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Holy Ghosting: When Christians vanish from church

Katie Stock reports on a mysterious phenomenon

Royal baby fever has gripped the nation in recent weeks, with the arrival of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor making headlines all over the world. The press has also been obsessed with the Duchess of Sussex’s strained relationship with her father, Thomas Markle Sr. It has been a long-running saga after he missed out on his daughter’s wedding last year.

In an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Mr Markle said his texts to Meghan had been met with silence. “I’ve been ghosted,” he said. “I’m not sure why it’s happening. I love my daughter very much. I wish she would reach out, send me a text, anything.”

No doubt, Mr Markle’s frequent media interviews have not provided a helpful balm to soothe their alleged fractious relationship. His accusation that Meghan has “ghosted” him is intended to evoke sympathy for his situation.

But what is ghosting? Why is it such a horrible thing to experience? And how does it affect churches?

Ghosting is the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone abruptly and without explanation. The person withdraws all communication and disappears. An increase in the use of dating apps has led to the popularisation of the term, as people now go on dates with total strangers who have no connection to the rest of their social networks. So, after a date, a person who ignores calls or messages can do so with little concern they will ever bump into their ghostee.

Ghosts in the church

There’s nothing new about individuals leaving churches under a cloud. However, given the increased mobility of younger generations, people often find themselves in churches with no links to their broader network. This means that when they leave, they’re able to disappear without a trace. They’re unlikely to bump into a congregation member at a social gathering, or have them ask awkward questions to mutual friends because church has been its own social bubble.

Christians leave churches for lots of reasons, many of them innocent and easy to understand. Perhaps the most common reason is a change of circumstance: getting married and starting somewhere afresh together as a couple (or getting a divorce and wanting to make a new start); a house move, making the travel distance that little bit too far; or having children and wanting a church with a betterequipped children’s ministry. Although it’s sad to leave for these reasons, most of those inside a church tend to react in an understanding and supportive manner. Everything becomes a bit trickier when the reasons involve a disagreement or dispute with church leadership, a desire for a different style of worship or just wanting a change of scene. Announcing such changes can be awkward as they can be interpreted as (or even correctly understood to be) a direct criticism of the church community.

Ghosting happens when people leave without informing church leadership. But it’s more than that. It’s also when a person decides to not speak to anyone about their decision to move on. It’s understandable why someone who wants to leave a church may not feel able to speak to someone on the congregation’s leadership team. Power dynamics will vary from church to church, but even when there is a horizontal model of leadership, individuals can feel unable to approach their pastors. Although the existence of unequal power dynamics is something that vicars and pastors often learn not to take advantage of during their training, there doesn’t seem to be an easy fix. The best a minister can do is gain a reputation for kindness and compassion. In doing so, they increase the likelihood of individuals wanting to speak to them before leaving.

Don't go

Any expectation that pastoral teams prevent individuals from slipping through the cracks places significant pressure on clergy to spot early warning signs. Some ministers express their frustration at being blamed when congregation members leave abruptly. Many leaders are also personally affected when individuals leave with no trace or explanation. They sometimes feel as though they have lost the beginnings of a friendship. Most church leaders would rather know the reason for a person leaving (even if that reason is negative) than be left in the dark.

Church growth, while being an obvious blessing for any congregation, can increase the likelihood of ghosting taking place. While the specific numbers vary, it is commonly said that a leader cannot pastorally care for more than 100 people at a time. Without an increase in pastoral staff, those in larger congregations can feel like they haven’t been fully embedded into their local church community. If they slip away from regular attendance, their absence is less likely to be noticed.

Rev Eddie Green, a vicar in Hertfordshire, describes his experience of congregants leaving abruptly: “There is no intention to leave church. It is like a couple that never get around to having a date night. They mean to, but somehow it never happens.” This kind of leaving, though perhaps not the spiteful type of ghosting experienced on the dating app scene, is often gradual. For some in this situation, a well-timed text or social media message from another member of the congregation would change the outcome.

Rev Stroma McDermott, a minister in Leeds, takes an active approach on social media. She will often use it to keep in touch when a congregation member has not attended a service. By telling the person they are missed, she hopes to make them feel valued. But it’s not a sure-fire response: “I don’t know if it stops people leaving. We don’t always know why, and we can’t always stop it happening, but we need to notice, we need to feel something has been lost.”

How to leave well

1. Check your heart - are you leaving for the right reasons?

2. Have a frank conversation with the church leadership and invite them into the decision-making process

3. Seek objective input from a trusted friend who will help you discern God’s will

4. Put right any broken relationships as best you can (Romans 12:18)

5. Pray God’s blessing over the church you are leaving

Follow up

Rev Laura Montgomery, a minister in Norfolk, explains how church leaders need wisdom when following up with people who have ghosted their churches. After texting and emailing one couple and receiving no reply, she explains: “I wasn’t sure what to do as I didn’t want it to feel like I was harassing them, but I wanted them to know that we hadn’t forgotten about them.”

Perhaps the onus should be on congregation members to follow up when individuals are abruptly absent? Blaming the church leaders is easily done, and while they bear responsibility for the church’s pastoral care, they are not responsible for every pastoral interaction. While changes may be required to improve how new members are welcomed and encouraged to integrate into the wider community in order to reduce the chance of them ghosting, it is important to recognise the autonomy of the individual.

Rev Jody Stowell, a vicar in London, says that despite feeling sad when people leave, she tries to think of them as independent adults. The temptation is to infantilise congregation members but instead it is helpful to have a sense of perspective of the autonomy of individuals to make informed and free decisions about how they remain in or leave a community. Rev Green reminds himself: “I’m a pastor but they are not my sheep. They belong to Jesus. Anyone who thinks otherwise and gets touchy should probably find a different vocation.”

Leaving well

Although it may not be possible to remove the phenomenon of ghosting from our local churches, there are some responses that can reduce the motivating factors that cause someone to ghost. Well-managed pastoral care teams can prevent individuals from falling through the cracks, particularly when a church sees numerical growth in attendance. But the single most helpful thing a church can do to reduce the chance of ghosting is to model what it means to leave well.

What this means in practice will vary from church tradition to church tradition. Many have a practice associated with an individual or family leaving the congregation. They include, but are not limited to, having the person being prayed for at the front during the Sunday service, drinks and cake in the hall after the meeting or a card and farewell gift being offered. However, these practices are not usually enacted when individuals leave for contentious reasons. Nevertheless, extending such offers to all leavers, however awkward and difficult, allows a culture of leaving well to develop.

Churches with such a culture of open and honest leaving are less likely to experience ghosting. But it is important to remember, congregation members are autonomous individuals, who will do as they please. If they want to ghost, they will ghost.

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