What does it take for someone to leave a congregation of people they have loved and served alongside, often for decades? Why would they suddenly break away from close friends and lifetime traditions to wander into a lonely and uncertain future only to be accused of being selfish, bitter, or rebellious?
Except that it generally isn’t sudden at all, and not at all what they had hoped for. Yes, there came a time when they stopped attending, but none of “The Dones” I’ve met over the past twenty years left easily or suddenly. In fact most have wrestled with the decision for years in the face of some concern or unmet hunger. Initially they thought others around them would resonate with their passion, or be grateful if they identifie a problem that needed attention. To their shock, they found their repeated attempts to discuss their concerns or hopes fell on unsympathetic ears.
Try as they might to bring positive changes, they only meet resistance and eventually disrespect and frustration. “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Many give up trying to convince others, but their hunger continues to until sitting in the congregation becomes painful. After years of struggle they finally feel they have no other choice but to follow their hunger instead of quietly going along. As much as they want to stay with people they care so much about they find they can no longer participate in meetings that have become a detriment to their spiritual passions.
While the process is similar for most that I know, the reasons can be quite different. Recently I asked people on my Facebook page what it was that finally made it clear that they needed to leave their congregation. I got over a hundred responses from people that were consistent with the thousands of stories I have heard over the last two decades.
Forty-two percent said they were worn out by the machinery and the need to serve it. Some of that is burn-out from having to do more than they had time or energy for, but for most it means that the cost it exacted wasn’t worth the fruit it produced. Rarely does anyone say the congregation was all bad except in the most abusive cases. Mostly they say the demands of the congregation began to displace their passion for Jesus and that scared them.
Twenty-three percent said they no longer respected the leadership, either because they were dishonest, demanding or manipulative. This didn’t result from a bad confrontation or two, but a series of experiences that consistently eroded their trust and respect.
Twenty percent they simply hungered for more authentic relationships, feeling the ones they had were too superficial or governed by pat answers instead of people really getting to know them and wanting to walk alongside them in their joys and struggles.
Twelve percent wanted more of Jesus and his life than their congregation offered. The focus seemed to be on things other than helping people learn to experience the fullness of life in him.
Three percent reported no dissatisfaction at all, but simply felt led by the Spirit to move onto a different stage of their journey.
Of course my pool of respondents did not include those gave up on God when they gave up on their church. Many do, seeing the failures of their institutions or its leaders as proof that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, at least isn’t engaged with them. It’s a tragic legacy of systems that often do more to perpetuate programs than demonstrate Father’s affection.
But for every person that has left, be they pastor or parishioner, there are dozens more who are thinking about it and second-guess that decision every time they sit through another meeting that doesn’t address their deepest hungers. Many stay because of the relationships , others out of obligation no matter how painful it becomes. Actually they are “done” too, attending in body only and with decreasing frequency and it is only a matter of time before they stop as well.
Simply put, most of “The Dones” left because their spiritual passion could no longer be fulfilled where they were. So what may look like someone just walked out one day isn’t true. It is almost always a long, protracted process that even they resisted until they could do so no longer and still be true to the Spirit’s call inside them.
The process is hard on everyone. In the first few months many of those who leave are racked with guilt and second-guess their decision frequently especially if it is difficult to find others on the outside who share their hungers. And it’s hard on those they leave behind, who often feel rejected by those who leave. Harsh words and judgments are exchanged as each side seeks to convince themselves they are doing what’s right and want to convince the others for their own validation. Nothing will destroy friendships faster and lead to animosity and hurt that will spread throughout the community.
Those who have left are not your enemy. If they were your friends before, wouldn’t they still be your friend now even if you think are concerned for them? Wouldn’t loving each other be vastly more important than how we gather or don’t gather on a Sunday morning? Maybe if we were less threatened by their hunger we could celebrate their to find an environment more meaningful to their faith.
Certainly some who leave find their way back when they can’t find the community they are looking for. Most, however, after a year or two begin to find themselves connecting to others who share their hunger for more authentic and generous community in small groups or growing friendships without the need or expense of sustaining the machinery. They spend more time in conversations that nurture their faith and less time planning meetings and maintaining structures.
People who lose hope that the institutional model can provide a lifetime environment for community and growth may not be the death knell for the vitality of the church; maybe they are the hope that there’s more than one way the church takes expression in the world.
For more information on “The Dones”, read Dr. Josh Packard’s research into this phenomenon in his new book Church Refugees.