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…