There’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
How disposable are people to churches?
Most good pastors I know (and having been to seminary, I know a number of good pastors) would answer that people are not, of course, disposable to churches at all. In most Protestant traditions I am familiar with, people are the church. There are certainly many theological and ecclesial arguments to be made in that vein. (Which are not germane to this essay, but which might be explored later.) For example, even in the United Methodist Church today, one of the arguments for the continuation of the interency system is that itinerency bestows a certain amount of responsibility for being The Church on a church’s membership and not its pastor; in other words, moving pastors every few years helps ensure that churches stay together because of the members, not because of the personality of a pastor. For another example, many pastors I know would also have to report, and are often judged on their effectiveness, at least in part, on their “people” numbers: How many members are on the rolls? How many attend? How many visitors are in regular attendance? People count in our churches, and they are counted in many different ways.
But, and there is always a but, I wonder how much pastors, and people, really care about their church members. How much do members really matter? When it comes down to it, how disposable are people? As long as business continues on as usual, and pews get filled, do we care who is in them?
That may be a bit unfair. These questions have certainly been fueled by my own disappearing acts. I have recently started looking for a new church to attend. There are several reasons for this; most of them have to do with my denominational issues regarding the United Methodist Church and its refusal to ordain openly gay and lesbian men and women. It has been easy for me to confuse my growing separation from the denomination with my growing separation from the church I used to attend. Unfortunately, I do not see that changing, particularly as I continue to discern issues of my own call to ministry and ordination.
The fact of the matter is, though, that I stopped attending the church where I am a member last September. I remember it clearly. It was stewardship Sunday, and the pastor had preached a distinctive sermon on how we (the people) needed to choose not just the UMC, but this church in particular to be our church. (And to give our money to, of course.) I cried through the entire final hymn because there was no way I could make that choice — no matter how much I might have loved this church, I could no longer worship at and serve a larger church that was wishy-washy on validating me simply as a person, much less adamant on disowning me as a possible member of the clergy.
My involvement with the church did not completely end at that moment. These things rarely have a clean break. I had committed to teaching a nine-month adult spiritual formation class, and I honored that committment. Tuesday nights I was still showing up, leading my small band of sometimes merry adventurers through scripture. The problem was, I started going other places on Sundays.
The other problem was, no one seemed to notice. The pastor and I tried to arrange a coffee meeting to no avail in February. In May, nine months after I stopped attending that church regularly, I got what seemed to me to be a form letter email that I had been “missed” at the church. That email still sits in my inbox, simply because I do not know what to say. A church friend poked me on Facebook, and it was more touching to me than it probably should have been, because no one from the church had contacted me in months.
The fact was, I had disappeared, and it was okay.
I had served the church as a member. I had served the church as an intern when I was at seminary. I had taught Sunday school, run Sunday school, in fact; I had chaired committees, sat on administrative council, helped lead worship. I had even preached from its pulpit. But I stopped sitting in its pews, and no one blinked.
How often do we let this happen? How often do places in pews start to go empty? How many ghosts of former members litter the sanctuaries, the education buildings, of our churches? How often do people like me leave quietly, not because we had a huge falling out with the pastor, or other members; not because we move away; not because we got out of the habit?
How many people leave churches not with a bang, but a whimper?
The question, to me, is not so much why it happens. The question is not how to stop it. The question is: in the end, why are we okay with it? Shouldn’t our people mean more to us than that?
Of course, people make decisions. I did. I left of my own free will and, hopefully, with the help of the Holy Spirit as I continue on my own faith journey. I don’t think we need to chain people to our pews.
The thing is, open doors work both ways. We’re thrilled when people use those doors to walk in. Is that enough? As long as people keep coming in, are we happy?
Should we be concerned with what happens when people use the open door on their way out?