Has someone ever become so exasperated with you that they stormed off in an angry fit? Sure. It happens to all of us.
But if you were fast on your feet, just before they were out of range, you may have fired off that old insult, “Don’t go away mad, just go away!”
I’m sure I’ve never said that outright, but in my 20 years of pastoring churches and chapels, I can recall at least three occasions when I shared the sentiment.
These three people threatened to drop out of my congregation if I didn’t change some of my practices. When I didn’t change, they withdrew their membership records and promised they wouldn’t be back.
The first person was the retired pastor in the church I was serving in Stockton, Calif. He approached me very upset over the new time-saving method I initiated for communion. My plan used our ushers to pass the communion cups down one row while simultaneously passing the wafer tray down the other row. Then, they reversed the process until everyone was served.
The pastor emeritus felt that the method was confusing for his aging wife, so he promised if I kept my new practice, he’d leave, never to return. He was so loved, that I knew others would likely follow him.
Nevertheless, I did keep the new practice, so he walked.
The second person was a member of the Air Force chapel where I served in Mountain View, Calif. The octogenarian protested my sermons about tithing. (Evangelicals consider tithing a Biblical requirement to give 10 percent of one’s income to Christian charities or churches.) He didn’t feel the teaching was appropriate in a government-sponsored chapel filled with retired congregants.
It didn’t matter to the man that our chapel used the tithes for educational material, giving the remainder to charity. He promised that if I ever repeated this preaching mistake, he’d never return to the chapel.
Of course, I did it again, so of course he didn’t stay.
The third person was a young mother who became troubled with the sad pediatric stories I told in my sermon illustrations (many of which became my first book, “No Small Miracles”). She told me that if I kept telling the stories, she wouldn’t return to chapel.
By now you likely see the pattern in my stubbornness. I kept telling the stories, so she didn’t stay.
It’s not unusual for parishioners to disagree with their spiritual leader. The Bible has several examples of it, but most especially in Jesus’ pesky disciple named Peter.
When the authorities came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew his sword and slashed off the ear of one of the arresting soldiers. Peter was a loyal parishioner, but like my congregants, he definitely had his own ideas on how things ought to be run. The problem was that his plan contradicted Jesus’ plan.
Now, I don’t tell this story to compare myself to Jesus. I cite it because it shows how inevitable it is for people to get sideways with others in their faith community. I don’t find fault with those who find it necessary to leave their church. It’s probably our nature to seek more agreeable environments when things become uncertain.
Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that a faith community should be a place where people are allowed to practice their faith. “Practice” being the operative word here. We won’t always get it right, but nothing should keep us from trying.
“It’s hard,” you say. I know it is. But Christianity teaches that our faith needs to be only the size of a minuscule mustard seed. Once we find that bit of faith, we may begin to move mountains.
I’m glad I can report to you that my three congregants were grounded enough in their faith to avoid becoming spiritual dropouts. They found new communities and presumably more pliable preachers.
Now if I can just find a more pliable congregation — or in my case, a more pliable readership — it would be a perfect world.
But again, probably not.