By Dick Koehneke
Most (if not all) congregations struggle with the issue of absent members: people whose names are on the membership roster but who rarely if ever participate in worship. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
- What’s in a name?
Congregations use different terms to describe their absent members. “Wayward” means straying or wandering. “Delinquent” is a word with criminal overtones. “Inactive” puts the focus on activity and performance. We know they are not present in worship. They are “absent.” That’s what we know. Usually we don’t know why, because we never see them. Maybe they are hurting or struggling. They may be absent due to illness, accident, shame, problems in school, relational strife, depression, disappointment with the pastor, or a sense of alienation from the congregation. As the saying goes, “Some people don’t go to church because of those who do.”
- In most congregations the Board of Elders is the group that carries out ministry to absent members. What is your motive in this ministry?
- Do your duty as an elder?
- Clean up the membership roster?
- Improve the church’s financial condition?
- Show the person that he or she has been negligent?
- Understand the person and his/her situation and feelings? The person has a reason for being absent that probably makes sense to them.
- What is your goal in this ministry?
- Report that you have made contact with the person?
- Get the person to decide if he/she is a member or not?
- Care for the person and address his/her real needs?
- Do we want to “seek the lost sheep” or “shake the dust off our feet”?
- If you were an absent member, how would you hope to be treated?
- How would you define success in this ministry?
Success is doing what pleases God. What pleases God is Christ-like love: doing what is best for the other person. Do we view the person as a problem to be solved or a person to be loved?
- What about calling this a ministry of “special care” or “intensive care”?
- God creates and sustains faith through His Word and Sacraments. That’s a key theological reason for doing absent member ministry. Absence from the Word and Sacraments threatens faith and could weaken or even destroy it. (That’s why we regularly bring Communion to shut-in members.) In the physical realm, people who are dying of hunger are no longer hungry, because their bodies are shutting down. The same is true when it comes to faith. When faith is weakening, there is less of a felt need for the Word and Sacraments. A second theological reason has to do with the relational nature of the Church. We need each other. As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
- It is critical to reach absent members in the early stages of absence, when they have been absent no more than four weekends in a row with no known reason. Habits become harder and harder to break after four weeks, which is why most addiction inpatient rehabilitation periods are for 28 days. It takes at least 28 days of treatment to establish a good habit of sobriety that can be maintained with regular support. Start with the people who are most recently absent from worship. There may be some exceptions to that approach, such as a long-time absent member who has gone through a crisis recently. A life crisis can be a great opportunity for ministry to someone who has been absent.
- Here’s an important question: What is the plan for supporting the absent member who returns to worship, so that he or she does not relapse?
- A ministry of intensive care calls for an accompanying ministry of intensive prayer by those who will be doing it: prayer for wisdom and discernment; prayer for God’s blessings upon the absent members; prayer for yourself as you make the contact, that you will be motivated by love and will be open to the needs of the other person; prayer for their minds and hearts to be open to receive your love and care. If you are feeling angry or resentful or suspicious or condescending toward the other person, don’t make the contact. Do whatever it takes to process those feelings and get rid of them. You might pray, “Lord Jesus, love this person through me. I want to be a clear channel for Your love.” Then make the contact.
Pray for one another that you do not become discouraged or perhaps even cynical as you do this important ministry. Absent member ministry can be very challenging and potentially discouraging, especially if we are looking for quantifiable “results.” Remember that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Each person is important to God, whether that person is a leader of the congregation or someone who has not been to worship for years. Both you and that absent member are precious in God’s sight.
- You are definitely doing what God is blessing as you seek the lost sheep, look for the lost coin, and long for the return of the child who left home – so that you can welcome that precious person back to the Father’s house. (Luke 15) Proceed with confidence and joy!