What I find myself asking is: “How many more times do I message them?”
Maybe they don’t want to hear from me…
Maybe I am making them feel overwhelmed, or guilty…
Maybe they are just busy and I’m doing more harm than good…
I want them to know I’ve missed them…
I don’t want them to think they are unimportant…
If I don’t write them, they might say: “Nobody even noticed I was gone.”
So, almost always, I write again, or phone, or send a card:
“Haven’t seen you in a while!”
“Hope things are well!”
“Would you like a visit?”
Some people write back, but lots don’t. Sometimes it takes many months before I have to admit it: We’ve been ghosted.
“Ghosting” is a word that came into vogue in the past few years in the dating world. It refers to when you are in contact with someone a lot, or even go out with them a few times, and instead of breaking up with you or ending the relationship clearly, they simply drop out of sight. They don’t write. They don’t call. They don’t respond to messages. They “ghost.” And you never quite know why.
And it hurts.
You wonder: Did I do something wrong? Is something the matter with me? Did I mean so little to them?
It might seem funny to apply this dating concept to churches, but long before “ghosting” became a thing in the dating world, it was happening in church communities. I’ve been pastoring for nearly fourteen years, and our church has been “ghosted” more times than I can count. People come for a while, sometimes a long while, and then we just …never hear from them again.
I admit there are people that have fallen through the cracks, people I haven’t written, that I didn’t notice were gone until the damage was done. I regret it, deeply. But there are those that I HAVE noticed. Those that I’ve sent message after message. Those I’ve called. Those I’ve asked over and over if everything is okay only to be met with silence.
There are even times that people have TOLD me everything is all right, only for me to run into them later at another church that they have started attending. Then they confess…”Well, actually we just really needed something different,” or “we weren’t happy with the children’s ministry” or “I’ve been meaning to talk to you….but I didn’t get to it.”
The thing is, I am never upset that people feel they need to be somewhere else – but, if I’m honest, I’m hurt when they don’t talk to us about it. When they ghost. When they disappear instead of talk. And I have heard pastor after pastor share the same hurt: Why didn’t they talk to us???
Now I get why it happens. Sometimes, we didn’t mean to do it. We kind of drifted away, and there was no intention to do leave early on. Sometimes, we think it will be easier if we slip away discreetly. Sometimes, there are very painful reasons that we are leaving, and we don’t feel we actually CAN talk to church leadership safely. I get it.
And I also implore you, if you are someone who is part of a church and you think that ghosting is the easiest way to depart, please reconsider. There are a few reasons for this, but the main reason is:
I have had people ghost that I have baptized, visited, prayed for, wept with, had at my home. People that I loved. Let me say on behalf of many pastors like me that when people you have genuinely loved ghost you, it is painful. I’m sorry my skin isn’t thicker, but it always hurts, even after fourteen years. I punish myself over it. I ask if I did something wrong. I feel like a failure. I lament the things that I must have messed up.
It hurts the church, too. People say: “Where did so and so go?” or “I thought we were friends” or “Did we do something wrong?” They wonder, and they feel they have let the person down. Sometimes, of course, they have. And sometimes they haven’t – but how can they know which it is?
But let me also say this – ghosting will hurt you, too. I totally get that it seems easier to just fade away. No fuss. No drama. No hard feelings. But it just doesn’t work that way.
When I was a young adult and going away to school in another province, it meant hard good-byes for me every time I was heading off for another term. I started trying to skip them. I would say to everyone I saw: “I’m sure I’ll see you again! We’ll say good-bye then!” Sometimes, I was three hours away from a flight saying: “We’ll say good-bye NEXT time I see you!” I thought it would help!
It never did.
It took me a few years to realize that avoiding good-byes did more harm than good. Avoiding the sadness didn’t help me at all – it just made me feel disjointed, out of sorts and regretful.
The same is true in all our relationships, and the same is true in churches. How we end things matters.
Good good-byes are important and healing. If you loved your church community, love them as you leave by leaving well. If you are struggling with your church community, love the people of God and those who will come after you by giving the church a chance to deal with the problems you have seen. (And don’t forget – sometimes the problems you have felt may have been misunderstandings, miscommunications or any number of things that COULD be cleared up with an honest conversation. Give your community a chance to make it right before you decide that they are all wrong).
I know it may not work out – you may try to mend things that can’t be fixed, and you will still need to leave in the end. But, even then, you will be glad you had the peace of knowing: you did all you could.
So if you are reading this and you are ready to leave a church, I implore you: Don’t ghost. Say good-bye well. Let them send you off, pray for you, bless you. Have the hard conversation if you need to. Tie up the loose ends. End well so that you can begin again well.
As the people of God, I believe we can do better for ourselves and each other than what bad dating practices allow us. Let’s let ghosting die.
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