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Turning leavers into returners: the revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care

By Leslie J Francis and Philip Richter.

(As the millennium approaches there seems to be a renewed awareness of the spiritual and a rich potential for the churches to proclaim their message to more receptive ears. In their new book, "Gone But Not Forgotten", Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis argue that a key to mission and evangelism at the turn of the millennium is to listen carefully to those who have left the churches, to take their stories of leaving seriously, and to hold out to them the offer of returning.

This strategy of mission and evangelism invites clergy and lay people to abandon the well established Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care learnt in the nursery.

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,

and doesn't know where to find them.

Leave them alone and they'll come home,

bringing their tails behind them.

In the revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care, the tales come first. Having told their tales, the leavers may be more prepared to come home.

"Gone But Not Forgotten" resulted from the Church Leaving Applied Research Project based at Southlands College and Whitelands College within the Roehampton Institute, London, and developed in association with the Centre for Theology and Education at Trinity College, Carmarthen. The Church Leaving Applied Research Project is part of a wider concern shared by the two authors, to draw on the social sciences to illuminate contemporary issues facing the churches. It is an example of empirical theology.)

Empirical theology

Listening to people concerned with sales and marketing, we often heard it said that it is much easier to recall an old customer than to make contact with someone completely new. Some marketing consultants will go so far as to claim that they are six times more likely to recall an old customer than to find a new one. Of course we would not wish to reduce the churches' work of mission and evangelism to a simple analogy with the secular world of commerce and business. Yet at the same time the challenge of one of the parables continued to haunt us. Perhaps sometimes the children of this generation may be wiser than the children of light.

To reclaim old customers, however, means listening to their previous experiences, to their expectations, and to their concerns. Listening to some church leaders at the outset of our project we were given the clear impression that the research was not really needed. They felt they already knew why people leave church. Often the main reason given to us went like this: "They leave because they lost their faith."

Now if this reason is true, it also offers a clear clue regarding pastoral strategy. It is a matter of helping people reclaim their faith. But if the reason is not true, then the pastoral strategy is wrongly based.

Empirical theology begins by looking for the evidence and by basing pastoral strategy on that evidence.

Looking for evidence

The Church Leaving Applied Research Project drew on two major strands of the social sciences: one concerned with qualitative methods and one concerned with quantitative methods .

The qualitative aspect of the project involved 75 interviews. Over 200,000 words were transcribed from these interviews and then the texts were carefully analysed.

The quantitative aspect of the project involved 2,066 live telephone calls in order to identify a representative sample of church leavers. In this case our view of a church leaver was someone who had attended church more than six times a year (not including Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals) and had then reduced this level of participation. On the basis of the definition we identified 807 church leavers willing to receive a postal questionnaire.

Just over half (52%) returned that questionnaire. Each questionnaire provided over 300 pieces of information about these church leavers.

Grounds for hope

Our analysis of these qualitative and quantitative data provided us with two significant grounds for hope. First, the data reminded us just how much influence the churches have in today's society. On a normal Sunday at least one in every ten adults in England and Wales goes out to attend a church service in one Christian denomination or another. This is a massive vote of commitment and active participation, unrivalled by any secular activity.

Then for every person in church on a given Sunday there is one other person who is not there that week but who will attend sometime during that month or the following month. In other words two adults in every ten consider themselves to be in regular contact with the churches.

At the same time, for every person in church on a given Sunday there are four others who used to attend church regularly but have given up for one reason or another.

When these three categories are added together the conclusion is that the six out of every ten adults in England and Wales either are in regular contact with the churches or were at some stage in their lives. In this sense the influence of the churches remains enormous.

The second ground of hope is provided by the way in which church leavers answered the direct question about their willingness to return. While just over half (55 %) said that they were not interested in returning, the other 45% were willing to keep the door open. The potential for turning leavers into returners is enormous.

The data also indicated that church leavers' willingness to consider becoming church returners was clearly related to their reasons for leaving in the first place. In other words, if we know why people left we can begin to understand their likelihood of returning.

Commitment and leaving

Before examining the reasons behind church leaving, Gone but not Forgotten draws attention to two key features of the contemporary social context of church leaving. The first feature of the social context of church leaving concerns the wider attitude toward commitment displayed by people in England and Wales today. In one sense, views on the public display of commitment have changed fundamentally. This is reflected, for example, in changing attitudes toward marriage, cohabitation and divorce. In another sense, many membership-based organisations have experienced difficulties in maintaining traditional views of their membership. This is reflected, for example, in the major political parties.

As a consequence of changing social attitudes toward commitment, churches must also expect their members to display non-traditional patterns of commitment. This may be reflected in reduced frequency of attendance without implying loss of interest. This may also be reflected in greater mobility between congregations or denominations.

The second feature of the social context of church leaving concerns the leaving process itself. Although there is no single pattern of disengagement, local congregations should be alert to changes in their members' participation. A key study of church leaving conducted in the USA indicated that leavers followed up within six weeks of leaving were much more likely to revise their decision. Our study in the UK indicated that over 90 % of leavers were not followed up at all after they had left.

Reasons for leaving

A radio interviewer asked us the simple and straightforward question, "What is the main reason for people leaving church?". Our complex answer that there are in fact eight main reasons required more time than the interviewer had allocated for the sound bite response. That more complex answer is, nonetheless, crucial to our case.

The revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care needs to resist the view that there is one standard and simple reason for people leaving churches or that there can be one standard and simple strategy for recalling them. The revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care needs to begin by listening to the tales of the individual leavers and by addressing the individual situation.

Against this background, we now propose to discuss the eight different reasons for church leaving identified in Gone But Not Forgotten. The list is presented in no specific order of priority or importance. At the same time we shall suggest pastoral strategies associated with each of the eight reasons.

The first reason for leaving is loss of faith. Churches need to ask whether they are devoting enough energy to the task of apologetics. Are churches taking seriously the actual questions people are asking in the late twentieth century? Where people have doubts or have virtually lost their faith it is important that churches affirm the faith that people have, however vestigial that may be. People may need to be reassured that doubt is not the enemy of faith. Faith entails living with uncertainty. It is apathy, rather than doubt, that is the opposite of faith.

The second reason for leaving is cultural change. Churches are inherently conservative and may be reluctant to acknowledge the cultural barriers between church and society. It is necessary, therefore, for churches to distinguish between the unchangeable essence of their faith and the culturally derived forms in which the faith is expressed.

In order to communicate effectively with different subgroups in society churches may need to diversify their provision. Different services held within the same church should not be seen as divisive. Different forms of service provided by different denominations should not be seen as competitive but as complementary contributions to the same cause of mission and evangelism.

The third reason for leaving is concerned with the natural progression of the journey of faith. Churches need to recognise that their members may be at many different stages on this journey. There will be some members who feel that they have outgrown the faith stage of their local congregation. There will be other members who feel that their local congregation and clergy are operating a stage or two ahead of their own faith journey.

Enabling members to switch to another congregation in which they may be more appropriately nurtured should be seen as a sign of church strength, not as a sign of failure. Church switching can be positive for all concerned.

The fourth reason for leaving we have styled changes and chances. Many people have become church leavers, not because they intended to do so, but because things just happened like that. Some moved away from their old home, to go to university or to find a new job. Leaving their old church, they never found a new one. Churches need to be aware of the importance of referring their members when they move home. After all, the church has branches almost everywhere.

Some found that their pattern of work made Sunday attendance more difficult. Churches need to be aware of the potential for different kinds of activities on other days of the week.

Some experienced changing pressures in their family life, including the demands of teenage children and the needs of ageing parents. Churches need to support their members at such times in their lives and not allow them to feel excluded.

Of all the reasons for church leaving, those who left for changes and chances are the most likely to become returners.

The fifth reason for leaving is rooted in the experiences of childhood. Far too many adults trace their later rejection of the church to their childhood experiences. Churches still need to give an appropriate priority to their ministry among children and young people. In particular churches need to equip parents for their key role in the Christian nurture and formation of their own children.

The sixth reason for leaving is the cost of church involvement. In particular there are some church members who eventually feel burnt out by their level of commitment. There is the danger that churches overload individual members until breaking point. In order to care responsibly for their lay leaders churches should regularly appraise their ministry needs and enable individuals to move freely into and out of specific roles in the local congregation.

The seventh reason for leaving is unfulfilled expectations of the church. Quite often church leaders are tempted to blame themselves or to blame their congregations when people decide to leave. The data make it clear that, more often than not, feelings of blame are quite inappropriate. Two-thirds of the leavers said that it was not the church's fault that they dropped off. As far as unfulfilled expectations were concerned, roughly equal numbers left because their church was too old-fashioned or because their church was too modern. Some, however, had left because they had been badly hurt or abused by the minister or by the lay pastorate. Such inappropriate pastoring needs careful monitoring within those denominations which have some form of area oversight.

The eighth reason for leaving is concerned with the need to belong. Among their many functions churches can provide an important social network. Many churchgoers welcome the feelings of fellowship and self-worth which can be generated by local congregations. Some churchgoers, however, may, for very good reasons, not wish to become so tightly identified with the local congregation. Pastoral sensitivity is needed to distinguish between these two groups and to avoid the two major traps. The first trap fails to welcome and involve those who wish to be received in this way. The second trap suffocates through welcome and involvement those who would prefer to remain more anonymous and independent.


The overarching message of Gone But Not Forgotten is that church leavers are worth taking seriously and that appropriate pastoral strategy can begin to turn some leavers into returners. The key resides in listening to the individual tales of the leavers. Such a strategy proposes a revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care, reshaping current practice and rewriting the received tradition of the nursery:

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,

but now knows where to find them.

Listen to the leavers

and help them become returners

bringing new tales of salvation before them.

The Revd Canon Professor Leslie J Francis is D J James Professor of Pastoral Theology and Mansel Jones Fellow at Trinity College, Carmarthen and University of Wales, Lampeter.

The Revd Philip Richter is Educational Development Officer at the Southern Theological Education and Training Scheme, Sarum College, Salisbury.

This paper was first prepared for the St David's diocesan newspaper. The tales of church leavers and returners are fully reported in Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis, Gone But Not Forgotten: Church Leaving and Returning, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998; £10.95.

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You are reading Turning leavers into returners: the revised Bo-Peep theology of pastoral care by Leslie J Francis and Philip Richter, part of Issue 15 of Ministry Today, published in February 1999.

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