Updated: Nov 29, 2022
Did Anyone Miss Me?
On loneliness and belonging
It’s a painful reality in my parish…so many people just have not come back to the parish as we move into living with Covid. They didn’t formally withdraw membership. They didn’t actually do anything but not come through the doors of the church. From what I am reading, we are not alone. How about you? Are you wondering how we even begin to respond to this? Well, here are three ideas from the social sciences that can give food for thought:
People are not ok. There’s a loneliness epidemic. What do we offer that pain?
Human beings are hard-wired for connection, for belonging. What possibilities does that present?
Joining is hard. What practices can make this easier?
In this blog, we’ll start to think about these ideas together.
The epidemic of loneliness
“In the United States, more than one-quarter of people over age 60 live alone, according to a “Pew Research Survey, and more than 43 percent of them reported feeling lonely even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger people suffer from loneliness, too. In fact, those aged 18 to 22 have the highest loneliness scores, a recent survey found, and being a student correlates heavily with scoring high on the Cigna US Loneliness Index.” These findings are sobering. As social scientist, researcher, storyteller Dr. Brené Brown says frequently, “People are not ok right now.”
There’s real pain called loneliness all around us. Covid19 amplified it. And Covid19 exacerbated an already existing situation in many parishes, including my own. People were not coming BEFORE the pandemic. And now, add to that the others who were once coming are not now.
And yet, there’s so much loneliness, so much suffering, so much “not okayness. ”What is the good news any parish has to offer to the pain of loneliness? Connection. But…
Anecdotal evidence from a few parishes indicates that the level of reaching out from the parish to parishioners varied widely in these last 2+ years. Some did well and continue to do so. Some never reached out at all. Some only reached out to their elders and shut-ins, ignoring the startling numbers of young people who report being lonely. So now what? Is it too late? No! There’s always hope. Read on, allowing the Spirit to inspire you.
The need to belong
Human beings are hard-wired for belonging, for connection. When we don’t have enough of the right kind of connection, we are not fully human. We NEED to belong. Here’s what scholars say:
The most influential version of the need to belong theory was proposed by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, whose theory put relationship needs as one of the most important needs that humans must fulfill. They compared satisfying the need to belong to securing necessities, such as food and shelter, which are needed to survive. Baumeister and Leary said that satisfying the belongingness motive requires that two aspects of relationships be met: The first part is that people need to have positive and pleasant, not negative, interactions with others. The second part specifies that these interactions cannot be random but, rather, should take place as part of stable, lasting relationships in which people care about each other’s long-term health and well-being
We are social beings. We need relationships that are positive, sustained and meaningful in order to thrive. Without them, all kinds of terrible physical, mental and emotional consequences ensue. We are seeing some of them now: high suicide rates, lots of drug and alcohol use (and an opioid epidemic), public rage incidents, and addictions to our devices. And we are seeing continued isolation and disengagement.
The gift of the parish
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Here’s the great hope! A parish has the potential to be a real antidote to loneliness… a place to enter into or deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ which then puts its members into relationships with many others who share a love for Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is stable, and lasting. He cares about our long-term health and well-being. He commands us to love others in just this same way, creating a beloved community where we know we belong to Christ and to one another. Parishes can become these beloved havens of belonging and connection.
So why aren’t they coming back? Perhaps it’s because some of our parishioners do not have this intimate bond with Jesus, and they don’t have friendships within the parish? If this is so, what implications does this have for how a parish functions? What would Jesus’ heart command we do?
Is it easy to connect?
Let’s wind this up with one more idea…and that has to do with joining/re-joining an organization. I find joining organizations hard, for all kinds of reasons: my preference for solitude – I keep my own company just fine (introvert) ; my past experiences where joining suddenly meant way more to do than I ever imagined (lack of clarity around expectations); my fears that I will not fit in, be accepted or be given a chance to contribute meaningfully (in other words, I won’t really BELONG);and experiences that included backstabbing, gossip, subterfuge, and sabotage (not walking the talk). Combine them and I am not a joiner.
So let’s imagine that the descriptions above hit home for some segment of your registered parishioners (I mean, I’m not the only one, right?) Add to that list the apparently mistaken thought that they “belonged” to the parish and then, when we all went home, no one reached out to them. So much for belonging. One consequence? They’ve come to the conclusion that “They don’t care about me. Why should I care about them?” This is especially true if belonging before the Covid19 shutdown wasn’t really all that great. Add to that the ongoing suspicion, sometimes rightly founded, that what the parish really wants is time, talent and treasure. But they don’t really care about them. The result? They are not coming back.
If this rings true for you, even a little bit, it’s time to act. Reach out and connect, heart to heart! Go to our Resources and Official Documents page to find our resources: Stop Lamenting Start Connecting 31 Ways to Reach Those not Coming Back.
Even after getting this list, take time to consider how the parish is set up to address belonging and loneliness.
Is there a way that all parishioners are connected to one another, by design: neighborhood groups, prayer chains, ministries, mentoring, surrogate grandparenting, book groups, etc?
Is Jesus prayed and preached as friend, companion, and guide as well as Lord and Savior? Are prayer practices to connect the people to Jesus (other than the Mass) offered?
Does the Staff shepherd the people? (Check out our Resources and Official Docs page for an added bonus: 5 ways to shepherd your people, authored by yours truly)
Are there ministries of kindness? Of note-writing? Of remembering those who have died?
This is one leg of the three-legged stool called synodality: #participation. Participation in a parish where someone knows your name, someone cares for you, someone misses you…someone reaches out to you and, in so doing, Jesus reaches through them to touch you. This creates connection and the connection builds trust. People WANT to belong to parishes like this! How hopeful is that?
Next time: More Good News: Religious practice thwarts loneliness
Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang. “Solving the Loneliness Epidemic” Stanford Social Innovation Review.https://ssir.org/articles/entry/solving_the_loneliness_epidemic_two_generations_at_a_time#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20more,people%20suffer%20from%20loneliness%2C%20too. Accessed 5/23/22.