Back on November 20, I posted the first entry on William Hendricks’ Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church . I checked the book’s Amazon site this AM, and the book is available used in hard cover or paper for under $10 from networked small book dealers. Hendricks, as you may recall, interviewed sixteen persons who had left their Christian churches or, in some cases, had been pressured to leave. The author summarizes his impressions and recommendations in the final two chapters, and today I want to look closely at Chapter 20, “What Churches Can Do.” [pp. 273-288]
I noted in the earlier post Hendricks’ observation that churches spend too much time at the front door and not enough time at the back door, i.e., we are always looking for new fresh faces while the disenchanted are leaving unnoticed. I can say that as a pastor I was guilty of this failing; it is always an “upper” when a new family joins us for Sunday liturgy, usually expressing dissatisfaction with a previous church and/or pastor and telling you how much better you are, or your church is. On the other hand, when someone was disengaging from me as pastor or from my parish—either discretely or by a dramatic letter—it was hard to work up the enthusiasm for a pastoral visit that was bound to be lengthy, critical, and at times passionate. That said, Hendricks’ research found that on average a person leaving a congregation expects an outreach or reaction from the church within a six- or eight-week window before making a final break.
Hendricks makes a good point that none of the sixteen people he interviewed were new converts. All his subjects had been church members throughout their adulthood, so they had “skin in the game,” so to speak. Moreover, they were all dissatisfied with their spiritual progress. Whose fault is this? Churches historically tend to slough off crises of faith on the weakness, disobedience, or other inadequacies of the frustrated believer. But the author raises the painful question of whether the churches do an adequate job in the ongoing spiritual formation of adult members. I recall about thirty years ago when I hired a consulting firm to assist in saving a Catholic elementary school in my parish. The first piece of $30,000 advice was this: “Retention, retention, retention!”
Parishioners grow. Cultures change. The tired recipes of parochial life are not keeping up with the spiritual and psychological needs of longtime members. Hendricks uses an interesting example. “People no longer evaluate Christianity based on whether it is true, but how it is true. As my friend Doug Sherman says, today’s question is not whether God exists, but what difference does He make?” [p. 277] One reason the churches are losing members, he argues, is the absence of age-appropriate faith formation. “Yet spirituality is probably the foremost theological category in people’s minds today. If the church lacks a cogent doctrine in this area, it will keep losing credibility—which is to say it will keep losing people.” [p. 277] No Catholic parish or diocese I am aware of offers an ongoing faith formation that parallels the human life cycle. While it is true that God’s revelation is unchanging, we experience it from very distinct generations and outside circumstances.
I can relate to Hendricks’ point from my personal experience. At the age of 40 I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and promptly fell into clinical depression, a common occurrence when one stops “self-medicating.” My psychiatrist referred me to a therapist on his staff, an Episcopal woman whom I met with weekly for two years. A spiritual person herself, she walked me through a rediscovery of my own soul, making me read St. Augustine’s Confessions and other Christian treasures of conversion while I reviewed the direction of my life and made decisions for the future. She provided the faith formation and the psychological support I needed as I passed through a sloppy stage of human development. To be frank, I sensed at the time that someone outside the Roman Catholic community might be more honest with me about the decisions I needed to make, such as leaving the active priesthood.
Hendricks is a bit flip when he observes that “the church is in the people development business” [p. 277] but essentially he is correct. If the church is not meaningfully engaged with every one of its members through the full spectrum of life and experience, we will continue to lose church members. Hendricks refers to a “theology of persons” in which spiritual development and human development go hand in hand. If you look at your church bulletin, you may notice that our parochial formative ministries are lopsided toward the young; we are still living with the 1950’s sacramental model of cramming in “the essentials” before Confirmation and crossing our fingers that everyone has enough gas to cross the finish line of the faith many years hence.
Following along this line of thought, Hendricks pinpoints a problem that has troubled me for years, i.e., how do we engage all our members in opportunities to exercise their unique baptismal gifts, those charisms mentioned frequently in St. Paul’s letters? He writes “I’ve heard countless pastors and church leaders cry that they cannot find enough volunteers, and therefore the work of the church goes undone. Their tendency is to blame the people. But could it be that the people are merely responding to a woefully inadequate theology of spiritual gifts?” [p. 279]
In my lifetime I have seen a considerable growth in the numbers of Catholics who involve themselves in social outreach ministries, and of course the religious education programs of all parishes are now conducted by lay volunteers instead of religious sisters. However, the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation confer divine gifts upon all the initiated, and this is an area where an entire rethinking is in line. Truth be told, the Church does not know how to facilitate the good will and the talents of its members, nor does it have a “theology of volunteerism” nor a systematic concept of how to engage all members in meaningful missionary work. By this I am referring to the skill of diagnosing how every member can serve in the name of Christ. The recent Vatican declaration restoring the order of catechists, Antiquum Ministerium  and specific directives on the requirements of the catechetical ministry issued last week are a step in the right direction, though I think that current catechists might blanch at the evident call for professional excellence in this ministry. Pope Francis’ vision of catechetics will take a generation or more to implement. But that is as it should be.
Certainly, the Catholic Church is always in significant need of volunteers [and decently compensated professionals] to competently maintain the ministries of a parish mandated by custom and Canon Law. But it is wrong to suggest that baptismal gifts can only be exercised within a parish structure. Those with specialized skills may best exercise them in Christ’s name in collaboration with other faiths or civil ventures. During the Covid crisis medical personnel are working far above the call of duty; this is an exercise of extraordinary baptismal service that we never talk about from the pulpit. Other careers, such as law enforcement, are rich in opportunities to live baptismal goodness and courage. The critical point is to reinforce the importance of every member in the collective mission of the Body of Christ. A failure to do this only reinforces the old “pray, pay, and obey” handle about traditional Catholics. Catholics want to play a meaningful role in the Body of Christ; they also hunger to be fed the spiritual guidance necessary to make prudent decisions.
Hendricks makes more important points on how churches can retain and enrich their members. I will highlight them here:
A church must maintain a theology of grace. The author puts it this way: the preaching and message of any church must put God’s saving grace at the center. Hendricks decries “preaching grace while demanding works.” [p. 280] The author comes from an Evangelical Protestant tradition that, going back to Luther, holds the primacy of God in personal salvation. Hendricks is critical of churches and clerics who pay lip service to the mystery of God and demand adherence to a bureaucracy of hoops to salvation.
The term he uses is “legalism.” “Legalism is keeping people out of the church, it is driving people away from the church, and it is poisoning the lives of those who remain in the church.” [p. 280] In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, many [I included] hunger for mystical communion with God’s grace but find ourselves tangled in preoccupation with doctrinal purity, moral rectitude, and intramural legal considerations. [I recently began working with adult candidates for Confirmation, and I did raise an eyebrow on the paperwork required for a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit.] But far worse is a maverick moralism/legalism that scandalizes huge swaths of society. Last week the Catholic Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, issued an instruction to its parishes that transgender people cannot be baptized or receive other sacraments “until they have repented.”
Redefining Community: Churches are used to dealing with large numbers of people, to thinking collectively. But Hendricks reminds us that “most people can only relate personally to a handful of others.” [p. 283] It may be my psychological training run amuck, but I am always discomfited by Catholicism’s casual use of the term “community.” There is a dissonance in the pew, or in the rearview mirror, when church leaders talk about community when very few of us feel deeply connected or personally impacted. I cannot help but observe that in my own parish the congregation cannot even agree on whether to wear facial masks to Mass.
I used to instruct large groups of people when I worked in my diocese’s catechist training program. After taking five years off, my parish asked me to conduct the formation meetings for adult candidates for Confirmation. I had five candidates for a five-week series. My biggest takeaway from the experience was my inability to get to know them better personally, to hear their faith journey stories—adult Confirmation is always a conversion of sorts. In short, my vision of church is shrinking, which I believe to be a good thing, albeit a significant challenge to achieve. Were we to see our parishes as collections of little communities, I believe that fewer of us will drift away, unloved, and unnoticed.
Teach people theology. Hendricks observes that “As I conducted these interviews, and as I listen to people talk about spiritual issues today, I was stunned at how much ‘folk religion’ there is on the street…popular but inaccurate ideas about what our faith is and how it applies. Folk religion is marked by simplistic formulations of supposedly Biblical truths. It is essentially ‘McDoctrine’—spiritual fast-food of proof texts and cliches that are filling and fattening, but not particularly nourishing.” [p. 284]
How true in the Roman Catholic setting. We are heirs of the greatest treasury of religious thought in the Western World. But there is no systematic structure for continuing adult education and faith formation built into Catholic pastoral life. And, given this vacuum, a sincere Catholic who sets off on a personal online exploration of Catholic theology will lose his way in a maze of literature and websites that would never find its way to the bookshelves of a decent Catholic college. This is particularly true in the computer age; Hendricks wrote these words in 1993. One of the goals of adult faith formation is precisely the skill of critiquing works that are true to the Catholic theological tradition and meet the muster of peer review.
Catholics have a particular challenge to face; sad to say, I am not sure that many Church leaders are comfortable with a well-read and thoughtful adult membership. No better example of this is the lethargic response of dioceses in the United States to Pope Francis’ call to “Synodality,” a worldwide conversation/consultation of the pulse of Catholic life at the grassroots. I suppose this reluctance to converse with the regular members is symptomatic of clericalism, i.e., the laity have nothing important to impart to the ordained. But by the measure of completed years of schooling, Catholics are the best educated cohort in the United States. The tragedy is that parishes have nothing to offer that is comparable to the competence of doctors, teachers, CEOs, and other professions. Boredom leads to frustration and often to the door.
Think about it: when is the last time a book was cited or recommended from the pulpit?
I have not done justice to all of Hendricks’ insights. But there is enough here to enter another discussion: can a Catholic make a go of it independent of a parish? Hendricks addresses the question of living without a faith community in Chapter 20, “You’ll Never Find the Perfect Church,” the third entry on this blog stream which will appear shortly.