How "Ghosting" Hurts Your Church—and What You Can Do About It (Part 1)

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Conversations snippets you might overhear by the mailboxes of Anywhere CRC: 

“Wow! Someone should clean out this mailbox!” 

“I haven’t seen the Smith family for a while. I wonder what happened to them?” 

“Oh, I heard that they were attending the United Church in Somewhere-elseville” 

“Really? I heard they were just waiting to see how council will address (insert issue here) and then they might come back.” 

“I don’t know. I think we’re being ghosted.”

UrbanDictionary.com defines ghosting as “when a person cuts off all communication with their friends or the person they're dating, with zero warning or notice beforehand. You'll mostly see them avoiding friend's phone calls, social media, and avoiding them in public.” 

Ghosting is usually connected with a person’s use of technology, but the behavior is not new to congregational culture. Many a church directory contains photos of people who have slowly drifted away but no one dares take them off the membership rolls because “you never know, they might come back.” 

One of the most difficult conversations that takes place in council meetings is whether to lapse someone’s membership. It seems so harsh, and what if a remaining family member who attends the church is hurt by that lapse? Or what if the lapsed member intends to return after a while? There certainly are pastoral concerns to take into account, but too often we simply ignore the situation—and that’s a problem.   

Sometimes there are good reasons to leave a church, even though it's painful to do so. But, especially in the church world, ghosting is leaving without closure or seeming to move on without landing somewhere else. It's important for those who leave and for those who are left behind to communicate and learn from the reason why.   

Long-term ghosting can damage the faith formation of the folks who are inhabiting the liminal space between not attending or participating in the life of our congregation and not attending or participating in another faith community. That shadow space can very soon feel like home. Soon it feels normal to not plant roots anywhere. One basic spiritual need is to belong to Christ AND his body. Ghosting is not a sustainably spiritually healthy practice.

Selective ghosting can be problematic as well. Sometimes people decline to participate in weekly worship and small groups but remain on a committee in order to get some sense of what is happening in the body. It may seem gracious to keep a ghost on the team, but it can also create a space for someone to critique ministry, the pastor, or leadership, leading to unhealthy gossip or activity that doesn’t actually feed someone’s soul. Our goal is to always invite folks to be co-ministers of grace, not to remain on the fringe.

Young adult ghosting is probably even more familiar to congregations. It’s challenging to navigate relationships with baptized members who no longer attend but remain in directories with asterisks beside their names. As we learned in the Renegotiating Faith report, some of these emerging adults still live at home, and even their parents are feeling ghosted when it comes to discussions on faith and church attendance. The Renegotiating Faith study tells us that other adults who have invested in the lives of young people can often open those important conversations, taking some of the “relational weight” off the parents and adult children who must still live in the same house together. Simply allowing emerging adults to ghost a community that has pledged to support them in their faith formation is not helpful to anyone. 

Ghosting can also be hurtful to the church members who feel left behind. A sporadic visit from someone who only attends on the pastor’s Sunday off can bring unfounded hope of return, but it can also allow for unhealthy conversation or critique about all of the problems the “ghost” perceives in a fellowship where he or she no longer serves or contributes. This often creates anxiety in the body. That anxiety can impact decision making for the future: “ If we do X, the Smiths will most certainly not come back, so we should hold steady.” That gives a lot of power to someone who is no longer engaged in the body.

Overflowing mailboxes, disembodied names in a directory, and floating asterisks can all feel like haunting remnants of what was but no longer is. They can create shame and blame and denial, all of which can inhibit our trust in God’s care for our congregation and its members. In Part 2 of this article we’ll look at some ways to graciously address ghosting behaviors.

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