Recently, I read a post which indicated that actress Charlize Theron ended her relationship with actor Sean Penn by “ghosting” him. The article defined “ghosting” as “ending a relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.”
According to a YouGov/Huffington Post survey, approximately 11 percent of Americans have ghosted their significant other when ending a relationship. Thirteen percent said they have been ghosted a partner intending to break up with them.
But doesn’t this disappearing act happen in our churches as well? How often do people explicitly tell the pastor they’re breaking up with the church and moving on with their lives? How many congregants just disappear without giving indication why they are leaving the church?
Each week for months, a family or couple visits the church, slowly getting involved in activities, and telling you how much they enjoy being a part of the congregation. Whether we are church leaders or fellow congregants, we’re ecstatic our new friends feel so comfortable in our church.
Then, suddenly, POOF, they’re gone! One Sunday, they’re absent from worship. And then they’re missing for the following two weeks. A tinge of concern emerges in our minds. We send an email to them and hear no response. We try to call them and only reach their voice mail. Our attempt at contacting them fails. They never attend another worship service or church activity.
We continue to keep our absent friends on the broadcast e-mail and newsletter lists. It’s possible we are in denial that they have moved on. They are still part of our church. Some of these parishioners were even baptized or formally joined the congregation. How could they just disappear without another word?
And then one day, we finally reach acceptance: we have been ghosted by these parishioners. They aren’t coming back.
Questions begin to swirl around in our heads. Was it something I’ve done? Were they offended by my last sermon? What wasn’t good enough about our church/worship service/fellowship activities/youth program that urged them just to fall away from us? We blame ourselves for their disappearance and wonder what we could have done differently to keep them.
In reality, sometimes it’s God’s call for people to move to another church. Each of us has different gifts, and maybe another church needs them more than we do. Also, some churches have gifts and passions that meet our former congregant’s specific needs.
Every church cannot be all things to all people.
Yet, people forget the value and necessity of closure. Sure, it’s tough to come face-to-face with another person and offer rejection. No one likes to give or receive rejection at any point for any reason. That is why ghosting is easy: the uncomfortable conversation or email never has to take place.
To those who are thinking about ghosting their current church in order to find a church that better suits them: break up with us.
Call us or send an email alerting us that you won’t be returning. Kindly tell us why you are moving on with your spiritual lives. We are just fine hearing the causes for your departure. In fact, your feedback and constructive criticisms may help us become a stronger church or pastor. Your reasons may also give us peace of mind that it wasn’t an error on our part. The church, the pastor, and the congregants wishing to leave will grow from the experiences of these honest conversations.
God’s grace is always present in the parting process. We all make mistakes along the way, whether we are clergy or congregants. God will aid us in healing from errors caused by ourselves and others. New opportunities and hope are around the corner, even after a painful breakup of any sort.
Breaking up is hard to do, whether it’s with a significant other, friend, or church. Yet embracing closure in a more direct way will help all parties involve move into the future with grace.
Rev. Michelle L. Torigian is the pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to ministry, Torigian worked in fundraising and marketing for nonprofits as her previous career. She graduated from Eden Theological Seminary in 2010. Torigian is the author of a number of articles on the Huffington Post Religion page including “Between Childless and Childfree,” a reflection for Mother’s Day. Recently, her essay “Always the Pastor, Never the Bride” was published in the book “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2015). Torigian regularly posts her musings on current events, justice issues, pop culture, and theology at www.michelletorigian.com.