if it takes decades or centuries. And when love has built up walls of resentment, anger and apathy, we have to remember that the wounded and resurrected Christ walked through walls to find his beloved friends and breathe upon them words of peace.

We have to rehearse those covenant words, spoken so often at weddings but no less true in our holy connection with each other:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.

BeccaMessmanBecca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.