DROPOUTS: What Happens When Someone Leaves Your Church and What to Do About It?

Church Support Australia
Church Support Australia

It’s no secret! Church affiliation in Australia is in decline.

That finding is confirmed by the latest annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey of 17,000 people surveyed. HILDA found in 2004 almost 16% of women reported attending a church service at least weekly but in 2018 that had fallen to 13%. Among men, weekly attendance had dropped from 12% in 2004 to 10% in 2018. HILDA’s researched discovered experiencing major life events such as having a baby, serious injury, bereavement, retirement or being the victim of violence were contributing causes to people’s non attendance.

But what is the story in your local church? Are you seeing similar situations where formerly regular, actively involved attenders stopped coming? Do you know why? And what action have your leaders or members taken to address the issue?

As a leadership coach and church coach consultant for more 30 years my professional experience is most pastors and churches don’t know what to do. And as a result they tend to do nothing, at least as leaders, to address the problem.

The Dropout Track

The most significant quantitative research undertaken on church dropouts of which I am aware was carried out by Dr John Savage in the USA in early 1970s. With the co-operation of the pastors and their church councils Savage undertook his doctoral research on four local churches. He asked the participating churches to divide family units who had agreed to be interviewed into three groups:

A – those who had been and still were regular in weekly attendance (at least 75% of the time), giving     financially and serving in various roles;

B those who had previously been in group A but had become less active over the last year; and

C – those, who previously would have been in group B (and before that A), but were now no longer involved at all.

From his research Savage found that usually the ‘trigger’ for formerly active members becoming less active and eventually disconnected was an ‘ANXIETY PROVOKING EVENT’ that caused the individual to experience unresolved personal conflict. Failure to find a satisfactory resolution generates increasing levels in internal anger and the person begins to withdraw. When the level of anger becomes too intense the member attempts to resolve the issue by either rationalizing what’s happened or by confronting the person, group or situation perceived to have caused the conflict.

Regularity of attendance at worship is usually the first sign of withdrawal if the person believes their issue has not been addressed.  {Savage found that none of those who had fully dropped out attended any other church although 50% still saw themselves as Christians.) Usually the anxiety provoking event arose from either:

  • conflict with the pastor;
  • conflict with another family member in the church; or
  • conflict with another church member.

Furthermore, Savage found there were two ‘directions’ in which a person travelled in their withdrawal depending on their psychological make-up. Some became BORED – and some become APATHETIC. But in each case the trigger was an anxiety provoking event that lead to a feeling of personal helplessness.

Those who became bored were those whose psychological predisposition prompted them to believe that they lacked the inner personal resources to cope with the conflict. Experiencing minimal, and in most cases no response from the church to their ‘cry for help’ evidenced by withdrawing, they turn their anger in on themselves. Feeling guilty, hopeless and ultimately bored they quietly leave the church that previously had been so important to them.

However, members who end up apathetic take a different route. They blame the cause of the anxiety provoking event on the church (the church council/board or pastor) for failing to deal effectively with the problem. Feeling emotional, they express their feelings to others in the church. Over time, if they believe the problem is still unaddressed, anger builds and like their bored compatriots, they eventually leave.

I said eventually leave! Both bored and apathetic members however give the church a period of 6-8 weeks before doing so. This is the period during which they have started their withdrawal to when they finally disconnect. It’s a time for the church to respond to the signals they have been giving. If there’s no satisfactory response (at least in their opinion) they then totally disconnect, even though their names may still remain on the church members roll! And after that they invest in other non-church related involvements and as Savage found with half still claiming to be Christians.

David Savage named this trajectory, THE DROPOUT TRACK!

How Should Churches Respond?

As I’ve already indicated, my experience is most churches don’t respond -although some might contact the dropout a year or two later to check whether they still want their name kept on the members roll! Why does this happen? Of course there could be many reasons, such as:

  • Pastors and church councils/boards aren’t aware there’s a perceived problem – they have no ‘early warning systems’ in place to pick up on the dropout’s withdrawal signals. (Although this would surely be hard to miss in smaller churches of less than 100 active members!)
  • They are aware but are too timid to act – they don’t want to face personally the conflict. As we have seen, conflict is a common factor in every case Savage researched.
  • They become reactive and defensive, resorting to ‘gaslighting’ behaviours with such statements as, ‘If they were truly committed they wouldn’t have left!’ Blaming the victim is a game humans have always played.
  • Hubris – too proud to admit some measure of fault is another common human failing.

Closing the Back Door – Limiting the Dropout Track

Church consultants have long known that every church has three doors:

  1. The Front Door – public worship services;
  2. The Side Door – those activities, groups and programs that facilitate positive relationships between church members and those on the fringe or not part of the church’s worshipping life and
  3. The Back Door – the dropout track.

When I was in full time pastoral ministry we worked hard at keeping the first two doors as open as possible while trying to keep the third closed as much as we could! Here are some strategies we found to be helpful together with others I’ve since discovered.

  1. Track Weekly Worship Attendance

As changes in a person’s worship attendance pattern is usually the first indicator of withdrawing, tracking people’s attendance is critical. In churches with fewer than 100 active members this can be done fairly organically – the absence of a regular becomes obvious. However, for larger churches an effective attendance tracking system is needed. In these days of digital facial recognition technology that can be readily managed.

But my pastoral ministry occurred in pre-digital times and the method we used was a Care Card system. During worship everyone, including guests and visitors, was encouraged to complete a card that was included with their church notices to indicate attendance and communicate any response or need to the church. Towards the end of the service cards were collected and attendances, together with other relevant information, were recorded by a pastoral team. Because team members knew the regulars they would also add to the roll the attendance of any who hadn’t submitted a card. On Monday morning the team leader would give me a report for me to organise appropriate follow up of any newcomers and regulars who had been unaccountably absent for more than two consecutive weeks as well as alerting me to other changes in members’ attendance patterns. In that way, pastoral intervention could take place before people headed too far down the dropout track.

  1. Regular Pastoral Visiting By Minister

Savage’s research indicated that one of the primary triggers of an active member beginning to withdraw from the church is conflict with the local pastor. Therefore it is important for all pastors to make an effort to establish positive, mutually trusting relationships with their people. By so doing an environment is created whereby concerned members are more likely to discuss with their pastor any issues they might have while it is still a problem and before developing into a serious conflict.

Regular pastoral visiting is the fastest route to getting to know one’s  members at a personal level and becoming aware of potential issues for them in the life of the church that if not sensitively treated could become problematic. With a church of 200 active members my practice was to pastorally visit every family unit at least once a year. Those with special needs I would visit more regularly and of course, as explained in the next section we had additional pastoral systems in place.

I appreciate it becomes challenging for pastors of very large congregations (300 plus active members) to personally visit every family. In such cases I suggest the appointment of a pastoral care minister (full or part time) in addition to other pastoral care systems.

  1.  Small Relational Groups

It’s been long known that a small group of anywhere between 4-12 members who share life and faith together is an ideal context for building a strong sense of community and care for one another. In fact in almost every vital, growing church around the world such groups are a critical factor in their growth and missional impact. In all my pastoral ministry the formation of such groups has been a personal priority.

For such groups to be healthy and effective leaders need to be trained, coached and supported. To that end I recommend each small group leader has a leadership coach who meets regularly (at least monthly) one on one with each group leader. (I advocate a 1 to 3 ratio – i.e. each coach has three leaders he/she supports.) In addition, coaches should periodically visit the groups of their coachees (to get a feel for their context and express support) and all coaches and leaders should meet monthly in a leadership community for worship, encouragement, mutual problem-solving and training.

The more church members are active in a small group the stronger the pastoral care and spiritual vitality of a church. Church Growth pundits claim that giving people a role, task or a group to belong to keeps them connected to a church. My research found that belonging to a small relational group was far more powerful than having a task or a role. (This supports the research by church consultant Win Arn who found that if people have at least 7 friends in the church they are unlikely to dropout. Small groups are the ideal setting for developing friendships.)

  1. Telephone Care Ministry

Church consultant Carl George has advocated Telecare Ministry as another pastoral care system for the local church. Not all active members will join a small group. However, with a Telecare lay minister making a short 5 minute phone call to families on their pastoral list up to 20 family units can be readily supported on a monthly basis. This is not a social call. The purpose of the phone call is to ask for prayer requests that the Telecare lay minister covenants to pray for over the coming month. With permission, referrals can be made regarding special pastoral needs. In the following month’s call the Telecare minister checks whether the prayer need from the previous month is still active.

  1. Conflict Management Training

As conflict is the common factor Dr Savage discovered among all the church dropouts he researched, providing opportunities for training in how to manage conflict is vital before the issues develops from a problem to solve to a full blown disagreement where opponents start taking sides. Such training is helpful not only for maintaining church health but also for equipping members for handling problems in their personal, family and vocational lives.

Finally…

Remember, the first 6-8 weeks is the open window most people who are considering leaving give before dropping out. Churches need systems that can promptly identify the early warning signals and have trained and supported leaders who can respond non-judgementally and sensitively. Failure to respond however clearly communicates to the intended dropout that their church doesn’t care.

However, if having tried sensitively and honestly to respond to the person’s concerns they still leave, let them go with your blessing. Hopefully it will help them find another church community.

What systems and resources do you have in place in your church? If you want to explore further please contact me grahambeattie@optusnet.com.au.

Author

  • Graham Beattie

    Graham is a retired pastor with 50+ years’ ministry experience. While pastoring two growing churches Graham completed a Doctor of Ministry degree through Fuller Theological Seminary, majoring in church consulting and church growth. Following graduation he was appointed as a denominational church consultant in Victoria (7 years) and Queensland (9 years) before accepting a position as State Chaplain with UnitingCare Community. There Graham was a member of the executive team, pioneered a leadership coaching accreditation training program, coached several managers and professionals as well as providing traditional chaplaincy services. Since retirement, Graham developed his own coaching and consulting practice (https://Facebook.com/GBCoachingandConsulting). In addition to coaching managers in the business and not-for-profit sectors he has been consulting with churches and coaching pastors from Baptist, Churches of Christ, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Uniting and Anglican denominations. Living in Brisbane, he is married to Beth - they have 3 adult children and 4 grandchildren. Graham enjoys tennis, vintage detective stories and, of course, time with his grandkids.

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