How "Ghosting" Hurts Your Church—and What You Can Do About It (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this series we looked at how ghosting behaviours can negatively impact the faith walk of people who have disappeared from a congregation, as well as the faith walk of those they leave behind. In this article we’ll look at six ways to minimize ghosting in your church.

Ghosting doesn’t happen in a vacuum—in fact, it often results from a skewed understanding of belonging. True belonging is something different and far richer than what can be captured in someone’s membership papers. Belonging may start with a place where everyone knows your name, but hopefully it leads to life-giving, intentional engagement that goes beyond weekly worship.

Interestingly, we can both idolize and undervalue belonging. 

A casual or undervalued view of belonging may equate belonging with membership papers. Or it may result from a floaty vibe in which people dip in and out of faith communities without sending down roots. In this scenario, ghosting happens when the church body is not quite sure when someone floated out for the last time. We’re afraid of appearing overbearing, especially to visitors or newcomers, so we give them extra “space” and don’t notice when they finally drift away. This often happens with young adults and university students, yet I regularly hear from them that they would love to be invited into deeper engagement, even if they will only be present in a church during the school year.

We can also idolize belonging, almost creating monuments to those who have belonged in our communities the longest, such that we can’t imagine life without them. Of course it hurts if long-time members feel the need to move on, so we maintain their mail slots or directory entries or committee spots just in case. When we do this, however, we take away the agency of those who want to move on and we limit the opportunities to truly bless them on their way.

Here are six ways we can help ensure that ghosting doesn’t become a normalized expression in the Body of Christ:

  1. Be Aware. It’s not unusual for regular attenders to define “regular” as once or twice a month. Sunday worship is an important corporate practice, yet it cannot bear all of the relational weight for every member, especially if there are two- to three-week gaps in their attendance. Members and visitors need to be invited into other entry points: service, fellowship, and learning opportunities that meet on different days and at a variety of locations. Create communication links between ministries to help leaders get a bigger picture of how and where members, regular attenders, and visitors are being enfolded into the full life of the congregation.
  2. Be a Community on the Go: I love a busy church building, but we cannot rely on the adage “If you build it, they will come.” Ask yourselves: How are we a community that goes out—beyond Sunday, beyond the building, beyond programs—in order to support faith formation in our members? Where are we making ourselves available to emerging adults whose multiple jobs and side hustles make regular program or worship attendance challenging? Are we willing to engage people on their own “turf”?
  3. Be Proactive. Noticing whether mail slots are overflowing is not a great way to take the engagement pulse of members and regular attenders. Many congregations are finding it harder and harder to do home visits. Members don’t seem to want them or have time for them, and elders feel less and less comfortable making the visits. In a world where government agencies are appointing “ministers of loneliness,” home visits can still be a lifegiving practice, but proactive congregations shouldn’t rely exclusively on formal elder visits to connect with members. Check-ins can happen during coffee time, through quick phone calls, and at informal gatherings as well. Proactive congregations create a culture where member care does not rest solely on the shoulders of the pastor or the district elder, so that significant life changes are noticed by multiple members of the community. In light of that, how can our congregations become create communities of care?
  4. Be Honest. Cast a vision for belonging and mutual care. Talk about what membership means in your particular setting. Be honest about what being on the rolls entails and when and how membership is lapsed. Talk about what level of engagement having a mail slot, receiving the weekly bulletin, and having access to the Facebook page or congregation prayer requests entails. Communicate how lapsing impacts receiving access to any or all of the above. Perhaps get rid of noticeable mail slots and go electronic, or try an enclosed file system that can easily be purged and rearranged. Treat emerging adults as such and don’t have them share their parents’ contact info so that you can have a conversation with the young adults themselves and not have to go through their parents.
  5. Be a Blessing. When someone leaves your congregation, help bring closure. Conduct exit interviews with folks who have indicated that they are moving on. Train folks to do these interviews so that they are spiritually ready to hear the good and the bad while not feeling defensive or trying to fix things for those who are moving on. Find out not only what precipitated the move, but also make sure to help people articulate what they might miss from your congregation’s ministry. Ask if they have found a new faith community or how you might be able to help them find a new community of faith. Thank them for their contributions to your congregation and encourage them to use their gifts in their new church home. Pray a blessing over the next chapter of their faith formation.
  6. Be a Mentoring/Discipling Community. If we want to work against ghosting we will need to create stronger relational “webs” within our congregations that are both organic and intentional. How might intergenerational mentoring relationships during high school and beyond help emerging adults in your congregation be both explorers while they are out on their own and still remain connected when they want to reenter your congregation or another elsewhere? How might peer discipling groups help members work from more sturdy faith foundations as well as navigate seasons of disappointment with a council decision or a new pastor or a change in ministry direction? How might pastoral care and awareness increase if we actually become connected through discipling relationships rather than the occasional coffee conversation after worship?

What are some of the ways your congregation is helping to draw people in from the fringes into the fullness of life in the Body while blessing those who may desire that experience in another congregation?

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Excellent set of articles. We as a council have been discussing the very thing of "ghosting" yet we/I had not a clue there was an actually term and definition for it.