What to do when church members ghost your church

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What to do when church members ghost your church

January 26, 2023 -

An invisible man wears a black bowler hat and black sweater. © By fran_kie/stock.adobe.com

An invisible man wears a black bowler hat and black sweater. © By fran_kie/stock.adobe.com

An invisible man wears a black bowler hat and black sweater. © By fran_kie/stock.adobe.com

Most mornings my wife and I listen to a local Dallas radio station as we wake up and get ready for the day. We enjoy their brand of music, the morning show hosts, and their entertainment segments.

A daily part of the show gives us a unique insight into one aspect of our culture: dating. The show’s segment features people who have been on a first date with someone they met, usually through a dating app. They thought the initial date went well but the other person is not responding to their follow-up attempts to continue the relationship.

The initial caller has been “ghosted” by the other party.

The morning show hosts offer to act as a go-between to reach out to the unresponsive party to get their first date impression and to see if they would consider a second date. The radio station even offers to pay for the second date if both parties are agreeable.

Usually, they aren’t.

The stories are often humorous and sometimes outrageous. Very few survive an experience of ghosting to continue getting to know each other. Connecting with others and finding love, even when assisted by Big Tech, is still a great challenge.

When did ghost become a verb?

When did the noun ghost become the verb ghosted, as in, “He’s annoying. I’m ghosting him,” or “I didn’t like her so I ghosted her”?

Merriam-Webster lists this ghost verb form as “a word we’re watching” with this explanation:

Ghosting (the noun) and ghost (the verb) both describe this phenomenon of leaving a relationship of some kind by abruptly ending all contact with the other person, and especially electronic contact, like texts, emails, and chats. Ghosting itself has gotten quite a bit of attention over the last year, but we have evidence of this use of ghost that dates back to 2006. Our earliest citations make the electronic aspect clear—setting your IM status to “invisible” so you won’t be obliged to answer, refusing to answer or even read texts, letting calls go to voicemail.

The “disappear” ghost is based on an earlier meaning of the verb ghost, “to leave suddenly and without saying goodbye,” which we’ve traced to 2004. And this ghost is based on yet an earlier use of the verb, “to move silently like a ghost.” That ghost goes back to the 1800s.

Ghosting people is not a new phenomenon.

It’s been happening in romantic relationships and all kinds of relationships, perhaps since the Garden Fall of Genesis 3. Adam and Eve’s first reaction following their sin was to hide.

Was this the first attempt at ghosting God?

When church members ghost your church

Pastors and church leaders surely know what it’s like to be ghosted.

A new family visits your church. You meet in the lobby and get acquainted. You call a few days later to thank them and everything seems positive. They say they will return, but you never see them again.

When you see them at the grocery store or at a school event, they look the other way, as if you’ve never met.

Or, a family joins your church through normal processes and you see them on a regular basis. They make friends and get involved in some ministry service over five years. You enjoy random Sunday hallway conversations over this time.

Then they disappear.

After a while, you notice. When you start inquiring, you discover (often through social media) that they joined another church not far away with no explanation to you.

I once had a family like this.

At one point, they told my ministry assistant that they thought I was “the Michael Jordan of pastors.” That felt pretty great! Then they left the church less than a year later without a word.

They ghosted me.

I’m still confused and a bit irritated.

Of course, this sometimes happens when there is controversy in the church.

People generally come to church to seek and worship God, to engage in caring fellowship, and to be useful in a good purpose. When church becomes tense, broken, hard, and unpleasant, many become ghosts who stay home and find another activity or join a new congregation.

So what helps us as ghosted pastors?

Realize that you are not alone

All pastors get ghosted by somebody at some point. So do business owners and other organizations. Having fellow pastors with whom you can share your frustrations about this and other issues gives you a place to talk it out. I don’t think this is gossiping.

I’ve enjoyed “safe harbor” friendships with fellow pastors in every city I’ve served. They didn’t know my people, and I didn’t know theirs. Talking through hurts and disappointments often gives us an emotional and spiritual landfill—or a cemetery where we can properly bury some pain.

Do you have two or three fellow pastors who serve in other churches that can pastor you and vice-versa when ghosting happens?

If not, what will you do to intentionally build some of those relationships?

Even Paul and Jesus were ghosted

Reading through 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul “vents” to Timothy about some people who disappointed him and others who attacked him. It’s actually amazing the number of people Paul calls out by name.

One, in particular, is Demas, his former coworker. Paul writes, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:9–10). We might say that Demas ghosted (deserted) Paul who had recruited him into ministry. You can sense Paul’s hurt and even anger in those words.

If the great Apostle was ghosted, we can expect some of the same.

Remember too, that Jesus was ghosted.

Like the new ad campaign says, “He Gets Us.”

John 6 records Jesus’ most famous miracle, the feeding of the five thousand. After this, John records that Jesus walked on the water. These two miracles expressed to thousands and the twelve that he was unique, that he was the very presence of God in human form.

The next day, when Jesus reached Capernaum, the crowds came looking for him again. Jesus discerned that many of them were pursuing him because of the feeding miracle he had done the day before. If he could provide food once, maybe he could be their ongoing meal ticket (John 6:26).

Jesus pressed them to see through the miraculous meal to eternal things, to eternal life that only he and his Father could provide (v. 27). When the doubting crowd pressed him, Jesus announced himself the “Bread of Life” that came down from heaven, that they must ingest fully.

Jesus was speaking metaphorically, but many took him literally or were in other ways confused. This was the result: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

We can imagine the pain and disappointment Jesus experienced by those who were confused or disbelieving. He came to seek and save the lost, and many in the crowd were no longer interested.

But Jesus then did something else.

What pastors should focus on instead

He refocused on those who had not left.

Turning to the Apostles and perhaps a few others still in front of him, John records this, “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67–68 NIV).

We aren’t Jesus, and church engagement is not the same as salvation and kingdom inclusion. Many of those who ghost us are sincere believers. But I think there is a practical principle here.

It’s critical that we keep our eyes on the believing remnant, on those who stay and not on those who leave.

It’s a challenge for pastors, but we need to be at least as thankful for those who continue to do life, worship, and ministry with us as we are saddened by those who choose to move on for whatever reason.

Maybe one other thing we could do as pastors is this: whatever your new member orientation looks like, maybe you could include a five-to-ten-minute presentation about “the right way to leave your church,” knowing that many will leave over time for various reasons.

With a little bit of thoughtfulness at the beginning of the church relationship, maybe the disappointment and pain might be reduced for everyone.

If you already discuss how to leave your church with your members, let me know how you address it via the feedback form below.  

May the Holy Ghost comfort, calm, and bring you peace whenever you experience your next ghosting.

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