Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed
One of the primary laments I hear from pastors and laity in this pre-post-pandemic time is that many former stalwarts have not yet returned to church. Maybe these folks continue to be Covid-cautious. (After all, most of us have someone we love who is medically fragile. We might even be that immuno-compromised person.) Perhaps people’s priorities have shifted under the stress of extended crisis, bumping regular church attendance – a metric that is continually being redefined – down the list. It could be that perceptions of a good-fit congregation have changed for some in the past couple of years, prompting their search for a different church home.
Whatever the case, it’s hard for those who keep showing up to acknowledge that we might not ever sit in the same pew or gather around the same fellowship meal or Bible study or communion table again with those who are missing. We have shared life with these people, and we grieve the loss of their participation. We feel ghosted, a term usually applied to one-on-one friendships or romantic relationships in which one party essentially disappears, leaving the other to wonder what went wrong. So, what is a church to do?
Check in on people without exerting pressure. This is tricky. There is nothing like shame or guilt to make a person run fast in the opposite direction. Instead of saying, “We’ve missed you at church,” ask them a question that conveys genuine connection and care like, “How has this whole Covid experience been for you? I’ve been thinking about you.” Note that these sentiments are sometimes best received from fellow church members than from the pastor, who (from the perspective of some people) gets paid to keep track of congregants.
Invite them to a particular event. This is a low-risk way for people who have been away a while to dip a toe in. They’re not being asked to re-commit fully to church engagement, but the invitation also lets them know they are seen and welcomed. “I know you have lost someone special this year. Would you like to come and celebrate that person’s memory on All Saints’ Day?” Or, “We’re having an Advent program geared toward families. It’s going to be full of music and food and crafts. I’d love to give you more details if you’re interested in coming.”
Bless them on their way if they leave, and prop the door open for them if they don’t. Every person, every church is different after all that we’ve been through. There might not still be a good fit between a person’s purpose and a congregation’s mission. That’s ok. We are all still part of Christ’s one body, even if we worship in different places.
Acknowledge the positive impact that those who haven’t returned have made on individuals and the congregation. Some relationships last only for a season, but those connections have shaped and will continue to shape our lives in both obvious and subtle ways. We can simultaneously grieve the loss of ongoing relationship and express gratitude for people’s lasting effects on who we are.
Accept that the pandemic has led to permanent change in your church and in the Church. There is no going back to exactly what we were, individually and corporately. It is time to look at what God’s good invitations to us are now. They are there, even if we don’t yet perceive them! Ask, what have we learned during the pandemic that can serve us well going forward? What previously untapped gifts did we discover? What new opportunities present themselves?
Invite those for whom your congregation is really good news. While your church might not be a fit for some previous attendees anymore, it could be the right place for new people, maybe even for populations you haven’t previously considered. Is your congregation hybrid? This could be a way of engagement for geographically dispersed people, those who work on Sunday mornings, or those who have trouble getting out and about to be part of your community. Has your church discovered its voice on a particular issue that aligns with its understanding of God’s call? That opens up possibilities for new constituents. Have you started a new ministry? The people who are in or who care about the target demographic will want to know more about your congregation.
Know that by God’s goodness, your church has what (and whom) it needs. Your congregation’s worth is not measured in numbers. We are made out of God’s gracious love, called together by God’s gracious desire for us not to be alone, and sent out with God’s gracious challenge to embody church for others. As long as we tune into that grace, we can know that we are enough.
For those who are going to different churches or who aren’t attending church anymore: Let your former pastors know. Yes, your pastors will be sad. They will miss you and all that you have brought to the life of your congregation. But they trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. They will pray for you to find a community where you can know others and can be known, where you can grow in your faith, and where you can exercise the fullness of your gifts for God’s purposes. And when you let them know you are going, they can redirect their energies toward the people they now shepherd rather than continuing to wonder whether they should try to minister to you. That is a gift you can offer in your exit.
It hurts to be ghosted. But being a ghost-ee doesn’t mean that you’ve failed in some way. It simply means that a transition is happening. What will your church do with the possibilities inherent in change?
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama