Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church--Part 1
While doing research on “ecclesiology” [the theology of the nature of the Church] I kept seeing references in footnotes to a 1993 work called Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church. The author, William Hendricks, is a Protestant writer and church consultant with degrees in communications, media, and theology. Much of his professional life has been devoted to the organizational renewal and rehabilitation of church congregations and organizations, particularly among the independent Christian Churches. Hendricks, whose work took him around the United States, was in an excellent position to observe the exodus of churchgoers thirty years ago and the considerable concern of pastors and church boards to staunch the bleeding. In 1993 he composed his eighth book--what he calls in his preface his most difficult—on the stories of those who have disengaged from organized Christian Churches.
Hendricks decided to seek out those who had left their institutional churches and find out why they left. It is not clear precisely how he selected the sixteen interviewees for his book, but they are a fair national cross section of Christians from primarily nondenominational, independent, and/or mega-churches. Ideally, I would have liked a book devoted to Catholic departures, but I have not come upon this kind of work yet. [Ironically, I did come across a 2020 study of Catholic boys who left the seminary, which should be coming across this desk with the next Amazon Prime delivery van.] As I have progressed through Exit Interviews thus far, though, I do see interesting points of convergence between the individuals in the book with what I see happening among Roman Catholics, i.e., most commonly a drift toward a more individually cultivated spirituality, with or without an attachment to a structured church community.
As a consultant to pastors seeking to rebuild their dwindling congregations, Hendricks noticed that most churches erred in their approach to keeping themselves above water. As he put it, their efforts were totally engaged at the “front door” of their churches, getting new people in. [To Catholic readers, does this sound like “The New Evangelization?”] No one, he observed, ever stands at the back door, metaphorically speaking, to ask why others were leaving. He cites the research of Dr. John Savage of L.E.A.D. Consultants, who found that “once a person decides to leave a church, there is a six-to-eight-week window of time during which he waits for someone from the church to contact him. He wants someone to listen, and he also wants to know whether he is even missed. If no one contacts him within that period, he moves on.” [p. 132] In about all of Hendricks’ interviews, this was the case except for those instances where the interviewee was strongly urged to move out of the congregation, officially or informally.
To date—I have six interviews to read yet--none of the subjects in the interviews had specifically left Roman Catholicism as adults, though some were raised Catholic and had opted or drifted to other church communities where they experienced crisis or dissatisfaction. If I can draw from my own experiences, Catholics as a rule tend to drift away from their church, a process which research has shown can begin as a disaffiliation as early as age 10. The interviewees in this book have more pronounced breaks in adult years that have impacted them enough to provide coherent narratives. There is excellent research from St. Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate [CARA] at Georgetown University on the “disaffiliation of young Catholics”  but nothing comparable for Catholic adults of which I am aware.
Among the case studies in Exit Interviews are several stories of young adults who were attracted to specific churches in their teens, college, and young adult years and became deeply involved in the church’s ministry, up to and including such ventures as overseas missions. In these cases, the young enthusiasts were scandalized by mismanagement and/or misconduct of the leadership. One respondent told Hendricks she had not been paid in a year. In other cases, the “team” became riddled with internal strife that hurt and offended the young idealists, a condition that leadership seemed to tolerate. Others were not psychologically prepared for the ardor of ministry. It is worth noting that some churches rotate young converts into ministry with minimal training and preparation, which is a recipe for trouble.
For others, their disenchantment centered on issues surrounding preaching and authority. An educated IRS worker complained that preachers of his experience were noticeably short on Biblical scholarship and regularly defaulted to a repetitious moralism. [A major Catholic preaching habit, sad to say.] This same government worker raised the issue of a gulf between the soft certainties of pulpit talk and the hard realities of the working world. No one seemed capable or interested in connecting religious life of Sunday with the rough and tumble of the real world. The author comments that “precious few resources exist to help believers think intelligently about what difference biblical truth makes in the marketplace.” [p. 58]
Church congregations themselves can be their own worst enemies. Hendricks argues that small country congregations, which can appear to be delightfully bucolic and desirable, can generate their own brand of judgmentalism and exclusiveness, because of their size, intimacy, and isolation. The wife of a minister of such a rural church described how the local church turned on her husband—and indeed, on his entire family. Hendricks explains that “uneducated people, which rural areas often have, feel distrustful of trained and educated professionals, for a variety of reasons.” [p. 65] He might have added the Freudian principle of transference, which in our case would be the projection of needs upon the pastor. Many congregants recreate their leaders mentally into roles which fulfill their own needs. Thus, the pastor becomes in the minds of some members the ideal husband, the father I never had, an exclusive sympathetic close friend. When a minister or priest cannot meet these lofty expectations—and he should never try, despite the gratification it might bring—there is a rage of betrayal in which the transferring individual leaves the church, convinced that he or she had been unjustly ignored by the pastor.
On the other hand, the megachurches carry their own vulnerabilities which lead members to lose heart. I noted earlier Dr. Savage’s study of the 6–8-week window after a member stops attending. In a megachurch—and I belong to a Catholic one, with thousands of members—it is exceedingly difficult to meet even the most basic of needs, such as funerals, weddings, etc. To discern who is silently disenchanted and/or contemplating leaving is quite a challenge for the leadership. [In the old days before EFT giving, at least a Catholic pastor could take note when the weekly church envelopes stopping appearing in the collection basket.] On the other hand, some megachurches are so well structured and staffed that one may get the sense of belonging to a corporation and feeling lost in the shuffle. In either case, what we see is a struggle to meet the needs of “community experience” and “belonging.”
I could go on with other examples and genres of departure from the book, but I would recommend that you may want to read this work yourself. [The second-hand market for this book has bargains, such as these here at the book’s Amazon site.] The common denominator of all the interviews is discontent, pain, spiritual emptiness, and not knowing where one belongs in a Christian assembly, or even if one belongs in a structured church at all. Hendricks is aware that the prevailing attitude among many church goers and clergy toward those who have departed and/or are not actively worshipping in a congregation is not always favorable or compassionate. The “popular wisdom” is that the departed have lost their faith, cannot forgive an institutional slight, or are plain too lazy to commit to weekly worship and community membership.
Hendricks addresses these and other points in his excellent closing chapters, “What Churches Can Do” and “You’ll Never Find the Perfect Church.” I will post on his commentary in a follow up but coming from a Catholic vantage point I would offer a few preliminary thoughts about departures from the Church. In the first instance, the only recent reliable research, the St. Mary’s/CARA 2018 study, seems to confirm the idea that Catholics drift away. This study is worth parsing for what seems to happen in the lives of young Catholics around the age of puberty, Truth be told, I think that Catholic youth begin leaving the Church at an even earlier age.
Consider the three points of contact that an eight-year-old Catholic has with the Church: his family, the Mass, and religious education. On the first point, there is reliable polling to the effect that only 20-25% of Catholics attend weekly Eucharist, which strongly suggests that domestic Catholic formation is at best shaky. On the second point, we need to be honest and ask ourselves what a youngster takes away from Sunday Mass when he does attend. One obvious point—so obvious I feel embarrassed bringing it up—is that most children cannot see the altar, because we continue to build or refurbish churches in the long, rectangular style rather than in arrangements that foster full visual access to the mysteries. Sacraments are “outward signs,” meant to be seen and experienced. Typically, a child experiences Mass staring at the backside of the adult in front of him. And can we honestly say that our children take away anything meaningful from the typical sermon?
On the third point, those young people who do attend parish religious education receive instruction from minimally trained volunteers—other kids’ parents, ironically—to the tune of about twenty hours per year. On the matter of religious education, I refer to Kenneth Woodward’s 2018 article, “Losing Faith.” Woodward, the Newsweek religion edition for nearly forty years, highlights the decline of religious formation in the home among other factors in the departure of the young from the Church. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference conducted by Woodward a year after this article was published. Woodward put it to us this way: “Every generation of Catholics knows exponentially less than the one before.”
The inability to form the young to remain Catholic seems self-explanatory. For active adults who decide to leave the Church, the question is more complex. It is hard to research the question because churches historically do not like to pay for unwelcome news. So, we do not have accurate figures on whether the clergy abuse scandal, which came into prominence in 2002, led to a wholesale exodus. Anecdotally it seems to have had impact, but this varies from diocese to diocese depending on the intensity of the problem. At any rate, it certainly accelerated a departure already in progress.
I do recall a remark from a religious journalist a few years ago. He observed that “the Catholic Church is extremely vulnerable to one more crisis.” In 2020 that crisis may have tipped the scale, specifically the Covid epidemic. For Catholics across the country went for extended periods without the regularity of weekly Eucharist, and it appears that a sizable number of Catholics who may have been on the fence about the efficacy of the Mass came to realize that he or she could indeed live without it. This correlates with an observation that Hendricks makes in his book, that for every member of a religious community who leaves, there is at least one more contemplating it.
It is true that many Catholics have left the Church for some of the same reasons Hendricks cites about other Christian communities: direct clashes with church authorities and human resource issues. Disagreements with official Church teachings on everything from birth control to women priests have had a long-term alienating impact. The human resources issue gets little ink, but because there are fewer catechized Catholics, the hires at the parish and diocesan levels are not fully equipped for their paid pastoral duties and consequently the turnover rate among lay ministers is high. As a private practice psychotherapist in my diocese, I have treated a fair number of lay and religious employees who have been overworked or discharged from what I would consider no-win job placements.
In a few days I will post a second set of reflections on Hendrick’s book—including the question of whether an individual can craft a Christian existence while separated from a formal worshipping community. I am seeing Catholics attempt this, and Hendricks observed the same thing thirty years ago among the individuals he interviewed.
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