The Exile Files #1: Insights for Church Pastors and Leaving Members

Most mornings I’ve spent here in Los Angeles, I drink one truly great coffee, my mind wandering from my assigned texts to Fullerton’s pretty fountain with blue painted tiles, and sparkling water. You can probably already tell some days are more productive than others. Recently, I was reading a method text in Phenomenology (the study of real life experience) when I realized it held mysterious healing properties for church members who have decided to leave a congregation, and pastors reeling in the wake of the member’s departure.  This may also have been prompted by a facebook post from a young Assemblies of God minister; “Will it ever stop hurting when a congregation member leaves my church?” And the response of solidarity flung back over cyberspace “No. I’ve been a pastor longer than you’ve been alive – and it will always hurt”.

This older pastor’s response caught me off guard somewhat. A church is usually considered a spiritual home by its members, who use it to structure their life in multiple ways; time, finances, friendships and activities. Some attend irregularly, but others attend weekly (or even daily). Leaving a church could be for all manner of benign reasons, such as physical relocation, a change in career, or new life stage (getting married, becoming a grandparent, those kinds of things). In most cases it’s positive for those involved. But in others, leaving a church causes immense grief and loss for the former member, and friends who stay. And, it seems, also the pastor. No matter what people tell you, when you leave a church, things change. In particular, relationships with those still attending. Some members continue to demonstrate love, and keep up the friendship despite increasing distance, but others do and say painfully spiteful things. It’s clear many aspects of this real life experience are not examined in church by pastors. So I’ve called my thoughts “The Exile Files”, which is intended to represent the mysterious hole where a church member once was.

Institutional messages are sent (both intentionally and not) by members leaving (or being absent from) a church. An absence may be slow and quiet, finally noticed by a pastor some months later (or noted with relief the week after an angry member yells and stomps out). That pastors get “hurt” by a members’ decision is often just a regrettable byproduct of events –  the decision to leave is often a long conversation that drags on for years. And, sorting through memories in the wake of a choice to leave a church is like playing a card game while missing a suite of hearts; the perspective of the ‘other’ party is not there, so sorting through data seems useless.

Firstly, out of empathy for all those in pain, I wondered “how has church membership gotten to this point?”, and concluded, with the help of the discipline of Missiology (or Mission Studies), that this is due to the new religious economy.

… In the old days, membership into a church was gained as byproduct of nationality. Whatever the King was, his subjects were also. Missiologist Dana Robert in her book Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion provides an illustration of Pope Gregory I spotting two little blonde boys for sale in a marketplace in the year 590, and, after pronouncing them Anglos or “Angels” (and hopefully sending them home to their mothers), he became intent upon the lands beyond Roman jurisdiction. In missionary old-old-school style, he and an entourage of forty men traveled to Kent in Britannia. They proudly lapped the court before King Ethelbert (D. 616) showing off flags and gilded outfits, and greatly impressed the King with their wealth (I heard they brought an elephant, I’m not sure if it’s historically factual). The Frankish Queen Bertha was already Christian, and Gregory’s mission was declared a success. On Christmas Day 597, King Engelbert was baptized with 10,000 English warriors (this simultaneously marked allegiance to the King, their conversion and membership into the Roman Catholic church) — and, all of England was declared saved. Simple. Following this event, Augustine (D. 604) was allocated land at Canterbury for a church and monastery, from which he drew up the new English Christian laws.

England (and most other kingdoms) see-sawed back and forth in their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church, with changes of monarchs, and with political strategics. Monks acted both as a help and a nuisance to popes and kings alike over the years. In all seriousness, there was little opportunity for families to freely declare religious allegiance until well after the Reformation in the 16th century. Even then, choices were limited (claims of sedition resulted in death), so families played their best possible hand until the latter part of the 18th century, when the French Revolution communicated something significant about the power of the people to “the people”. With the industrial revolution and free trade, religion changed in unthinkable ways. Without Roman central organization, Protestant states appropriated Reformation ideas differently, creating variety of church practices and denominations. Visibility of these different churches increased with travel and the decreasing price of printing. This is when, ‘individual choice’ became suddenly important. And at this point, we see European missionaries, unlike Pope Gregory, internally wracked over the state of the souls of unreached people groups – particularly remote tribes with low access to the Christian faith, or people speaking other languages who therefore lacked understanding. Passionate university students formed a conference in Edinburgh in 1910 to strategize towards the evangelization of the entire world, because every.single.soul.mattered.

It seems like only historical soundbites later, when the Beatles announced proudly on British radio that they were agnostics, started taking LSD and visiting shrines in India wearing Hare Krishna outfits. Young adults and university students worldwide followed suite and… the Hippie movement was born. It was clear religious choice was now influenced by new kings. Power shifted away from the state but also religious figures, perhaps due to reputed centuries of hypocrisy. The marketplace designated the new rulers. While Kings and Bishops still played a role, individuals could choose to migrate between states, and also reject or embrace Christianity. This meant that geography, which was once so simple, got mucked up – as in, places that were already “won” for Christianity began to seek alternative spirituality (New Religious Movements or NRMs) at an astounding rate and be “lost” while at the same time sending thousands of missionaries out to other continents seeking conversions. Phew! How confusing.

Which is exactly my point – the new religious economy is confounding; and varieties of Christian spiritual practice on offer for individuals are overwhelming. And this is just talking about Christianity! We live in an age when a Methodist congregation of two hundred meets next door and at the same time as an AME congregation of two hundred, in a building that hosts a Korean Pentecostal congregation of six hundred in the afternoon.  Members navigate their “followship” under various leaders, and attempt to make the best choices for their families’ spiritual health.

So, here’s some thoughts:

  1. Members, maybe spare a thought to your pastor, who may feel your departure more than you thought they did.
  2. Pastors, it’s a jungle out there. Please bear with us – and if you’re super resilient, and seem to have our best in mind, we might be back before you know it. No-one really likes a whole lot of change. But some of us are looking at jobs where we may have to relocate every three years. We want to have great experiences because we carry our relationship with you into our next church. And, others of us are just being… well, human. Just like every child at some point packs their bags and announces to their parent that they are running away, almost every member in your congregation is going to do this at some stage. So, please don’t over-react, just keep the door open!
  3. Evangelists, consider going back to using elephants. Only joking. No, but we do have to stop thinking about only the individual, but also consider the network of people they are embedded in.
  4. Christians: Maybe we should work out mature ways to talk about this.

I’m can’t wait to post part #2 of the Exile Files next week.

1. The above mentioned empathy for those struggling members departed from a community is genuinely my motivation for this post — but is also perhaps a topic of reflection due to the sad announcement we will be leaving the USA, where my husband is currently employed. I am so, so sad to be leaving Orange County but I need to do my PhD fieldwork in Australia. I *think* this is temporary, but I don’t actually know. It’s a crazy time for us. I love my North Hills congregation, so peeps, let’s just deal with this sans crying, and other unexpected stuff, or I will hug you like a turtle, which is just super awkward. I hate leaving but I think the USA will be slightly better than our Italian church friends who plead just like an ancient civilization well-schooled in persuasion. “Bella! You staaay with us! You come and live here!” …. ohhhh… I hate goodbyes.

10 thoughts on “The Exile Files #1: Insights for Church Pastors and Leaving Members

  1. Good piece. We’ve all been there at least once, haven’t we? Historical note re Christianity in Britain & Ireland: Gregory the Great’s mission to England was pretty much a power play by Rome. Britain already had a Christian church of long standing, the Celtic church, whose bishops and abbots viewed their church as autonomous — Rome’s sister, not Rome’s daughter. Gregory’s mission was an end run around this local indigenous church, initiating a long process by which all of Britain and Ireland came under Roman jurisdiction. Even so, various Celtic monasteries, located in the wilds of Scotland, mostly, kept the Celtic chuirch alive as late as the 12th century.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Michael. You’re right, I was majoring in the church’s texts… Maybe I’ll get to come back and fill in the political ones at some point in the near future…. That would be most fun from Italy and require some trips to Bath, I think *eyes glaze over* 😀

      1. Oh! And I should put that into perspective by saying I spent some time in the Republic of Ireland in August, and greatly enjoyed Clonmacnoise in County Offally…. . Much of my history is obscured due to my grandmother being an orphan, but I spotted a woman there that looked almost *exactly* like my mother. And, I know that I’m a wild Henderson on the other side. So I’m all for a subversive account of mission history…

  2. So good- particularly after the conversation we had about church membership, and today I had one with a colleague about denominations and the Reformed church. Which reminds me, Happy Reformation Day. I agree there are SO many and it is overwhelming. The ideas of church shopping and the religious economy make me laugh (awkwardly) because I am sure it is so far from where we ‘should’ be. Also, I will try to be slightly less dramatic in my pleas for you to stay.

  3. what???? I just read this post, and I was really seriously relating to the post since I have left my home church in Australia (three churches over 18 years isn’t too bad by the way) when we moved to the States. Until….. the PS thing at the end!!!!!
    I’m so going to be feeling missed out. I can’t explain but I have been conjuring up some fun Rend-et-Vous (Is this correct spelling? I’m so sorry if it’s not). I am not sure what to do now. Just need to make money and fly you over here maybe…
    But on the subject, you have written so well. Thank you gorgeous friend.

  4. Well written subject we just don’t read enough of these days…..I’m so glad someone as well versed as you has put pen to paper (or keystroke to screen) to expand our minds a little more and maybe….just maybe….rethink our next potential move.
    P.S. Are you by any chance relocating to Perth, WA??? Anyway thank you friend….

  5. I wanted to thank you for this fantastic read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I’ve got you book-marked to look at new stuff you post…

  6. Hi there! I just want to give you a big thumbs up for the great info you’ve got here on this post. I will be coming back to your blog for more soon.

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