The email from Karen and Derrick had the subject line "Monday hello." While the actual body of the message felt like a cyber-punch to the stomach, I could not help but laugh at the subject line. If ever there was a Monday hello, this was it.
Karen and Derrick had come to our church from a nearby megachurch. During the Christmas holidays, they sent my wife and me a Christmas card extolling the many virtues of our church and how God, in his providence, had surely led them to us. I felt so encouraged. This well-adjusted young couple had chosen to be a part of what we were doing in Atlanta! They loved the size of the church, the welcoming community, and best of all, they loved the preaching (read: "they liked me").
The timing of this card was perfect. Our struggling church plant was navigating the Christmas holidays and attendance was down, more so than usual, because of the holidays. In the early days of our church plant, I cringed when an individual would open our worship gatherings with the prayer, "And, Lord, you say 'where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.'" It always felt like someone was patting me on the head after I came in last in the race. The presence of this new couple and their very encouraging words were, as Solomon said, "like honey."
Just two weeks after receiving that very encouraging Christmas card, I received my "Monday hello." It began with a warm greeting to me and my family, and wishes for a Happy New Year. Then they explained that they would not be coming back as they had begun attending a different, larger church about two miles away. This church had a great children's program and even supplied childcare during small group. They also knew and worked with many people who attended the other church.
I went through three stages of grief in a period of about three minutes; shock and disbelief, anger, and depression. Sarcasm welled up in me like a volcano.
Did God, in his providence, lead you to your new church? Do you like the size and the welcoming community of your new church? Happy New Year, my eye.
That's all that's suitable for print. That was a Monday hello all right.
I hit "reply," but I had no reply. The mix of anger, sadness, rejection, frustration, and bewilderment left me somewhere between paralysis and wanting to lash out—in a Christian way, of course.
Every pastor, at some point, receives a Monday hello. It stings, for a Monday hello is, on one level, a rejection. You can put a positive spin on it and spiritualize it, but it will not change the fact that someone became a part of the church you pastor and left the church you pastor, rejecting something in which you have invested blood, sweat, and tears.
Maybe more painful than the Monday hello is the fact that many people will send no Monday hello. They will simply disappear and all efforts to contact them will be fruitless and the only thing they will leave, aside from your church, is questions:
Are they okay?
Did I offend them?
Did someone in the church offend them?
Are they attending another church?
Are they mad at me? At God?
Have they moved away?
Growing in our ability to respond to Monday hellos and disappearing acts is important for the same reason we need to grow in resolving conflict in a marriage. Both are inevitable. How can I respond in a way that honors God, demonstrates concern, respects the person's decision to leave, and allows me to move on in a healthy way?
Do not respond right away
The first step is counter-intuitive. Do not respond. At least not right away. Rare is the person who can respond adroitly when the wound is fresh. The temptation to deliver a few subtle jabs is almost irresistible. ("So glad you've found a church that's more convenient and meets your needs, which, after all, is what the church is really all about.")
You will convince yourself that this response will bring a measure of satisfaction. Perhaps it will even cause the offending party to experience some well-deserved shame. Feelings of anger, hurt, and frustration are normal, but, as the saying goes, "Hurt people hurt people." Take your hands off the keyboard, step away from the phone, and take some time to allow the intensity of the moment to dissipate.
Take a lesson from Moses, Jeremiah, David and a few other heroes of the faith. Complain! To God! In the Book of Psalms, the lament psalms are the most numerous. God can handle it. Bring your anger, hurt, and bewilderment to him. When you have sufficiently aired your lament, ask him for healing and ask for wisdom from the One who "gives generously to all without finding fault."
I have also found it helpful to have a couple of pastors in my life with whom I can safely vent. Ideally these individuals are standing far enough away from the situation that they can offer both comfort and, if we are ready to receive it, an opportunity to help us process the departure.
Some people leave with no explanation, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to ascertain what their reasons might have been. On the other hand, some may give some indication but not a complete reason for their departure. Without giving into morbid introspection, try to find the nugget of truth in their comment.
After the "Monday hello," I began to talk to my leadership team about the possibility of creating one small group with childcare available. We did, and this was a welcomed addition to the small group life of our church. Several couples began to participate in small groups who had not previously been connected. Not all purported shortcomings can be addressed. Some are unjustified and some are simply not possible. Our church has a saying: "Act our age." We do those kingdom-minded things that we are able to do based on our size, gifts, and resources. We cannot be all things to all people.
FTF, phone, or email
Deciding how to connect with someone who has left your church is a fairly subjective decision that should take into account the circumstances of the departure and the willingness of the other party to connect. Unfortunately, our understandable disdain for confrontation is often the deciding factor and will take us down the path of least resistance.
The two most common paths of least resistance are (a) ignoring the situation and (b) avoiding a difficult conversation by simply sending an email. Generally speaking, sensitive conversations should occur face to face. Face to face conversations limit the possibility of misunderstandings and allow for the nuances of facial expression and inflection. It's more personal. If the individual or individuals are open to having a face to face meeting, a "third space" such as a coffee shop, will diminish feelings of awkwardness. Phone conversations are second best, but still a good alternative.
Some individuals simply want to move on and avoid a conversation of any kind. If that is the case, a kind email may be the only option. This was the case with my Monday hello.ÊMy offer to meet or talk by phone met with a polite decline. They were very comfortable communicating via email however, and stay in touch to this day.
Respect, inquire, love
When the wound is not so fresh, a response to the dearly departed may be in order. I believe the best response is characterized by respect, inquiry, and love. Let them know that you love them and will miss them. Point to any positive contribution and thank them for it. Let your words demonstrate that you respect their decision to leave. Asking them to reconsider their decision will likely be unfruitful and will deny you the opportunity to collect some valuable fruit of a different kind. Invite them to share any insights that would help you to be a better pastor and your church to be a better church. For example:
Karen and Derrick,
I would be less than honest if I said I will not miss you both. Debbie and I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know you, and I enjoyed working with both of you at Compassion Atlanta. I want Veritas to grow as a welcoming, kingdom-minded church, and I would be most grateful for any thoughts you might have about what we're doing right and where there might be opportunities for improvement. I'm praying for you both as this New Year begins.
Both responded by email thanking me for my response and offering many encouraging words. They reiterated their need for childcare during small groups. One unexpected result of this email was the lowering of the awkward quotient. We still cross paths occasionally. When I see Karen or Derrick in the grocery store, we greet one another as friends rather than ducking into another aisle. Our conversations are genuinely friendly.
Finally, pray that God will give you the ability to trust that he will lead people to your church that can best glorify him at your church. Trust that he will lead people away that can best glorify him elsewhere. Dale Galloway, one of my personal heroes of the faith, spoke to me as I was struggling through a Monday hello: "David, not to sound callous, but here's a truth you need to embrace: some will, some won't, so what?"
Some will love your church and stay for years. Some will visit a few times and leave. So what? The "so what" is not about indifference or apathy but embracing the fact that your church cannot be the church for everyone. To believe otherwise is to be crushed under the weight of rejection. There is at least one other sobering possibility worth considering. When an individual departs and leaves you with nothing but hurt and questions, it may be that the Lord was protecting you and your church. There are churches who have the special collection of gifts necessary to deal with certain personalities that would devastate your church.
Jesus said that he would build his church. Receive the good gifts he sends your way and bless those he sends away.
David Slagle is pastor of Veritas Church in Decatur, Georgia.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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