“Peace out” 4 Thoughts on Leaving a Church Community

Of all of the topics pastors have asked me to write on, this one has come up a lot lately. Now let me say: I write this blog from a very full heart and a very good place.

This month, Anne and I celebrated completing 8 years at Kfirst. We are in a great season in our church community. I’m a pastor who LOVES my job. So, in essence, this blog is not the ranting of a wounded leader but the ramblings of a pastor who loves the Church (not just Kfirst). My heart is for the Kingdom of God. I serve Christ and desire for people to find and follow Him.

But I often find myself fielding calls from a pastors about those who have left the church community they lead. A vast majority of the time, it’s a humble voice on the other end. He/she isn’t spewing hate or rage. The pastor is simple looking for introspective answers to what may have caused the disconnect and/or what personal changes may need to take place. Honestly, I love that type of heart. As the scriptures say,

“God opposes the proud but favors the humble.” – James 4:6

As I say so often to them and to those who have left a church: Sometimes there isn’t a “fit” and I’m okay with that.

It’s not a generational thing nor it is always that a bad event occurred to drive someone away. Sometimes it happens when there is a change in the church community (leadership, vision, atmosphere/style, etc).  I’m okay with all of that. It happens. We’ve experienced that here at Kfirst. I was warned by countless pastors that my transition into leadership, over the course of a few years, would solidify people in the community as well as help people feel a release. I was forewarned that it’s a part of church life as the church, as well as myself, continues to grow and gel together.

Again, leaving doesn’t have to be a terrible event. There are a number of those whom have left that I remain friends with and have even hung out with. I interact on social media with quite a few people who see that there is more the “Church” than your “church.” If your version of the body of Christ only includes those you attend a weekly gathering with, you’ve got a shallow and incorrect understanding of the Church.

Don’t get me wrong, challenging things happen. From misunderstandings and offenses to personality conflicts and burnout.  And unfortunately, sinful decisions by either leadership or attendees (or both) can drive people to deciding to leave their present church. If you expected the Church to be perfect and to act perfect, you are always going to find someone or something to be disappointed in.  But every time you leave, you can take steps of healing or perpetuate the hurt. I’m not trying to justify any hurtful action. I just want to see the Church get healthier. And I think that we ALL can do better with church transitions.

A few months back, I dealt with this from the pastoral perspective as I challenged pastors on how to respond to those leaving the church in the blog, “How Do You Deal With People Leaving the Church?” So I thought I’d approach it from the other perspective: How to leave a church and find another.

Depart in a Christ-glorifying way. 
Leaving a church doesn’t have to be dramatic and malicious.  You don’t need a “mic drop” moment to make a splash on your way out. Don’t rally people together through texts, phone calls, or small group meetings. There’s no need to blast people, pastors, or churches on social media. Every time I see this happen, my heart breaks. A thread of hate on social media feeds our own self-righteousness and prevents anyone toward moving forward in healing.

If you see the need to leave where you are at, I can understand that, but make sure you leave in the most Christ-glorifying way. You may “feel” justified in some of the above actions, but no glory goes to God from purposely leaving emotional shrapnel stuck in the hearts of those you used to worship with. I love the words of Christ, in regards to those who may have hurt or mistreated you: Love, do good, bless, and pray for them.

Don’t look for or demand “exit interviews.” Stepping away is fine. Maybe if you have “membership” at a church then I think it’s very appropriate to give the pastor a “heads up” on the new direction you are taking. Over the past 8 years, I’ve appreciated simple connections where hugs and prayers were exchanged instead of opinions and preferences; blessing and goodness was given over frustration and offense.

You bring forward what you took away.
While writing this blog, my mind went to how Israel left Egypt. It says in Exodus 12:36, that they “stripped Egypt of their wealth.” 20 chapters later, when they were tired of waiting on their leader, they took what they left Egypt with and made gods to serve.  These slaves were set free with a wealth they had never lived with. And they needed to choose how to harness it.

What you left with from the last church, you WILL bring it with you (both good and bad). It’s not a mind-blowing concept but an extremely underestimated fact. In college, the church I attended starting going into a direction that didn’t sit well with me. My dread of going to church far outweighed my passion for church. I tried getting involved, but the more the church shifted, the more I discovered that it wasn’t a “fit.” When I settled at a new church, it shocked me what I carried with me.  I realized that, when I left, I brought more with me than I realized. And I could use that to grow, or I can respond like Israel, use what I took to form an idea to follow.

When you leave a church, you leave with the good and the bad. And your decision is simple: Will you grow forward with and properly utilize experiences you received or will you serve the hurt that you walked away with? Nobody else can make that decision but you.

Don’t develop atrophy.
Sitting may feel profitable, but it’s an easy place to get stuck. Even for those who are “burnt out” on volunteering, I recommend rest, but serving is some the best therapy for a burnt out soul.

Before you react, here me out. I’m not asking for a massive commitment to leading or launching a new program. I am speaking out of positioning yourself in a place where you rest can turn to a place of atrophy.

When I went through rotator cuff surgery, I didn’t go back into massive commitments to activities. I went to physical therapy. The trauma I incurred prevented me from doing ANYTHING I did before the injury. But in PT, I did small, subtle movements.  And because of my amazing PT and the appropriate amount of time, my shoulder was restored and stronger than ever.

If anyone has faced some hurt and/or burn out, step into a simple place of serving. For example, here at Kfirst we have “First Impressions” ministry. It’s as simple as greeting at a door once a month (or ever two months). Not a huge commitment but vital ministry. And that level of serving mixed with the appropriate amount of time, can restored and strengthen a wounded soul to be stronger than ever.

Root where you land.
Fruit doesn’t come from a plant that doesn’t take root (I’m sure I’ll get a note from a botanist on that one). When you find a church community, go all in and make connections. It may take a few tries and attempts, but take the responsibility to put your roots down.

Far too often we place our “rooting” on the pastor or the congregation. While I’m not relinquishing responsibilities from the leadership and the people, the “reaching” and “connecting” must go both ways. And while the “rooting” is happening, you’ll discover ministry and relational sweet spots. For me, my volunteering and involvement didn’t come without bumps or bruises. I remember wanting to get involved in a few ministries that I loved but were overcrowded with volunteers. But you bloom where you are planted. So I planted myself with some areas of need in that church and, through serving, I found greater connection. Don’t make leaders or people chase you. Go after them and begin developing roots in your new church community.

Leaving a church is more than deciding to attend a different gathering during the week. There is a transition of heart, background, and a positioning for future Kingdom growth. And my challenge to anyone reading this would be to consider the full gambit of what this type of change brings so that you, and those around you, can see the Church become a healthier entity.

If you’re a pastor reading this, I highly recommend “How Do You Deal With People Leaving the Church?” as there proper way for YOU to deal with this.

None of this is easy. But I believe that, together, we can create a stronger Church.

Love you all.

Encourage Effort.
Celebrate Progress.
Feed Hope.

 

Thanks for letting me ramble…

 

 

Pastor to Pastor: How Do You Deal With People Leaving the Church?

I’ve never hidden my heart for pastors.  I think part of it is the fact that I am currently in pastoral ministry. But what drives the other side is, when I was a broken and frustrated pastor, others lent their ear and freely gave their insight and wisdom.  So, in essence, how in the world could I ever hold back anything that God has given me?  

Freely received; freely given.  Thine is the Kingdom.

Weekly, calls come in from pastors wanting to talk about a variety of subjects. I welcome calls like that. Why? I want to learn and grow and I think conversations with fellow co-laborers is a great avenue to let “iron sharpen iron.” I feel every interaction I have with a fellow minister is a growing opportunity for both of us to grow. One of the subjects that inevitably comes up is the struggle that comes when people leave the church.

I’m not necessarily talking about people abandoning their faith (whole other blog).  I’m talking about that moment when people decide to stop attending the church you pastor and attend somewhere else because your church community isn’t a fit for them.  It’s a moment that can suck to deal with. I love people and I wish everyone could find their fit at Kfirst.  But I realize that isn’t realistic.

Seven years ago, a very good friend told me that, minimally, 30% of the people who voted you (wanted you) in as the pastor would depart and go somewhere else.  Some because you would never be who they thought you were (expectations both realistic and unrealistic). Some left because of too much change, not enough change, or they didn’t see the change they wanted to see (see expectations). Some departed because their hearts were too connected to previous leadership (styles and approach).  Still, some left because of offense and frustration. 

Pastors, if there’s anything I can implore of you during congregation transitions, it’s this: Reflect Jesus to people when they come to your church; reflect Jesus if people leave your church. 

What do you do? As a pastor, how do you approach people leaving because they didn’t find a “fit” at your church? It’s as simple as 1,2, 3.

  1. Bless them. If they’re courageous enough to leave in an honorable way AND let you know, you need to push past any hurt or frustration and do, what I think, is the most honorable thing to do: bless them. 
    • Offer prayer over them. Bless their search for a church community. Speak blessing over their home.
    • Offer to help them find a church. It’s rare people take me up on that, but my heart has to be for the Kingdom more than my church or denomination.
  2. Speak well of them. Shut your mouth. Shut down the gossip (if any) about them. Let the words of your mouth and the meditation of our heart be honorable to the Lord. Just because they left your church community doesn’t mean they departed the Kingdom of God.
    • “Pastor, did you know ______ left the church?” “Yep.  We talked and had prayer.”
    • “Pastor, I heard ________ left because of _________.” “Well, first, I chose to believe the best of _________. Second, stop talking about it. Third, tell the people you’re hearing this from to stop talking about it. That’s between _______ and God and we can’t run our church community by gossip and assumption.”
  3. Respond well to them. I see people in the mall, neighborhood, social media, etc. that have left Kfirst. Them being here doesn’t decide if I like them personally or not. For some, Kfirst wasn’t the “fit” for them and that’s okay. I’ve developed some great friendships with people in the community that didn’t find their “fit” at our church. That’s fine.  That happens and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.   Don’t respond to people in a crappy way just because they don’t attend any more (I wish I didn’t have to type that).  Grow up and treat people with respect and kindness. 

Here’s some final thoughts to lend to you: 

  • Be merciful. I believe mercy is best illustrated as “velvet steel.” If someone encounter’s you, they experience the velvet (kindness, honor, respect).  Yet, the steel prevents you from being a doormat. Know who you are in your identity in Christ.
  • If I offended someone, I’ll be the first to ask for forgiveness regardless of whether I feel they’re justified in their offense. 
    • It could have been a complete misunderstanding, but regardless, I offended and I should initiate asking for forgiveness. 
  • If someone is offended, they should be the one to initiate a connection.  If I know about it (sometimes someone is hacked off and never tells me), I’ll try to connect.  But he/she needs to take responsibility and step up to Matthew 18 the situation. 
  • Anyone telling me “God is leading me away” will always get a reply, “I’m gonna respect what you have personally heard from God.”
    • Who am I to argue with what God is speaking if they’re not going into a place of sin. (A reminder: Leaving your church isn’t a sin.)
  • I don’t play politics. “If I do _________, will you stay?” When someone is departing from your church community, negotiating doesn’t fix anything.  It only pacifies the situation.
  • If someone has experiencing hurt and/or offense, my goal isn’t to “keep” them, but help them into healing. 
    • If they stay, I want them healthy.
    • If they still leave, I want them leaving healthy.
  • If someone disagrees and wants to leave, I just ask that we agree to disagree. I just believe that we can embrace Jesus, not necessarily see eye-to-eye on every detail in life, and STILL be cordial with each other. 
  • I don’t do exit interviews. That has been a place for me to get annihilated while empowering someone with the hammer to do it all the while, they get to leave and I’m left picking up the pieces. 
  • Don’t tolerate sinful practices. Gossip, slander, and bitterness are not Kingdom attributes.

Again, reflect Jesus to people when they come to your church; reflect Jesus if people leave your church. Perhaps if we (the pastors) will do a better job reflecting Christ during these situations, the parishioners will have the example to follow. 

My prayer over you is that God would help give abundant wisdom (James 1) of you as you traverse through this amazing opportunity to lead a local church community. I speak God’s blessing over you in handling both when people come AND when they leave. Remember,  with people, resources, strategy, wisdom, let your heart and your leadership reflect: 

Freely received; freely given.  Thine is the Kingdom.

Love you pastors.  I believe in you. You are a tremendous gift to the Kingdom. 

 

Thanks for letting me ramble…