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

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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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Blog schedule, novel writing, and being invisible at church (again)

Two things.

Number one. I’ve written that I’m starting a new novel. It’s going well, in case you were wondering, but it’s also exhausting: pouring all my creative energies into a first draft doesn’t leave me with enough creative energy to blog several times a week.

So I’m cutting back on my blog until I finish the first draft of The Color of Bones. (That’s my tentative title. Please don’t tell me if some other novel is named that! Or please do, because then I can rename it.)  At the rate I’m going, I should hit my goal of 80,000 words by the end of June.

Until then, I’ll blog once a week. You can use all that time you’d normally spend reading my posts doing something meaningful. (Like watching cat videos on YouTube.)

Number two, on a more serious note. A year and a half ago, I wrote a post called “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew.” I received quite a few comments. I’m still receiving comments on the post and even the occasional private email, many of them telling heartbreaking stories of being rejected in church.

(I don’t fit in at church is one of the top searches that brings people to my blog. Variations include cliques at church, church cliques, and invisible at church.)

Today, using the information made available by the commenter, I made a chart of their demographics: gender, age, marital status, and whether the person was an introvert or extrovert. I was trying to see what, if any, common denominators they held. Geography didn’t seem to be a factor. Most people didn’t mention denomination or theology.

Out of twenty commenters, sixteen were female, four male. There were a variety of ages and marital statuses mentioned; some mentioned children, others did not.

I had to do a little guessing about the introversion versus extraversion trait. Not everyone mentioned it. But of those who did mention it, a significant percent said they were introverts. This included people who said they had actively tried to participate in church activities, even when they were uncomfortable in groups or were rejected.

These were not passive, sit-on-the-pews types of people who waited for others to come to them. They volunteered. They did Bible studies, led Bible studies, organized fellowships. They did things that many introverts would be exhausted by doing and may or may not have been gifted and called to do.

Yet they still identified with being invisible at church.

Something is wrong.

I know that many pastors and church leaders would recognize this as an issue in their church. But recognizing a problem and finding a solution are two different things. To a certain extent, this problem won’t be resolved in this life; some people are going to be cliquish and unfriendly and show superficial concern for others no matter what. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

So I’d like to hear from those in positions of power (and influence) at church. It doesn’t matter what position, whether you’re paid staff or a volunteer.

  1. How do you perceive this problem? Is it a problem in your congregation?
  2. What are you doing—or have thought about doing—to promote a genuinely friendly church atmosphere? Beyond friendliness, what do you do to promote genuine, deep relationships between the people in your congregation?
  3. Finally, what would you like to see the “invisible people” do? In other words, what do you expect from us, particularly those who have been in the church for years and still don’t feel accepted?

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to help first time visitors feel welcome. (Note “relatively.” I didn’t say it happened often.) They’re more easily identified, for one thing.

By comparison, it’s much harder to help those long time church attenders or members who feel excluded, even after years of attending the same church. They may be involved in volunteer work, etc., and still never feel a part of the church body.

I welcome your thoughts, whether you’re a church leader or not. If you have ideas, please share them.