A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

Let me be completely honest: I’m angry right now. It’s a dangerous thing to be angry while blogging, and I’ll probably wait an hour or two after writing before hitting the publish button, but I think this is something that needs to be said.

Ever since I first posted about feeling invisible in church, I’ve received emails and comments on that post and the subsequent ones on the same topic. So many people are hurting. They feel alone in church. They feel that no one cares, that they have no friendships, that they might be physically sitting on the church pews but no one sees them. This is sad.

What is sadder to me is that, in many of these stories, the people have tried to fit in at a particular church:

  • Bible studies.
  • Small groups.
  • Ministry involvement.

If these things weren’t available, often they tried to start them. Tried . . . and failed, for reasons too many to count. (Lack of leader support, not spiritually gifted in that area, etc.) Too many people have told me, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this!” And then they thank me for sharing because it’s helped to know that someone cares, even if it’s a total stranger in cyberspace.

Yet at many of the churches I’ve attended and visited, the majority claimed to be a caring body of believers. They urge people to join small groups or Bible studies or get involved in various ministries. These are the best ways to make you feel like you belong, I’ve been told.

But my blog readers have done all these things, and they haven’t worked. They’re still alone. Still hurting. Still invisible in the church pew. All these wonderful, promising things that are supposed to help us follow Christ together and share life and blah-blah-blah: they’re failing.

I’m sure there are people for who these groups and methods work. They’ve found close friends and feel totally accepted and loved at church. Terrific. But others are falling through the cracks.

People are asking me to pray, and I am. I’m heartbroken for them.

But at this point, I’m also frustrated. The one group of people I haven’t heard from on this topic are church leaders. (There have been a few. Thank you.)

I can’t imagine that they are entirely ignorant of this problem. (I think some leaders acknowledge that this happens at other churches, but convince themselves that their church is not like that. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not.)

Nor can I imagine that pastors, elders, and deacons don’t give a damn that people feel rejected and alone. I’m sure many or most do. (For example, when I told my psychiatrist that I’d had a negative experience visiting his church–I was totally ignored both times I attended–he nodded and said, “People come to the church through small groups, so they don’t feel the need to reach out to people in the pews. The leaders know this is a problem, but we don’t know what to do about it.”)

Nor can I imagine that the leaders want congregation members and visitors to suffer silently. (There would be exceptions; egotistical masochists end up in every profession, unfortunately. But surely most pastors desire to have a pastor’s heart: compassionate and merciful, shepherding people like Christ, the Good Shepherd, does. Imperfectly, to be sure, but longing to help and guide.)

So what’s the problem?

Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?

That includes

  • The join-a-small-group method:

(This seems to elicit more enthusiasm in my area than it deserves. Many involve the church putting the groups together, so you might end up with a group of people you don’t like or trust or even know, and somehow you’re supposed to “do life together” with weekly meetings that are heavy on food and fellowship and light on anything more substantial than coffee cake and sweet tea. It’s an introvert’s–and nutritionist’s–nightmare. Maybe the small group idea works better when you’re already friends and get to pick each other. But then how do outsiders join?)

  • The participate-in-a-Bible-study method: 

(A lecture-based group isn’t conducive to building friendships. And the discussion-based ones aren’t either, as it’s too easy for one or two people to dominate or derail the discussion, many people are too intimidated by public speaking or feel too ignorant to talk, and a lot of Bible studies are filled with fluffy material that doesn’t satisfy mature believers or educate and equip young ones.)

  • The get-involved-in-a-ministry method:

(Theoretically, this should work. Working alongside other people is a terrific way of getting to know others. But I’ve heard from people who said that they signed up to help in a particular area but were never contacted by the leaders. A variation on this situation is where there’s a small clique that owns that ministry and they don’t want to share the work, power, or glory. It’s “theirs.” Another variation: the same clique allows you to do the gruntwork but your ideas and concerns aren’t heard, and you’re never really accepted by the people who are involved. Your gifts are never fully utilized. You walk away frustrated.)

All three methods are things that I’ve been told by church leaders (and read in various places) are great ways to feel like I belong in church. I’ve tried all three. None of them are bad. All work for certain people in certain circumstances. (Praise God and give him glory!) But none work for everyone. And for some people, they don’t work at all, and those are the people writing to me. Pastors and leaders, why is this?

Please hear me: I’m not blaming the pastors. Often, they’re doing the best they can: preaching until they’re hoarse about loving others around us, trying to set a good example in their own lives, truly trying to reach the lonely among the members. But the congregation members are hardhearted. In that situation, I’m not sure there’s anything they can do besides pray.

I realize that the pastor’s role is difficult. I understand that. I understand they’re torn in 500 different directions, personal and professional, and feel overwhelmed and alone and frustrated. I understand the burnout rate is high, the depression rate is incredibly bad, and there’s often no one they can confide in within their church. I understand that there’s a thousand different aspects to that job that I’ll never understand because I’ve never done it. I get that. I don’t want to add a burden to their heavy load.

But I’d like to hear from church leaders about why some Christians might try so hard, do all the build-friendships-at-church methods, and still end up alone on Sunday morning. What is going wrong? How can we, as the body of Christ, move beyond mere methods to something more substantial? How can we stop having people fall through the cracks? What would you advise my lonely readers to do? 


(P.S.: I did wait a while to cool down and edit this. If you feel condemned by my words, I ask your forgiveness and please let me know so I can edit.) 

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58 thoughts on “A plea to church leaders from the invisible woman in the church pew

  1. Thanks Laura. I think your post is gracious. I hope some church leaders hear you. “Why can’t leaders acknowledge that sometimes methods fail?” – Yes, why can’t they? Twice in the past we tried to graciously explain to a pastor (two different churches) that we did what we were supposed to do to assimilate, but we were still lonely and isolated at their church. Neither pastor acknowledged this, and instead blamed us. Pastors out there – it would be a huge help if you could just ACKNOWLEDGE this problem exists. Please. That is all. If a problem is ignored, it can never be resolved. If it is at least acknowledged, there can be a possibility of solution. And as Laura emphasized, this is not about blaming you dear pastor.

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    1. Thanks, Laura. I really think that the “blame” for the problem is a collective one; no one person, pastor, leader, or congregation member, can do everything to make a church a welcoming place. It depends on all of us. Methods are just that: methods. People have to use the methods effectively and just as there’s not just one diet that helps every overweight person lose weight, there needs to be multiple ways of helping people connect in meaningful ways. And that requires more than one man (or woman’s) effort.

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  2. In my experience as a pastor’s wife I have found that it *is* in small groups that we feel connected. The problem is in identifying what type of small group. It happens in social groups not in traditional “ministry” groups. I actually believe that social small groups for women are in themselves ministry groups because deep friendships are forged. It’s only after that has happened that traditional ministry can occur. Women need the friendship of other women. We need to talk about our lives to one another from the serious things to the silly things. Only then can we feel connected to the larger church.

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    1. Respectfully, for many of us, small groups have failed. We have tried. And we have tried different types of groups too. Women’s groups have actually been the worst for me. I do not connect in groups of women. They can be the worst at being superficial and lacking depth. Some of us avoid women’s groups like the plague. Mixed-sex groups have worked better for me, but true connection remains hard to find…

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      1. Same here, Laura. Last time I went to a women’s ministry dinner (at Christmas), I had a panic attack and almost couldn’t stay. I do think Susanna’s making an important distinction though: “social groups” tend to arise organically, between people who like and have things in common, versus “ministry groups” which are put together by an outsider. (Am I right, Susanna?) The social group of friends can minister to each other in ways that wouldn’t happen if someone put a bunch of women in the same room and expected us to relate.

        Any ideas why you have a better time with mixed-gender groups? I’m still trying to figure that out about myself!

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      2. I don’t like to stereotype women and men, but they do have tendencies. I think when a group of one sex is together, it can accentuate these tendencies. Or the ones who do have the tendencies become prominent. Meanwhile those of us without the “typical” tendencies feel completely alienated or out of place. I think mixed-sex groups bring balance, and can keep certain behaviors in check. And I feel more at ease…

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      3. Good observation. I can’t say anything for men, but when it’s only women in the room, we do tend to behave slightly different. A man walks in and suddenly, the dynamics change.

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    2. Thanks for weighing in, Susanna. I think it’s an important distinction to make: social groups (which happen best organically, IMO) versus ministry groups (which feel forced). But I’ve had huge issues with all-female groups–ladies’ Bible studies & small groups, always chosen by church leaders, have been disasters for me–and I can’t relate well to other women. (I haven’t had a close group of female friends since the first semester of my sophomore year of college, when I transferred because of the anorexia.) I wish I did have a social group of women; I think I could put up with a lot of crap if I knew that there was a group that had my back, so to speak. Personally, I know that a lot of women do connect well in small groups, but a significant number don’t.

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      1. I’m so sorry if you felt at all unsupported. I was speaking from my own experience. It’s really hard to for me to feel connected outside a social group. I have a foot in both worlds as a PW. Am I ministry or laity? Everyone has an opinion about that. Invariably, I’m asked to pray at the beginning of things (Godly by association) and so I’ve most enjoyed having a women’s group that requires nothing other than talking and laughing while relationships begin to solidify.

        I understand that this doesn’t work for you. Perhaps something with more structure would be helpful. I hate the thought of you being invisible and not getting your needs met.

        I’ve always been in smaller churches with lots of children and families. My husband and I like the intimacy and connections. Knowing what size church works for you can make a big difference. It can be hard to find the right fit. There are so many variables.

        I’m worried I seem patronizing. I’m really trying not to come off that way. I don’t get to church shop. I have to make our church work for us which means beiing proactive. As an extrovert that comes fairly easily. If our church doesn’t have what I like/need I go about creating that thing and then allow other things to grow out of the original creation.

        This is probably a goot time to shut up 🙂

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      2. Oh, no, you didn’t seem patronizing at all, Susanna. You’re in a different position as a pastor’s wife, and I can see how a social group works in those circumstances that you’ve described. You don’t have a choice. You’ve got to make it work, even when the situation is difficult! Ministry or laity? Both!

        I can’t speak for Laura M., but I’m an introvert. (And easily frightened by groups, but that’s not introversion.) So I can’t imagine being an extrovert. From the comments I’ve gotten, I think many of the folks having issues are introverted and/or having personal difficulties (going through a divorce or major illness, etc.) The outgoing people don’t seem to have as many difficulties. I envy that. Part of my issue is just generally not fitting in with the demographics of our region: lots and lots of engineers and very few artsy people.

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      3. Oh, if I haven’t mentioned it, I think there are a lot of women who do benefit from those all-female groups. I would definitely want an all-female group for support if I were a victim of sexual assault, for example, or going through a painful divorce (not that any divorce isn’t painful). And obviously, a lot of women enjoy their girlfriend time and such. Those things have their place and are beneficial! But it is really hard for those of us who don’t enjoy them; I tend to feel like a “bad” female for hating women’s ministry events. Silly, and I know my feelings aren’t an accurate gauge of reality, but it’s how I feel.

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  3. I love my church. It’s a growing, thriving, Gospel-seeking body that’s involved in the community and actively worshiping both inside and outside the walls. I was involved in a ministry for almost 3 years, and belonged to a small group which was close knit, active, and enjoyable because we challenged one another in a supportive, loving, uplifting environment.

    I have not attended in almost a year, and although I am friends with several of my “closer” friends from church on Facebook, no one’s noticed. Why?

    Well, for one, no one from church has, ever, been to my home. It’s not that I haven’t invited people. We’re just all very busy and it’s hard, it seems, to make time for those who aren’t already in one’s social circle. Even though I saw these folks at church, at small group, and on Monday nights at our Awana group, I lacked connection and when my life fell apart because of my husband’s affair and our subsequent divorce, I got sympathy and prayers but still felt adrift. No one called. No one visited. My support system was contained within the walls of the building, and outside I was alone.

    I’m not blaming anyone. It’s not easy for me, as a PTSD survivor, to make connections. But I did try, and while I felt included and supported and loved, the effort to step outside the established social circles was too much. I couldn’t break in, apparently. I was sometimes invited to group gatherings at people’s homes, but there was no one who dropped in for coffee or just to chat. No invitations for that, either.

    If there’s no social connection on an individual basis, there’s an insular quality. If and when I return to my church, I will go back wiser, and I will make an effort to reach out, especially to newcomers. Hopefully things can be different. It’s a good church. We just need to keep working at it.

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    1. Wow, Mary, it sounds like you’ve been through a rough time. I’m truly sorry about the loss of your marriage. When a close relative divorced, I remember her talking about how people at church “dropped” her. I’m afraid that experience isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary one, either.

      I think you’ve pointed out, wisely, that we have to have individual connections. Groups are only as strong as the individual bonds between people, and if those social bonds are weak, the groups fizzle. Our society is so busy . . . I think we’d do well to drop one or two of the unnecessary things and make time for people outside of the prescribed and scheduled “small group” times within church buildings.

      I applaud your healthy attitude toward this situation, even though I know it’s a hard and hurtful one. You seem to have a forgiving heart toward the church, and that is refreshing; too many hold onto bitterness and turn their backs on Christ because of the behavior of his “fan club.” I’m raising my hand here. I have difficulties with this! So thank you for the convicting words and the thoughtful response.

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      1. I struggle with hospitality too, but in different ways. I think Christians always have struggled with this in ways because the Apostle Peter wrote about it – 1 Peter 4:9 “Use hospitality one to another without grudging.” If it was easy, we wouldn’t need to hear that. 🙂

        My own challenges run along the lines of a tendency toward clutter and the perfectionism of my younger self which still annoys me at times. Sigh. The crazy cleaning and obsessing about non-essentials runs in my dad’s side, but thankfully my mom didn’t have that. She was more interested in making sure there was food and relating to the people. My parents were very hospitable, so we were very used to eating with other people.

        Due to the health issues I do struggle preparing for company, On one occasion when I was dealing with that I made myself plan a super simple menu, and they really liked it(!) – but more importantly the conversation was great and I wasn’t too tired! Lesson learned – when people really want to get to know you they aren’t going to be so focused on the food, so I shouldn’t be either! If they don’t want to get to know you, it doesn’t really matter what you serve or how your house looks. 😉

        Since the food stresses you maybe you could try inviting people for coffee/tea and dessert. We live so far out in the boondocks that isn’t an option, but if you have folks closer it’s a possibility. Another way to deal with it is making it a joint effort or potluck type meal. This also helps them if they have food intolerance issues or orthorexia.

        Going to other people’s homes is another whole story. LOL It can be an, um, adventure. 🙂 I have so many intolerances that I would probably have to carry my own food, which is embarrassing and awkward unless people are really understanding. For me it really isn’t about the food, then, because I’m not going to even eat much if any of it!

        I hope this helps some??

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      2. Those are great thoughts, Mary. In one of the better small groups we were in, one woman and her two kids had a ton of food intolerances. (The entire family came to these gatherings.) Her husband ate a normal diet, but one kid couldn’t eat this, another couldn’t eat that, she couldn’t eat thus-and-such: it was very complicated. She brought food for them and her husband got the “normal” meal along with the rest of us. Typically the hosts (who loved to cook) had a variety of foods, some of which these family members could eat along with their food from home. It was eye-opening for me, as I’d never known anyone who had that many food intolerances.

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    2. Mary, you wrote: “My support system was contained within the walls of the building, and outside I was alone.” I really feel this with you. We love our church in many ways. When we’re there a number of people are friendly and we enjoy talking with them and even sometimes have really great conversations (after meeting). But, I have a number of health problems that interfere with church attendance (often, over the last year), and we live a long ways from the building. When we don’t go – for weeks at a time, sometimes – we seldom hear anything from anyone with the exception of one friend of mine (and Facebook – is that real communication?).

      I have expressed frustration more than once over this to my husband. He has reminded me more than once that we need to try harder ourselves and that we don’t contact others like we should either, so I can’t be too hard on them really! If we continue at this church, I hope things can be improved over time as well. We have had some little steps, and tiny as they may be, that is encouraging. We were invited to one home in the last year, but it was on a day we couldn’t go.

      One thing that mystifies me is how so many Christians seem to be so hesitant or even afraid to extend hospitality to each other. This was not the way I grew up in small churches. My in-laws, who are in a different denomination, have tried much harder than we have but have had similar results – very little reciprocation and only a few real friendships formed. At their previous church it was even worse. Why? It’s supposed to be part of our normal life in the body of Christ. Romans 12:13 Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.

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      1. Great comment, Mary. The issue of extending hospitality is a sore one for me. I grew up with very perfectionistic parents, and having someone over was a stressful event, both before and after. Now that I’m an adult, I should’ve grown out of that mindset, but somehow, I can’t quite do it. That hinders me from enjoying having others over. The other side issue? I hate cooking. I’m not big on food at all, eat strange combinations of foods, and often find eating with people other than my family to be stressful. I’ve never understood what other people might like to eat. That tends to get in the way, too! Pathetic, I know.

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  4. I did three 3-year terms on the elder board, including serving as chair. I confess that I had no clue how pervasive or painful this was, and I ask forgiveness for my failures.

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    1. I appreciate your humility on this, Tim.

      In the past, I’ve wondered how leaders might NOT be aware of this issue, but over time, I’ve grown to think it’s very, very easy to overlook it for a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t within a leader’s control. For one thing, if people don’t tell leaders how they feel or how the church is perceived, how can a leader know? It’s not like leaders are all-knowing! (Many of the people I’ve talked to on this issue haven’t brought it up to anyone; they truly think that they’re the only ones.)

      And as the ultimate “insiders”, it’s hard to know how an “outsider” can feel. And that trickles down to other groups. My 14 year old has said that there is a popular group in her rather small youth group. It’s not these kids exclude the newcomers, but, as she’s told me, these are the kids who have been part of the church since it started about 7-8 years ago. They don’t know what it’s like to BE the new kids and so it’s hard to know how to reach out to those new teens. It’s the same issue that a lot of leaders have, IMO. When everyone in the church knows and recognizes you, it’s hard to see how a newcomer/visitor/lonely person feels.

      Neither of those are within a leader’s control.

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      1. Laura, you mentioned people not bringing the subject up with leadership. I suppose various people have various reasons for this. For us, we are not voting members and since we miss meetings often due to health problems, I’m not sure how seriously it would be taken. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, so that’s something for us to pray about and consider in our own situation. Thanks for mentioning it.

        Sometimes, in a weird way, it feels like some Christians think that if your don’t attend services often enough, that you aren’t serious about fellowship or interaction with the saints, and your walk with the Lord. It’s almost like you have to earn their attention by “being there every time the doors are open” or “faithfulness” (meaning attendance – literally). With health issues that keep us at home quite a bit, it’s hard to “earn” the interaction, but I don’t believe that is what Jesus has in mind for His body anyway. We’re all supposed to need each other – strong or weak.

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      2. Oh, I so agree. We’re not voting members of our church either and sometimes it doesn’t feel like we have the right to bring things up to leaders. And we’re not members of a church small group, either, so if I bring up feeling disconnected at church, I think the leaders will respond with, “You need to be in a small group! That’s why you don’t feel connected!” It’s like I have to earn the right to have meaningful connections at church by attending a small group.

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      3. The idea that being in a small group will resolve all connection problems kind of reminds me of when people tell those with an anxiety disorder (like me) to “Stop worrying!” and that’s supposed to make us all better. Huh. As if there was a one-size-fits-all way to connect. We tend to forget that Jesus had the advantage of being God, so He connected withe everyone He ministered to in a way that no one else could, going directly to the heart of whatever issues or needs they had because He knew what was in them. We don’t have that, so we have to try harder – and listen more.

        For my own part, I want to learn to ask better questions. I think, in a small way, this will help if others really want to connect. What do you think?

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  5. Well, I’m writing a book on this that I hope to publish in 2 to 3 months. I’m not trying to be coy here, but I think there are many issues we have to face when it comes to abiding in community. God promised Abraham that he would make him into a people that would bless the rest of the people on the face of the Earth. When we enter into relationship with Christ, we enter into that promise. Consequently, gathering with the church is learning how to abide with the people of God, learning how to live out the promise of God. As the church is Christ’s body, we gather with fellow Christians because Christ desires to gather with himself. As far as gathering with others, people will be as sinful collectively as they are individually. Regardless, my salvation is not about me alone, it is about being brought into a people. As far as abiding with people, I commit by faith to the belief that I will grow in the character of Christ as I learn to love and abide with his body, the church. I’ve found that I don’t personally desire to gather with people. If I went by my feelings, I would stay home and leave most, if not all communities. As a pastor and a congregant, I’ve been hurt many times. Most communities are full of people who have many needs, dysfunctions and hurts. Regardless, I believe by faith that I will learn the character of Christ as I abide with people in faith. So for me, I commit to abiding and loving others. In other words, it is about seeking out those who need love and loving them by choice, regardless of whether or not they reciprocate. What I find as a pastor, is people do not consistently pursue relationship, therefore, I must continue to show up and love, regardless of how I feel. That is my personal calling. It doesn’t get easier. No matter how we structure a church or a gathering, people are people. It is why families struggle, marriages struggle and churches struggle. Sometimes we look for an environment in church that we cannot foster in our biological relationships or our marital relationships. Regardless, I press in, even though people can really hurt me. Each of us have to do what we are called to do, as best as we know how. There are no super strong people who will do it better. For me, I assume everyone is trying their best. So if I see them for a couple weeks, a couple years or a lifetime, I will be thankful for them. Regardless, each of us have to find a way to move forward in community, regardless of what others do or don’t do. That is my two cents. I so much appreciate your thoughts…..this is a very incomplete, quickly written response (5 min), about how I processes things. There are many valid reasons why some people should or should not abide in certain communities.

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    1. Thanks for a thoughtful response, Doug. I appreciate your candor about what it’s like to be a pastor and have to press on and in, even when people are, well, people: fallen and hurtful, trying to do their best and failing more often than not.

      I struggle with reconciling my feelings of hurt (both present hurts and wounds from the past) and my desire to reach those who are hurting and have a community. I’ve never felt that “quitting church” entirely was a healthy response to church conflict, but whether I ought to stay in a church where I consistently walk away feeling discouraged, browbeaten, and ignored is difficult. Right now, I’m trying to decide if God is pushing me into trying a church that I wouldn’t normally try out of fear: another denomination or one with different racial demographics. Frightens the heebie-jeebies outta me!

      I look forward to your book. Sounds like it’ll be great.

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      1. Laura, to be honest, I was most worried about saying something hurtful. I don’t want to hurt you. I want to bless and encourage you. Seriously, I’m even tearing up while writing this. I know your pain is real and I want you to know that I will be praying for you and your next steps. Every situation is unique and you must trust the Spirit’s leading. Much love to you. Sincerely!

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      2. I was so worried when I wrote this that I’d say something hurtful to the pastors who read this. You have a hard job and you often get blamed for things that aren’t within your control. I’ve had some wonderful pastors through the years, more wonderful ones than bad ones, I think, though I’m not going to start doing the math on that one. 🙂 I appreciate all the ways you display your pastoral spirit on twitter and here; it helps more than you know.

        I appreciate the prayers. I’ve sincerely wondered if the discomfort I’m experiencing is the Holy Spirit kicking my rear, or if it’s me being self-centered and wanting church on my terms. So any prayers for wisdom are much appreciated.

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  6. I like the idea, in a big church at least, to have a Newcomers class during the Sunday School hour. That would help you to connect with people in your same situation, right? I know some churches have different ladies ministries, quilting, missionary aid, etc. I am a doer. Let me do something with other people and feel like a part of the ministry. Would closer bonds be made with people that have my same interests? And yes Laura, being an introvert is probably the root problem with all of us that are feeling invisible. 🙂

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    1. I’d say that the introversion is an issue–it certainly seems to be a common theme–but my mother has experienced this problem in new churches, too, and she is the opposite of introverted. Very outgoing, eager to jump in and get involved in children’s ministry, never met a stranger. Yet there are churches where no one’s greeted her. Strange.

      The last church I attended had a newcomers/new members class. it was really helpful because we got to spend 6-8 Sunday morning sessions together and get to know the teaching pastor (the associate minister at this church) and he got to know us. He helped us find our areas of (future) ministry at the church and introduced us to the folks in charge, so it wasn’t so overwhelming. It made such a difference to have people who recognized and greeted us when we joined the church-at-large (1500+ members).

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  7. Laura, this is a great, insightful post; I was an elder for ~7 years. This is a problem that we as an elder board tried to address in the average (as opposed to normal) ways you describe, small groups, etc. The conclusion I came to is that community and belonging cannot be manufactured. The description of the early church in Acts, that they ‘all were one’, cannot result from human effort, so I have great empathy for church leadership in this area, recognizing my personal and corporate failings in this area.

    I think the ‘normal’ way is the response of hearts to the prompting of the Holy Spirit; how that will look will vary depending on the individual. I think sometimes the way we try to manage or organize behavior overwhelms the ‘still small voice’ with busyness and obligation–community ends up being quenched, rather than built because of fatigue and failure–resignation to the ‘average’.

    Since leaving leadership, I have felt an emphasis on this question–“who is to my left and right”? Relate to them, whether they are Christians or not. So, that is my current challenge–interestingly, none of the relationships that my wife and I would consider close are with people in our current church–it is a church we are new to; my wife and I are not in the target demographic (doesn’t every church want the 20-40 year old young family demographic)? We are in our 60’s. I am finding it restful in the sense that it allows us to interact with people we are close to mostly through our work.

    Laura, our best to you and your family, and your community here. I think your voice is so important.

    Rick

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    1. Rick, thanks for the thoughtful comment(s). I’m starting to realize what you have: community can’t be manufactured. It needs to be led by the Holy Spirit. I’ve been in numerous small groups over the years; some worked well, others did not, yet we were all committed to meeting together. Certain people didn’t click, others did. In some, I felt safe to share past hurts and present troubles; in others (one in particular), I couldn’t stand the thought of sharing things that even my casual blog readers know!

      I’m wondering if part of the issue with trying to manufacture and artificially create community to mimic the early church is how different those two cultures are. After all, the early church was diverse, yes, but these were people who lived in the same community, saw each other on a frequent basis, and did business with in the marketplace, etc. Our culture is different; I can go for weeks without seeing anyone from church in a place outside of the church, even though I live less than 3 miles from the building. I interact with my cyber friends more often than the people sharing the pews.

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  8. With your permission, Laura, I would like to add one more thought–please delete this if you feel it is inappropriate. The elder board I belonged to, in a traditionally complementarian church, had moved within the board itself to a view that there ought to be women in the full range of leadership positions available, including elder and pastoral office, and preaching. As we were trying to gently move the church that direction, I used one Sunday that I was scheduled to preach and invited one of our women to take my place in the pulpit. This woman was a wonderful teacher with incredible influence among our younger women in a ministry that she had started and led over a period of ~15 years.

    I introduced the sermon time and gave her an introduction that included why I (and the other elders) thought it was important for the congregation to hear her voice. I had told her when I invited her into that time that she was free to speak on any topic that was on her heart. She gave a wonderful presentation about her ministry–but I felt she imposed some restrictions on what she presented so that she would not be seen as “preaching”, since she understood that historically, the church did not welcome women in the pulpit. I will admit that at the time I was sad, both for her and the congregation, that she did not feel the liberty to exercise the wonderful teaching gift God had given her. I think I understand her better now; though she is personally egalitarian, out of love she would not impose that view on others.

    I thought by the introduction that I gave her that any blowback from the congregation would come my way, not hers–I think she was wise enough to know that the elders would not be able to shield her from even well-meaning feedback in the context of traditional views. I am saddened for that church–we missed a great opportunity to move forward in the expression of Christlike values. I think reformation is possible–but rare on an institutional level. The values that are important to us must be expressed in the everyday interaction we have personally with others–perhaps someday the institutional church will follow.

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    1. Totally appropriate and relevant to the discussion, Rick. Your last sentence states it beautifully: change must happen on an individual level before institutions can truly change. We’re going to have to stop looking to the “church” for change; we, who are the church, must change. Thanks for sharing that story.

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  9. In my admittedly very skewed church experience, the pastor and/or leadership team have a big part of setting a tone with this. The congregation allows that vision to be realized, but the lead and environment is important. Negatively, I’ve watched men dominate and control and micro manage and create a culture of fear and a sort of nepotism that may be either physical blood or spiritual blood. I’ve also watched, on the positive side, a church come together as a real family around the personality of a dear friend of mine who pastors a church in New Jersey. He’s not perfect, and his team helps out, but after knowing him for awhile, and then seeing his church, it’s remarkable how much that community has fed off of his transparent life and gift for facilitation.

    I’ve also been a part of a church that tried to force intimacy via small groups. My wife came home in tears one night because of this. It was awkward, and sometimes miserable and intrusive. You can’t fake this stuff, or manufacture it. A poor system of thought will exploit this longing you’ve showed here for community and family. We all crave it to some level.

    I’ve felt much of this desire and disappointment you’ve shared here. My wife and I are introverts with a lot of social anxiety, and if we didn’t already know a few people at our current church, we’d feel pretty lost, still, after 2 years. I’m not ashamed to admit that if this situation falls through, we may never attend a church again.

    On the other hand I’m not going to pretend we don’t need community and accountability, and we have it, and will continue to invest in it, church or not. I can’t see the usual church environment as an end to the reality of the human need for community and belonging. It can be a starting point or a hub even, but if it’s treated like the end, it will disappoint or trap a lot of us. Like you touched on, especially for introverts, most church structure, programs, etc are extrovert normative. We can interact and be a part for awhile, but we will be exhausted, burned out. We must find other avenues where we’re not just coexisting, but contributing with our gifts, we must “go forth”. You said you’re finding people are sharing your disconnect, and I believe it. They’re everywhere, if we can get them to talk! I don’t know what the solution is, but knowing that as a starting point, we can get somewhere.

    Anyway, small rant. My wife and I have been dealing with this for ourselves for awhile. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Gov. Pappy, thanks for the great comment. You’ve touched on a number of important points. The church as an institution can’t be an end, and treating it as such will create disappointment and hurt. I confess that I’ve often done this and allowed the church to be my only source of community outside of family, and that mindset has done nothing but hurt me.

      I’m with your wife on this: I’ve left small groups in tears or, sometimes, rage. I eventually left the one group that sparked these intense emotions; it wasn’t worth the effort to drive 20 minutes away, hire a babysitter for the kids, and walk away feeling hurt and upset over the other members’ politics.

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  10. Wow, what a great post and comments so far. Thanks so much for initiating (continuing) this conversation, Laura. We’ve attended our current church for 10+ years and overall are very happy at it, yet I still have times of struggling to make meaningful connections. Our church (being in a university city) has a transient membership; but it’s also been around for a long time and has some “Old Families” so that is not an easy combination to navigate. It’s also a large church. I remember a guy saying to me, “When I go to my old church, [small, rural], everybody knows my name. When I come here, I feel like I’m coming in to a hockey game.”

    Re small groups: there is a book by Joseph Meyers called Search to Belong, in which he points out that in the average church, only around 35% of people who attend regularly go to small groups. Yet that’s pushed as the key to connection, even when two-thirds (!) of people are not participating. In own Meyers’ book but couldn’t immediately find it on my bookshelf, so I googled him and found this great piece (synopsis of his book) on belonging : http://www.navigators.ca/SGN/pdf/SearchBelong.pdf
    He says we experience belonging in 4 spaces — Public, Social, Personal and Intimate — and that we need to understand what people are looking for within these 4 spheres, not try to push them beyond where they are, yet also invite them into these spaces in appropriate ways. I think this is material that some leaders could benefit from reading, to get a different perspective beyond our current assumptions about what good community looks like.

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    1. Terrific response, Jeannie. (I’m thrilled at the current conversation. I was so worried that I’d anger someone!) I read the synopsis of Meyers’ book that you shared, and it was fascinating. I, too, have had people push me in certain areas when I wasn’t looking for it. A case in point: at a previous church, several small groups went through a workbook on community and we were all supposed to go around and share about our family of origins. People signed up for various weeks. In one group, I felt relaxed enough to share even an extremely painful story. In another, I couldn’t stand the thought of sharing that same story or even sharing facts about me that my blog readers know. I didn’t want to share that I was bipolar; I mean, c’mon, I’ve talked about that online, so what would be the big deal with sharing it with these 8 other people, some of whom I’d known for a decade? But I couldn’t handle it. It felt like a forced intimacy, which isn’t intimacy at all.

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      1. I think the key word here is conversation; true conversation can only result from invitation–never from an imperative context. The passage in Isaiah where God invites us to converse with HIm:
        “Come, let us reason together” fascinates me because the omniscient God invites us to speak with Him, (I have heard that one nuance of the original language is that the word reason can be interpreted as dispute together. The mercy in that invitation, in the examples of the interactions of Jesus with the non-religious, are what draws me to Him–what draws me to believers who are invitational and patient. Who understand that it is God who invites us to ‘dispute’ and question. That we are always welcome…

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I love what you’ve shared, Rick. I am so thankful that God has invited me to talk to him, cry out to him, and yes, even yell at him (if that counts as dispute!) He’s big enough to handle it, and he welcomes me to do so.

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  11. Laura, one of the great blessings of the Internet, sites such as your’s and Tim’s, are the safe places for those who are experiencing alienation or disillusionment. Those with questions. I am grateful for your courage in inviting others to process with you the difficult questions, the sometimes weird stuff we encounter.

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  12. I’ve tried to assimilate into my current class and it’s just not working. Been in it 2 or 3 years. This is a small town and we are still newcomers though we’ve been here 15 years. We knew these people went back to high school days yet still tried the class. Essentially they are a split off from a large class, so they were probably all friends. Though my nerdy husband and nerdy self didn’t expect to join their social lives, we DID think they’d include us at times. After all, they’ve complimented me for being so funny and having the best personality. Several of us are members of the local junior league and “my” class had pre-arranged to sit together but didn’t include us. In the same week, a class member started a fundraiser for the youth mission trip and included all class members’ kids except for ours. We’ve lasted this long because we’ve focused on serving God and not ourselves, but this is so hurtful we’d be idiots to stay (I think). Our pastor is always plugging “small groups” to “do life” but maybe my husband aren’t meant to do life(?)

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    1. Toddy, I apologize for the delay in my reply; your comment got stuck in spam for some unknown reason.

      I’m really sorry that you and your husband are having such a difficult time. Small town dynamics are unique: someone can be a “newcomer” for decades after arriving, just because they weren’t born there (or whatever the reason). I’ve never lived in a small town long-term, but I went to college for a while in a small town and the dynamics were very similar: people who transferred in were always considered “new” and never assimilated into the larger group the way the rest of us, who came as freshmen, did. Frustrating, to say the least!

      I’ve heard pastors plug small groups as the way to “do life” together, but I’m not sure that’s really true. I’ve been in small groups for years and I never felt that we “did life” together; I did what I was supposed to do–was open and transparent, willing to share deep hurts, etc.–but I don’t have close friends (or friends at all) from these groups. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been called by women in the groups, even when I was obviously in need. My husband formed some friendships as a result, but I never did. Some small groups can get together and bond. I’m not sure what I’m missing here.

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  13. I was researching this issue this evening & came across your original blog on the subject. I’m relieved yet very sad that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way (& still does) I’ve been at my church 3 years & zero progress. I pray for everyone suffering from situations like those. God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bri, I’m sorry that you’re going through this struggle, too. It’s difficult, and after hearing this same type of story from so many people, it makes me wonder who DOES feel like they belong at church and are accepted wherever they attend. It reminds me of high school, actually: me, looking at the “popular” kids and wondering how on earth those kids got to be popular and got to have so many friends and romantic relationships. What was I doing wrong?! Maybe nothing. It was baffling then, but even more so now, as an adult, in a church setting.

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  14. Matthew 24:
    12And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

    I went to church for 25 years but no more. The reason you’re experiencing this Laura is churches are filled with unrepentant sinners. Many people who go to church have no interest in reforming their lives. Churches are filled with people who frivolously divorced and walked out on their spouses so they could marry someone else. Consider this post by Dr. Albert Mohler :
    Divorce the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience
    http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/30/divorce-the-scandal-of-the-evangelical-conscience/
    Also is this one:
    Evangelical compromise on divorce :
    http://issuesetc.org/2013/04/04/4-evangelical-compromise-on-divorce-how-does-the-story-of-sodom-apply-to-homosexuality-dr-robert-gagnon-4413/

    Then there is the matter of cohabitation by church members. Yup that goes on big time. The Bible emphatically tells us that if anyone claims to be a Christian yet is involved in fornication, don’t even eat with such a person.
    The Churches institutionalized fornication
    http://surburg.blogspot.in/2016/01/marks-thoughts-churchs.html

    Look, if just 5% of the U.S. was Christian, then we never have had gay marriage and 60,000,000 abortions . There is zero ostracisim for that kind of behavior. Instead the churches main concern is being accepted by the wider culture. Don’t you know? To be friends with the world is become an enemy of God. Yet the churches, under the phony pretext of being loving, excuse all manner of immorality.

    In conclusion, it’s not you it’s the church. They have a form of Godliness but deny its power.

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  15. Matthew 24:
    12And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

    I went to church for 25 years but no more. The reason you’re experiencing this Laura is churches are filled with unrepentant sinners. Many people who go to church have no interest in reforming their lives. Churches are filled with people who frivolously divorced and walked out on their spouses so they could marry someone else. Consider this post by Dr. Albert Mohler, Divorce the Scandal of the EvangelicalCompromise: “On the issue of divorce, the church has allowed the culture to trump scripture ”

    Then there is the matter of cohabitation by church members. Yup that goes on big time. The Bible emphatically tells us that if anyone claims to be a Christian yet is involved in fornication, don’t even eat with such a person.

    Look, if just 5% of the U.S. was Christian, then we never have had gay marriage and 60,000,000 abortions . There is zero ostracisim for that kind of behavior. Instead the churches main concern is being accepted by the wider culture. Don’t you know? To be friends with the world is become an enemy of God. Yet the churches, under the phony pretext of being loving, excuse all manner of immorality.

    In conclusion, it’s not you it’s the church. They have a form of Godliness but deny its power.

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