Kenneth C. Haugk
Grouped in this chapter are questions about special situations that made it difficult for the, questioners to see how to proceed. Clearing up these questions now will enable you to deal with the practical aspects of later chapters without the distraction of ‘Yes, but what if..? ‘
Q. How do we reactivate burned-out members?
A. Basically, you don’t and you can’t. All you can do is help create an environment in which burned-out members may reactivate themselves. Listen to them, care for them, and love them. The very act of doing this will minister to these individuals at their point of greatest need. Assure them almost with the rigor of a formal covenant that you will not allow overextension to happen to them again. To the extent that you have control over the situation, protect them from future overuse and abuse.
Recognize the work they did, saying, ‘What you did was fantastic.’ Encourage them to say no to protect themselves, and offer yourself as coach and cheerleader to help. If they are burned out in the congregation to the point of becoming inactive, there is a good chance this characteristic is evident in the rest of their life as well. There may be courses in assertiveness training available that you can steer them to, or you can suggest they read a book that teaches them assertiveness from a Christian perspective, such as ‘Speaking the Truth in Love:’ ‘How to Be an Assertive Christian.’ By teaching them and equipping them in the arena of the church, you will be helping them in all the other arenas, too’family, work, and community.
Q. What do you do or say when a new member immediately becomes inactive? In such instances, when we’ve asked, the individuals have said they were just premature in joining. How do we bring them back?
Q. There are two types of inactive members as I see it: the previously active who drops out and the never-been-active. How do we reach out to those latter individuals?
A. You need to take a good, close look at your congregation and what it does or doesn’t do to assimilate new members. The individuals you describe have evidently never bonded with the congregation. This is good news because it represents a marvelous opportunity to do something about it. Assimilation is in your control to a great extent. Bonding takes place, as Lyle Schaller points out, because individuals already have a cluster of friends or relatives in the congregation, or because they get involved in a relationship-building group right away. Bonding can also take place when a new member takes on a role (elected to an office, for example) or a task that provides a sense of belonging and identity.
Bonding needs to take place quite soon after a member joins. Your congregation must establish mechanisms to be sure that everyone who joins has maximum opportunity for bonding quickly.
Q. Is there any hope at all for people who have been inactive for a long time?
A. What I hope comes through loud and clear is that there really is hope for everyone ‘ if only we will begin! To be sure, when an individual has been gone ‘a long time’- whether that means one year, or two, or ten’the expectation that he or she will return is considerably lessened. But never give up hope. Here is confirmation from another formerly inactive member:
Thank heaven Jesus didn’t come to Earth, size up us incorrigible human beings, and say, ‘It’s hopeless. There’s no sense in going to the cross for these creatures. It won’t make any difference.’ I pray we learn to be like our faithful Savior and not prejudge who is reachable and who is not. We must stop writing people off as hopeless.
It just might be that the congregation has never really reached out to the person in a personal way. Such a personal gesture can be the catalyst for an inactive member’s return. Even if the person does not come back, your ministry will have been a very positive living out of the Gospel.
Q. How do you get people more involved who attend worship and contribute financially, but are otherwise not active?
A. Talk with them about their lives’highs and lows, issues of concern, their view of the church, and their relationship with God. The purpose of such an interaction is exploratory, listening and learning. The purpose should have nothing to do with harassment or judgment. Relate to these individuals in a non- threatening way, and avoid coming down on them regarding their level of involvement. Be positive and affirming of them as persons.
Through conversations such as these, you will find out a lot about these individuals’what their needs are and how they can be challenged. Many times people are not involved more fully within congregations because the opportunities for involvement are not what interest them. You might think, ‘Well, they should shape up and get interested,’ but you are writing a script for defeat if you take that attitude. I have noted many times in my work that congregations that begin recruiting for effective lay caring, as an example, often find that many of those who respond are people who have not been very active in the church for ten or fifteen years. When the church offers opportunities for involvement that are really meaningful for them, then these people do get involved.
Q. What do you do about members who support the congregation financially, but do not attend?
A. Curiously enough, financial support is sometimes the last to go when someone is beginning to detach and become inactive. First is participation in special programs and activities; second is worship; and only afterward does the person discontinue contributing. This certainly suggests that the person still feels a commitment or bond to the congregation, which suggests that going to talk with the person may be a very caring act.
Q. How do you deal with ‘two-timing Christians,’ i.e., those who only come to church on Christmas and Easter and still wish to be considered members?
A. You can start by rejoicing in the fact that they are not ‘no-timers.’ As long as they are attending even this minimal amount, they are approaching the Gospel and placing themselves in a position to be acted upon by God’s Word and the warmth of your witness.
Train as many active members as possible to avoid making matters worse with these individuals. No caustic, snide remarks, please. I heard of one instance when an infrequent worshipper came to a Christmas Eve service and the usher promptly made a big show of holding up the church wall because he ‘was afraid the roof was going to fall in.’ Such sarcasm will almost certainly ensure that the individual will not be back before next Christmas Eve, if then.
Welcome the person warmly (not gushily) and relate to him or her in a friendly, caring, hospitable fashion. Tell the individuals you’re glad to see them. Whatever you do, don’t shun them. These special festivals of the Christian church are a golden opportunity to let the light of Christ’s love shine equally on active and inactive members.
In addition to relating in a high quality way at church, you can also follow up with these individuals. Give them a call and suggest getting together just to find out how things are going for them. The subject of church may or may not arise in such a contact. In any case, it will not be your purpose to talk about church, though you will certainly be willing to if the other wants to.
I like the way one pastor treated this situation in a church newsletter right after Easter:
It felt good to see so many friends in church last Sunday. Some of you were back visiting from out of town and others revisited their ‘home’ church after being gone for a while. I’m glad so many came to worship on Easter Sunday. I look forward to your return. Many worked very hard so your visit would be enjoyable.
One priest at a Roman Catholic conference on church inactivity I attended put it this way:
We don’t throw rocks at ‘C and E’ Christians anymore.
Q. There are several active members in our congregation whose spouses never attend. They say that no one understands their situation. What can we do in these cases?
Q. Do the active family members of an inactive person have any unique ministry needs? What can other members of the congregation do to help them and be supportive of their continued involvement?
A. They deserve every admiration for their persistence in participation. It’s not easy on a beautiful Sunday morning to leave one’s home for church when your inactive spouse, for example, is sipping coffee on the terrace and reading the newspaper in comfortable clothes. It’s not easy to go off to church if you are a child and neither of your parents supports your interest.
Don’t badger the active member about where the missing family member is. The person is feeling lonely enough without that. Do let the individual know how glad you are to see him or her. Offer companionship in the pew, an offer that will be especially welcome for a parent if there are small children involved.
The individual who says others don’t understand may be exactly right. Put yourself in the active person’s shoes for a moment, as reported by one individual:
When I do come to church, it seems like I’m sitting alone but everyone else comes into the church two by two. If I bring the children, there’s no one but me to keep them orderly and quiet. If you have more than two kids, you run out of sides to put them on to keep them separated and out of mischief! All these pressures may be compounded by someone’s dirty looks at the children.
My nonattending spouse sometimes sabotages my desire to go to church, too. This can take the form of overtly aggressive behavior such as yelling and fighting, ridiculing religion, complaining about the amount of money given to church, or outright refusal to allow me to attend. Passive resistance is another form of sabotage in which my spouse effuses to watch the children, schedules other activities at the time of worship services or neglects shared family responsibilities.
Wearing those shoes is uncomfortable, isn’t it? You begin to see how hard it could be for a spouse of a nonattending individual to attend, how easy to cease participation.
A. listening and caring ministry is never out of place. The active member is very likely to wish he or she had someone to talk to about the difficulties in the situation. If you felt compelled to deliver answers, you might be reluctant to assume the role of such ministry, but it’s not your mouth that is required. It’s your ears.
Q. Is there some particular way to reach out to the inactive spouse in these instances?
A. Here’s a couple of ideas that can work:
1. Schedule special events to which the active member can invite his or her inactive spouse. This shouldn’t be too hard’churches are always putting on talent shows, musical events, children’s services, suppers, and the like. Make it a particular point to suggest to the active one that he or she invite the spouse. (It can also be beneficial if some of these events don’t take place at church: a potluck supper at someone’s home is an example.) Other active people at these events need to be on their best trained behavior. Here’s where training as many people as possible in the congregation can really pay dividends. You don’t want someone greeting the inactive person with some such inane remark as, ‘Oh, here’s beauty and the beast’guess which one’s the beast.’
2. One pastor I know makes it a point to contact the inactive spouses and have lunch with them. The purpose is not to do a hard sell, work them over, or browbeat them, but just to get to know them. What has often happened is that the inactive member no longer saw the church as a competitor, and there was relaxation of tensions on the home front for the active member. In some instances the development of a relationship opened the door for the inactive members to start coming to church. As that pastor said, ‘If someone comes back to church, that is great, but I am always very clear in my own mind that I am not setting out with that goal in mind. My goal is simply to get to know the individual and give him or her a chance to get to know me as a person.’
Q. Some family members have trouble returning to the church after a funeral. What causes that? What can be done about it?
A. After a death (and after a divorce, too), it can be very painful to be in familiar settings without a familiar person beside you. Either one of these situations can create major and ongoing stresses: emotional, economic, spiritual, physical, and social. These can add up to a Continuing crisis state that necessitates high-quality care, preferably from the church or including the church.
The emotional stresses in particular are related to grieving. Many things can touch off tears, for example, and the person may have a horror of ‘making a spectacle’ of him- or herself. There is a desolated sense of aloneness. The person feels disconnected. After spending the energy required for grieving, there isn’t much left over for mustering up the strength to return to church.
As the shock and pain wear off, worry sets in: What will become of me? These anxieties are related to the economic effects. The necessity for a job, a second job, even a third job can make it difficult for the person to attend church.
In addition, there are the spiritual effects. Depending upon the stage of grief one is in, a person may be gripped by anger at God for allowing this tragedy to happen and feel unworthy or unwilling to be in church as a result.
All these effects can cause physical problems as well. The individual may become literally ‘sick with grief,’ and during the recovery get out of the habit of coming to church. The longer a person is out of touch, especially when there are not regular, caring visits by church members, the harder it may be for that person to return.
You may be tempted to dismiss the social effects as minimal compared with the others, but grieving individuals may feel these effects most sharply when they return to church. They are alone. Where should they sit? How do others relate to them now that they are alone, when before they were always in the company of someone else? Subtly and not so subtly others often give off signals that they no longer have the same relationship.
All the preceding is related to the part of your question about causes. The answer to the second question is much more brief. What can be done about it? Provide good Christian care to these individuals.
When the Inactive Person Is a Family Member
Q. There is a member of my family who is inactive, and I am very concerned. How do you deal with inactivity in your own family without sounding too preachy or pushy?
Q. An inactive member of our congregation is a member of my family. I feel very inadequate. What do I do?
A. The same principles of caring and listening apply, but when an inactive member is related to you, the dynamics in play create a special situation requiring special treatment. Your greater personal investment adds a difficulty to the process for you. Because your contacts with family members are so much more frequent than they would be with other inactive members, you have to be especially careful to bite your tongue sometimes, not say anything even when you’re itching to. It’s not easy to be quiet when you care so much.
Start with prayer. This is more a matter of reminding your self who’s in charge than it is badgering God with importunities to do something. About your teen-aged son, as an example, you have to say repeatedly, for your own benefit, ‘God, I place so-and-so in your hands. I know I cannot change him. I know I cannot make him come to church, no matter how much I might wish it. Give me the good sense to accept and love him as he is, and communicate that acceptance and love to him.’
Meanwhile, continue to engage in your church activities as you have been. Be a role model for the person. Be as genuinely and fully functioning a Christian as you can’with dedication that comes from the very center of your being, not a veneer on the outside.
You can issue mild invitations to special events, but not continually, and not sharply. No bullhorns at 7:00 A.M. Sunday mornings: ‘You lazy so-and-so! Get up and go to church with me or I’ll disown you!’ That is not the best way to invite someone to church. Lean more to casual invitations:
‘Would you like to go?’ If by chance the person does accompany you to some special event, don’t say, ‘I hope you come back again and again and again.’ Instead, say simply, ‘Glad you came. It was really nice being with you at church tonight.’ Period. Close your mouth. Sew it shut. Don’t say another word.
Another way to proceed: Have someone in the individual’s peer group be the contact. Here is how that worked for one individual.
This is what I did with my mother. I got in touch with the president of one of our women’s circles and asked her if she would take my heart concern to the women in her circle and see if they would befriend my mother. It was actually their actions, which spanned about a year’s time, that brought her back into the church. They were able to do what I as a daughter could not have done.
When the Inactive Member Is a Close Friend
Q. How do you talk with personal friends about their inactivity without coming across as superior?
A. Just as inactive family members place special considerations upon those who would relate to them, so too with close friends. The good news is that the relationship is already there; the bad news is the difficulties this sometimes causes in reaching out to them.
Your attitude to begin with is the key. If you are feeling superior, you won’t come across as humble no matter how hard you try. Search your heart. If you’re a real friend, you are the servant of your friend, not an equal and not a superior. You are reaching up to Jesus Christ, who resides in him or her.
Q. I have a friend who used to be a member at my church and even attended Sunday school there. This friend has now become active in a non-Christian religion. How can I witness to my friend?
A. Certainly, to jump right in with a presentation of the claims of the Christian faith would be irresponsible. Rather, you should learn something about the new religion. Then, should the time come when your friend indicates a willingness to talk, you will be better prepared to give ‘an accounting for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15). If you do get a chance to talk to your friend, find out how it happened that he or she changed religions. Knowing where your friend is spiritually will help you tailor your responses to his or her situation.
Sometimes when people are around non-Christians they tend to put on a few extra Christian layers, showing off. Don’t do that’almost always it comes across as phony. More likely than not your friend would see such behavior for what it is, an act, and be confirmed in his or her new faith. Simply be the new creature God has made you.
Witness to your friend through your life and actions. Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). God’s role for you may be to let your light shine, and that’s all. Your friend may not wish to talk with you about his or her new beliefs, and for you to force the issue would probably do more harm than good. But there’s nothing wrong with showing interest in your friend’s new faith. This may be the opening he or she needs to begin to talk to you about it.
Remember that you are not God’s only instrument for bringing your friend to Christ. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ (1 Corinthians 3:6). We would do well to realize that God still gives the growth and we are merely instruments in his hands.
Q. How do you approach good friends who chose to leave the church years ago?
A. With friends it’s okay to bring up the subject of inactivity yourself, so long as you’re not hounding them. This is a basic difference from a visit to an inactive member who is not a good friend. There, you wait for the inactive member to bring up the subject himself or herself. (For more about this, see Chapter 13.) But with friends, there is certainly nothing wrong in talking with them about their church involvement, as long as you are not trying to tell them what to do. Mean while, just go on being friends with them, and be the loving embodiment of Jesus Christ to them at the same time. That’s who you are.
A Special Case: Church Antagonists
Q. What if inactive members are people you really don’t want back’that is, persistently troublemaking individuals who have repeatedly done serious injury to the congregation?
Q. When a persistent troublemaker has voluntarily inactivated membership in a church, is there any other response needed beyond a sigh of relief?
A. In another book I have defined a problem, not restricted to churches, but peculiarly destructive to them, as follows:
Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of non-substantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity.
The existence of antagonism in churches creates a special circumstance when it comes to inactive members who are, or might be, antagonists. It also makes your questions difficult ones to answer because they are fraught with ethical overtones. Every congregation needs to address this issue for itself, very prayerfully and very carefully. There are some questions that can serve as guidelines.
‘ How long has the individual been behaving like this?
‘ Does the person’s behavior tend to build up or tear down?
‘ How has that individual’s behavior affected the overall ministry of the congregation, looking at effects on members and effects on outreach?
‘ How has the environment or atmosphere changed since the person left?
‘ If the person returns, are you willing to have the same conditions prevail?
If the individual in question is a true antagonist, the answers to these questions will suggest what course of action you should take. Sometimes the most caring and loving act’for every one!’is to let someone go. You need to be concerned for the antagonist’s soul, definitely, but there is more than one soul at stake here. Antagonists leave broken lives and spiritual destruction in their wake.
Q. How much do antagonists contribute to inactivity of others?
A. A significant amount’perhaps more than we know. When I conduct workshops on inactivity, there is a segment called ‘How Church Antagonism Causes Inactivity.’ After I talk about it briefly, and I have defined and described antagonistic conflict, I ask, ‘How many of you have ever seen this type of person in your congregation or some other congregation?’ On a consistent basis about 75% raise their hands. Then I ask, ‘Of those of you who have seen antagonists, how many of you have seen their antagonism cause inactivity?’ It’s amazing. There is always a near-perfect correspondence, a one-to-one correlation. However many hands there were to the first question, there are almost the same number for the second question. Sometimes people get fed up with unhealthy bickering that just seems to go on and on. They leave, and many times they view this as the healthy response to a sick situation. Conflict itself can be quite healthy, and by no means is most conflict caused by antagonists. But antagonistic conflict is sick. Here’s the way one man describes it.
A cousin of mine in the Midwest has been through a major church split within the past two years. It’s significant that the antagonist who left behind so much bitterness and such a sense of powerlessness among the members of that congregation also did the same thing to another church a few years earlier. I anticipate he will do the same thing again to this new congregation that has arisen as a result of the split.
What makes people choose to become inactive is not only the presence of antagonists, but the fact that often nothing is done about them. This causes anxiety and a whole host of other emotions, including sadness, dejection, and frustration. Who wants to be part of an environment like that? Healthy people don’t. The pastor, church leaders, and the whole congregation have an obligation to deal with this problem constructively and immediately.
Q. Are you recommending that I not take any action with an inactive member who is an antagonist? Or should I at least visit the individual once?
A. Realize that my recommendations relate to visiting an antagonist as an inactive member. During actual antagonistic conflict, you may very well already have followed through with the prescriptions outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. If the individual is still spewing venom and it is likely that the Body of Christ will be injured, let go. Jesus let Judas go. Antagonists are not going to be very receptive to ministry. Do continue to pray for such individuals, for sure.
Q. Are you saying that everyone who criticizes is an antagonist?
A. By no means. In fact, most individuals who criticize are not antagonists. What is missing, among other characteristics, is the insatiable quality that drags problems out interminably. Antagonists are tremendously damaging individuals whose goals are very unhealthy. Most people who criticize want to build up rather than tear down. If their unhappiness has been properly contained, and they have not expressed this in ways damaging to the health of the overall congregation, do not just leave them alone. The responsible congregation needs to reach out to them, build a bridge to them, touch them, care for them, listen to them.
1 Ruth N. Koch and Kenneth C. Haugk, Speaking the Truth in Love: How to Be an Assertive Christian (St. Louis: Stephen Ministries), 1992.
2 Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members (Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1978), pp. 74-77.
3 Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House), 1988.
Excerpted from ‘Reopening The Back Door’ ‘Answers to Questions About Ministering To Inactive Members’ By Kenneth C. Haugk.
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.’