What’s A Shepherd To Do?

Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away. Matthew 26:56

This Bible verse found in both Matthew and Mark is stated right after Jesus is arrested – right when things are the most anxious and the disciples are the most threatened, they head for the hills. When Jesus’ life is at risk and their lives are the most unsteady, everybody in the community starts acting sort of crazy, even immature. They argue over things that don’t really matter — like who among them is the best. Peter cuts off someone’s ear. He denies knowing Jesus, and acts really paranoid etc. In essence when change happens, people start acting squirrely. This happens in any organization when it is going through a transition or ending of a relationship.

We cannot deny the fact that when people leave communities that the result is a feeling of anxiety. We prefer to ignore that anxiety by scapegoating, denying and avoiding the pain or uncomfortable feeling of loss.

For me, the most difficult part of ministry is when people leave the church. I find termination of membership to be one of the most painful experiences. I was comforted to read that I am not alone in this. In that studies show that terminations of any nature are especially significant for women. Studies show that women enter into relations “often allow others to become so much a part of them that the egos overlap and merge. As a result when women undergo loss, separation, or termination they experience not only a loss of the other, but also a part of themselves, their ego, dies in the process. The termination is general more profound for women than for men. Being a tender-minded person means being more caring, gentle and emotionally sensitive.” Building Community, Sofield, Hammett and Juliano. So, part of this process is looking at how I as a leader, a tender-hearted leader, is impacted when people say “good-bye,” and how I can respond in the most mature and healthy manner.

The role of pastor doesn’t end when someone leaves the church. If I am a shepherd, and a sheep doesn’t want to be part of the flock any more, what is a Shepherd to do? Personally, I feel I have to Shepherd them in their leaving as faithfully as I do in their arriving.

The first step we as a community have to accept is that people will leave. When they leave there is a loss. Sofield, Hammett and Juliano write that there are six steps in dealing with loss:
1. Get in touch with emotions
2. Accept the feelings
3. Talk about feelings
4. Allow sufficient time to grieve
5. Ritualize the loss
6. Allow new people into your life.

I would like for us to set up a process of saying “good bye” to members that is as thought out as our process of saying “hello.”

Here is some research I found:
Churches are healthier if their attrition rate can be reduced. Research indicates that 63,000 people leave American churches each week and never go back. Lyle Pointer, veteran pastor and church growth expert, suggests talking to those who leave a local church to learn why they have left.

Here are his suggestions and guidelines:

• I ask the Lord to help me keep the relational aspects in sight while I keep a lid on defensiveness against criticism.
• I visit those who’ve left our church and tell them I need their help in improving our ministry to others. Then, I ask questions such as:
What brought you to the church initially?
o What was/is your over all impression of the church?
o I noticed your attendance at our church has dropped off (Or, I hear you may be worshiping elsewhere). Can you help me know how you are feeling about your relationship with our church?
o How did you decide to leave our church? What was some of your thinking?
o What can I do to soften the hurt / disappointment / anger you feel?
• I tell them I regret we were unable to be what they needed us to be.
• I reassure them I will accept, and not argue with their perspective.
• I make sure they know I have heard them (although I may not agree with them).
• I thank them for telling me how they feel.
• If I think they could still be a part of our fellowship, I tell them they have not burned any bridges with us/me. They are welcome any time.
• I pray a prayer of blessing on them.
• If they are not attending church anywhere, I will help them to select a church in the area that has the best chance (in my opinion) of ministering to them. I stay in contact with this family until they settle in somewhere or return.

I would guess 20-25% return to our church when concern is expressed and understanding is offered. — Lyle Pointer

Thom Schultz writes,

This week I listened to people who left their churches and never went back. I didn’t like their stories, for a couple of reasons.
First, it was painful to hear of their wounds. Their reasons for leaving varied widely, from mistreatment to malfeasance to neglect.
Then, it was agonizing to hear how none of them had been contacted by the churches they left. They felt ultimately disposable and forgotten.
Unfortunately, their stories are all too common. Even for churches that report shining statistics of new members, they’re often losing equal numbers out the back door. What’s happening? Why are they leaving?

Churches like to call in paid consultants to analyze their situations. Usually these hired guns interview the staff and survey the congregation. They typically uncover predictable things. But they may miss the glaring problems, which are best articulated by those who have left.

So, before you call in the next consultant, take a hint from other organizations: talk to your past customers. See what good employers do; they conduct exit interviews. It seems so obvious. But, in the church world, this contact is rare.

Why? Are we afraid of what we’ll hear? Is it too awkward? Do we feel that contacting lost members will only pander to their complaining?
Let’s forget the excuses and consider how to reach out to the lost sheep. You’ll learn how to improve your ministry, and you’ll show care for those who feel hurt. I was involved in a small team that did just that. We invited past members to sit down with us and talk about why they left our church. Without hesitation, they all agreed to meet. They talked openly, calmly and candidly. And they were so thankful that somebody finally noticed they had left and cared enough to inquire. What they told us was eye-opening and very helpful.

Here’s what we learned about contacting lost sheep:

1. Form a small team of level-headed volunteers to contact the lost sheep. Don’t enlist pastors or other church staff for this work. First, the departed members won’t be as blunt with paid leaders. Second, your staff may already feel pummeled themselves. The last thing they want to do is sit through another feared pummeling. So, select volunteers who are not currently serving in any leadership capacity at the church. These should be good listeners who will not get defensive when hearing negative comments about their church.

2. Assemble a list of those who have gone missing. Contact these past members personally. Let them know they’re missed. Ask if they’d share why they left. Assure them your purpose is simply to listen, not to coerce them to return. You simply want to know how to improve.

3. Set up a time, about an hour, to meet personally on neutral ground, such as a restaurant or coffee shop. Do not attempt to collect information through written surveys or over the phone. Meet face to face.

4. When you meet, reiterate you’re there to listen. Ask for their honesty and candor. Say something like, “I know you haven’t been around for some time. We used to see you all the time. I’d really like to hear about what might have led to your departure. It may help us avoid problems and hurt in the future.”

5. Take notes. And inform your interviewees that you’d like pass along helpful information to appropriate people who can make improvements for the future.

6. At the end of the interview, sincerely thank the interviewees. And extend a heartfelt apology that the church did not measure up to their expectations. This isn’t admitting guilt. It’s simply offering remorse and compassion for how they feel.

7. Then compile the results of the interviews. Look for any common threads. Prepare a report for church leaders who have the responsibility to make your ministry as strong and effective as it can be. Be sensitive about handling accounts of individuals who were named by interviewees. That information should be shared directly with the named individuals and/or their immediate supervisors.

8. Consider the results and take appropriate action to improve your ministry.

Part of the being the Body of Christ means noticing and caring when a part goes missing.

Here are the top ten reasons LifeWay Research found why people switch churches:

1. The church was not helping me to develop spiritually. (28%)
2. I did not feel engaged or involved in meaningful church work (20%)
3. Church members were judgmental of others (18%)
4. pastor was not a good preacher (16%)
5. Too many changes (16%)
6. Members seemed hypocritical (15%)
7. Church didn’t seem to be a place where God was at work (14%)
8. Church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement (14%)
9. Pastor was judgmental of others (14%)
10. Pastor seemed hypocritical (13%)

In summary, we know that people leave communities for many reasons large and small. We know that all we can do is be faithful to Jesus Christ and to our calling as his disciples. We know that we cannot abandon him. – Although, if we are honest, we know that we often do.

This past weekend I participate in an ordination service for a young woman, so excited and passionate about ministry. She reminded me of me, when I began my ministry. At the end of the service she thanked her church, the church where she was baptized, confirmed and now ordained. She thanked them for being an example and showing her the way. She thanked them for shepherding her. Then, the whole congregation stood and held hands and sang their traditional parting song:

God be with you till we meet again.
God be in you, go in peace.
Loving counsels guide, uphold,
with a shepherd’s care enfold you.
God be with you till we meet again,
God be in you, go in peace.

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