WASHINGTON –– Church leaders should take to heart reasons why Catholics have left the church, according to a priest who has conducted an “exit poll” of former Catholics.

Above all, their departure highlights how the church must offer a “fresh explanation of the Eucharist,” said Jesuit Father William Byron, professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, pointing out that those who leave the church separate themselves from the celebration and reception of the Eucharist.

“This calls for a creative liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal and practical response,” he said, to help Catholics understand what the Sunday Mass obligation is really about and what they’re missing when they leave.

Fr. Byron conducted the study last fall along with Charles Zech, professor of economics and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University’s business school. They surveyed 298 non-churchgoing Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J. They presented their results March 22 at The Catholic University of America in Washington and have written about the study for the April 30 edition of America magazine.

Fr. Byron said the idea of the survey came about after a conversation he had about the number of Catholics who have left the church, which according to a 2007 Pew Forum report is one-third of those raised Catholic in the United States. In the course of the discussion, a retired CEO told the priest that if the church were a business, it would conduct exit polls to find out why people left, or in business terms to “know where your losses were from.”

That’s what Fr. Byron and Zech set out to do with the study “Empty Pews: Survey of Catholics Regarding Decrease in Mass Attendance.”

They reached participants through advertisements in Catholic and secular newspapers and bulletin announcements. As Fr. Bryon pointed out, the survey did not involve a random sample but more a “sample of convenience.”

Still, the answers could provide an important tool for church leaders, he said.

The survey presented participants with a variety of questions about their parish experience: Did they feel they belonged to their parish? Was the pastor approachable and the pastoral staff welcoming? Was there anything their parish could do to make them return?

Participants also were asked specifically about their departure, if it was conscious decision or the result of “drifting away?” Did they leave their parish, the Catholic Church or both? Did they join another faith community? Were there church teachings they found particularly troubling or if they had a bad experience with anyone in church?

They also were also asked what they would like to discuss with their bishop if they had the opportunity.

The median respondent was a 53-year-old white female. Fr. Byron noted that although respondents were from a “disaffected group,” they were primarily positive and appreciative for the chance to express their views.

He said the respondents’ views on “non-negotiable” church teachings points to the need for more pastoral and clear explanations of what the church teaches and why. Respondents cited disagreements with the church’s stance on women’s ordination, married priests, contraception and same-sex marriage, he said.

He labeled other issues that prompted people to leave as “negotiable” such as dissatisfaction with homilies and negative clergy image. Some wanted their bishop to apologize for the clergy abuse scandal; others said they wanted to hear fewer appeals for money and more about care for the poor.

Overall, most respondents said they left the parish and the Catholic Church and were ambivalent if their departure was a conscious decision or not.

Many had positive reactions about their parish, saying the staff was welcoming and the pastor approachable for the most part. They also considered themselves members of the parish, but some were disheartened that they had not been missed when they left.

Most did not have a bad experience with the church and the vast majority did not join another faith community.

U.S. Catholics leaving the church is hardly a new issue, noted William Dinges, professor of religious studies at Catholic University. He said this was a particular concern as immigrants came to the U.S. In the 1940s and ’50s, he said, research indicated that 70 percent to 80 percent of Catholics attended Sunday Mass, and now that figure is about 31 percent of Catholics, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Dinges said, the Catholic Church had a strong youth and young adult base and many of them were very involved in church organizations and activities.

He said the trend in recent years of young people leaving the church has been coupled with the idea that they would return once they had families of their own. “That’s not necessarily so anymore,” he said.

Peter Murphy, executive director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said new evangelization efforts in the church today aim to provide “more robust catechesis” for today’s Catholics and reach out to those who have left the church.