“When People Leave Your Church Over Politics”: A Note for Pastors

“I once heard you should never vote for a politician who tells you how to pray, and you should never listen to a pastor who tells you how to vote,” their parting email said.

The family would be leaving the church because I was “too liberal,” even though I had never told anyone how to vote, from the pulpit or otherwise. I mentioned this fact, by the way, and he said, “Yes, but we can tell what you think about it and how you’d wish we would vote…”

That’s a big assumption.

No goodbye in the office. No farewell. Just an email with no subject line.

It hurts when people leave your church over politics. It still stings me, even now, to think on that family and a number of others.

It feels like a failure of some sort, like you couldn’t keep people together.

By the way, the translation of the above phrase actually should be, “you couldn’t keep people happy,” which is absolutely true. A pastor’s call is not to keep people happy, anyway, despite what the people will tell you…

It hurts when people leave because they see you have a bumper sticker for a different candidate than they prefer (this actually happened, btw).

It hurts when people leave because you were just trying to keep them safe with masks and social distancing and they wanted to “trust Jesus” rather than “trust the science,” pitting Jesus against science in a way that I think would make Jesus himself scratch his ancient head.

It hurts when people leave because you talk about tending the poor and needy and they hear “socialist!” instead of hearing Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jesus, and Paul.

It hurts when people leave because you say “Black Lives Matter,” because it’s just true and Jesus was a person of color and all they hear is the filtered funnel of the media.

It hurts when people leave because you mentioned the existential threat of gun violence in that one sermon because, honestly, it is an existential threat that is killing our babies (and if mental health is such an issue…which is certainly is…suicide alone is enough reason not to keep a gun in the house!), and all they heard was that you think all guns are terrible.

The honest truth is that it hurts like hell. Even if you know that they won’t be upset all the time anymore, and even if you know that this kind of a break is coming, and even if you know that you won’t have to sweat when opening your email inbox on Monday because they’re perturbed by something they heard or thought they heard or pretended to hear on Sunday, it hurts.

Even when you see it coming from a mile away, it hurts.

No two-ways about it.

And you know what? It hurts even more when you see them at the grocery store around town, or see their social media posts about how happy they are at their new church where the pastor “never talks about politics” (translation: doesn’t talk about political things I disagree with). It hurts even more when they still hang out with the people who stayed and you see them at parties, but you don’t talk to them, or feel like you can, because no matter what the truth about their leaving is, it feels like it’s because of you.

You.

And it is at this point where you might expect I’d say something like, “They’re better off,” or “You don’t need them,” or “Shake the dust from your feet and move on,” or “But look at all the new people joining!” or “It’s not you, it’s them.”

But I’m not going to, because I can’t.

While all of those platitudes might be true, none of it heals the other deep truth that it. just. hurts.

In this Advent season I clutch perpetual hope tightly, hanging on as if my life depends on it (which it probably does). But I do wonder if pastoring in these hyper-partisan times is perhaps the hardest in recent history, and I’m not sure where hope plays into that in the immediate moment.

Even so, pastor, I hope the pain recedes in time.

And I hope those people, even in my life, are happy how they find themselves.

And I hope that one day political partisanship won’t split the pews and the pulpits.

I hope.

Patron Saint of Mid-Life Crisis

As we enter into December, the church remembers one I call the “Patron Saint of Mid-Life Crisis,” St. Nicholas Ferrar, 17th Century Deacon and Community Builder.

Nicholas was born in London in 1593 and educated at the prestigious Clare Hall in Cambridge. He would eventually become a Cambridge Fellow and, after traveling the European continent for a while, became a member of Parliament and a trustee in the Virginia Company. His political and financial stars shown brightly!

And then he decided it wasn’t the life he wanted to lead.

In 1625 he gave it all up and settled at a small house at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire. He was soon ordained a Deacon and founded an Anglican community which was basically comprised of his immediate family and the families of his in-laws.

From 1626 to 1646 they restored a dilapidated church, held Masses for the community, established a school to teach the local children, and took on the task of caring for the health-care needs of the neighborhood.

They held weekly vespers and daily prayer, and he invited his community to practice intentional fasting, meditation, and spiritual story-telling and writing, composing a number of books illustrating the Christian life.

This little community was visited by English authorities and nobility and used as a place of prayer, blessing, and restoration.

St. Ferrar died in 1637 and the community was eventually destroyed by the Puritans who called it a “Protestant nunnery.” Most of the stories and books composed there were burned, and the chapel was once again put to ruin (though it was rebuilt in the 1800’s).

You might recognize “Little Gidding” as the title of the last of Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” one of the great religious poems of the Twentieth Century.

St. Ferrar is a reminder to me, and should be to everyone inside and outside the church, that it is absolutely Ok to stop doing things you are good at and seek a new path, no matter your stage in life.

The idea that everyone is called to do one thing, and one thing only, is a romantic fallacy. You can switch gears, by God.

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations