The challenge of leaving the church: what church leaders can do

The Essen diocese was the first diocese in Germany to specifically address the question of why people leave the Catholic Church- and what the church can do to counter this development.

Sometimes just under 100.000, sometimes more than 200.000. The fact that year after year as many Christians as a large city has inhabitants leave the Catholic Church in Germany seems to have developed into a regrettable but unchangeable phenomenon. Every year, the German Bishops’ Conference publishes the resignation figures, and a fundamental trend reversal does not seem to be in sight. When banks inform about church tax on capital income in letters that are difficult to understand, the number of people leaving the church rises to heights similar to the debates about allegedly golden bathtubs in bishops’ houses. If there are no scandals, these record values- but (too) high the resignation numbers remain also in these years.

On average over many years, the Catholic Church loses a good half percent of its members each year through the conscious decision to leave the church.

The challenge of leaving the church: what church leaders can do

„Church exit- or not? How the church must change is the title of the study published by Herder-Verlag, with which the diocese of Essen is now shedding light on the annually well 4.The study also looks at the number of people who want to leave the church between the Rhine, Ruhr and Sauerland. The archdiocese of Munich and Freising and the archdiocese of Cologne are also approaching the topic of church departures with their own studies, but have not yet published their findings. Meanwhile, the Essen study has been causing discussion throughout Germany since February most recently at the Katholikentag in Munster.

Dramatic financial consequences

One reason for this may already be the unusual motivation of the study: Whereas previous studies of the topic have focused primarily on the pastoral effects of church departures, the Essen study also sheds light on the financial background and thus make clear the special explosiveness of the topic for the church as an organization. Especially since this does not only apply to dioceses like Essen, whose financing is massively dependent on church tax due to a lack of historical reserves. In concrete terms, the Ruhr bishopric reckons with a loss of at least 500 euros in annual church taxes per leaving a conservative estimate in view of the relatively low wage level in the Ruhr region. Elsewhere in Germany, values are calculated to be at least twice as high. But even if you only spend 500 euros for each of the approximately 4.000 resignations in 2016, the sum of two million euros is roughly equivalent to the diocese’s subsidy for two of its schools or 20 of its day care centers for children. A loss that multiplies year after year, as the study calculates: Even with a moderate compounding of two percent annually, the calculated loss of church departures from 2016 alone adds up to more than 26 million euros for the Essen diocese within ten years. This does not even include the further withdrawals and resulting financial losses in the following years. „For a financial system based on continuous revenue from a roughly stable membership base, church departures act like a turbocharger- only with the opposite sign", Against this background, the study states.

In concrete terms, the Ruhr bishopric expects to lose at least 500 euros in annual church taxes per resignation.

This is all the more true when one- as the study- when you look at the ages at which Catholics leave their church: Never do so many people leave the church in the Ruhr bishopric as between the ages of 25 and 35. If the average of church departures is 0.55 percent of a cohort, about 1.6 percent each of the Catholic cohorts who were then in their late 20s left in 2016. With dramatic consequences for the church: Those who leave at such a young age no longer pay church tax for a very long time- and these also usually not on the highest incomes of its Erwerbsbiographie. And those who leave the church before the family phase are unlikely to have their own children baptized later.

The challenge of leaving the church: what church leaders can do

Main reasons for leaving: Alienation and lack of commitment

But why do people leave? Primarily because the contact between them and the church has been lost, because the church with its offerings hardly plays a role in their lives anymore, in short: due to "alienation" and "lack of commitment, As the study puts it. The often cited church tax or the scandals mentioned at the beginning of this article undoubtedly also play a role in the process of leaving the church However, the scientists involved see it more as a trigger than as the actual reason for the resignation.

The study comprises three scientific chapters, each prepared by teams of different institutes working independently and coordinated by a project group in the Diocese of Essen:

  • A team of the Center for Applied Pastoral Research (ZAP) at the Ruhr-University Bochum around Matthias Sellmann, Benedikt Jurgens and Bjorn Szymanowski presents a study of the pastoral situation in Germany Meta study über works and previous studies with relevant relevance to the search for the factors that determine church loyalty. From the analysis, the team developed seven dimensions of church loyalty: Individual, Interactive, Social, Liturgical, Structural, Financial, Communicative. These dimensions are each assigned concrete subcategories that have different effects on church loyalty. Positive Accordingly, successful christenings, weddings or funerals, as well as the church’s social and charitable commitment, have a negative effect on the loyalty of its members: Those who have good experiences here are happy to be Catholic. Negative on the other hand, categories such as the image of the church, the lack of modernity, church structures and its moral teachings have an impact. Categories such as belief in God, church tax or socialization tend to be viewed neutrally and may reinforce trends in one direction or the other. Likewise only secondary meanings in the sense of the reinforcement of an existing connection are assigned to categories such as honorary office, social-political commitment or community.
  • The Explorative Study In the second part of the study, a team led by Ulrich Riegel and Thomas Krock of the University of Siegen and Tobias Faix of the YMCA University of Kassel is responsible for the following. From the 2.With 751 participants in an initial online survey in March 2017, about one in seven of whom said they had already left the church, the researchers ultimately developed eight in-depth portraits for the study. They show how differently and in each case primarily biographically justified and at the same time highly intensive and long the processes around a church exit proceed. Riegel, Krock and Faix describe how believers view their church membership under cost and benefit arguments and represent this with the image of a scale: Over time, one set of scales accumulates good experiences with church- perhaps touching church services, memories of a great youth ministry, or positive impressions of the Caritas nursing home where grandma lives. In the other scale, disappointments are added over time, z.B. üThe parishioners do not want boring church services, impersonal funerals, or unfriendly treatment in the parish office. When disappointments eventually outweigh positive impressions, when the figurative scales tip- then the threat of leaving the church.
  • TheologicalReflects

Instead of the traditional image of the pastoral of framing, the image of a social movement.

As a work, which is to supply above all realizations for practice, it does not leave the meals study with the analysis. Based on the research results, she rather points out three fields of development in which the church must improve in order to retain its members- by living up to its ecclesial mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel, experiencing and celebrating the nearness of God, and serving others selflessly: (1) Quality of pastoral care, (2) Member management and (3) Image and Identity.

Between chasubles and communication

The "Quality of Pastoral Care is improved in the sense of the study, for example, when pastoral teams and committed people in the congregations place great value on appropriate and touching church services precisely on those occasions when people come to church who otherwise perceive hardly any or no offers from the parish. Do these "occasional users "experience a personal funeral, a festive wedding, a lovingly crafted baptism, a moving school enrollment service or an emotionally gripping Christmas mass, this has a positive effect on their church loyalty. In this context, cassations, i.e., celebrations at special high points or turning points in life, are of particular importance. The same applies to support in critical life situations: When church members experience help, advice and encouragement here, the church scores points.

The challenge of leaving the church: what church leaders can do

Of course, this quality standard should not only apply to the special cases of pastoral care, but also in pastoral "everyday life Of Sunday and holiday masses and the organization of the church year. However, since the vast majority of Catholics primarily attend life turning points- or even at Christmas If a person has contact with the church, it is worth paying special attention here. Particularly with regard to the chapels, these people expect a committed service and a meaningful, touching experience of God’s assistance.

It is important that the language of the church adapts to the life world of the people and is thus connectable. This is just as true in personal contact as it is in the media via social media, the parish newsletter or the diocesan-wide member magazine like BENE in the diocese of Essen.

In the development field "Member management it’s about the relationship between "the church and their "members. Strategic and professional impulses and communication are needed to maintain contact. The focus is thus on church members, whose attachment is critical- from church and vice versa: from which church has distanced itself. For the church as a membership organization, it is easier to retain members than to recruit new ones. The efficiency perspective does not argue against the church’s mission, but it does suggest that limited resources should be used first for the many who are already members of the church. The need to catch up in the area of membership management becomes clear when the church compares itself with political parties, soccer clubs or aid organizations: whether a church member sends a birthday greeting receives or a welcome letter when he or she has moved depends on the individual local parish- a cross-cutting strategy in a diocese is rarely felt here. One thing is clear: members are very different in their desire for closeness to the church. Some want to be intensively and responsibly involved, others sporadically, and still others see themselves more as passive members. So there is a need for a differentiated, appreciative contact- up to the commitment promotion. Above all, this has implications for communication with members: it must be structured, regular, and strategic- but also taking into account the different interests of the members. Those who feel that he or she is perceived individually as a member are more likely to decide to stay than those who feel that the church doesn’t care about them or doesn’t care at all.

Under the heading "Member Management This also includes considerations as to whether and how the financing of the church can be made more flexible in the future. The study shows that many members more or less strongly consider to what extent their membership in the church is "worthwhile". For example, if they receive something in return: a place in the Catholic daycare center around the corner or in the Catholic retirement home. In addition, it can be attractive for people to support the church financially only for a limited period of time. At the same time, there are numerous church members who, beyond their church tax, donate specifically to initiatives and institutions- e.g. through sponsoring associations donate. Combined with smart membership management, this is where structured fundraising could come in.

There is a need for differentiated, appreciative contact.

The third field of development "Image and identity is at the same time the most difficult. In the first two fields, it is in principle quickly possible to bring about significant improvements through changes at the local level or in the respective diocese. A deeply regressive image, especially when it comes to their sexual morals, their treatment of remarried divorcees and homosexuals, can be countered in individual cases with a sense of proportion and courage to react; but fundamental, structural developments are also necessary in order to u.a. Further develop dialogue, pastoral care and worship services in such a way that they honestly and mercifully meet people and their needs. At the same time, it is important to place the life-accompanying aspects of the Christian Good News in the public eye, in order to replace a one-sided fixation on the moral aspects, which have a negative connotation, with a balanced, realistic and thus clearly more positive image.

The main problem with the church’s offerings is their recognizability: If members view their membership from a cost-benefit perspective, it is important that members also attribute the many positively valued offerings to the church. This- too often missing- Recognizability is connected with the keyword of accessibility, which is often just as difficult. Within the church there will be- based on the diversity of providers their own brand, instead of offering. One could say: there is too much thinking from the organizer, too little from the client. Thus, many good church offers are often not found and if they are, they are not assigned to the church. This requires honest and critical reflection and further development for example, through joint brand strategies that transcend various sponsors- a clear recognition of what is in the church, or which offer is a church offer.

Leadership leads the way

The challenge of leaving the church: what church leaders can do

Thomas Runker, Regina Laudage-Kleeberg, Markus Etscheid-Stams (v.l.n.r.), Photos: Diocese of Essen

Those who are willing to engage in the challenging feedback of those who have left and those who want to leave have a lot to gain. For those who understand what is important to the many church members can align themselves with it. The study in the Diocese of Essen has shown how intense the struggle of many is for their church membership. Those responsible in the church can- let them engage with this perspective and feedback- learn a lot about themselves and for the future. The work for this study has shown that those who want to leave and those who have left accept the offer of a dialogue and give quite willingly and differentiated information about their motivations.

The challenge now for church leaders in all sectors is to act consistently on the basis of these and other studies. There are many important recommendations and courses of action on the table. By how these are now taken up, it proves, how seriously it is to the church responsible persons- in relation to the members and with their very own mission, the realization of which requires a constant perception of and adaptation to realities. Courageous and consistent decisions on concrete innovations and projects are needed to overcome previous- still popular- Overcoming logics and shaping the future with courage. Because: An organization changes its being only in the doing.

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