Last month I read an excellent article on the Huffington Post by UCC pastor and author Rachel G. Hackenberg entitled “Letting You Leave Church.” She makes a very strong case for offering people our blessings as they leave our congregations–regardless of the reasons for leaving. Rev. Hackenberg makes very logical points throughout the article. And yet her wise counsel is sometimes so hard to follow.
Here are a few quotes from that article:
Dear Christians, both wounded and worried, leaders and laity, trend-watchers, naysayers, pastors, and all who pray for the Church’s health and behavior to improve…
Departure is a sensitive and greatly feared concern in Christian congregations and denominations. Churches and pastors don’t want their parishioners to leave. Denominations fret when churches threaten departure. Across the Church, we view departure as an indicator of division or a foreshadowing of demise.
As statistics continue to reveal the Church’s numerical decline, the impulse of congregations and denominations is to resist, to fear, to fight against membership losses. For the sake of survival, we plead: “Don’t leave.”
Desperation is never pretty, is it?
I think the author’s phrase “For the sake of survival, we plead: “Don’t leave” says a lot. I believe people can often sense desperation in a community of faith: the overly exuberant welcome as you walk in the door or as you pass the Peace of Christ–or whatever your community calls this welcoming moment; asking you to consider getting involved in the life of the community on your first visit (yes, it happens); grabbing your hand during community prayer time or during the singing of the closing song because, well, that’s just what we do here. So sometimes in a genuine attempt to be friendly we can come across as desperate for love and attention.
There’s financial desperation, too–and it seriously concerns me when I hear some of the comments that are born of this fear. Please don’t misunderstand me; as someone whose paycheck is quite dependent on a stable and reliable flow of income from generous congregants, significant and extended decreases in cash flow are legitimate causes for concern. The comments to which I am referring, however, give me the feeling the people who make these comments see primarily dollar signs leaving the church, and not real people with whom we have broken bread and shared joys and sorrows in community for a certain amount of time. And if my concern is correct–if congregants are more concerned with dollar signs than helping people and making a positive impact in our communities and world– then why are we even bothering with church, anyway?
With all the challenges facing religious congregations today, I’ve recently started wondering why more groups don’t consider merging with other like-minded groups as a viable option for their communities? And when I say “merge,” I don’t mean merging merely for the sake of survival–although you can never totally eliminate that reason–I mean merging primarily for the sake of shared mission.
I’m sure this suggestion isn’t new; still let’s consider it for a minute. Take two–or a few–smaller congregations or groups whose primary mission it is to feed hungry people. By themselves they struggle to maintain the administrative and worship structures necessary for their individual communities, which in turn negatively impacts their mission to feed hungry people. Combine, consolidate and share their resources–including clergy, worship and administrative boards–wherever possible. What was once two or a few structures is now one, releasing at least some resources for shared mission that were not available before.
And the cost?
Well, there are definitely some costs involved with this suggestion. First, professional religious people like myself will have to check our egos because the requirements of our positions will certainly change–if our positions survive, that is. Leaders at all levels will have to do the same. Congregants who have an unhealthy attachment to “the way things have always been,” or who just can’t imagine being anything but “First Church of ABC,” will have to be willing to celebrate the contributions of First Church, and then release those contributions to the Universe so a “new thing” that is better suited to meeting the world’s needs today might be born in our midst. And birthing is a messy process, isn’t it?
Can merging for mission–and not merely survival–work? I think it can; in fact, I bet this idea already has and is working in different forms and in different places in the world today. The question then becomes, “Are more of us willing to experiment with different forms of religious community, even if it means rethinking everything we’ve assumed and been taught about how church is supposed to work and why?” That is, are we willing to lose our lives in healthy service to a Greater Good? Or are we going to continue to circle the ecclesial wagons in a desperate attempt at self-preservation?
Is there hope in this suggestion? I think so. Is it scary? Sure! Threatening? Could be. Exciting? Well, I guess that depends on who you are. Still, haven’t we been operating in survival mode long enough already? Besides, didn’t Jesus say something about what happens when we seek to save our lives for our own benefit rather than lose them in service?
Just a few things to consider…
Blessings on your journeys!