"Dear Pastor, I'm letting you know that I've found another church. You apparently are not aware (or do not care) that I have missed six Sundays in a row. No one called to check on me. No one visited me after my operation. I thought you valued your members, but it's clear that your church is just too big and too busy to follow up on individuals in need. Please send a letter of transfer to my new church...."It really hurts when people leave their church with these kinds of feelings. There is no question that pastors, staff, elders, and other church leaders share some of the blame when sheep feel neglected by their shepherds. Ezekiel's warning should keep pastors awake at night: "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts" (Ezekiel 34:4-5). I can think of a number of people in the churches I've served that I should have pursued more faithfully.
But I don't think it's out of line to make a humble plea to you sheep out there: Please let us know.
Let us know you're hurting or unhappy. Let us know you're in the hospital. Let us know you want to serve. Because more often than you may guess, we don't know.
Take my church, for example. Roughly once a month at a staff meeting, we review a list of people we suspect are "MIA" (missing in action). We try to connect with these folks and discover if indeed there is a problem. In most cases, all is well. You see, it's very difficult to determine who is and is not truly MIA. Our average Sunday morning attendance is over 500. We ask people to fill out an attendance slip, but just a fraction of our folks do so. Also, we have two services, which makes it hard for our members and staff to know when someone is truly absent ("Where's Margaret been? Oh, she probably goes to the early service"). We've told people that our primary means of shepherding the flock is our small groups ministry. If someone is sick, hospitalized, or unhappy, it's in a small group of trusted friends that one's needs can be immediately addressed. But if one doesn't take advantage of a small group, he or she must let the leadership know what's going on.
Besides, people take vows when they join the church. In a Presbyterian church like mine, one of the vows is to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability. Another is to promote the purity and peace of the church. Bound up in these vows is the promise to take responsibility for the health and unity of the church. If you are unhappy about something, it is your responsibility to speak to someone in leadership. If you've been offended, says Jesus, "go and tell [your brother] his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15).
I trust you hear the spirit behind this plea. We who are shepherds are duty-bound to look for and seek after neglected, offended sheep. But we shepherds are but sheep ourselves. We are not omniscient. If we are going to care for you - and we want to, we really do! - we need your help.
If we work together, in a spirit of patience and mutual trust, we can (in most cases) close the back door of the church and show the reality of the gospel by our love for one another.