Silent departures

Sometimes a member just stops coming to the groupís meetings, without notice or explanation. If this happens, we may well wonder whether the missing person is sick or hurt. We might worry that they had gone away so angrily that they didnít want to talk about it with any of the groupís members. Even if the member has left for happy reasons, involving no apparent conflict or problem with the group, we are concerned that their silent departure probably reveals some blockage in the groupís communications.

     Fortunately, very few people up and leave Pagan groups without at least saying goodbye. When they do, we need to remember that even their silence may not be about us. Pressures from outside the group, from situations, events and responsibilities having nothing to do with the group, may be so emotionally draining as to lead someone to silently depart because she or he simply doesnít have the emotional resources to make any sort of parting statement at all.

     A silent departure may be even harder for a group to handle than angry walkouts complete with nasty exit fights. The ambiguity posed by a silent departure may weaken the groupís sense of identity and the clarity of its boundaries. A strong need for collective closure may develop.
 

Inability to discuss the reasons for leaving

There are many conceivable situations in which a groupís member may feel unsafe or embarrassed to discuss the reasons for leaving. To consider just a few:
  • the member is averse to conflict because of previous trauma in their personal history. Something troubling happened, so they just quietly left;
  • the member may have felt uncomfortable in the face of social or sexual pressure from another member or the group;
  • the member may have contracted an illness about which they feel profoundly embarrassed; or perhaps a spouse or a child has taken ill;
  • marital difficulties may have erupted for the member. An angry spouse may have forbidden further contact with any of the groupís members or leaders;
  • the member got fired from a job for cause, or lost a substantial amount of money gambling. They cannot afford to travel to meetings and is now too ashamed to admit why not;
  • They canít continue in the group for reasons entirely beyond their control. The member sees this as shamefully breaking a commitment, and so chooses to avoid embarrassment by just disappearing. This is the introvertís equivalent of an exit fight.
It is at least very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for a group leader to foresee all the possible reasons for silent departure. 

      However, the very possibility itself can certainly be foreseen, and perhaps best addressed in the groupís opening Ďground rulesí by making it plain to new members that departure without notice is rude and that Ďno shame, no blameí departures are certainly an option for any member at any time.

Dealing with the leader's feelings of confusion or rejection

Good group leaders, quite understandably, care deeply about the well-being of all of the members of their groups. When members just stop coming, the leader will probably be worried about them at first. Later, if they still donít hear from the missing people, the leader may become confused as to what has happened and why, and so may begin a process of soul-searching and self-recrimination. They may come to feel that they and the group had failed to interest the people enough to motivate their continuing participation. A sense of rejection may lead to hurt feelings, or the leader and other group members may become defensive and angry at the departing memberís rudeness.

     Reactions like these are normal and understandable. We are not in some way unworthy as leaders for feeling confused and rejected. In time, as the feelings settle, we can begin to figure out what we might have done differently under the circumstances. We can try to change our ways so as to reduce the possibility of this happening again. But if nothing we did caused the silent departure, then nothing we can change will completely prevent others in the future.

Managing the situation: reaching out

Remember, people are not property. As Pagans, we reject the notion that there is one single spiritual path appropriate for everyone. We respect diversity and personal choice, so we do not engage in dropout control.

     Still, it is natural for us to care about missing members, to want to make sure that all is well with them, to know whether their departure highlights any correctable problems in our group.

     Try to contact the absent members to find out whatís happening. But donít pressure or harass them. Respect any limits they had previously set on contact -- for example, they may have asked you not to discuss Pagan business on their office phone. Judy thinks itís best to begin with the phone calls and e-mails we usually use these days. Paper letters seem so official and intimidating now that we mostly only get them from bureaucrats and lawyers. Gwyneth disagrees, feeling that high-tech communication tends to be more invasive. She notes that a person can wait to open a letter till they feel able to deal with its content.

      Both of us suggest that if missing persons do not respond to your more casual efforts at contact, you should write a gently worded letter to them, explaining your need for clarification and understanding. If they were valuable members, you may want to offer the option of a leave of absence.
 

How much effort is appropriate?

There are no hard and fast rules. Silent departure is a circumstance where great tact, discretion and respect are called for. Here are some points to ponder in dealing with it.
  • How hard do you or the group really want to try? How badly will you miss this person? Frankly, there are some members who, while they do nothing wrong, just donít fit. You may be happy to see them go in peace, saving face for all concerned.
  • Harassment means repeated and unwelcome attempts at contact. Donít harass someone. If you donít receive any response, or donít like the response you received. Donít stalk them.
  • Donít attempt to cajole a disaffected person to return to your group. Basic respect demands that you be willing to take Ďnoí for an answer.
  • Some traditions call for holding a space open for a departed member for a year and a day. In the absence of a waiting list, this might be a reasonable amount of time to allow any member who left without prejudice to return without re-application. You might want to make some such grace period, of whatever length seems reasonable to you, an explicit part of your groupís rules.
  • If the group has a waiting list for membership, a silent departure puts you into a special quandary: how long do you hold the space open when this means keeping someone else out? Trying to be fair to both the absent member and the eager seeker may create pressure to act hastily in a variety of ways. Please take the very fact that you have a waiting list as a reminder to proceed with care and deliberation.
  • On the other hand, the fact that others are waiting for this place probably means that you should give the missing person a generous but explicit time limit to respond to your letter. Do explain the reason for this time limit. If you havenít heard from them by then, itís fair to consider them gone. If they eventually want to return, itís fair to put them at the end of your waiting list.
  • If the person ever does re-apply to your group, you will want a full explanation -- not just of why they left, but of why they failed to give notice. Most important: look in to why they feel ready -- and called -- to resume working with your group. What has changed for them? Do consider any extenuating circumstances, as well as the personís prior value to the group and apparent growth during their absence, in deciding whether to have them back.

Resolution

Unless the information is embarrassing and confidential, share what youíve learned with the group. At minimum, let the group know whether the missing person has requested a leave of absence or definitely departed. A regrouping and healing ritual may resolve the disturbing ambiguity caused by the silent departure of a member, and further help restore the groupís boundaries and its sense of collective identity. 
 

Lessons learned

  • Itís healthy for a group to know clearly who is and is not an active member at any time. When this becomes confused, the leader should move to clarify the boundaries that support a groupís sense of identity.

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  • The best way to protect your group against the trauma of a silent departure is to nurture an atmosphere of trust and open communications, in which everyone feels free to say their piece and everyone feels heard.

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