Every time someone leaves a church I’m a part of, it hurts. Every time. I don’t have thick skin in that regard—and I don’t think pastors should. Churches are families—a type of family that is deeper than blood yet bought by blood. Any time someone leaves a family, it hurts—even if it is good.
When starting this series, I wanted to address a topic that we don’t talk about but always deal with: people leaving churches. After writing about why to stay, why to leave, and how to leave, I still felt like something was missing. That element: how do pastors handle people leaving?
This post is for anyone, but especially for pastors who have to navigate the weird world of church shuffling.
Prepare Your Heart
You could be the perfect pastor. You could do everything you could possibly imagine. Your church could be loving. People will leave. You’ll leave. If you don’t think this is true, you live in a fantasy world. Denial doesn’t help us. We need to recognize that people leaving is a part of church life—not as cynics who write this off as opportunity cost for growth, but as pastors who know our own fallen hearts and live in a fallen world.
But how do you prepare your heart for this? What happens when your closest friend tells you that he’s leaving? What happens when the person you baptized—and whose children you married—says, “We just can’t be here anymore”? What happens when your strongest leader gets a divorce, leaves his family, and doesn’t want to walk through restoration with you?
A sober awareness of our own hearts helps (Jer 17:9). These items should never catch us off guard, even if they hurt or even if they are shocking. We are always trying to live with our own issues and (often) the issues of those in our flock. Pastors should be the least surprised by the pain of people leaving—even if we are the most hurt. Be ready for the inevitable changes.
Trust Your Savior
But hurt doesn’t have to be sinful; it can be fatherly. However, we can only feel it in the right way if we trust our savior in it all. A conversation a couple of years ago with my friend, Patrick (who planted the church I now serve), put it well. I was sharing with him how I always hurt when people leave—even if I don’t know the people. Sometimes I can even be erroneous and feel as if I’ve somehow failed.
His reply: People leaving the church is always an issue between them and how they understand Jesus, and how you respond to it is an issue between you and how you understand Jesus.
It was a conversation I still think about regularly. Why? Because pastors can try to become saviors. No one needs to have on a performance review, “I kept the Jones family here. Give me a raise.” However, helping remember the work of Jesus for me helps me process whatever might take place. Something else happens when you look to Jesus and not just yourself, but the situation: you remember that God is working out something bigger than any one story. Maybe someone leaves, but consider that the situation provides a beautiful, gracious, and unexpected situation twenty years from now that you could’ve never scripted. Jesus is bigger than the circumstances.
Train Your Flock
This is much more nuts and bolts, but you’d be well-served to train your church how to consider leaving. Our church actually does this in our membership class—it’s one of the last things we discuss. While perhaps you laugh at the idea of training members how to leave, it serves as a helpful guide for the future (and is part of preparing your heart). A few items to consider:
- Talk about why people leave churches: At least in many parts of the US, there is a decent chance that someone is coming to your church from another (though we all agree that it is a breath of fresh air to have people with no church background want to become members). Get them talking about why people leave and what motivates it. What are good reasons? What are bad reasons? Anyone had a bad experience (my, my, my, the conversations that this can draw out). (Side note: you get some insider perspective on the condition of the people considering your church as their home, and it helps you pastor better.)
- Talk about how to leave: Give people some ways to approach the idea of leaving. What steps do you want them to take or conversations do you want them to have? What if they move? How do they let you know? What if there is a grievance? Don’t make leaving so hard that people feel stuck forever, but don’t make it so easy that they never need to talk to you.
- Let them see the covenant and know the commitment: If you have a membership covenant, let people see it. Help them know what they are getting into so that they might be less inclined to get out of it. Teach them that joining a church is serious, yet joyful, and always important. Don’t just pad your numbers, but teach them how to engage.
Many ministry land mines can be avoided if you simply start with the ending.
Keep Your Friends
Pastors need friends. Good friends. Great friends. Everyone does. If those in your local church are your only friends, you’re in trouble. It might sound counterintuitive, but you’ll be a better pastor if you have friends who aren’t friends primarily because they are your church members.
There are times you need people to talk you off of the ledge. There are times you need advice. There are times you need someone to love you and talk with you without worrying if they’ll kick you out of your church for feeling the way you do.
You’ll last longer, go further, and serve more joyfully at your church (and when people leave it) if you have people who can simply be with you and say, “I’m sorry. I still love you.” (It helps if they say, “That person was a fool for leaving,” but that part isn’t required.)
Churches are delicate entities. Membership is a delicate endeavor. Pastoring fallen people is a joyful burden—even when they leave you or you leave them. Comforting in it all is that Jesus never leaves us.