…and what can be learned from our experience.
I have edited this thing ten times. I’m sure some folks aren’t going to like what I have to say, or think I’m just ‘bitter’ as a way of avoiding the lessons here. I’m one of those people who does try to learn from my experiences, and share what I think I’ve learned. I hope my story can help yours.
In the Fall of 2007 we left “HPC” –the church where my family spent the last 10 years. Most of them were good years. But over those years, things happened -or didn’t happen, that undermined our sense of belonging and well-being there, ..and our trust in the leadership.
We were not your ‘average’ members. In fact, many people were surprised we left because we had been VERY active. The church is a small suburban church in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. A lot of nice people there -and we wish them well. In good conscience, however, we could no longer stay.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
It’s a horrible feeling to wake up on Sunday morning and not feel good about going to worship.
…to sit there and be distracted by unresolved issues and feelings.
…to lose faith in various leaders and in the integrity of important decisions.
…to go through the anguishing process of leaving some people and a place you had connected with.
And after leaving… to feel like maybe you had wasted your time there, and wasted what you had to offer.
I’m a metaphor guy. And the one which makes the most sense to me about what happened at that church is “kindling and fire.”
“Kindling” is the small -but not insignificant stuff that is fuel to a fire. And the kindling for this blaze piled up over a ten year period.
- Questionable decisions by the leadership.
- An often glacial approach to getting things done.
- The occasional poor choice of words or gruff behavior by the pastor.
- The occasional mishandling of finances and inability to pay bills, even though giving went up every year.
- A seeming lack of care about the appearance of things, -whether it was the building, or grounds, or communication materials.
- Lack of a decent on-going Sunday morning adult class.
- Absence a new member committee -in the face of an annually shrinking membership, while the community around the church was experiencing exponential growth.
- Rotting exterior paint, nursery floors not kept clean, weeds by the main entrance and main doors (which we saw as symptons and signs of an attitude).
- A long range plan that was essentially buried.
- A building campaign that would saddle a shrinking membership with a large debt, and one which began as a need for meeting space, -but turned into a quest for a new sanctuary based on the misguided idea that the problem with membership was that the current sanctuary was inadequate -a premise which was debatable.
- “Easy made hard” …a phrase I found myself often using to describe so many things.
I could go on.
Funny thing about all that kindling. Most of the time, it just looked and felt like “mud.” “Muddling along,” -that’s how it felt over the years. You look at that list and think it must have been a bad place to be, but most of the time it just felt like things were muddling along. The pastor and leadership and membership did some things well, but were curiously uninterested, inconsistent, or incompetent about certain things -many of which wouldn’t have been tolerated in most other churches, including those I had previously been part of. Some of us in the congregation even had a name for this muddling. We called it, “the HPC way.”
But what I did not understand THEN, I have unfortunately learned the hard way… it wasn’t MUD we were stuck in, it was KINDLING. Mud doesn’t burn. Kindling is just ready for something to set it off. I wish I had figured that out before someone threw a match. (And I wonder: how many other churches and members think they’re “stuck in the mud,” but really are standing in a pile of kindling?)
Why did we/they put up with it? Why did my family invest 10 years there?
We really liked the church. We grew fond of many of the people there. Early on, we didn’t want to make too many waves. And because it was a small church, I think it was easy for them and for us to overlook things as “being a small church.” And we honestly thought things would get better. I think that’s the problem with many “relationships” that start out well. The warning signs were all there early on (see the list above).
Why did we finally decide to leave?
Kindling doesn’t spontaneously combust, it just piles up waiting for something to ignite it.
After years of quietly speaking up and trying to help, some new frustrations with that church occurred within in a short timespan. And then the inevitable match appeared in the form of some incendiary words. …And up we went.
The pastor said the wrong thing to me at the wrong time. The youth leaders needed to get quick approval for a refundable deposit on a youth trip. I received permission from the pastor to ask the Session for it. They approved it unanimously. Then after the fact, the pastor acted jerky about it, -words he would later apologize for. But the match had been thrown.
We would have brushed off his words as yet another thing that shouldn’t have gone down the way it did, …but his inflammatory words were dropped right at a point in our lives where we were already struggling with things the church was doing (or not doing as was often the case). And our family had been talking about whether we were going to stay in town or move, and/or stay with that church.
I suppose I could have “gone off” -some members do that. They start a rumble. But as you may know from my bio, I’m a minister who was only a volunteer in that congregation. I had no real official standing in that church. It would have been inappropriate for me to raise a stink. My wife was an elder, so we had some inside knowledge on a lot of stuff. And we knew others in the congregation, including some staff, who shared some of our concerns. Add to that the fact they we were already thinking about moving out of town in a couple of years when our last kid got out of high school. So we sat on our opinions thinking it wouldn’t be appropriate to raise our voices, and then leave. Wasn’t our style.
And truthfully, their congregation’s personality and the pastor’s attitude weren’t going anywhere. They had been there all along, and those aren’t things you change with a strongly worded letter.
I don’t think God plans your life like a Triptik, but I’m sure that God wants us to pay attention to the road, and learn from the twists and turns, crash and burns.
I’ve always felt there was something important for me as a minister to learn going from larger more ‘successful’ church experiences, to a small muddling one. And here’s what I think I’ve learned SO FAR….
The first lesson: I should have seen “the handwriting on the wall” years ago.
Over the years we did try to address and help with some of the problems. We occasionally spoke privately to the pastor, staff and various leaders. We offered ideas and volunteered to help. We wrote a few extra checks to help, and did some of the work ourselves. But mostly we tried to be patient. In our first couple of years we passed it off as “well, they’re a small church,” and “maybe our expectations are too high, and it’s not our department.” “Maybe they can grow without a new member committee?” “Perhaps their occasional inability to pay bills was a fluke.” “Maybe the pastor didn’t really mean what he said.” “Maybe they’ll get around to cleaning it, repairing it, weeding it, changing it.” “Maybe this year they’ll start a decent Sunday morning Bible study for adults and stick to it.” “Maybe maybe maybe.” In hindsight, by the tenth or eleventh “maybe” we should have seen the handwriting on the wall, and quietly found another more “kindling free” congregation and pastor.
The second lesson: Over time, “maybe” wears you down. Not dealing with things starts to undercut your sense of trust and well-being in a congregation. And not fully expressing your frustrations to the leaders doesn’t help either. That was the hard part for me, as a minister-in-the-pew on occasion I had to bite my tongue. And over time, you get worn down by the frustrations.
The third lesson is that TIMING MATTERS.
The pastor’s criticism was ham-handed, but maybe it would have blown over had it not come at the wrong time and in the midst of some other gaffs. Example: His incendiary words arrived by email(!) to me about two hours after he had met with my wife (the elder) to set up –at her suggestion, a new member and evangelism committee (the first in ten years for that church). Rather than be complainers, we decided to ADD to our list of things we were doing over there, and help organize what the church had been sorely lacking for many years. The pastor was enthusiastic about that, …which made his “email in the face” two hours later all the more bizarre.
And… it came on the heels of a projected $30,000 budget shortfall that my wife the elder felt was being swept under the rug. To compound the situation, we had just been asked to make a major pledge to the new sanctuary campaign -about which we had some misgivings. We had decided to trust the leadership and support the building project, -even though we were thinking of moving out of town.
And it was coming from a pastor we knew had told the Session during its decisions about “whether to build” that he would leave if they didn’t build it. (Incredulous, I later personally asked him if that were true and he said “yes.”) The kindling was dry dry dry.
The fourth lesson: There ARE limits.
We’re not quitters. My wife and I wrestled with our frustrations for years, and were trying to work things out and stay involved right up to the day the pastor dropped the match. Even afterwards, we took pause and gave off alarm signals. We reached out to friends in the church, and family for advice. But in the end, we decided that there were limits to what we were willing to put up with.
In any church or family, you will experience things you have to overlook, forgive, or confess you may be wrong about. We’ve had to do that in all the churches we’ve been part of, in our own family (and I with myself). But when your relationship with a particular congregation or pastor becomes, -over a long period of trying to make it work, -both personally strained and spiritually eroding, and you can look back and honestly say “I tried, and tried, and tried again,” -then it’s time to shake the dust from your sandals, for your benefit, and sometimes for theirs as well.
We decided to leave rather quietly, -telling only a few people the reasons why we left. We knew the church was in the middle of some difficulties and trying to raising a lot of money, and so we wanted to respect the efforts of some good people who had different expectations and pain thresholds.
(Of course, this “blog” post isn’t quiet. But I’ve given it a LOT of time and thought, -and distance. I wanted to tell our story so that maybe it would help a church -or pastor understand something about “members like us,” or see problems in their own church which need to be addressed. I used to disparage members who left. But now I understand they sometimes leave for the RIGHT reasons, -reasons which ANY congregation can learn from).
Advice to Whoever:
1. The Bible says muddling along, -being “luke-warm” is a sin. Muddling erodes trust. Some members will eventually walk away rather than muddle along with you. And… those that remain will likely be “enablers” of more muddling. And… any new members you gain will likely be low-expectation muddlers themselves. I for one will also never mistake mud for kindling again. In our next church (which we are already attending) we are asking a few more questions, and looking a little more carefully for the warning signs.
2. When a church fails to take care of the basics, such as Bible Study, paying bills, or weeds, it erodes the church’s credibility with some of its members who care that basics are not being addressed. And down the road the leadership will undoubtedly need to DRAW UPON it’s stockpile of credibility to overcome a serious problem, a “gaff,” or meet an important need. It’s like the parable of the talents… if you bury the one talent, you probably won’t be given any more. Fail at the small things, and the big things will be that much more difficult to sell. Ignore the basics, and some people will leave or fade away.
3. Every church should have an OMBUDSMAN. This old-fashioned position is a trusted wise person who listens to complaints and concerns, and tries to make sure they get addressed. I have found that most active members will not speak their mind in large groups, or meetings. Rather, they will express their heartfelt opinions and concerns in private conversations, and in the parking lot after the meeting. Or with their feet. The pastor can’t be the ombudsman because many times the concerns are about them. We could have used one, but muddling churches don’t think this way. Over the last two years in that church I was contacted by members, chairpeople -including the chair of personnel, and even a staff person who wanted my “opinion” about what was going on. They were talking to the wrong person. I needed an ombudsman too!
4. Churches need to have a mechanism to identify members who are in distress before they either turn into low-expectation members, –or start to leave. We weren’t the only ones over there in distress. Some have since left, others left or retreated in the years preceding us for reasons similar to our own, and likely some others will fade or leave in the future. After we left, we even ran into an older woman at another church who had once been very involved in HPC prior to us getting there. Disturbingly, she and her husband left ten years ago for many of the same reasons we did. ESPECIALLY in a small church where the difference between vitality and mortality is just a few families, leadership needs a way to identify problems and members in trouble.
In our case, a simple check of our sliding attendance over the three month period when we began to pull back (before the incendiary event) -would have been enough of a red-flag. And our careful but obvious response to the pastor’s incendiary words should have set off a smoke alarm. Our reaching out to friends and two staff members in the congregation about our distress should have set off a bell and prompted a bigger response. But like so many other things in that church, nobody wanted to deal with some of the issues. Or they didn’t think we’d really leave. A well-timed visit and well-chosen words from certain leaders may have kept us from walking. But honestly, even if we had stayed, we’d have been different, -less trusting, less involved. And that wouldn’t have been good. (And we also suspect some were glad to see us go. Few leaders and pastors want people around who think things should be different. This is part of the problem in churches… the Emperor doesn’t like to be told he has no clothes.)
Since first posting this story, many have emailed me with words of consolation and hope. Many have shared their (unfortunately) SIMILAR experiences in other churches. Several members of our former church have contacted me after reading this. Some have thought about leaving for many of the same reasons stated here. One said I shouldn’t be saying this publicly about his church, “even if they are true.”
Update: We have landed in a new congregation. But we are taking our time to observe the people, pastor, and processes. Friendliness is not enough.
– – – – – — – – – – –
Check out my “Wide Open Back Door” post for more about what I learned from this situation, and how churches can identify members in distress before it’s too late.