“Absent Without Leave,” or “AWOL” for short, is a serious offense if you’re in the military. It is a term used to describe
someone who is a member of a group, but drops out of sight and leaves their post unattended. It’s also a serious infraction if you’re a member of a Bible study group! I’ve taught an ongoing Bible study for over seven years now, and I’ve had my fair share of people who went AWOL. Some were absent for a few weeks, then returned. Others dropped out for longer periods of time. As a group leader, you can’t control who is in your group each week; you do have control over what you do about the group members who drop out.
In a typical group, about 45-50% of group members will be absent any time the group meets (this is especially true in a Sunday school ministry). Therefore, if you have 20 people on your group ministry role, you can be confident that around 10 of them will be absent the next time the group meets. This leaves group leaders in a slight quandary – what should you do about the dropouts between group meetings? The tendency may be to say, “Well, they know where and when we meet – they’ll show back up.” But is that the best approach? Here are some ideas for dealing with people who become group dropouts.
- Pray for them. This is an important first step in helping dropouts reconnect with your group. As a group leader, you should pray for the AWOL people in your group. But you can lead your group members to pray for them as well. Consider focusing the group’s prayer efforts on one or two people, or one or two couples each week. This will raise the group’s awareness that people are absent and need to be cared for.
- Encourage them. Because electronic mail is so prevalent today, why not try something a little old fashioned? A handwritten note is a nice, personal touch in an overly electronic world. Tell the group dropout they are missed, and that your Bible study group isn’t the same without them. Remind them they contribute in significant ways when they are present. Ask if they need ministry from the group. Keep things positive. Don’t chastise them for being gone.
- Understand them. It’s easy to judge someone and label them as “non-committed” or a “slacker.” But resist hanging a label around their neck. Instead, get to know their situation. They may be under significant stress at work, they could be traveling to care for an aging parent on the weekends, or some other significant reason that explains their absence. In those cases, your group now has opportunities to minister to the absentee and to serve them.
- Visit them. Yes, home visitation is on the decline today, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t occasionally get in your car and stop by the group dropout’s home for a quick “porch visit.” Dropping off your group’s Bible study materials to the absentee can remind them about your group and their need to belong to it. If nothing else, a heartfelt “We sure miss you in Bible study” can melt the ice and help a person or a couple feel better about reconnecting to the group after a prolonged absence. It also helps them get over those awkward feelings if they’ve simply ducked out of church because they are tired, allowed kids’ sports to interfere with Sunday worship and Bible study, or some other reason.
- Don’t give up on them. This is perhaps the most important one. Don’t just focus your attention on the “99 sheep” you have. Jesus told a parable in which the owner of sheep left 99 of them in search of 1 lost sheep. The parable demonstrated the value of people to the Lord, and the extreme measures He went to in order to provide salvation for them. Those AWOL members of your group are precious to the Lord – He died for them – and it grieves the Holy Spirit when people choose to disconnect from the church. Don’t write off the group dropout, and certainly don’t remove them from your group’s ministry list.
- Invite them to a party. People who’ve been absent for a long time feel awkward about showing back up suddenly. Everyone likes a party, though, so plan a fellowship and reach out to every group dropout. It will be easier for them to reconnect with the group at a party away from the church. Help them take baby steps toward regular attendance.
- Call them. I prefer that you call, not email or text, any long-term group dropouts. You may have to start the conversation with something like, “I’ve not done a great job keeping up with you” or “Forgive me for not calling sooner…” This transfers the responsibility to you, and doesn’t make the absentee feel put upon. Let them know you care, want to pray for them, and desire them to come back to your group.
- Downsize the group. I’m not a big fan of large groups for making disciples. Jesus’ ministry was primarily to a group of 12 disciples, and an inner group of 3 disciples. The larger the group, the harder it is for the group leader to act like a Teacher-Shepherd and care for all of the group dropouts. A smaller group will be easier to lead, and it will certainly be easier to follow up with a few dropouts than trying to care for many group dropouts.
- Organize the group. One of the best practices a group could have is to divide the members among several Care Group Leaders. Each care group leader is responsible for reaching out every week to any dropout under their watchcare. In doing so, Care Group leaders share the load of ministry with the group’s leader, allowing him or her to focus on studying and guiding the group’s Bible study.
- Take advantage of natural “on ramps.” If your group has dropouts, there will be times of the year that provide natural and easier ways to get them to reengage with your group. Some are related to timing: it’s easier to invite people to reengage at the first of the year, the beginning of summer, and the start of the school year. It’s also easier to invite a person to reengage when the group begins a new Bible study. A quick message like, “Hey, we miss you, and want you to know we’re starting a new study next week” gives the absentee a good reason to jump back in and reengage with the group.
If you’re going to lead a Bible study group, you’re going to have dropouts. Commit to not only prepare your group’s Bible study experience, prayer, and fellowship experiences, but also to have a strategy for quickly and effectively reaching out to those who drop out of group life. You’ll come to learn, as I have, that the quicker you reach out to an absentee, the easier it is. When people go AWOL, don’t leave them in that state. Just a little encouragement can help them reengage with you and your group members.