Katie Luther Posts

The Elephant in the Pews


By Amanda Markel

There’s an elephant in the living room in some of our churches and it’s time to stop ignoring it.

That elephant is the former church workers in our midst.

The “elephant in the corner” metaphor doesn’t apply to every former church worker. There is a group of retirees, especially pastors, that receive a place of honor in our congregations, such as the pastors emeriti. They who have served many successful, although often hard, years and are now retired, but willing to help out from time to time, are not the people I’m talking about.

The former church workers that I’m talking about are often younger, although not always. They might be “retired” from church work after having children. But they are often former church workers because they were treated badly by the very churches they had committed to serve. Former pastors who got stuck in the middle of a feuding congregation, and end up without a call. Former DCEs who are so burnt out from the demands placed upon them that they had to walk away, or risk their health, their families, even their sanity. Former church workers who were so abused by their congregations in a variety of ways that they had to leave their employment, lest their very faith falter.

These are the people that churches tend not to know how to deal with. They’ve been synodically educated and trained, they’re served in positions of authority in different congregations for varied lengths of time, and yet they’re suddenly relegated to the pews on Sunday morning, trying to be just another congregant, when they spent a lot of time and often money to be more than that. They will often have theological knowledge greater than that of the average member of the church because of their education, but won’t know how to share that with others, or how to continue to grow in their own faith.

So how do we deal with this group of people when they show up in our churches? Often we’re afraid to overstep our bounds, to pry into the past, to burden the former church worker with a new set of obligations. But this fear can leave former pastors, deaconesses, whoever, feeling isolated and unimportant. We need to be deliberate to make sure this doesn’t happen, because it’s often this group of people that needs to hear the Gospel the most, and needs to feel valued in their congregations.

  • First of all, talk to your neighbor about his or her past in the church…but don’t be offended if they don’t give you much of a response. Some former church workers want to talk about their former congregations…programs they implemented, successes they had, even struggles they experienced. They might need to share those things with someone. But, like other people, every church worker is different. So some of them may just want to leave that chapter in the past, and may not be forthcoming with information. They may even have a hard time trusting that their conversations will remain private. That’s OK.
  • Second, involve your neighbor in church activities, whether social or service-based…but again, don’t be offended if they don’t take you up on it. Some former church workers will want to dive right in, because they miss the busy life of the church. They may want to teach Sunday School, be on committees, and come to every social activity. The church has been at the center of their lives, and it’s a hard thing to walk away from. But, they may also need some space. They may not be ready to get too involved, especially in areas directly involved with their former occupation. They may need a little time before they’re ready to jump back in, and that’s OK, too.
  • Third, find ways to share the Gospel with your neighbor. Former church workers can be some of the people the church has treated the worst. They may be hesitant even to walk through the doors of another church, maybe even be suspicious of the people around them, because of how they’ve been treated in the past. They need to be treated kindly, gently, and with the Gospel, maybe even more so than other people in your congregation. They need to hear that God loves them, and that the people of your congregation love them, especially if they’ve been left feeling unloved at their former call.
  • Fourth, and maybe most obviously, pray for them! We spend a lot of time praying for those who are currently serving in our churches, and we should. But a few extra prayers for those who are no longer actively serving in the church are also very necessary, and this is the least intrusive, but possibly most useful, thing you can do for your neighbor.

These are just a few ways you can help former church workers acclimate to life in your congregation…a life different from what they had planned and trained for, but a life serving God and neighbor just the same. As you get to know your new neighbor, and learn about them and their story, you may find other ways to help care for members of this unique group of people among us.

Photo Credit to Peter Miller. Creative Commons license.

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