Why are some of the organized church’s most dedicated and active members choosing to leave? 

Sociologist Josh Packard, author of Church Refugees, sometimes refers to these people as the church’s A students. They’re most likely to contribute, work hard, and lead others. But, increasingly, they’re done. Done with the institutional church altogether. 

But why? Why have they joined the Dones? Packard’s research uncovered several prominent reasons. One of these reasons ties directly to the Dones’ ambitious nature. They want to make a difference, but feel encumbered–by the church’s structures and leaders. Packard interviewed Ethan, a 47-year-old Done. “I’m done with the top-down, institutional church,” Ethan said. “I thought I could fix it from within, but we got beat up pretty bad.”

Packard writes: “They wanted to affect the life of their congregations, but encountered only bureaucracy.”

He describes Cora, a 66-year-old formerly active church member. Her list of volunteer positions in her church filled an entire page. But now she’s a Done. She became continually frustrated with her church’s resistance and sluggishness to support or permit her ministry passions. She reached her limit after she approached her church’s leadership with the simple idea of starting a lawn-mowing ministry for the congregation’s elderly. The leadership crushed her enthusiasm with a list of bureaucratic requirements to meet before she could even bring her idea before the church board. “It was all about control,” Cora said. So, she left the church–and started her mowing ministry on her own.

Many Dones report that churches are happy and eager to accept their volunteer service–if it fits the confines of the leaders’ need for filling limited, pre-conceived slots. Packard writes that many high-capacity Dones feel like they were treated as entry-level employees for a large organization.

Behind the bureaucracy

So, why would churches erect roadblocks in front some of their most capable, energetic, and innovative people? 

As Cora concluded, for some it’s all about control. In fact, some church leaders believe it’s their job to closely control everything that happens in the congregation. Some pursue this misguided behavior out of a sense of quality assurance. (“If it’s not done according to my standards of excellence, it reflects poorly on me and our entire ministry.”) Others fear the potential of failure. (“What if it doesn’t work? We can’t afford to lose one more member, or one more dollar.”) And some are just control freaks. They cannot let go and let others fly.

A “chief of staff” at a large church told me his church formally put a stop to any members who wished to start new ministry efforts outside the already established and tightly controlled ministry apparatus. “Those spin-offs don’t help our church’s brand,” he said. “If we don’t control it and put our church’s name on it, we don’t want our people involved.”

The result? Some of the church’s best and brightest are pursuing their ministry passions outside the organized church. And they say they’re finding greater fulfillment, and living out their faith more fully–as Dones.

There are some useful leadership lessons to be learned here:

  • Great leaders do not seek to accumulate control. They seek to distribute it and empower others to accomplish great things. Examine Jesus’ approach. He empowered and encouraged his followers to go out and do big things.
  • Remember the mission of the church. It’s about building loving relationships–with God, and with others. It’s not about building a hierarchical machine.
  • Involving and engaging the congregation in significant ministry is more important than a flawless professional ministry show.
  • Embrace failure as a useful tutor in the process of innovation and progress. We usually learn more from our failures than our successes.
  • When it comes to building a church, forget about building a brand. Build a community. Allow the Body of Christ to function like a body, with each part doing its part. Allow people to use their God-given gifts. 

When it comes to real ministry, we’re all in this together.