If Dave Miller can bare his soul by reflecting on his ministry I can at least empty my mind on one aspect of my own: I was totally uprepared for how folks move so easily and often among churches. It was my own fault, or at least a lack of preparation caused by never having been involved in an average sized SBC church until I was the pastor of the same.
A church leader asked for a meeting with me within days of my arriving on the field at my new pastorate. He was a long time, faithful member of the church, a deacon, an energetic and committed worker in the congregation. He had been thinking about a problem with a division in the church of which I was aware of when I accepted the call and took the church. He proposed a solution that was so clearly absurd that I, gently and diplomatically, rejected it immediately, We chatted. He left. He also left the church. Boom! Just like that I had successfully lost one of the strongest families in the church.
I was somewhat shocked until one of the other seasoned old hands in the church told me he had done it before and might eventually return and leave again. Sure enough, he left for a while, came back, asked for another conference with me, outlined yet another idea that I rejected, and left again. This time he stayed gone and we were better off for it.
Three words on modern American, Southern Baptist ecclesiology: folks move around.
Four words: people come and go.
Two words: church shoppers.
Two more words: consumer mentality.
Four more words: Don’t worry about it.
A century ago my town had the Baptist Church (SBC). The Methodist Church was across the street. The Christian Church was one block away. The Presbys were a couple of miles out of town. That was it in our community.
Now there is still the Baptist Church (SBC). The Methodist Church (now UMC) is hanging on. The Christian Church folded but an interim pastor at the SBC church took a group and started a non-denominational church in their building. The Presbys are still a couple of miles away. An independent Baptist church is in a store front a block from the SBC church. An SBC church plant was in the local school but they failed, although I expect another to try. The Church of Christ has a small congregation two blocks away. A new IFB church is a couple of miles away. There are more. As always in a growing area, there are a couple of megachurches that are within easy driving distance.
A few anecdotes and observations.
People moving out of your church is painful. We aren’t conditioned to be comfortable with congregants leaving. While some departures are quite pleasing, generally, the pastor who faithfully serves as a shepherd, works hard to build relationships, and serve the Lord and the church the Lord has given him finds it emotionally painful when people leave. I’d call this the worst thing about serving as a pastor. If the pastor doesn’t come to some understanding about this he is in for a rough and unsatisfying ministry.
Some good people leave and leave well. A member and friend met with me to share that he and his family would be leaving the church. He wanted me to know it wasn’t personal but a family decision with many factors. He went to a much larger church and served faithfully there. While I hated to see the family leave, we remained friends. The pastor can’t agonize over this type of decision, although other church members will likely see the loss of any “good” members as a personal failure on the part of the pastor. Don’t fall for this.
Some people leave and don’t leave well. We are on the same side, right? Followers of Christ worshipping and serving him in many separate congregations? Well, yes, but some of our brethren and sistren feel like they have to validate their decision to leave a church by disparaging the pastor and church. This is low class, unchristian, and a shabby way to treat one of God’s servants and congregations. “Hey, I wish you well. Bye.” Don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over this.
Some people sneak out stealthily. No goodbyes. No explanation. No request for a letter arrives. Is the transfer of membership concept completely dead? Looks like it to me.
Let the church shoppers shop ’til they drop. Don’t get all excited about them liking your flavor of the month. I actually had a deacon, one who was a great conversationalist but never learned that you shouldn’t say everything that comes to mind, say that if people go to the grocery store looking for strawberry ice cream the store doggone better have that flavor. “Same for our church” he said. Egad.
You know there are awards for some people leaving the church? I hadn’t been at the church long enough to make a bad decision, step on any of the land mines, or do anything stupid yet one family always treated me somewhere between coolly and downright mean. Not knowing any better, I, the faithful and humble servant of the Lord and His church, just slogged on doing what I knew to do. In time they left. The deacon chairman said to me, “We’re going to give you a trophy for that one.” There are people who cannot be pleased in every church. Don’t wreck yourself trying.
Sad to say, but wins and losses count for some folks. One year Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleballer for the Atlanta Braves lost 20 games. Quite an achievement, but he won 21 games the same year. Successful year. Some church members and even many fellow pastors don’t have any higher spirituality than to keep score – wins and losses. Don’t fall for this. Please the Lord.
Always take an honest look at yourself and the church. Things change in churches and ministry. People do expect more. I got a call from a lady on a renovation committee from the church down the road. She wanted to come by and look at our church’s sanctuary light fixtures, 1960s vintage lights, dungeon lights, I called them. That was what their church wanted. Really? Update stuff. Can a church of any size not have security cameras these days?
Do what you can with what you have.
Of course, if you are a megachurch, you always keep score. But no megapastor ever reads this, since they all take July and August off.
This article is a pretty thin offering for a Sunday but you can add to it if you wish. Have a great Lord’s Day.