Too Harsh with member who left church?

I'd like some feedback on whether I was too harsh with a letter I sent to a former church member. Here's the scenario:

  • Wife is a strong believer. Husband is a non-entity. Says nothing and rarely comes. I'll call her Sheryl and him Fred. 
  • They've joined and left the church three times in the past 8 years. 
  • Wife is heavily involved in children's ministry, and is a strong leader. 
  • I've suspected they've been unhappy for a few months, but they have rebuffed my attempts to meet, have them over for dinner, etc. to chat about things. 

Here is the email the other pastor and I received earlier this week:

Dear Tyler and George,

I am writing to let you know that over the past few months Fred has asked that we look for a new church. The time has come for us to do so. While we don’t know where that will be, the Lord does. We continue to be in prayer over the matter.

Of course I will no longer be available for the mission team, the finance committee or the children’s program.

We pray for the Lord’s very best for SKRBC. 

After speaking to the other children's ministry teachers, it is now clear she has been unhappy for some time, and has told them she may leave several months ago. She told me nothing. I respond in a tentative manner, hoping for a face to face meeting:

Sheryl:

I understand. My crystal ball told me this might happen, which is why I asked to meet with you and Fred a few weeks ago. If you and Fred want to meet to at least clear the air, just let me know. No worries.

She responds after several days:

Tyler and George,

Tyler, forgive me for not getting back to you sooner.  I do want to assure you that there is “no air to clear.”  The decision to leave SKRBC was not made in haste, not made lightly, nor made out of anger.  We have NOT been offended, nor do we have differences doctrinally.  It is not about anything that anyone has done or has not done.  It is a decision made after much prayer and conversation between the two of us that really boils down to personal preferences.  This decision is important to us as a couple in our faith walk and important to our marriage as well.

It has been a privilege and a great love to serve at SKRBC these past few years. I have grown and learned much.  I appreciate the trust you placed in us and the support and encouragement provided.

We will continue to be in prayer for SKRBC, for the leadership of the church and those who attend. We desire only God’s very best for the church and for each of you and your families as you continue to lead the ministry.

Realizing that I now have nothing to lose, I decide to tell her what I'd planned to say if we'd met in person:

Sheryl:

I understand. I wish George and I had been afforded the opportunity to chat with both of you, together, about your concerns. I don't know what the personal preferences are and, to some extent, it doesn't matter at this point. I'll close by telling you a few things you already know. (1) No church is perfect, and the church you find next won't be perfect either. (2) When you find a new church, love it to death, get heavily involved and become a key leader in a ministry there, and after a few years when you notice small things you don't like, and deal with it for a while, then eventually decide these personal preferences are too serious to deal with anymore, and you decide to leave that church - remember #1, above!

I don't say this out of spite; I genuinely just want you to consider it. According the church records, you've now joined and left SKRBC three times. Church membership is about commitment, and a desire to work together to fashion the congregation into a more Christ-like body, bit by bit, as we carry out the Great Commission. It's also a very messy business, which often has little to do with the lily-white, pious expectations we have in our own minds. It's also a place where we each need to be willing to bear with one another in love (Eph 4:2); i.e. to put up with one another - especially the personal preferences we don't like. There are a lot of things I wish I could wave a magic wand at and fix at SKRBC. But, many of these aren't critical and they can wait their turn. This is different than ignoring them, which, to be sure, some leaders do.

Thanks for your help and ministry at SKRBC. I hope you find a Christ-honoring congregation to attend.

Too harsh? I really don't think so, but I wanted your opinions!

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Kevin Miller's picture

I think the only part that may have been harsh is calling her preferences "lily white, pious expectations." It sounds like she has a spiritually immature husband who has been expressing preferences that she, as his wife, wishes to honor, even though they may not be pious, lily white preferences. She may be trying to put the health of her marriage above the expectations of one particular local church. Granted, he may never be able to find the church that suits him.

I am curious, though. Your church accepted them back into membership a third time, after they had left twice. What would be your position if they attempted to come back for a fourth time? Would you insist on a certain period of faithful attendance from both of them before re-admittance, or would renewing the membership again be out of the question?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Thanks!

The "lily white, pious expectations" was a generic statement, meant to say "we have pious expectations, but the reality is that church life is messy sometimes."

They were accepted back into membership before I became the pastor. If they wanted to come back, I'd have a long chat with them both about what membership means, and expectations going forward. I wouldn't let them become members for a little while, most likely.

I'm not sure if the husband is the driving force. She didn't want to meet to discuss. She has shared some frustrations with me over the past year. She'd likely be more at home in a more formal, chilly Reformed church - she's a bit Puritanical about discipline and decorum. I have no idea if this was the issue, or not. I wish she'd wanted to meet to discuss.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mike Harding's picture

After 34 years pastoring the same church, I have been in your shoes more than once.  In my experience when they keep coming back, especially for the third time, they have not resolved their issues.  In every case where I have taken someone back the second time, they eventually leave again.  Your church will have more peace and tranquility if you let them move on.  They, more than likely, are the problem.

Pastor Mike Harding

Kevin Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:
She'd likely be more at home in a more formal, chilly Reformed church - she's a bit Puritanical about discipline and decorum. I have no idea if this was the issue, or not. I wish she'd wanted to meet to discuss.

Oh, if this is the case, then I have a personal story about a decorum issue. When I was in Bible college, I went home every weekend and ministered on extension in my home church. I was the Sunday School Superintendent. We had just recently called a new pastor. One Sunday, while I was leading the opening songs, one of the other extension students came into the auditorium dressed in a chicken suit, passing out flyers for Vacation Bible School. The new pastor had arranged it and I hadn't even been told. I was very frustrated by the lack of decorum and by not having been told ahead of time.

I did go talk to the pastor about it, but he thought it was great fun and didn't see why I should have a problem with it. I did eventually end up leaving the church, and I sometimes wonder if decorum issues and lack of communication issues were good enough reasons for leaving. I just didn't feel comfortable ministering in that situation, and I wanted to be on extension ministering somewhere, so I quickly found a new church.

Jay's picture

I agree that the "lily-white" line may have been too strong, but I don't think that there's anything you can do about that now.  I also agree with the others that there's probably something in the marriage that is causing them to leave, rejoin, leave, etc cycle, but if they don't want to discuss it with you then I'm not sure what you can do.

This should probably be moved to the pastors-only forum and not left in public like this.  I'd be pretty upset if I were Sheryl or Fred and I found this discussion online.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Ron Bean's picture

I think you handled this as well as possible. At the risk of being labeled misogynistic, it has been my experience that, when dealing with a couple in situations like this, discussions dominated and led by the wife seldom end well.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

The chicken suit is certainly interesting! When I mention "more formal," I mean I suspect she'd be more at home at a congregation that had a raised pulpit you mount stairs to preach from, and a formal liturgy.

I don't think I'm "informal;" perhaps "down to earth" is a better descriptor. I recently preached on two-nature Christology and used examples, in my PowerPoint presentation, of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, Darth Vader and Inigo Montoya. And, the other week, after dispensing candy from the pulpit for folks who had birthdays or anniversaries last month, I realized I had an extra candy, and threw it from the pulpit into the candy bucket a child was holding halfway across the church, and missed.

Woe is me ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

M. Osborne's picture

I don't think it's too harsh at all. Your initial response was quite gracious and gave you room to be more pointed in the later response. And after this--"According the church records, you've now joined and left SKRBC three times"--wow, you can say almost anything you want and be OK. Smile

The one thing I'd have changed is I'd have addressed Fred directly: "Dude, if--as your wife is saying--you're the one who wants to move on, why don't you be a man and write your own communications? Don't make your wife do your dirty work." I leave it to you for how to rephrase that in a kinder way. Smile

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA