I spoke yesterday at our clergy meeting on the theme of The Absent Parishioner. There were two other speakers as well, and we all talked for around 5-10 minutes. There was a short story read about a priest visiting someone who had stopped going to church, and then we all kind of riffed off of that. I began by mentioning that I was speaking at a hospice memorial program that night and I hoped I did not have an Ovaltine moment, which got some laughs. I also said that much of what I was going to say was Worcester-specific, but hopefully everyone could glean something from it.
Who is an absent parishioner? By definition it is someone associated with the church who is not around. I identified some different groups:
-People who are mad at the priest or the church for some reason. Since I was addressing a room of seasoned clergy, I didn’t feel the need to go into this one – they know how to handle it.
-Young, unmarried people in their 20s and 30s – the “disappear when they go to college crowd”. We wrongly assume that they automatically return when they get married and start having kids. So, how to bring them back into the fold? As with all other categories, the personal touch is key. The priest needs to reach out. Relatives and friends need to invite them to church. I stressed the importance of social media like Facebook. It is personal enough – you can contact anyone who is on and accepts your friend request – and impersonal enough – people are comfortable sending a message when they would not be comfortable calling the church to ask a question – to be very effective. It is also the main means of communication, along with texting, of this age group. I also invoked the Archbishop Christodoulos method – “I come to your place, you come to mine.” I talked about how I go to the Greek Nights at local restaurants sometimes and how I play ball with the guys on Monday night. I urged them to start coming once Sunday a month with their friends and then have brunch together afterward, and then we build from there.
-Immigrants who have not been baptized but have family members who have. We have many people from Albania – Albanian and Greek mostly – who were not baptized but have been to the Cathedral for events and understand their family background is Orthodox. This group differs from the others because they are often eager to become part of the faith and will often come to us. I talked about the importance of at least having a reading knowledge of another Orthodox language to throw in during sacraments – people really appreciate the effort.
-The final group I mentioned is the outermost concentric circle of people involved in the church. This ranges from those who would come twice a year and have since stopped to people baptized at the Cathedral who stopped coming ages ago and have nothing to do with the church. These are the people we meet at mercy meals and sacrament reception. I emphasized the importance (for many reasons) of attending these events – some priests don’t go to any on the idea that if you go to one you must attend all and people wouldn’t understand if you couldn’t go, but that is not at all true – and how this is where we meet such people. This is where you start building the relationship, find the person on Facebook, identify talents they may have, and reach out to them.
I finished with three case studies where people have come back to the church to various degrees. Not everyone is going to end up an every-Sunday attendee but we are all works in progress, and the most important thing is reaching out and letting people know the church is always there for them.