Why did they leave? And where did they go?

In the late fall of 2011, Bishop David M. O’Connell, of Trenton, N.J., surveyed nearly 300 nonchurchgoing Catholics in his diocese asking some simple question: "Why did you leave?" and "Where did you go?"

While Episcopalians think of themselves as a logical alternative to Catholicism, a close read of what was said by these lapsed Catholics should be a sobering read for us. How much of this sounds familiar?

The survey was undertaken by the Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management via mail and e-mail using a series of open-ended questions.

America Magazine reports:

An overwhelming number of respondents told us they had left both their parish and the church. About a quarter said they had separated themselves from the parish, but still considered themselves to be Catholic. One respondent wrote: “I separated my family from the Catholic Church and turned to an alternate religion for a while and then returned knowing I had the right religion but the wrong people running it.” Several chose to specify that they separated themselves from “the hierarchy.”

A fair amount of ambivalence was exhibited in response to our question whether separation was a conscious decision or not. Relatively few indicated that they simply “drifted away.”

One 23-year-old female said, “I felt deceived and undervalued by the church. I didn’t understand certain things and found no mentors within the church. I just stopped going because my community of friends and family were no longer in the church.” Another woman wrote, “I tried different Catholic churches in the area because I just didn’t seem to be getting anything out of the Mass, especially the homily.” Another person said, “I stopped going regularly because the homilies were so empty. And whenever the church wanted to raise money, they dropped the homily and talked money.” There were many complaints about the quality of homilies as well as poor music at Mass.

The scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was mentioned often. “The bishop’s refusal to list pedophile priests on the diocesan Web site and his non-support of the effort to lift the statute of limitations for bringing sexual abuses cases forward in the courts” did it for me, said one man.

Okay. We know this from the former Roman Catholics who have come to the Episcopal Church. But look closely at what respondents said about what it would take to bring them back to Church. How would we fare on some of these same concerns? I wonder if we asked 300 lapsed or former Episcopalians, what would we discover about our welcome, the substance of our teaching, and the quality of our community life?

We also asked: “Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?” Respondents clearly welcomed the opportunity to express their opinions. We found no easily discernible trend in their replies, but their generally positive tone suggests the wisdom of finding ways for all Catholics to post their views somehow “on the record,” with an assurance that they will be heard. Here are just a few of the many replies this question drew:

“Be accepting of divorced and remarried congregants.”

“I’m looking for more spiritual guidance and a longer sermon.”

“Return to a more consultative and transparent approach.”

“Change the liberal-progressive political slant to a more conservative, work-ethic atmosphere.”

“Make the homilies more relevant; eliminate the extreme conservative haranguing.”

“Provide childcare and a children’s ministry.”

“Give us an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic priest/pastor.”

Our question about whether or not their pastor was “approachable or welcoming” drew a number of warm and positive answers. About half of the respondents, however, were not enthusiastically supportive of their pastors. Where pastors and parishes were named, we gave that information to the bishop and recommended that he deal with the issues privately and avoid unnecessary public embarrassment when he goes public with our report. Words like "arrogant,” “distant,” “aloof,” and “insensitive” appeared often enough to suggest that attention must be paid to evidence of “clericalism” in the diocese.

Most respondents were positive or neutral in response to our question about the approachability of parish staff. There were sufficient reports of bad experiences over the parish telephone, however, to suggest that attention should be paid to courtesy and improved “customer relations.”

By a margin of about two-to-one, respondents reported that they did at one time consider themselves to be part of a parish community. On the negative side, here are two interesting replies elicited by this question:

“As much as I wanted to get involved and expand my faith, there were no clear avenues to do that. So it was just a place to attend Mass. And because attending Mass was a guilt-ridden obligation, I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one and no one knew me.”

“I did not experience community in the sense that I knew people just from going to church. The ones I knew, I knew them outside of church. No one misses the fact that we stopped going. No one has called from the parish even though we were regular attendees and envelope users!”

Where'd they go?

The vast majority of respondents said no to our question about whether they considered themselves now to be members of another faith community. Those who do consider themselves affiliated with another church spanned a wide range, including Buddhist and Jewish on the fringe and Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian clustered in the middle.
Comments (4)

Related story of this study on CNN, with 7 reasons listed for the exodus.

I converted to the Episcopal Church from Roman Catholicism. My impression from my recollection of reading coverage of the Pew Foundation study is that the majority of Roman Catholics who convert to another church join evangelical or pentecostal churches.

I transferred my Catholicism to the Episcopal Church. I don't so much see it as conversion except that there are two bishops in St. Petersburg, FL and Dabney Smith is my bishop now.
I found the liturgical broohaahaa of the RCC to be a bit distasteful and felt more comfortable with the worship using the BCP. Then there's the politics. I'm not going to browbeat the RCC. Lets just say I found not only a spiritual home with TEC but an outlook that was refreshing, democratic, that actually cared what I thought and sought my participation. I saw the examples of Common Cathedral, NEAC, UTO, I could go on but I think the biggest difference was after I had been attending my parish for a few months I missed a Sunday, not sick just lazy. Monday morning my pastor was on the phone checking on me to be sure I was OK and not sick and in need of something. I knew I had come home.

The notion of clericalism and perceived aloofness is one that interests me. With all the concern in seminary today about maintaining appropriate boundaries and self-care (much of it warranted), there's also a risk of overcorrection, with even very caring clergy sometimes becoming more boundary than priest if they are not careful.

My question, particularly to clergy in our group: How do you know if you have the right level of engagement with your parishioners? What do you use as a barometer to gauge the health of your pastoral relationships?

Eric Bonetti

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