Bishop Dan on why former parishioners “Can’t Go Home Again”

The Rt. Rev. Dan Thomas Edwards, Bishop of Nevada, begins his recent blog post with three experiences of people returning to a parish they have been absent from. In all three cases, it’s the last time they go back:

When I consult with churches whose membership has declined, they often express little desire to attract new members. Instead they say they want to win back the “lapsed.” I generally warn them that the so-called “lapsed” are the least likely demographic group to resume regular attendance at the church they left.

There are various explanations for that statistic. It could be the ex-members have bad memories of the church. It could be the “been there, done that” attitude. But here’s another hypothesis:

Our gatekeepers know the people who used to worship with us, so they are better prepared with solid techniques to drive them away. A new person comes in the door. We don’t know him. It may take us awhile to find his vulnerabilities and drive him out. But the folks we know, we can kick out the door in a New York minute. Something else may be going on consciously. Maybe the church folks just don’t know good manners. Maybe there is some personal pathology at work – but it looks to me as if the church system that tries to keep everything the way it is, knows that to keep things stable you have to keep the outsiders outside – even the ones who used to be inside – maybe especially the ones who used to be inside.

Bishop Dan includes a list of suggestions on how “not to be a jerk” to people who come back on their own.

The list has been positively received by many, if the comments and Facebook are any indication. The one suggestion people seem to have the most problem with is the statement:

Do not say, “We have missed you

(Which the bishop repeats for emphasis.)

Bishop Dan also suggests that we do not let the people wander off unnoticed in the first place.

He concludes:

If we pay proper attention to our people, fewer of them will wander off. If we simply treat them with ordinary courtesy when they return, they are far more likely to stick with us.

All to often when relationship breaks down between the church and a member, a goodly share of the fault lies with the church. I suspect we know that, and I suspect that’s why we are so quick to blame the member.

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5 Comments
  1. Meg Decker

    Bishop Dan’s examples are awful, and his advice is great, but I have a question: Do we always have to be so mean to our church members? Are we really sure that their motives are so evil and destructive of the church? Might they not be well-meaning, if lacking in empathy, and if so, might we teach them in love? It is so popular right now to bash Christians as arrogant, abusive and generally ill-intentioned. It would be nice if church leaders didn’t join in the bashing. What if we in church leadership acted like we loved the members we have, even when they mess up? Might that help our image?

  2. Jim Naughton

    I don’t have any real objections to what the bishop has to say. He’s right about our preference for stability over growth, and I appreciate his pointing that out, but I worry a little that people might think our problems will be solved if we can impress upon people to behave themselves in greeting strangers and returning parishioners. I don’t think that accounts for more than a sliver of what ails us.

  3. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawllr4vbR4IJI

    Unfortunately, if it is the Gatekeepers, as the bishop notes, then intentions don’t have to be ill for them to be called to account. These examples, and my own experience, is that it is a sort of mindless insensitivity, largely engendered by our modern approach of business–model-church. If we are not stretching ourselves to be sensitive, attentive, and especially, especially thoughtful in that time we set aside in our worship spaces, then how can we expect to offer something that transforms the rest of our lives?

    – Mark Brunson

  4. Matthew Buterbaugh+

    I generally think that we should just move on to a new era, and that’s why we don’t need to recover the old members. Having said that, I know of many many cases of lapsed people returning to church after a time. I have several in my own parish who came back after having been away.

  5. www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawllr4vbR4IJI

    And . . . there’s that business model, again.

    Get in the New Spring line. It’s the demographic that’s finicky, not us that failed.

    -Mark Brunson

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