While cleaning out some files the other day, I came across a folder of interviews I did in 2004 with 22 lifelong United Methodists who, in their 60s, 70s and 80s, made the decision to leave the denomination and join another church. These people did not make the choice based on relocation, change of beloved pastor to a not-so-beloved pastor, or due to a personal conflict or event. The four primary reasons given for their decision were these:
- no longer being fed spiritually
- no longer being challenged to grow or improve
- no experience of God’s presence or the power of the Holy Spirit
- a growing sense of irrelevancy or meaninglessness in the purpose of the church
These men (5) and women (17) were not nominal members, but were part of the leadership core of their congregations — Trustees, UMW officers, members of Staff Parish Relations, Church Council, teachers, lay speakers, etc. They were not defending personal agendas — I interviewed many people who were, and I culled their feedback from the pool. The 22 interviews I compiled represent a signficant and serious of sample of deeply engaged United Methodists who made a painful, costly, yet intentional decision to exit the church they loved.
Rather than summarize the interviews, I present five verbatim quotes from six different people, explaining their reasons for leaving. It might be easy to dismiss their opinions, yet I think they are worthy of reflection as we consider what kind of church we might be in the future.
Robert W. – Age: 79
My wife and I joined this church in 1944, both of us teenagers in confirmation together. We were brought up in the church, it was our home. We went through a slew of pastors, some good, some not so good, one great. I truly believe we have only missed about a dozen Sundays our entire marriage. Between us, we have served in just about every capacity but pastor in this church. My wife was Lay Leader for seven years. We were really happy, but discovered it is only because ignorance is bliss. Over the past five years or so we discovered that Christianity is much, much bigger than we ever knew. I got involved in Habitat for Humanity and began working regularly on volunteer projects. I came back to the church all excited and wanted us to get involved in it, but was told we wouldn’t have enough support to make it work. At about the same time, my wife attended a Bible study at the Episcopal Church where they had a seminary professor lead them through a book by Shelby Spong. He taught them about the Bible is a really deep level. My wife came home a changed woman. She said, “I have been to church for over seventy years, and I’m just hearing this now, for the first time?” We went to a group together and we were asked to go around the room and answer the question, “What is your theology?” My wife and I were mortified. We had no idea how to answer the question. Our church never discusses theology. I had no idea how to explain how Methodists are different from anyone else. The dawning realization that we spent an entire lifetime in a church where all we ever got was a third-grade level education surprised us. We tried to talk to the pastor about it, but he wasn’t interested. We tried to talk to the Church Council, but the pastor found out and berated us in front of everyone for trying to undermine his authority. Remember the old song, “How you gonna’ keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” That was us. Once you find out there’s real food out there, you simply can’t settle for watery milk.
Gladys K. — Age: 67
I have always been so proud of my church. I know everyone says they have a friendly church, but I believed ours truly was. We have the finest, kindest people in so many ways. I guess that was why I was so shocked and disappointed when we changed. I guess we always acted so well because we were never really challenged. In the late 1980s we were given a woman pastor. That was the first challenge. A few people didn’t like it and they left, but the rest of us rallied around and before long we found out that Pastor Karen was everything and more that we could want in a leader. We hated to see her go, but we did fine until about four years ago. We were sent an African-American — which I have no problem with at all — and it upset so many people. It really divided the church. People complained about everything — his preaching, his leadership, his family. It was really unfair and ugly. He did everything he could to be a good leader here, and people I knew and respected simply treated him terribly. Then our choir director — a woman who has been a beloved and important part of our church family — announced that she was a lesbian and she was immediately fired. People who had known her for years stopped having anything to do with her. Some people called her terrible names. Parents wanted her to have nothing to do with their children. She was no different than she had ever been, but people seemed to lose their minds over the fact that she was a homosexual. So many people left and we began having financial problems. I was at a meeting with our (District) Superintendent and one of our prominent members stood up and literally yelled at him that we would not accept — well, he used the most vulgar and offensive language to describe the types of pastors we would not tolerate. I left that meeting heartbroken, and I left the church soon after. I am now part of a Presbyterian congregation that is truly loving and accepting. They have shown me what I have been missing my whole life.
Susan M. – Age: 80
My church decided it didn’t want to be Methodist before I did. All my time in this church we taught Methodist principles and we learned about Mr. Wesley and the Bible, our women were always dedicated to mission, many of our members served at the conference and national levels, but we got older and smaller and we started getting pastors without so much training and we started to fall apart. One of our pastors had no use for UMW, so he didn’t support us at all. One pastor was ultra-conservative and he talked us into not paying our apportionments any more. That same pastor resented anyone doing anything outside our own church, so he made a rule that if you served anywhere else you couldn’t be a leader in the congregation. A few pastors back we got a woman who formed a tight-knit circle of — I’m not sure what you would call them — right-wing liberals, maybe. They were all high and mighty about the Bible and family values and stuff, but they would have wine and beer at their parties where they made fun of everyone who wasn’t part of their group. She (the pastor) didn’t last long, but the damage was done — we were kind of two small congregations existing under the same roof. We were forced to merge last year and they sent us a part-time Baptist preacher and that was it for me. Just slapping a cross and flame on the building doesn’t make us Methodist. I am now attending an independent church deeply involved in social action and it feels like I have come home.
Mary W. – Age: 62
I am a parish nurse and I guess I finally got tired of beating my head against the wall. I fought for years to make health a ministry of our church, and I usually had a small group of supporters. It may sound selfish, but I left because the pastor said that healthcare isn’t a ministry — that healing in the church is a spiritual matter and that medicine and modern healthcare is a business and that the two should be kept separate. We had been trying to have a free-clinic set up in our church basement — it wasn’t used for anything else. Well, the Trustees didn’t want to assume the financial liability, so they kicked us out. The pastor recommended that they cut the money from the budget used to support the parish nurses. One person came in and totally invalidated my ministry and call. And when he did it, no one from the church stood in my defense. I was hurt and humiliated. Maybe I was selfish, but I won’t stay where I am not wanted or respected. I am now working with an ecumenical group devoted to the health of body, mind and spirit. It’s wonderful.
Ellen S. – Age: 74
Quite frankly? I got bored. Everything in the church is aimed at the beginner. I don’t have anything against modern music, but “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, loves Me, Me, Me” gets really old really fast, you know? And sermons that are little self-help lectures? And dumbed-down little skits about the Bible trying to be cute, treating us like morons? I need something more. Every class and small group in this church is for beginners — really simple basic stuff. I don’t think I have heard anything new since my twenties. Going to church became like piece work in a factory to me — just doing the same thing over and over. I have tried to get people to listen to me — to make worship more meaningful and classes more challenging — but I get told that if we make it too hard people will leave and new people won’t come. I told them that if they didn’t offer something with more substance I could guarantee that one person would leave. They laughed and ignored me. I left. I am enrolled to start classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the spring.
I shared these stories in a slightly modified form for a few years when I travelled around the country, and every audience assumed they were from young adults. When I asked the groups to summarize what they heard, they named these factors as the reasons people chose to leave. I close with them for consideration and reflection, because I believe we must address them if we want to become a stronger witness for Christ in the 21st century:
- lack of tolerance
- not inclusive
- unChristian behavior
- low expectations
- poor sense of identity
- lack of purpose
- inward focused
- not challenging
- lack of vision in leadership
- poorly trained leaders