A few months ago, my nine-year-old son, Isaac, wanted to take up gardening. We acquired a few containers and a variety of vegetable seeds and got to work. It wasn’t long before we began to see all kinds of sprouts, and his plants began to flourish.
One afternoon, he asked me to transplant his cucumbers into a bigger container. The plant was very young and was doing just fine where it was but he was expecting a “big” harvest. I tried to explain it wasn’t a good idea to move the plant so soon, but eventually his persistence won out and I did the transplant. Unfortunately, the thriving young plant has never been the same. It’s not dead but it isn’t healthy either.
A few days ago, Isaac and I stood over his fading plant. He sighed and said, “I never thought this would happen.” He genuinely seemed surprised. It’s funny how quickly he forgot our conversation about not moving the plant to begin with.
It got me thinking. Some things shouldn’t surprise us like they do. We’ve heard the warnings and seen the signs, but when something or someone finally fades away, we react as if we had no clue.
In the world of family ministry, nothing seems to surprise us more than when families leave our church. Most of the time, our metaphorical mouths hang open, but should we really be shocked?
I’m learning there are a few clear indicators someone is pulling back from the ministry but oftentimes our ignorance is a conscience choice.
Here are three signs families are about to leave your church.
I’m not talking about using inappropriate language in the foyer of your church. There are short phrases that creep in over time that may be spoken softly but scream emergency!
“Get to” becomes “have to.” If the vision is clear and embraced, saying “have to” is only used to communicate urgency not responsibility. “Get to” communicates an appreciation of calling and opportunity.
“Us” becomes “they.” We know the church is the people not the building. “Us” communicates unity. “They” communicates division.
Of greatest concern is when longtime volunteers pull out their golf pencil and scorecard and start scribbling. When volunteers feel the need to track every good deed, it won’t be long until he or she begins justifying his or her lack of commitment and refusal to do more.
How long can someone live in a previous sacrifice? Maybe a few years ago, a volunteer went above and beyond the position assigned to them or generously contributed to a giving initiative, but when that becomes a way to determine future responsibilities and commitment, there’s a problem.
Scorecards are an effective way for people to justify pulling back but walking out our faith isn’t about that one big step that one time but many steps taken daily.
Relationships are key to healthy connection in the local church. We all long for someone who will look for us, someone who will miss us when we don’t show up. If the friendships families have inside the church are failing and fading, it won’t be long before their connection to the church disappears as well.
Looking for these signs is one way to slow the churn, to decrease the departure rate at your church. The second part is equally important. Are you willing to address concerns as they arise? Part of great leadership is a willingness to have awkward conversations.
I believe it’s worth the momentary discomfort to keep families rooted in the local church. Just like Isaac’s cucumbers, when a family transitions to another church or simply away from church altogether, it’s like pulling a plant up by its roots and hoping it survives. Even if the new soil is good, it’s still a transition that rarely produces a positive outcome.
Recognizing this, I believe it’s best for most families to simply stay planted in the local church. Life is full of difficult transitions without creating more turmoil by changing churches every few years.
Families leave your church for all sorts of reasons. I believe most will better serve their calling by staying rooted. Constant transition leaves little room for growth.
Let’s love people enough to look for signs of turmoil and have the awkward conversations as they arise.
The families of your church are worth fighting for.