AWOL – it stands for “Absent Without Leave” and it’s a serious offense if you’re in the military. It’s also a serious infraction if you’re a member of a Bible study group! I teach a weekly Bible study group at my church, and over the past three years, I’ve had my fair share of people who have gone AWOL. Some are absent for a few weeks, then return. Others are chronically absent – as in gone for long extended periods of time.
In a typical group setting, about 45-50% of group members will be absent (this is especially true in a Sunday school ministry). Therefore, if I have 30 people on my class ministry role, I can be fairly confident that around 15-16 of them will be present at the next group study. It’s worked that way for years, and it leaves group leaders in a slight quandary: how do you handle the absentees between group meetings (as many people who are present will also be absent)? The tendency may be to say, “Well, they know where and when we meet – they’ll show back up” and do nothing. But is that the best approach? Here are some ideas for dealing with those chronic absentees:
- Pray for them. It goes without saying that this is the first step in helping people 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/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? Hand write a short note, telling the absentee 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. 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. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand.”
- Visit them. Yes, home visitation is on the decline in churches today (for understandable reasons). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t occasionally get in your car and stop by the absentee’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 a group of fellow believers. If nothing else, a heartfelt “We sure miss you in Bible study” can melt the ice and help a person or couple feel better about reconnecting 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 that’s not quite legit.
- 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 the sheep left the 99 in search of the 1 lost sheep he had. 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. Keep praying, writing, visiting, and encouraging people to get back in the game.