I am writing this piece on a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. A year ago, and for many years, I would have been in church at worship, but today I am not. I was a pastor for almost 20 years, and I loved it. For almost 15 years I have ministered in a different setting, teaching ministry students. I love ministry in congregations, and I think the opportunities there are wonderful. Thus, I hurt when congregations fail to live up to their redemptive best. In that spirit, I offer these reminders to my colleagues in pastorates about the embodiment and practice of four simple virtues often overlooked in the life of communities of faith.
1. Don’t take people’s church visits for granted.
I say this because it is so easy today not to go to church. When my family first moved to a new place, it was with three young children, to two new and demanding jobs, into a new house that didn’t even have toilet paper holders on the bathroom walls, in a culture that was strange to us. It was hard simply to force ourselves out of bed and out of the house on Sunday morning after a week of work and school and a Saturday of kids’ sports and chores. Holding life together was tough, and sometimes we needed to give ourselves the Sabbath day off—from church. Please remember: It isn’t easy to go to unknown places, to puzzle out which door is the “real” entrance or find the correct starting time, to encounter people who do not know or appreciate you, to ask your children to enter rooms filled with groups of strangers, some of whom are not too welcoming. Even though Sunday church had been the pattern of our life, it took us a year to settle in, join a congregation, and be there most weeks.
Churches should always try to do whatever they can to make it easier for stressed people to find their way. At the very least, remember and appreciate what an immense effort it is for new people to come and visit. Be gracious and hospitable in return, in many and creative ways.
2. Don’t take continued participation in the church for granted.
Church politics turn people off. Do your absolute best to be as transparent and trust-building as possible since even when people come they don’t have to stay.
I have friends who were pleased that their grown children found a continued home in the church when they grew up, married, and took jobs in a different community. But after several years of active involvement there, a church fight broke out. The turn it took was so disheartening that the young family left. They have not yet found their way back to any church.
We witnessed less than edifying leadership in our own church. After prolonged internal conflict, senior staff were released, with lack of appropriate disclosure to the congregation. Public misinformation led to departures by numerous people who loved one or the other minister and were hurt by the dismissals and the lack of honesty surrounding them. A small group made major decisions without much apparent explanation or consultation. Important committees were filled without offering criteria for the choices, leading many to see the reasons as longevity and connection to those in power. Voices were silenced, not heard. Resources for assistance were ignored, which led to choices of direction that will likely be unfruitful. Even a sincere request for a secret ballot in an important congregational decision was refused.
I know well how original sin colors everything that our human institutions do (I’ve seen these failures before, and I should not be surprised). Still, I am flabbergasted when I experience it personally, close at hand. When churches do not take seriously their calling to be leavened by the Spirit of God in all they do, including their internal affairs, but instead act like any other corporate or political entity—covering up, manipulating truth, and using power plays—people sense that something is missing spiritually and leave. There is an untold cost to ministry. Just as it is easier to stay home in the first place, it is even easier to give up on church when the experience is sour.
Honesty and trust are the currency of the church’s life together. They deserve our highest attention. Building up the body of Christ demands trustworthy, transparent leadership that prevents conflict rather than to tries to manage it or heal from it.
3. Don’t take one-time contributions for granted.
Since my family and I have been (as we put it) “in exile” or “on sabbatical” from our church, we have visited numerous other congregations. We have valued the ministry of those churches, as well as those with which we have been associated in the past. So we have made what are to us significant gifts to five churches.
In not one case did we receive an acknowledgement of the gift.
Each year we make gifts to numerous not-for-profits, usually not as large as the gifts to churches, and in almost every case we receive prompt thanks and acknowledgements for tax purposes. Churches need to understand that they also live in the same universe of potential donors and that expectations have changed. Numerous sites antd services evaluate charities today. How would your church measure up?
Saying “thank you” is basic. Don’t ignore responding to donations, even if they don’t fit your system.
4. Don’t take absences for granted.
As a pastor, I learned that absence had meaning. If parishioners were absent on three consecutive Sundays, I telephoned to see how they were doing and to let them know their presence was missed. I often heard about a family crisis or some problem with which I might be helpful, even if only to offer a listening ear and a caring heart.
For years as a member and officer in our new congregation, I encouraged other leaders to institute such a simple system of pastoral care based on tracking attendance. It never happened. As significant people (visible leaders and long-time members of the church or denomination) left over a three-year period, were they contacted? If our own experience is any indication, probably not. Admittedly, conflict makes such approaches awkward and hard. It also makes them all the more necessary, so that matters can be openly discussed and honestly and lovingly resolved. Otherwise, gossip and assumptions rule the day.
Absence means something. To ignore it is to suggest that “we don’t care enough to ask where you were.” Why wouldn’t the church want to care? Why wouldn’t they want to communicate that care: “See how these Christians love one another.”
One of my colleagues makes the claim that the most basic fact of American church life is that participation is voluntary. As a pastor, I used to think that people had to be “in church” to build the kingdom or grow in spirit. Not any more. Sometimes it’s just not worth it, for very good reasons, and there are lots of other legitimate and good uses for the time, some quite spiritually enriching or healthful. I hope to return myself, but when churches don’t embody the practices of hospitality, trustworthiness, gratitude, and care, we—and our congregations—risk taking people and their gifts for granted.
Questions for Reflection
- Do you know whether or not your church is welcoming to visitors? What methods do you use to evaluate your church’s hospitality? Have you asked a few recent visitors to tell you what the experience of visiting your church was like from their perspective—in order to find ways you can be more welcoming?
- In your leadership groups, where does the culture support transparency and honesty with love, and where is there resistance or fearfulness? Do leaders value and actively seek open sharing of differences for their potential learnings, or do the established processes suppress voices of difference i
n the name of expediency? Do dissenters leave? How do you foster ways of living together that build trust?
- Think of your church as a nonprofit competing for donations with other organizations in your community. Check your church’s system of reporting non-regular contributions. Does the church promptly express gratitude and accountability to identifiable one-time donors? Have some donors or visitors given in this way more than once? Might there be a creative way to approach these donors for support? How often does the church express gratitude?
- When people “go missing” from church for a time, does anyone know, and with whom is the information shared? How do you muster the will to follow up, even in the face of anxiety over potential criticism?