It took me a while to notice, but summer is a hard season in the life of a church in a university town. People leave. We wish them well, we pray them on their way. And we grieve.
A church with young adults experiences this a lot. A church that embraces change as one of its descriptors experiences it even more. A church that is open to change attracts people who like change, not only in their church, but also in their lives. Off they go. Some to a first job, others to another job, some to be ordained as priests, others to be closer to extended family.
Others drift. They drift away from church altogether. Our church is their last stop, their last attempt at Christian Church. They arrive, excited that there is a church that would accept them on their journey of life and faith and doubt. But the talk about Jesus is uncomfortable. The Creed as declaration of faith feels like a roadblock. They love the community, they say, but the Christian faith just doesn’t ring true. They find their way to Buddhist practices or yoga, to coffee shops or bike trails.
Others drift away because they find the community lacking. They find what seem to be more meaningful communities in their neighborhoods or their children’s schools. Or they don’t feel comfortable around the prisoners in the congregation, or that we pray for the guy in our congregation who was arrested and is now in jail. Not enough lesbians, too many gays, not enough people their age, not enough children. This latter complaint is truly frustrating: How will we ever have enough children to satisfy them if the people with children keep leaving because we don’t have enough children?
Others drift away because we they think we aren’t religious enough. They want more spiritual discipline. They want more spiritual expression. They want more Bible study. They want a Sunday school for their children. In a small church, of course, kids can grow up knowing that they are loved by the elders, and known by name. But parents feel ill equipped to teach their children the faith. They want someone else to do it. Or they want support for what they are trying to do and they think Sunday school will provide that support. Or they want to be able to drop their kids off and have some adult time, maybe go out for a cup of coffee and uninterrupted conversation.
Some or all of this may just be excuses, of course. What they really are disappointed in, or angry at, or dissatisfied with, is life in general, themselves, their job, their spouse, or… the priest.
I know that some people have left our church because of me, the priest. And it is painful. I know I have disappointed, offended, and even hurt people through the years. Sometimes I have held fast to doing things a certain way when I could have held those ways a little looser. Sometimes I have been impatient or frustrated with a parishioner who doesn’t “get” my vision, or with the way they seem only to see why and how my own ideas won’t work. Sometimes I have been too autocratic, have not shared leadership and decision-making enough. Sometimes I have been too accommodating, have not been decisive enough.
Sometimes it is hard for others, and even for me, to know when or where I am going to draw the line, or claim the authority given me by the tradition or the Constitution and Canons, or the culture of church.
People have left because they didn’t feel heard, or they didn’t feel tended to, or they thought I was leading the church down an unsustainable path. Some left when they could not tolerate the change, or the financial risk, or my own persistence in leading the church in a particular direction, following a particular vision. It is hard to know when to compromise and when to hold steady and keep going.
I know that I am human, with flaws and sins of my own. And I know that my broken past sometimes runs right up against a parishioner’s broken past, and they feel they have no other recourse but to leave. What is really hard is when people leave without talking to me. Then I never know the true story. I am left wondering, or feeling that I have not been listened to either. I am left with a congregation that feels hurt and confused by their departure as well.
I have come to believe that being a priest requires Christian faith. This may seem obvious. But it is only my faith that sustains me through the judgment, anger and hurt of others. It is faith that allows me to forgive them. It is faith that allows me to forgive myself. It is faith that allows me to trust God and to know that neither my frailty nor the frailty of others is the end of the story. I get discouraged, yes, discouraged and depressed and disheartened. But because of my faith, I do not despair. I come mighty close sometimes, but I do not despair.
And I pray. I pray for discernment: When, how, or whether to persevere in seeking a conversation with someone who has left the church. When, how, or whether to work to change how I respond to people and situations and circumstances. When, how, or whether to compromise the vision I believe I have been given, in order to keep people in the fold. I pray that I will know what things I am to heed and what I should let “roll off my back”. Above all, I pray that I will be faithful to God and to God’s Way.
Still, I know I will fall short. And I suspect I will continue to be a bit sad when summer comes around each year, the season of departure.
Sunday by Sunday, we say that the liturgy will be what it will be because of those who are gathered for any given time of worship. We say that the liturgy would be different if any one person who is there were not there. It is true.
What is true for the liturgy is all the more true for the community. People arrive with talents and passions, with needs and quirks, and we embrace them. They become a part of who we are and they help to shape what we become. So that when they leave, a part of us leaves with them. But a part of them stays behind.
That is what I’ve experienced over and again. Whatever the reason for their departure, a part of them stays behind in the fabric of who we are as a community of faith.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.