Amy is a full-time employee, a full-time family member, and a part time case manager/patient advocate. Her family includes her husband, a tween-aged daughter, and a kindergarten daughter. Amy’s focus has recently been co-producing an environment for her oldest daughter’s virtual learning experience and implementing a hybrid pre-school curriculum in tandem with her kindergarten-aged daughter’s pre-school as a volunteer, part-time pre-school teacher. Other interests include understanding and supporting mental neurodiversity, pastoral ministries/counseling, philosophy, history, leadership, and pasta (who isn’t interested in pasta?).
Some people who used to come to church may no longer come back to church or come back to church on a different schedule than before COVID hit. Others may have fallen in love with virtual church and mourn if/when wards and branches return to physical attendance as the means of participation. In any case, a main question being tentatively asked is, “What does this look like? What do we do about those who we love who aren’t coming back to a physical church presence and the way things used to be?”
The specifics are likely to vary, but here are some thoughts/tips about how to set the stage so that those conversations around those questions are more engaging, peaceful, and useful.
Respect Autonomy to Preserve the Relationship
A person who is not attending church anymore probably gave it some thought before before and during making that decision. It is usually not just a case of “being lazy” because they no longer want to show up. They may be re-evaluating what spirituality looks like for them, how to live the gospel more fully outside the lines that the church, as an organization, has supplied. They may be working through sorting out facts/beliefs/emotions based on new information and experiences. They may not be comfortable because of increased virus awareness, or just not be in a place where the individual getting up and dragging their butt (and the butts of family members) is worth it to them anymore.
Showing respect for their thought-out decision (in and outside of their company) will go a long way to preserving those relationships and keeping the connection with those individuals for if/when things change (especially if it appears that 75% of the decision is based on the person does not want their butt in the pew anymore due to laziness).
Assuming “they got offended” is not necessarily super helpful or connection-building – even if they got offended. It might be that that personal offense was the last straw or played on past trauma/triggers in that person’s life where distance is the best thing for them, right now, as they work through their personal situation.
Do Not Take it Personally
Chances are a person’s church attendance has nothing to do the person staying active in the church. Even if it does, stewing over it will not help the situation. If children walked away from the church after their parents did the best that they could to share experiences and answer questions – that is not something the parent could control or change. Having the parent continue to take their children’s apparent defection personally seems to put more guilt on the parents and expands the emotional distance between the parents and the children. A wife is not responsible for her husband’s testimony, activity level or a host of other things or vice versa.
It is easy to take things personally, we are taught we are our “brother’s keeper” since Primary days. I think it is important to recognize that our duty in this area is to care about other humans – about the people around us. We are charged to “keep” their needs and perspectives in our minds instead of just what we need and our perspectives. In a sense, “keeping” our brother or sister in this way validates the need not to take their actions personally – but listen to, think about, and respect their perspective too.
Do Not Try “Fixing the Problem”
A good boundary to develop is one where neither side expects the other to fix the problem or be a negative comment sounding board. There are entire boards and groups where either side can safely vent if needed. That is what typing things out and pen/paper is for. Respect the person’s time/energy/connection by venting elsewhere.
Activity levels are not “if only this was fixed…” scenarios, nor should they be. Unearthing or re-phrasing historical facts in a different context can be useful as a resource but is not a game-changer here. Just be willing to embrace that you can still have a relationship of love and trust and that it is not your job to change their mind. It is your job to love them and stay connected to them.
Besides, at the end of the day – it is the Holy Ghost that can “fix the problem” and provide guidance for the other person to live by and grow their testimony by. (Whatever that looks like.)
When a person stops attending church, they also stop investing time/energy into that group of people to the degree they previously did. Sometimes this is a healing thing, and sometimes not so much.
It matters because it means that people need to be deliberate in planning connective activities to re-vamp the relationship(s). It means thinking about what is wanted from both sides from a social encounter and figuring out sustainable ways to achieve that.
It also may mean integrating virtual options into daily life post-COVID – whether that means a video chat over scriptures, texting to check in with each other as a ministering option, or other options entirely.
Whether you are the person walking away from church attendance, or the one holding the bag as it were – thinking about what that looks like and talking to each other about it can minimize resentment.
Person Decreasing Church Activity:
- It is a kindness to the person leaving to respectfully disclose the boundaries of what they can do in a positive frame. For example, maybe the individual is not interested in attending church – but plans to attend the Halloween party with lots of candy.
- It is helpful to have developed a rough transition plan for any callings the person was holding that they will be leaving as they change their level of church attendance.
- It is also helpful to have a rough script for the gossip mill that the person staying can use when questioned about church activity. It should consist of a short statement like, “I talked to so-and-so, and we haven’t seen them because (whatever the person is requesting as the boundary) they are working through some stuff right now. They would like … (x behavior specifics) and will get back to us if they have further questions.”
Person Maintaining Church Activity:
- If someone discloses to you that they are leaving, ask for clarification on areas of stewardship. For example, you may want to ask about the level of church correspondence they want to receive. Or maybe ask if it would be helpful to see if shifting ministering assignments would be helpful for that person.
- Ask about/brainstorm for a rough social script.
- Think about personal boundaries now that the person who is leaving is changing things. It might be worth it still to ask for help in getting the children ready to go to church even if the spouse is not and other courses of action such as planning family activities. What matters most is what feels sustainable to the person maintaining the church activity in the face of change. That person needs to “win” something here too.
A person’s altering activity level is not a death sentence. It is an opportunity to ask thoughtful questions, create an environment for deliberate connectedness, and an opportunity to look at setting up sustainable boundaries that both succor and support. Key principles include the autonomy of the individual, creative win-win solution planning, and setting thoughtful, sustainable boundaries. These principles are achieved by asking thoughtful and clarifying questions, finding best practice venting practices, and connecting with others.