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Rachel G. Hackenberg

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Letting You Leave Church

Posted: 06/06/2012 8:18 am

Dear Christians, both wounded and worried, leaders and laity, trend-watchers, naysayers, pastors, and all who pray for the Church's health and behavior to improve...

Departure is a sensitive and greatly feared concern in Christian congregations and denominations. Churches and pastors don't want their parishioners to leave. Denominations fret when churches threaten departure. Across the Church, we view departure as an indicator of division or a foreshadowing of demise.

Leaving the Church (capital "C" = whole Christian community, across doctrines and denominations) is getting a lot of attention these days, for a multitude of reasons and from a plethora of perspectives. There are defrocked clergy leaving the Church belatedly for crimes of abuse. There are suddenly disbelieving clergy as well as gifted but burned out clergy leaving the Church. There are Christians who have left the Church in search of spirituality over "organized religion" (in fact, a false contraposition). There are those who have left the Church in disgust, in pain, in dispute, in hunger for genuine relationships and spiritual growth. Some people part well, leaving their congregations for geographical moves or for a new path in their spiritual journeys. Too many leave with a bad taste in their spirits.

There are revolving door mega-churches, which excel in growth but struggle to sustain community. There are churches in denominations like mine (the United Church of Christ) that leave the denominational body in disagreement over the affirmation of same-gender relationships and marriages. There are churches that leave their denominations to join the United Church of Christ in order to affirm gay marriage. There are churches who go out fighting their denominations over buildings and endowments, just as there are parishioners who go out fighting their churches over buildings and endowments.

There's the departure of 20/30-somethings from the Church, a much-lamented trend into which thousands (if not millions) of dollars are poured for one-workshop solutions. And there's the departure of LGBTQIA Christians, whose experiences in churches too often range from nonacceptance to condemnation.

As statistics continue to reveal the Church's numerical decline, the impulse of congregations and denominations is to resist, to fear, to fight against membership losses. For the sake of survival, we plead: "Don't leave."

I prefer to say, "Blessings as you go!"

It's dicey to say, hard to hear and runs the risk of sounding flippant, yet I see it as a necessary act of truth-telling for the sake of the Church: "Blessings as you go." If you're not being spiritually fed within this church's walls, please, be blessed as you seek another faith community to encourage you. If you have been hurt or scorned or disenfranchised by a church leader, pastor or congregation in your life, please, leave to find the safe space needed for healing; I certainly hope that someday you will participate in a non-injuring faith community, but I affirm your need to leave the Church at this time. If your congregation can only relate to your denomination with animosity or apathy, be blessed as a faith community to spend time in discernment about your wider church affiliations.

If you struggle to relate to your faith community with grace instead of ultimatums, unable to pursue your own and the congregation's growth without also seeking power, please, for the sake of the Church's health, let me bless you as you leave. If the color of the carpet is pivotal to your experience of God (a logistical issue which, when debated ad nauseam, becomes precisely one of those reasons why people dislike organized religion), please know that I will affirm your choice to leave in protest over the carpet color.

If your congregation -- seeking to be all things to all people -- has associated itself with and over-committed itself to every other non-profit organization in the community, without investing in personal relationships or shared labor, consider the possible blessing of departing gently from those associations that lack mutual purpose and participation. Within the past year, for example, the small suburban congregation that I pastor parted ways with its sponsored Boy Scout Troop and Cub Scout Pack, due to the congregation's support of the LGBTQIA community and the BSA's continued exclusion of gay leaders. Some parishioners asked if the separation contradicted the congregation's aspiration to "welcome all," hinting again at our collective suspicion that all leaving is negative.

Yet every departure is a pruning of identity for both parties as they go their separate ways. Every moment of leaving -- each choice to cling or to cleave -- shapes and challenges us to be intentional about our affiliations. Let the Boy Scouts grapple with the implications of their organization's exclusion and with their willingness to be supported by anti-gay faith communities; and let our local congregation consider how far it is willing to go to affirm the lives of LGBTQIA persons. Let churches invest their energies in actively conversing with their denominational doctrines and positions, rather than impassively avoiding issues of contention, so that identities and theologies are honed -- not to greater truth, but to improved purpose and vigor.

Let parishioners actively choose who they will be, what they believe and how they will behave in relation to their faith communities, rather than sitting in dispirited acceptance in the pews. And if who you are and what you believe and how you behave does not find space "to be" in your faith community, for reasons healthy or ill (because not every congregation welcomes all people, and not all people know how to behave in congregational community), then be blessed as you hone and affirm your identity by departing.

Let parishioners who need space for healing leave to restore their sense of self and spirit. Let the congregations they are leaving carefully consider why and how they did not offer safe space to those parishioners. Let congregations study their lack of relevance to missing generations, not for a quick fix, but for a honing of ministry and clarification of community. If congregations are gifted in ministry to the older generations, let them not lament the absence of young families but welcome in the aging Boomer population. Let clergy who have lost faith and clergy who cannot be trusted and clergy who are tired and clergy who don't know how to leave leave, for the sake of the health of the Church.

With every leaving, let the Church reexamine its purpose and hone in its identity. As my colleague Tripp Hudgins wrote recently, "disillusionment is good for us." Clarity of purpose and intentionality in identity will shape our congregations, our denominations and the whole Church to be ultimately a healthy source of spiritual growth and community formation -- or to be an ever-widening black hole of theological distortion and self-injury. Then, at last, we will see if the Church is on the verge of dying or ready to overflow with new life.

 
 
 

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