The un-churched and the de-churched

Fall at Tree Tops Lane

I should not have been surprised as a new pastor that there would be some parts of the job that I liked and found energizing, while there would be other parts that I did not.

True of any job, right?

From my earliest days of ministry, I have enjoyed meeting, getting to know, and working with new church members. They almost always show up with smiles and energy and, if I’m lucky, with little baggage.

We call them the un-churched, and under our careful leadership they get churched.

Early on I thought, “Well, this is my true calling. This is what God has uniquely gifted me to do. Billy Graham and me, and maybe one or two others!”

After a few years of ministry I should confess that the reason I like this part of the job is because it’s easy. People on the way in are always easier to work with than people on the way out.

The part of the job that I never liked, that I have found de-motivating, was working with the de-churched, people who for one reason or another were fed up with the church – sometimes just my church, but often with most churches.

I remember coming to a new church several years ago – a church that advertised itself as having 2000 members – and at my first board meeting a motion was made to remove hundreds of names from our active rolls (and hundreds more from our inactive rolls). It must have been one of the largest purges of membership rolls in the history of the church.

I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. And no else around the table seemed to blink an eye.

At first I stuttered and stammered. I wondered what had been done to contact these people. The chairperson of the membership committee looked wearily at me and said, “Would you like to call on a few of these people? I’m sure a few of them would be receptive to a visit.”

Here’s what I was thinking: Would I like to call on these people? No, I would not. Do you really think I would like fill up every free evening between now and Easter with a visit to people who are hurt, angry, turned off, fed up, or just plain sick of the church? No, I have better, happier things to do.

But here’s what I said: “Sure, give me a few names. And while you’re at it, pass the rest of the list around so that we can do this together.”

No one looked happy. I’m sure I didn’t either.

And at that point I decided that we should pray. I prayed that the holy Spirit would pour out on us that rare spiritual gift of being able to keep our mouths shut, while the people on our lists spoke to us from their hearts.

My thinking hasn’t changed much over the years about what is fun (and what is not) in my job. What has changed is the growing realization that to be a pastor – to be a shepherd – means finding the sheep who get lost along the way. It’s not fun, but it’s important.

(Photo: This one is definitely from deep in the archives. That’s where I lived when I served my church in Wheaton. Tree Tops Lane is the best street name I’ve ever known, though I don’t miss the leaf raking.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


2 Responses to The un-churched and the de-churched

  1. Cerena Fischer October 27, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

    This hit home! I was on a committe of 9 people that talked to the several hundred people that left First Presby over 3 years and then another couple hundred that left in the last two years and then the members that are “engaged”. We started in May and went before the session several weeks ago with our findings. Tough and lots and lots of prayers. The committee put a lot of work into it and we made sure the session heard the results. Now we can begin to growth again.

  2. Charles Scouten November 21, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    Amen to Cerena’s comments. And to yours about being easier to speak with people on the way in than with people on the way out. But, for me, hardest is to speak with friends who sound like they are sitting in the pew or staying on the membership rolls just because that’s what they have always done. This simply hurts.