Reactivating the inactive member

The inactive church member is perhaps the most neglected aspect of the total church program, yet he symbolizes one of the greatest untapped resources for strengthening the local church. Here MINISTRY editor J.R. Spangler interviews Dr. John S. Savage, who as director of LEAD Consultants has developed a successful program to tap this largely overlooked resource.

Dr. John S. Savage is director of LEAD Consultants
J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

Q. I am interviewing Dr. John S. Savage, president of LEAD Consultants. And my first question is What does this LEAD Consultants mean?

A. LEAD is an acronym that stands for Leadership, Education, and Development. Our national offices are in Pittsford, New York, which is a suburb of Rochester.

Q. When did your organization begin and how did you get the idea?

A. LEAD Consultants is coming up to its fifteenth year. I got the idea of establishing a consulting agency that would develop a pool of highly trained individuals to work with local congregations in the late sixties, when the denominations were losing top executives because of the financial crunch the church was facing. We hired some of these executives to work for us on a part-time basis or to act as consultants on demand. For the first six or seven years, we worked primarily in the area of Christian education, helping different churches to double or triple their church schools. We met with great success in this.

Seven years ago I developed the Calling, Caring Ministry program, and besides that we now have fourteen different training programs, including workshops in conflict management, problem solving, youth programs, choir conducting, and holding creative meetings. But the thing we're best known for is the Calling, Caring Ministry program, which has to do with visiting the inactive member.

Q. Is the Calling, Caring Ministry program, then, the most popular, or should I say the primary, seminar?

A. It's the primary and by far the most popular. We'll do five of those to any one of the others.

Q. I understand you were a Methodist pastor for twenty-six years before you went full time into the LEAD Consultant pro gram. It's claimed that one third of the average church membership list is made up of persons who were once active but now have become inactive. How do you define an inactive member?

A. I define an inactive member, first of all, by defining an active one. An active member is one who attends regularly at worship, perhaps sings in the choir, comes to Bible school classes, and participates regularly in the life of the church community. The inactive member does not attend the worship service, does not make any financial contribution, comes to none of the church activities, and shows a very distinct negative or apathetic attitude toward the life of the church.

Q. So, it's as if he were not, in terms of being a church member?

A. That's true. But we've discovered in our research that although a person drops out from a relationship with the church people, he does not usually drop his relationship with God. This fact pinpoints one of the problems that we've faced in visiting the inactive member— namely, that we have gone with an assumption that there's something wrong with his faith in God. But we have discovered, upon our arrival, that more inactive people have articulated their faith about Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour than active ones. The breakup is in the relationship to the congregation, not necessarily in relationship to God.

Q.The concept, then, of a person losing his hold on God when he loses his hold on the congregation is not as valid as we have believed. Is that what you're saying?

A. I think that's true. However, I do want to make clear that as the person leaves the church, his faith does go into a spasm. We have very clear statistics that when a person is in the process of leaving, his relationship with God becomes very doubtful, on top of his broken relationship with the people. After the person leaves, he seals off all the pain that has been developed in the loss of that relationship, and, as a result, the relationship with the people is completely broken. But then, after that seal-off occurs, the person begins to rework the relationship with God on a one-to-one basis.

Q. What are one or two major reasons, gained from your research, why people really leave the church?

A. It begins with an active member having a series of personal, anxiety-provoking events. We call these a "cluster of events." They occur privately inside the life of the active member, so the local congregation is not aware of them. For example, a family whom I visited had the following cluster of events happen to them: The father was fired from his job and was out of work for six months; because of the stress related to the loss of income, the wife had a mental break down, and was in a mental hospital for two weeks; their daughter in junior high had been caught smoking marijuana in back of the school, and the son had been caught stealing money in the church. Then the church called them and told them that they were not adequately carrying out their church responsibilities. When I visited them, the couple used that last event as the reason why they left; namely, that someone had called and said they were not adequate leaders. But that wasn't the issue. The issue was the cluster of events building up to that final event, the "straw that breaks the camel's back." Therefore, when you go visit these inactive church members, to deal only with that event is not to deal with the real problem.

Q. How do you recognize when a person is facing a cluster of events leading up to a withdrawal?

A. When that cluster of events is beginning to occur, the member—the active member—follows a predictable pattern of behavior. He or she comes to members of the congregation or to the pastor and cries Help. "Help" language sounds like this: "You know, the worship service just seems to be losing a lot of its meaning for me lately." Or, "If that's the way you want to run your meetings, you can have them; they're a waste of time." The person never says directly what the problem is, but his verbal language begins to change slightly, and the local church begins to set up its screening behavior. The most sophisticated form of screening is: "Don't respond to the cry for help, and the person will go away."

One of the things we have been developing in our lab is how to listen to the cry for help so that we can intervene in that dropout process at its beginning stages. If the church does not respond to the cry for help, the person now adds another piece of anxiety to the cluster.

When that occurs, he has moved to another stage, anger. The person now gets very upset, and it looks as if he's upset about the church. In part that is true, because Christians aren't listening; they're not caring for him. This person is in pain; he wants help; and no one is responding. The pastor isn't responding; in fact, the pastor is one of the great screeners of the church. Right?

Q. I agree.

A. And, consequently, the person begins to be so anxious and so upset that he moves beyond his ability to deal with the situation, and retreats from the church. What we have done over the years is to label the inactive member as the bad one, the apostate . . .

Q. The black sheep.

A. But our research shows that the congregation contributes to the dropout cycle. It's not a lone activity; it takes both sides for it to occur.

Q. How much emphasis do you put on this screening process? Isn't it simply a lack of time? People are so busy husbands working, wives working that they don't have time to go out of their way to hear these cries of help and to do anything about them.

A. I don't think the problem is a lack of time. It takes very little time. For example, a couple of weeks ago, coming out of a worship service, I had a little elderly lady walk by me, just brushing me on the arm. I don't even know her name. She simply said, "I haven't been around here for a while. " I turned around, and she walked away from me. I pursued her and then asked, "How come?" She said, "I've been in a mental hospital for the past six weeks, and this is the first Sunday that I've been out. They've given me three hours free, and I'm spending two of them here at church." That's called a cry for help. All it takes is a moment to show that you care.

Q. In other words, you're saying it's the personal touch, even if it's for a short span of time, that means so much. You have emphasized the importance of personal visitation. Do you recommend a particular method of developing a calling program in the local church?

A. The calling program that we have developed does have the distinctive thrust of "go and listen," rather than "go and tell." In other words, "listen first, tell second." Not "tell first, listen second."

If I am visiting an inactive member, I am going into a home in which there's probably very little trust, because drop ping out always involves a lot of pain. Therefore, I want to listen first, because listening builds relationships better than anything else.

Q. I'd like to have you repeat that. You're saying listening builds relationships?

A. Listening builds a relationship more quickly and effectively than any other single type of behavior. I'm not talking just about social listening, but effective, depth listening that builds relationships very rapidly.

We teach our callers how to be aware of what we call the "readiness state" of the person we talk to. People are at all different stages of being ready to return. Some are very ready to return, so that if you make a phone call first, they respond by saying, "Now, I've really been thinking about coming back to church, and am I ever glad you called. When can you come over and see me?" That's called a high-readiness state. But if you make a phone call, and a person says, "I don't need to talk to you," and then hangs up and doesn't want a visit, that's called a low-readiness state. If you do not test the person's "readiness state" first, you will probably push the person too far, and he inevitably backs up. He actually becomes less ready than he was at first.

Q. What do you mean when you speak of the difference between a social listener and a depth listener?

A. A social listener is one who engages in "counter-story." You tell a story; I respond by telling another story, which reminds you of another story; this you tell, which reminds me of another story, which I tell. And we sit around the table telling stories to each other. That's called social conversation. It's very appropriate, and it does build relation ships at a social level, but it does not get down to the pain that an inactive church member feels. The distinct difference, then, is that in depth listening we teach. When you tell your story, I don't counter with my story; I continue to follow your story into depth levels. One of the skills that I personally have developed—prob ably the most powerful skill of the whole lab—is the skill of story listening, based on the fact that people communicate to each other primarily through their stories.

Q. How does that happen?

A. Let me give you a very simple example. It involves a conversation with my dad three years before he died. He was 89 and had had a hip replacement. When I went to see him in the hospital, I said, "Hi, Dad, how are you doing?" And Dad responded with two very brief little stories. These are called "back-then" stories, which are the first type of story a person usually tells.

Q. What is a "back-then" story?

A. A "back-then" story is one out of the past. It begins with story language "Once upon a time" or "Long ago and far away." Dad's two little stories out of the past ran like this: "You know, Tim [my family always called me Tim], when I was 17, I used to work on the railroads as a telegraph operator. The railroads were really strong then, but you know they're pretty near bankrupt now. You know, I ..." He then moved to his next story: "You know, I worked in Bethlehem Steel in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, for forty years. I built the towers to the Golden Gate Bridge. You know, they just closed up that plant; it's gone out of business."

Identifying what was being communicated beyond the story, I simply asked, "Dad, I sense you're giving up, right?" At that point, he began to cry. His stories were not telling me about railroads and Bethlehem Steel; they were communicating that once he was strong, and now he's failing.

Q. If a person repeats his story over and and over, is it because nobody's listening.

A. Absolutely. You've heard an elderly person tell the same story over and over. The reason for that is that no one has heard it. However, if you make a perception check on its truth, you won't hear it again.

Q. What do you mean, make a ''perception check"?

A.Make a guess on what you believe that story really means at a deeper level. What does this story actually communicate? The difficulty is that we take the story literally, and we miss its truth. But the story is a container that carries truth — it's like a vessel, it's like a vase that carries flowers, or a bottle that holds liquid. If you see just the vase, you miss the flowers. Human story is the most powerful form of communication that has ever been, and every culture from the beginning of time has told its deepest truths through story.

Q. Now, can you identify some common mistakes the caller should avoid? What procedure do "you follow in visiting the dropout?

A. I think the most consistent error that callers make is trying to tell the inactive church member what to do, which immediately builds resistance. The caller takes on a telling stance rather than a listening stance. Also, the caller goes with a sales pitch, with the deliberate purpose of trying to get the person back. True, we do have a ministry aimed at getting people back in but we do not go originally to get them back. That's not the purpose. The purpose is to go to listen, to care, and to deal with their personal pain.

Q. In other words, the caller must forget the ultimate goal. He's simply going to find out where the person is.

A. Yes. If I'm going there to do whatever I have to do to get him back, then my task ends up being highly manipulative. But my first ministry is to minister to the needs of the person. Then the person may choose to respond to that by returning to the congregation. If not, I still continue to minister to him in the name of Christ.

Q. What is one of the greatest benefits your program offers?

A. I think the most singular, powerful thing about our program is that it teaches lay people and pastors how to hear the pain of another, not only with the inactive church member, but with any group or any individual that's in pain — the widow, the person going through divorce, the person who's just lost his job (and there are millions of those right now in our country) . If each church had a crew of thirty or forty callers who could go minister to that pain, the church would have a ministry that would be very relevant in today's society.

Q. Can anyone be a caller, or should the pastor look for special qualifications in selecting callers?

A. I think one should be selective. We urge pastors not to announce from the pulpit, "We would like volunteers." There's a reason. In selecting people to call on the inactive member,, one of our first criteria is the ability to keep confidences. If the inactive member shares some deep personal pain with you, and you go back to the church and share some of that with your calling partners and support group, who, in turn, spread that information around the congregation, then you will destroy the program overnight. Thus, the ability to keep a confidence is extremely important.

Q.That means a pastor would have to know his people very well, to choose those he thinks could abide by that type of confidence^ wouldn't he? What are some of the criteria in selecting a caller?

A. We choose adults who like adults. Obviously, it doesn't help to choose as callers any adults who don't like adults. Their hostility is too high, and their anger is triggered too easily. They will put the inactive member down. We also ask for people who have the time to be trained. It does take training — a very specific kind of training — to learn these skills. We ask for people who not only have the time to be trained but also have the time to spend in a local church support group. It takes forty hours to go through the training. In addition, a person has to spend at least three hours a month in a support group, where the pain is dealt with and where other kinds of training take place. We also like to choose persons who have a natural ability to listen, who are not defensive. We ask for people who are on the growing edge of their lives, who are eager to learn new things. We have discovered that the older one gets, the more difficult it is for him to change his listening behavior. But take a group of young adults, or even teen-agers, and we can teach them the skills three times as rapidly as people in their early 70s.

Q. Have you developed an effective model for renegotiating a relationship with the, inactive member?

A. Yes, we have developed a model originally used in industry in negotiations, and have reoriented it to the life of the church. It is called the Role Renegotiation Model, and it tracks the four predictable stages of all human relation ships. The first stage of any relationship is the ability to develop clear expectations of that relationship. Those expectations, which include gathering of information and the consistency of behavior, define the roles of each party. This can be used not only in church life, but in marital life and professional life. In other words, the very first stage is to clarify what is expected to be a part of a given congregation. Usually we tell the parishioners what we expect of them, but they never have a chance to develop what they can expect of us.

One stage is the stage of commitment, followed by a stage called "stable and productive," when everything in the relationship is in good shape. The next stage is predictable and unavoidable. Known as the "pinch, " it occurs when an expectation is not being met, or when someone does something not expected. A typical reaction is this: "I didn't know that you as my pastor would preach that kind of a sermon." A broken expectation.

The best way to handle broken expectations is called "renegotiation," or the act of reconciliation. This is using all of the listening skills, sitting down when everybody is upset, and renegotiating again the relationship for clarity of role. And that is hard work. It takes very specific skills to sit down with a group of parishioners as a pastor, when they're all upset at you, and listen to their pain, which not only is directed at you but also involves a whole history of pain that is unresolved in the parish.

Q. You have mentioned that you once a congregation with a 60 percent return rate of inactive members over a three-year period. To what do you attribute this astonishing success?

A. I believe the success comes as a result of intensive follow-through in the calling program. We did this program over a four-and-a-half-year period at a United Methodist church outside of Rochester, New York. I trained twenty-four callers. The first thing I did, which was an absolute necessity in the calling program, was to create an ongoing support group for those callers. Without it the program would have died very rapidly. We met twice a month, the year round. We called on every member of the church annually. And from our work with the inactive members, we discovered this statistic, which is very solid: 50 percent of the people who will return will do so on one call. Please note how I put that: 50 percent of the people who will return will do so on one call. The other 50 percent will take one call for every inactive year. That is an unbelievably stable statistic, but it's the follow through over an extended period of time that makes the difference. There's one parish that we've tracked that had an 86 percent return rate of all the calls that were made. That's the highest we know. We also know that if the callers work hard over a period of one year, the minimum they can expect is a one-third return rate.

Q. And, finally, may I ask a more personal question? How about your own personal visitation program? What was it like in the church you once pastored? How often did you visit?

A. Oh, I visited all the time, and still do. The reason I do this is that it keeps my skills alive. On the average, I make probably ten interviews a week, though not always involving inactive members.

Q. When you say "interviews," are you talking about your own program as a psychotherapist, or are you talking about something else?

A. No, I have in mind several con texts—my own parish, the church I'm with, and also out on the road visiting and interviewing pastors and lay people almost daily. My ministry at this point is not so much directed toward a local parish or a local church as it is to the broader church of virtually every denomination in this country.

Q. How can a person gain further information on your program, which has proved to be so successful?

A. An interested person may write us at P.O. Box 311, Pittsford, New York 14534, or call us on our WATTS line at (800) 828-6556 (or within New York State, [716] 586-8366). Much of what we have talked about appears in a book I have written, The Apathetic and Bored Church Member, which can be ordered from our national office.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Dr. John S. Savage is director of LEAD Consultants
J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

May 1983

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