Many pastors are under treatment for depression. I am one of those, as are at least two others in our small town. At first this fact seems incongruous -- shouldn't a person who trusts so deeply in God be filled with hope? And yes, that is partially true, but depression isn't always a loss of hope, sometimes the reason we became pastors is that we were people with a darkness in our soul, or a lack of self-worth, who found in God a profound and deep love. At other times our depression is the result of a deep grief and a broken heart.
Pastors, like many other professions, walk with people through the most shadowed valleys of life. We stand at bedsides of children who are in a coma, we hold a family member's hand as their loved one takes a final breath, we watch families split apart by poor choices and the dreadful consequences. I have watched a hundred times as people have kissed the cold lips of their spouse just before the casket is closed. Loving people through these times is a huge investment of time and emotional energy. Often we become emotionally intertwined with the families we serve, and so we grieve each loss even as we are supporting others.
But death isn't really the hardest grief for me -- I am able to grieve as one who has not lost hope. A grief I never expected as a young adult entering the pastorate is actually the more difficult -- when people who you have an emotional investment in, leave the congregation to attend elsewhere, or simply stop coming. Usually it is motivated by the programs another church offers, or it can occur when a congregation member has a conflict with another congregation member, or sometimes the person simply gets out of the habit.
What happens 49 times out of 50 is that the person who is leaving does so without informing the pastor; in fact, often when I follow up with a phone call to the individual, they will either refuse to answer the phone, or refuse to tell me why they left. So many cynics have said that we just trade church members, and we are happy to see the troublesome ones go, that maybe church members have come to think it is better to leave in silence rather than cause a fuss. Perhaps they are trying to be Christian and don't want to offend us, or perhaps they don't realize how much their pastors have truly come to love them. Whatever the case, the lack of certainty plays back into those dark thoughts about ourselves, and the grief of losing a member is very real. We try not to take it personally, and yet it is awfully hard not to.
I remember vividly as a teenager asking out a young lady with whom I was quite stricken. The response was less than I had hoped for; in fact, she chose not to respond right away, and said she would get back to me. When she didn't get back to me, I called again and asked why she had not replied. Her response was that she thought it would be better to say nothing rather than to say no, she was not interested. Perhaps this is the thinking of those who leave the church; however, I disagreed with this young lady then, and still disagree with that attitude today. I would rather have a solemn goodbye with a shaking of hands, and an understanding of the problem; that to see people silently slip away never to be heard from.
For the last ten years this issue has been particularly poignant for pastors. We have watched our congregations dwindle with attendance nationwide dropping by almost 10%. That means one in ten people that we spent time caring for, visiting, having heart to heart spiritual conversations with, is no longer with us for whatever reason, and as pastors this breaks our hearts, it becomes personal, it becomes heavy.
The next time you decide to change churches, or you think perhaps no one will notice if you simply stop coming -- talk to your pastor first. Help us understand. Be a bold Christian and tell us the truth. You may help us to grow even as we grieve your parting.