Closing the Back Door

Closing the Back Door
By C. Wayne Zunkel

Some denominational executives awhile back got the idea of raising their benevolence budgets by suggesting (or assessing) per member amounts. For every member, congregations would give so many dollars for the denomination, so many for the judicatory, so many for camps and colleges and seminaries and retirement homes.

Some congregations, to beat the game, immediately looked for inactive members to prune from the rolls, so that outreach obligations would not be so burdensome. Some larger congregations would think nothing of writing off several hundred inactive members in one fell swoop.

Actually, all churches have members who go through periods of inactivity or loss of interest.

For the small church, this can be disastrous. The loss of one or two families through discouragement or disagreement can put the entire operation in a tailspin.

We tend to blame the inactives for their condition. Their ardor has cooled. We pray for them, preach against them, even visit them often with little return for our heroic effort.

It may come as a surprise to realize in the Parable of the Coin in Luke 15, the coin was lost not through its own neglect but because of the woman’s. I have found the piece which I had lost, she announced (vs. 9).

A former United Methodist pastor, John (Tim) Savage, insists that a high percentage of our inactives are reclaimable, many with one visit. The Disciples of Christ have used him widely in workshops under the title Reunion. His L.E.A.D. consultants have much to teach us.

Savage, enriched by theological training, his own pastoral experience, and considerable psychological background, has some important things to tell us.

Anxiety-Provoking Events

One is his discovery that 95 percent of all inactives started down the road of inactivity because of an anxiety-provoking event. Something happened to jolt them or hurt them or turn them away.

He lists the causes as: (1) pastor, (2) church member, (3) family member, or (4) overwork.

His studies used to show that the pastor was the usual culprit. More studies have revealed that the underlying causes are often directly related to interaction with another family member. Sometimes a husband and wife have tensions going. Sometimes one will use the church either by excessive activity or by inactivity to get at the other.

Others are just plain tired out. Church has demanded too much for too long. They turn away for some breathing space.

One woman said to me, You pastors can change churches when you get tired and discouraged. I’ve been in this one for 20 years. I think I need some change.

Savage lists four kinds of events that can cause a person to become inactive: (1) reality, (2) moral, (3) neurotic, and (4) existential.

Some shattering events are rooted in reality. A church school teacher is not asked to continue. The pastor is overheard to say, We don’t need any more of that, referring to the best effort of a faithful member. Toes are stepped on, fur rubbed the wrong way, people offended.

Sometimes the problem is moral. Presbyterians still remember Angela Davis. Episcopalians feel themselves being torn apart over the debate to ordain admitted homosexuals. The Vietnam War, abortion, civil rights: many are the moral issues that have caused members to question their continued participation in a congregation if they find themselves at odds with the denomination or pastor, church school teacher or congregation.

Tim Savage tells of a sermon that was strong against abortion. In the weeks that followed, a leading family in that church began to attend less frequently. Eventually they dropped out altogether.

The pastor went to visit them and expressed concern at their absence. Their response was noncommittal. Church just didn’t mean as much anymore, they said. Some of their former interest wasn’t there just now. Maybe they needed a break from things.

Unknown to the pastor, the family’s teenage daughter had become pregnant. In the stress and hurt of that event, the family, without talking to anyone else, had decided the best course was an abortion. The pastor was simply fulfilling his obligation to preach the Word of God as he understood it. But in so doing, a hurting family felt shut off. They also felt too hurt, too ashamed even to talk to him about it.

Every great moral issue is a great moral issue because people are divided in their views about it. If they were not divided, it would not be an issue. And confronted with every such issue, pastors feel two claims: first, to faithfully preach the will of God as they best understand it, and, secondly, to pastor hurting, uncertain people at the same time.

During the Vietnam War, how could a minister who felt it was immoral speak against it with force when seated in his congregation were the families and friends of soldiers dying in that war?

There is no easy answer. We need great courage and great compassion, both in large doses, at the same time.

Sometimes the anxiety-provoking incident, on the other hand, has nothing to do with moral issues. It is simply neurotic in nature. How many times have people thundered at me, My wife was in the hospital for three weeks and you didn’t go and visit her!

And I respond, I didn’t know your wife was in the hospital. No one told me.

And the person responds, You’re our pastor. It’s your business to know.

That is neurotic.

Even in church, people imagine hurts and slights that to them are very real but are not rooted in reality.

A fourth reason is existential. We’re growing older, for example. We realize we don’t have forever. Some react by wanting to throw off every vestige of the past and be free, totally free, to do their own thing, to make of life what they can while life lasts.

John Savage has also helped in this area by out lining a dropout track. Basically he is saying that after every anxiety-provoking event there is often anger. We’ve all had this. Something goes wrong; someone says something wrong; sometimes we mess up.

I remember one time before a packed college church more than 600 people when I had memorized a poem to use as the closing prayer. I planned to deliver it down front without any notes. Some critical people were there, and I wanted that service to be as near perfect as possible. It went well up to the end. But in those closing, dramatic moments, I could not for the life of me remember a word of that poem. I felt like an utter fool as I muttered some meaningless sentences impromptu.

If just one person you respect cares enough to say, It’s sure good to know that you’re human, too, it can make all the difference in the world.

Often when we feel angry, hurt, cut off, a simple thing like a smile, a wink, a warm hand on the shoulder, or some small expression of caring can take away the sting. Suddenly the anxiety-provoking event is back in perspective, and we are ready to put it aside and go on.

But if there is no such warmth or awareness, we may tuck our anger inside, where it sticks in us and begins to fester.

After-church fellowship times are good opportunities to observe people. A sensitive congregation will notice if Bill is not smiling today, if Sarah has wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, if the Joneses rush off, if the Franklin family has been absent for two weeks in a row.

If the hurt is not seen and resolved, a change is likely to be seen in giving patterns and attendance patterns. Whereas a family may have been present three Sundays out of four, that may drop to two Sundays out of four, or one Sunday out of four. Then they are not there at all.

Turtles and Skunks

Savage says all of us are either turtles or skunks. Turtles tend to take the blame on themselves, to express the feeling that they are no good or in adequate. It’s all my fault. I’m just not a good teacher.

Skunks tend to spray their anger all over everyone else. What’s the matter with them? They’re a bunch of blockheads. If that pastor had half a brain, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

And the observation is that among studies of inactive church members, in almost every instance, turtles are married to skunks. You might check that out among your married friends.

Sealing Off the Church

As the anger settles in, behavior changes. People are unable to speak very clearly about what they believe.

They drop out. And most inactives go through a period of six to eight weeks of waiting. They are holding back to see if any one will phone them or visit them.

I talked with a church secretary heavily involved in her church. Her entire family is deeply dedicated. They went on a six-week vacation. There had been no anxiety-provoking event for them. They had simply been away on extended travels. But when they returned, not one person at the church said, We missed you or Where were you? This lifelong member of the denomination the church secretary, no less said she felt like never going back if no one cared for them any more than that.

How much more do the hurting people who have dropped out eagerly wait to see if anyone cares? A caring church will not let anyone be away without noticing their absence and seeing that someone is at their home to visit.

Sometimes we know they are hurting but hold back. One couple fairly new to our church came regularly. He was Roman Catholic and still attended mass at times. One Sunday she was in church by herself and said they had separated. I made a few attempts to phone him but never got through. I stopped by a few evenings at suppertime, several times later in the evening, hoping I might find him. Yet I did not go at it as if it had been one of my own immediate family. Why?

The truth is, we all hurt. We all carry pain. And most of us have enough pain of our own without wanting to take on the pain and hurt of others.

Tragedy comes into other lives, and unless people are very close to us, we feel for them, we genuinely hurt for them, but we do not relish the thought of going to them and letting them pour out their hurt to us. It seems almost more than we can bear.

So the wife, who had the courage to keep coming, still comes to our church. The husband, whom none of us cared about deeply enough to persist in our efforts to risk sharing his pain, went back to his Catholic church.

With most dropouts there is a waiting period of six to eight weeks. If there is no response from the church, at the end of that period they seal off the church emotionally and begin to reinvest their lives in other ways.

It may be in another church. But at least half the time it is in some other activity. They begin to devote the time and money they had given to the church to a cabin or a camper. Or they become active in a lodge or club. They take up some new hobby that consumes them.

They do not simply stay home and sulk. Their lives are given over to something else.

Dropping inactive members from the rolls, how ever gently, is probably the worst thing we can do if we ever hope to see them in church again.

One extremely active man in a church I served shared, during a discussion about dropping inactives, how there had been a period when things in his life had not been going well. His business was in trouble, his marriage was shaky, and he dropped out of church completely. He said that if the church had dropped him at that time, he never would have come back. But people were patient and loving, and one day he realized what he was missing. At a receptive period in his life, he returned.

That story could be told by many people.

The Washington state study of small congregations suggested that the inactive list is the least profitable place to recruit. It suggested that congregations trade inactive lists! Inactives have emotional entanglements that make it difficult to work back to a warm, involved relationship with their former congregation, that study suggested. That is one answer.

Listening Skills

John Savage suggests a better answer: the development of listening skills among a core group in your congregation, helping members to be able to really hear what people are saying.

The development of these skills requires a work shop experience. They need to be understood and practiced and refined.

Some of the things Savage works at include:

Recognizing screening the ways we shut others out. A woman with important ties to the community began to attend a church and to sing in the choir. Some felt she did not have the best voice, to put it mildly. You could actually see choir members who sat next to her turning their backs to her.

As you survey fellowship activities, you can see new people, eager to be welcomed, making their rounds of the little groups of people talking. Stand and watch sometime, and see if they are taken into any of these groups. In some friendly churches, people are so deep into their own fellowships that they scarcely notice the newcomer. Does the person receive more than a Hello and What’s your name? and It’s so good to have you here?

A simple exercise is to have two or three people engage in conversation. Then take a forward person and tell him to try to get into the group discussion. Let everyone know that the task of the group is to keep him out, even if it means turning backs on him. He is not to be permitted to share in their discussion, no matter what.

People will laugh. But it may be a nervous laugh. For this happens many times.

Using lag time. We speak at the rate of 100 to 150 words a minute. But we can process about 400 to 500 words a minute. The time left over is called lag time.

Often as we talk, we are so intent on formulating what we want to say next that we scarcely hear what the other person is saying. A good listener uses that extra time, the lag time, to try to really hear. What is the person really saying?

Paraphrasing. An important tool is to make sure you understand by saying, Are you saying such and such? It is a simple device you can have your people practice one-on-one.

Checking perceptions. Along with this, it is helpful to make sure you are sensing feelings correctly. I have the impression this makes you very angry. If they say the pastor is a lazy bum, you may respond by saying, You seem to feel rejected because Pastor Jones has failed you in your time of need. Naming the emotions you sense in the other person can help that person and yourself.

Fogging. The Scriptures suggest that a soft answer turns away wrath. When someone hurls out an acid-filled comment, one way to respond is to listen carefully and then reply by giving back the truth of that statement.

The church school lesson today was terrible. Possible response: Frank didn’t seem very well prepared today.

The pastor hasn’t been to see us in over a year. He’s got to be the laziest pastor we’ve ever had.

Possible response: I agree, pastoral visitation on a regular basis is not one of his strongest points. The purpose is not to feed the anger but to dispel it by letting the person know you hear and understand.

We have done this with angry teenagers in our home, and it can work wonders. After a half-dozen times at fogging, they usually settle down and talk quite sensibly.

You never let us do anything.

Response: True, we are more strict than some parents.

Some parents! You wouldn’t even let us go to the party after the ball game. You aren’t too smart.

Response: We do have a lot to learn.

An awful lot.

Response: I agree, an awful lot.

You never try to feed in the correct information. You do not try to argue or set them straight. But neither do you add to misconceptions. You simply affirm the truth in whatever they say, if that is possible. Probably no other skill helps so much to diffuse anger.

Listening for stories. As we talk, we tell stories. Sometimes it is only a sentence. But it gives clues into the turmoil that may be in our hearts.

A person may say one thing with his words but quite another by the stories he tells. The first story often gives a clue to what subsequent stories will reveal.

A man I scarcely knew said to me, If I were going to hold up a supermarket, I wouldn’t wear a mask. I’d just go in. Short people would say I was tall. Tall people would say I was short.

Only later did I discover that some of the stories he told me gave clues into his own past and struggles.

Another man talked glowingly of what Jesus had done in his life. He was a dry alcoholic. His wife, a devoted Christian, had helped him turn things around. He recounted the warmth and security there. But as he talked, he mentioned at one point that he would never forgive himself if anything happened to his wife or child. There were repeated images of violence in what he said. Later I suggested to a psychologist who had also heard the mans stories, It sounds as though he is struggling with uncontrollable anger in his life, an anger that frightens him. The psychologist agreed.

More of us need to enter this wonderful world of listening. Since sharing in one of Savage’s work shops, I have flown on planes across the country and by simply hearing well what seatmates were saying, they have commented, I’ve told you things today I have never told anyone.

Sometimes, after sharing deeply, a person may feel ashamed. If he has said more than he intended, you may need to reassure him that everything is still okay. And you must never share his confidence with anyone.

As We Visit

When we go to visit someone who has dropped out, or when we relate to someone hurting, there are at least two temptations. One is to take literally what they say. A person may say, I hate them; I hate them all. What he means may be, Doesn’t anyone there care about me?

The other is to try immediately to solve problems. Someone says the choir director picks the wrong anthems. Immediately we suggest that he go talk to the choir director. Chances are that is not the real problem at all.

Every hurting person must be allowed to talk long enough to feel confident that he can talk freely to us and we will listen. He must also feel that he can trust us with what he says.

Congregations that want to close the back door would do well to share in a workshop on inactives. Short of that, they can gain exposure to listening skills from others who work at that. Parent Effectiveness Training stresses the same thing with regard to parent-child relationships. But the skills apply universally.

Concluding the Visit

Critical to every visit to inactives is being able to bring it to a successful conclusion. Salespeople call this closure. We will look further at techniques for closure in chapter 10 as we talk about sharing our faith.

Savage suggests six types of closure with inactives:

1. Negotiate with them to return.

2. Negotiate a second or third visit. This is often necessary if they have been away very long.

3. Negotiate termination. This is the last resort. Savage suggests you drop someone from membership only after four, five, six, or seven calls.

4. No movement. They may indicate they want to remain members but are not ready or able to move in any direction right now.

5. Transfer letters to another congregation.

6. Referral to another professional.

The most important thing you bring to this experience are your own feelings of love. Ninety percent of the people visited, insists Savage, are quite negotiable when they have a caring person with them.

Here are some specific questions that are helpful for closure with inactives. These come only after much listening.

What would be most helpful now?

Help me understand your expectations of the church.

What needs to be different?

What are the feelings you think you will have if you walk up the sidewalk of the church?

One of the most frequent excuses for inactivity is, I was forced to go to church as a child.

Savage suggests the following kind of response:

Sounds like that’s a commandment your folks laid on you. How long have you been breaking that commandment? Following their answer, Seems like you’ve broken it long enough to lay off it. Or, How long do you need to break it to feel liberated?

Help the people find their own way through their hesitation and resistance.

The most successful closures are when the inactives themselves suggest a solution. You are miles ahead if they can be given time and encouragement to suggest their own way back.

Plenty of patience, active listening, and genuine caring can work miracles.

The Initial Contract

But the best way to minimize inactivity among our church members is at the point when people first enter the church, long before any anxiety-provoking event occurs. With what understandings do they come? With what kind of contract?

Near the end of every inquirers class, I ask prospective members to write on one side of a piece of paper what they want and expect from the church. On the other side I have them write what the church can expect from them. We talk about their answers.

Some people come in saying they want to be a part of a church where there is no fighting, no disagreements. I need to say, That won’t be true here. We do disagree. Sometimes strongly. I hope we disagree in a helpful, not a destructive way.

All Long-Term Relationships

It is helpful to know that all long-term relation ships go through certain phases. These are predictable. And there is no way to stop them. Whether marriage or job or church, some predictable things happen.

Gathering data and developing expectations is the first phase of every long-term relationship. The young man and young woman date, get to know each other. The potential employee is interviewed, and the two sides ask each other many questions. The would-be member may attend a series of classes, or sit with a pastor, or question a friend for hours about what is involved.

Then comes commitment. Marriage. Signing the job contract. Being received into the membership of the church.

A period of stability and productivity follows. The honeymoon. Dedicated service at the job. Committed activity in a church.

But, because of the very nature of life, hard things come. The wife says, When you said you wanted children, I had no idea you meant seven. Or the husband says, Why is this house always a mess?

Disruption is a part of any long-term relationship. It comes to us all.

And the possibilities that follow are:
1. Termination
2. Return to the initial commitment
3. Renegotiation

Many in our world move easily toward termination. At many jobs, the turnover rate is very high. People would rather move on than struggle to make the necessary adjustments. Divorce is increasingly common. And many unhappy church people say, Hey, why fight it? I’ll go to a church where I can slip in and attend without all this hassle.

Some, perhaps painfully and reluctantly, go the route of recommitment. I was wrong. Or, I wasn’t wrong, but it means enough that I will go back to what I promised and suffer through.

But by far the most positive response is renegotiation. Healthy groups are always in the process of renegotiation. Healthy relationships are formed knowing that along the way we change and situations change and new understandings will need to be arrived at. The wife is working full-time now, so the husband agrees to get the evening meal and help with the cleaning. The job has grown so much that the worker agrees to work some overtime for the next few weeks while a new person can be hired and trained. The church member who is bone-tired is granted a leave from all pestering to take on jobs. He or she agrees to come regularly but is on a sabbatical from tasks.

I know a young Protestant woman married to a Roman Catholic. Their contract with their pastor was that they each wanted to share in the others religion. They would be absent from her church for some blocks of time to fulfill their obligations to the husbands faith. They would each take some responsibilities, but not as many as if both belonged there. They expected to be able to give themselves fully in the time available. They expected to be able to do this without being pressured into some other pattern.

Healthy churches know that disruptions come in all long-term relationships and build into their program opportunities for personal renegotiation.

Folding New Members

Win Am has said that within one year every new member is one of three things. He or she is either (1) a member of some group, or (2) serving on some board or committee, or (3) he has become inactive.

A United Church of Christ pastor friend shared six steps for folding new members into the life of the church. Following these six steps can do much to diminish inactivity.

1. Within 24 hours: the lay leader of the congregation visits the newly received member, welcoming him and taking an interest and talent inventory.

2. Within one week: the new members sponsors call. These sponsors stay with him for six months. If he is not in church, they call to discover why.

3. Within one month, the new member participates in some work or fellowship activity. Pictures of all new families with their names are posted on the bulletin board.

4. Within three months: a stewardship team calls to receive his financial pledge.

5. Within six months: the new member is named to some board or committee in the church.

6. After six months: the individual or couple becomes sponsors for another new person or family.

A booming church not far from where I live hired a super minister of visitation evangelism. He was the kind of fellow who could spend an hour or so in a home and, by the time he left, have the people committed to joining the church he represented. Every Sunday new members paraded up front. In two years he alone brought in 420 members.

But a year later the church had lost as many members.

What does it profit a church that has a wide-open front door and takes in many members, if the back door is open even wider, and the new members gained are soon lost?

A congregation serious about growing learns how to close its back door.

Teaching Helps for Chapter 7

Before the class session:

Have seating that can be moved into small clusters.

Prepare these overhead transparencies: Savages Dropout Track and All Long-Term Relationships.

Suggested Lesson Plan

1. In your own words, present or review together John Savages Dropout Track using the over head. Share examples of the four kinds of anxiety- provoking events: reality, moral, neurotic, and existential. Have any of them been true in your congregation?

2. Practice some of the listening skills.

Screening. Use the exercise suggested in the text, where two or three people engage in conversation while someone attempts to break into the group, but the others will not allow that.

Lag time and paraphrase. Divide the group into pairs. Have one person say not more than five sentences about something he cares about. Ask the other person to repeat what he heard the first person saying. The first person is to check to make certain that all that was said is there. Then reverse the process: not more than five sentences, followed by repeating. Give each person four or five times to talk and then four or five to respond. (This is a helpful exercise for husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, employer and employee, etc.)

Perception check. This is fun to practice. Let a couple do it. Let one share some genuine problem, and let the other respond by noting the feelings expressed. Let them work at it for five minutes or as long as it is going well. Talk about what has happened after they are finished.

Then try it one-on-one throughout the whole group.

Fogging. Use three people: one to express genuine anger, a second to repeat back the truth of what is said, and a third to observe. Give them three minutes. Then let the observer stop and evaluate what has happened. Change roles so each person in the trio does each thing.

Storytelling. Combine groups of three into groups of six, with chairs in a circle. Let one person talk about some important area of life. Listen for stories, descriptive words, phrases. Are stories being told about hurt, hope, fears, faith?

Using all the skills. In groups of six, let one person share thoughts in an area he cares deeply about. Assign one person to listen and respond, using all of the above skills. Let the others in the group observe. After ten minutes, let the observers share what they saw happening. How well did the listener pick up on clues? Were significant things said that the listener missed?

Then let another person talk and another listen, until all have participated.

3. Look together at the All Long-Term Relationships transparency. Where could your congregation strengthen its relationship to members? Where is it weak?

At the point of entrance?

At the point of dedication not using it adequately?

At the point of hurt?

At the point of being able to renegotiate?

How would you feel about having your name dropped from your family roll if you had not attended the family reunion for two years?

What do you expect from the church? What can the church expect from you? List these answers on the opposite sides of a plain piece of paper. Collect. Read them to group after shuffling.

Looking at Ams analysis of new members, list new members in your church in the last year. Are new members in category 1, 2, or 3? Does your church assign sponsors?

Talk about where and how your congregation might strengthen its life together. Are there persons willing and qualified to work at a ministry to inactives? It is difficult, demanding work. They will need to visit after a person has been away for no more than four weeks. They need to come together for assignments, sharing, mutual strengthening.

Check with your denomination or contact L.E.A.D. Associates directly to learn of a workshop in your area. Have as many people as possible, including the pastor, participate. The church may want to pay part, the participants part.

4. Look together at the six steps for folding new members into the life of the church. Is that usable for your congregation? How might you adapt it to your needs?

5. Ask everyone to write a note to one of your new members now! Take five minutes. Tell the new member how much you appreciate his role in church life and ask how you can assist growth.

6. Share successes and failures in working with your prospects. Continue to update the group on ideas implemented in the congregation.

7. Look at Luke 15: 8-32 together. Talk about the elements in each story. What do they say about lostness, about turning again, about receiving back?

Do we make it difficult for people who have been away to come back? Will it be difficult to walk through those doors again? What kind of greeting do they get?

8. In your closing prayers, name some members who need the church but are separated from it Ask for guidance, love, understanding, and above all, the gift of listening.

Excerpted from Growing The Small Church A Guide For Church Leaders
By C. Wayne Zunkel

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.