Outreach to those who left church

By | February 5, 2010

It is not uncommon to hear, “I wonder what happened to the Smiths.” Research suggests that there are two basic groups who leave their parish during reorganizations. The first, those who decide to “take a break from their faith.” The second are those deeply hurt, angry or disillusioned. The airing of the Catholics Come Home commercials will impact both groups.

For the first group, those who took a break from their faith, what might their response be? Though they may feel the call home, they may feel awkward about coming back. They may believe they’ve been away too long. After all, by stepping back, didn’t they kind of reject the parish? Do parishioners resent them for leaving? There can be a formidable wall to scale before they could consider coming home.

So how can we help to lower that wall? How can we make sure that they will be treated like the Prodigal Son with open arms, feasting and celebration? We, have to be the welcoming face, the caring heart that accepts them wherever they are. We need to give them permission to share their confusion over what happened. Encourage them to let the past be the past. Let them know that they have been missed.

Tell them about some of the good things that are going on in the parish. Let them know that things could be better if they were a part of the community once again. Offer to go with them to Mass for the first time. Don’t push — let them respond in God’s time.

The second group are those who experience a deeper sense of loss. The commercials may open up old wounds. Some feel pain or anger over the loss of their “parish family.” They deeply miss the church where they met their God for generations. Some believe that they were betrayed or let down by the church.

When we encounter those alienated, the first rule of thumb is to compassionately demonstrate care and concern for them where they are. Listen with your heart. Receive their pain. Let them talk without interruption. The worst thing that you can say is, “Oh, a good Christian or Catholic shouldn’t feel that way.”

Sometimes, those who hold their anger, do so with an unconscious desire to someday get revenge on those who caused their loss. Sadly, instead of being able to avenge it, holding on does more harm to the person who can’t let go. It alienates them from friends, from the parish, from the sacraments that can help to them to heal.

Those caught here should be invited to consider whether the time may have come to let go of that anger or pain. Invite them to consider forgiving those who caused the pain.

What is outlined here is very simplistic. The act of forgiveness, reconciliation and hoped-for healing of a person who harbors pain and anger is not something that is done quickly or easily. It takes time. It begins with the desire to move on and consider the possibility of forgiveness. Patience is critical when it comes to the process of healing. A supportive friend can be a great help.

Those ready to explore reconciliation should be encouraged to meet with a parish staff member. Provide them a specific name and phone number of someone you trust and can confidently recommend.

Those from either group who aren’t quite ready to come back should be respected where they are. Let them know there is a parish community waiting for them. Let them know that whenever that day comes and they are ready to consider coming back, it’s OK. Tell them we’ve “left the light on” for them.

Mogilka is director of Stewardship and Pastoral Services.

Next week: “Why church still matters.”

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