I read a thought provoking story the other day. It’s about two ships in a harbor, one about to set out and the other just coming in. The crowd is cheering and celebrating the boat about to set out while the one who has finished the journey slips in unnoticed. A sage on the dock scolds the crowd and says, “Don’t celebrate the new ship just setting out. Turn around, notice and appreciate the ship that is done with its journey.”
Of course the story is really about birth and death but my Monkey Mind did not go there. Instead I started thinking about how wonderful it is when—like ship about to sail—we welcome new members. They are starting a new journey with our community. We publish a photo, a little bio telling where each person comes from, and why they decided to join our church.
Then we have a ceremony where each new member promises to “participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people.” Then the church community promises to love and support these new members.
This is a very moving ritual and I always cry. (Although I’ve been known to cry at the Offering.)
Lately I’ve been thinking, “What if we had a ceremony for people who are leaving our congregation?” They are done with their journey with us. I don’t mean death or moving away but leaving by choice. To be clear: I mean staying in the area, leaving our church and either joining another one, or joining no church at all.
What if, like new members share why they joined, leaving members share with the whole community about why they are leaving and maybe where they are headed. What could we learn from them? Sure we can “speak the truth in love,” but can we hear the truth in love? Would we wish them well?
But then how many people would rather just leave quietly? Would people leaving want this recognition? Would they be comfortable with this degree of honesty?
I’ve witnessed estrangement and separation in many families. First came the conversation about the problem: their father’s drinking. “Dad, your drinking is affecting the whole family. You’re out of control. And when you drink you say horrible things around our kids.”
I encouraged them to get family counseling so everyone could talk about their feelings and seek resolution. This is precisely where everything fell apart: his father was not willing to change. “You and your sister are just ingrates. I’m not alcoholic! You just get upset when I have a beer now and then.”
He would not accept the criticism of his behavior, nor take responsibility for it. So of course, there was no hope of change. No change meant a resolution was not possible, so a gentle statement of separation was given by his kids. “We don’t want to raise our kids around an alcoholic. Unless you can see this and change, we must cut off contact with you.” They invited other family members over to a dinner (which seemed to me like an excellent ritual) and shared their decision. Everyone heard the story from them and no one could speculate on why they left. Sad, but healthy.
Anyway, back to leaving your church. I’ve read that people often leave a church because of either misunderstandings or misalignment. Misunderstandings can often be cleared up immediately. Misalignment means the church goals no longer align with a member’s goals.
I’d like offer another possibility: misinterpretation. This means people are committed to the goals of the church, but question the methods of getting there. Their opposition to the methods is misinterpreted as opposition to the goal itself.
If it looks like a change in methods is possible, then stay and work it out! But if it’s clear that no change is possible, then—like the child of the alcoholic—a loving goodbye is in order.
I searched the UCC Book of Worship to see if there was a ritual for members who are leaving and there is! “ Order for Times of Passage: Farewell.” But this ritual is for ministers leaving or members who are moving away permanently or joining the military–nothing for those who just leave. I guess no one wants to recognize that. There is moment in this ritual for ministers, where the members say, “We release you from your duties.” How about a ceremony where we said to departing members, “We thank you for being part of this community. We release you from your promises and wish you love and blessings as your life unfolds.”
That sounds loving, compassionate, understanding and well—Christian. I wonder how many of these ceremonies we’d have?
Photo by Ilse Orsel