This is not to search the questions as to why people leave the church, nor is it a crowd sourcing for ways to retain parishioners. This, though it may sound like wallowing in self-pity (and perhaps it is--if so I apologize), is an honest and open lamentation (to use a good biblical term) on the loss of parishioners. It hurts when people leave--and we need to be able to speak this pain. I imagine (and I could be wrong) that people in the congregation--the pastor included--don't always get time or an opportunity to mourn the leaving of some from their community of faith. I imagine, for pastors, (and I could be moving further down a wrong rabbit hole) that expressing this grief isn't usually given much more time than it takes to adjust the entry in the congregational record books. The loss of part of the community--by death, transfer, or intentional absence--is a wound felt by the whole church, a loss that requires grieving. To step back, momentarily, I must say I am happy for those whose leaving a congregation is in response to the Spirit's call to go and serve among God's people in another community of faith. Remaining in a place where one is either unhappy or feels disconnected is not good for anyone. Nevertheless, in the loss of a family or person, the church they leave behind is left to mourn the change of relationships and impact they had on the greater life of the whole. Some churches, over time, give this change and the pain it brings over to Jesus to bear; others, however, are scarred by it--unfortunately, letting the pain shape their story from one of hope and future anticipation to despair and white-knuckled memory clinching.
If I'm honest with those around me and myself, the toughest part of losing parishioners--the thing that can multiply and further the pain of the situation--is turning to blame. Whenever something happens that causes us pain or suffering of any kind, whenever we encounter change in an unpleasant way, the temptation is to participate (reciprocate) in one of two forms of blame. In this case, we either blame those who have left and/or we blame ourselves for their leaving. It is all too easy to scapegoat those who have left so as to deflect our feelings instead of claiming the pain for what it is: a loving relationship that is now altered, strained, or damaged. Yet, to say that "we don't need them anyway" or "this only proves who/how they are" doesn't change or heal the hurt we bear, it only intensifies it. To blame the other fosters a lie that deceives both the individual and community--leaving the wound to become gangrenous. I'm reminded of the chain of blame we see happen immediately following the first sin in Genesis 3. Instead of taking accountability for his actions when addressed by God, the man blames both the woman and God for his wrongdoing. The woman--following the man's misguided lead--blames the serpent for her wrongdoing. When each of them is confronted with their distrust, the man and woman both resort to blaming another for something they themselves did full-knowingly. As such, their relationships with God, one another, and the rest of creation are forever altered with consequences. We cannot follow their harmful pattern and blame those who leave the church--it does nobody any good. Yet, the temptation for us to blame ourselves is just as great if not worse when it comes to the wake of parishioners leaving the church. Just as it is unfair, and divisive, when we blame another, it is just as unnecessary and damaging when we blame ourselves for something that many times exceeds us. I'm the worlds-worst at this. Something happens--anything--and immediately my thought is: "What did I do?" There are surely reasons for why I react this way, but regardless the effect of immediately blaming myself is no good at all.
Jesus took on the entire weight of all our sins at the cross. In this efficacious act of God, we are freed from blame--freed from both perpetuating and suffering by it. When we blame ourselves--piling burden upon burden onto our shoulders--Jesus' death is made vain. We are made new in the Crucified and Risen Christ, not that we might blame others or ourselves, but that we may live in love, sincerity, and care--especially through the difficult times. I have no answer for stopping parishioners from leaving the church; and I believe an answer would not help, but only hinder the grieving process. There is no neatly wrapped conclusion at the end of this, with a pretty bow on top. For a multitude of reasons--good and bad, changeable and not--churches will lose parishioners. It will hurt each time it happens--as it should. I think, if anything, the most appropriate task when this happens is not to point fingers and scapegoat--which does not retain anyone--but to instead name the pain, claim its tension, and finally give it over in prayer to Christ. God promises to bear all our pains, and brings about forgiveness and renewed faith through the Crucified and Risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. If nothing else, I hope and pray this process of writing out my thoughts and feelings on the topic has given you an opportunity to stop and think about it as well. May the Spirit who gathers, guides, and sends us out into the world also lead those who (have left and) leave our congregation, giving them peace along their faith journey.