Friday, March 12, 2010

The Wanderlust that Is Within

Over the years I have found a number of individuals who were part of one of the congregations I have served and then dropped out.  When I spoke to them about why they had dropped out, I got virtually the same answer from them all... "We never really felt at home here..."   Over the years I have found this the hardest answer of all to deal with.

I can think of several dozen families who ended up dropping out of parish life for this reason.  They were  by all accounts well assimilated.  They were in church regularly -- generally every week.  They were active in Bible study.  They participated in the fellowship events of the congregation.  Some of them sang in the choir or served in other areas.  They had many and, in most cases, very deep friendships with people in the parish.

More than this, they spoke of their "not feeling at home" or not feeling right in the parish as a painful thing to admit.  It is as if they wish they could find some way to deal with this feeling without leaving.  In some cases they shed tears about this dilemma and about their decision to leave.

A few of these were what might be called high maintenance people -- people who asked for and expected a degree of attention or stroking from the congregation but the vast majority were not.  They were your ordinary faithful members who showed up on Sunday morning, for Bible study, and connected in many different ways to the life and work of the congregation.  Some of these lived on the fringes of the parish's geographic borders and others lived just down the road from the church building.

This was not a doctrinal issue -- they were fully conversant with Lutheran doctrine and were not leaving for another confession -- nor did they leave to go to another church.  That is not to say that some of them did find another church home, they did, but others did not attend anywhere for a long time.  It was not personal with me as Pastor.  They were and remained friends even after they had left but, of course, a more distant friendship since our paths did not cross as frequently.  They made a big point of thanking me for my ministry to them (in some cases through death or other difficulty) and of expressing great appreciation for my role as Pastor.  Although there are some cynics out there who will dispute this and tell me it was personal but they did not want to tell me, I think they were earnest and honest and I am taking them at their word.

Over the years about half or so eventually came back to their old congregation as if whatever it was that had made them leave was now gone.  Sometimes this happened while I was still the Pastor and in a few cases it happened after I had left the congregation to accept another call.  In one case, the person made a point of telling me that although they were glad to be "back home" they wished that I was still there as their Pastor.

So what of this wanderlust?  I have no answers.  Do you?

I am left with the conclusion that this wander lust that left them unsettled in their home and eventually led them to leave was internal and not external.  If that is true, it makes it even more difficult to deal with and to respond to.  I am no psychologist who can figure out what angst or unsettledness is there that would erode their place and connection to the congregation.  But if this is indeed the issue, I would invite anyone with more armchair therapy experience than I have to clue me in on what to look for and how to respond.

There is a deep ache within me, and I would presume every Pastor, when these things happen... for unlike the people who see only empty pews, a Pastor sees the images of those who should be there even when they are not... a haunting image for any Pastor who has a heart for his people....


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

In my brief experiences, a lot of it has to do with expectations that may or may not be misplaced. Consider the language used - it doesn't feel like home, not feeling right. There is some expectation - and probably an expectation that is specific to the people in question. Maybe their sense of "home" has more involvement - maybe it has less and things are too busy. Maybe home had that person who passed away there, and they don't see them anymore, and so now it feels as though something is missing (and it is).

We associate so many things with "Church" - so many social and community based ideas, and everyone brings with them different hopes and dreams to this. I don't know what to make of this - I don't even know that it is necessarily a bad thing - just one of those things that come with living in a fallen world (okay, so I guess that makes it bad - but not bad in the sense that we must try to stamp it out). We are rarely satisfied. If heading to a neighboring congregation means one is fed with the Word and Sacraments and also gets this. . . illusive satisfaction - so be it.

I think the biggest thing to do is to teach the importance of what happens at "Church" - at Worship, so that even if the communal life doesn't hit all of the unfelt, nagging needs, at least they know and remember enough to keep themselves being spiritually fed here.

Loneviking said...

I'm not sure there are any answers. Sometimes, there are just little things with a parish that you put up with--at first. Minor things but you tell yourself that no church is perfect.

Over time though, these little things can become major irritants. We may not even be aware, or be able to articulate, these differences. It's just a feeling of 'time to move on'. As Rev.Brown said, people die and now, it just doesn't feel like home anymore.

Or, we change,and the things that once brought us into that particular parish are no longer so important. Other things are now more important, and they aren't found there. Or, they may just be going through a dry spell, a time of questioning when there is a felt need to withdraw and reconsider their faith.

Your title is really the issue in a nutshell 'The Wanderlust Within'. The answers are as different as each person is an individual.

Anonymous said...

I think wanderlust is by definition within. Wandering due to external causes isn't what you are defining. That is going astray. Sheep however, do both.

We go astray when we are tempted away by something. We wander on our own impulses. That wandering is not right if it takes us from the fold.

The "it doesn't feel right" may have reasons or just be a vague feeling. But what if we dropped our marriages, families, friends, etc. because it "didn't feel right?" Isn't that one of the excuses used for breaking up a marriage?

There are valid reasons for leaving a fellowship, such as false doctrine/teaching. That can spawn strong feelings. Feelings should never be what guides us, though.

I feel for you pastor. There will probably never be a good answer to these situations. It would involve being able to crawl into someone's mind to understand. It would involve dangerous tinkering to "fix." I'm glad you realize it is not your fault.

Elsa Quanbeck said...

Your thoughts are so like some of mine. It is a comfort to read them.

Elsa Quanbeck

Anonymous said...

it could be in some cases that other members made them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and said or did things that were unsettling and rather than cause a scene or oppose them... I know that has happened at times. Harvey Mozolak