For many of us, the very mention of the subject of church members leaving knots up our stomachs faster than a phone call from the IRS. Painful memories flood my mind as I sit down to write – and I thought I’d gotten “good at” letting people go. Not that we really want to get used to losing people, but most of us would like for it to be less painful for ourselves and we’d also like to see our departed ones have a quick turnaround time: to get fully engaged quickly in a new church without cynicism or bitterness.
Why is this so hard for us?
I have met pastors who are to able to say goodbye, even to long-time, committed, godly, church members, without breaking a sweat. Certainly this has something to do with temperament and spiritual giftedness. The choleric, the phlegmatic and the sanguine are all going to suffer less than the woebegone melancholic (as always). The spiritually gifted leader/administrator is going to find it easier to look to the future with optimism – no matter who has just departed – than those of us who are primarily shepherds or mercy-showers. Having a high degree of self-confidence or Christ-confidence really helps too. Oh how I suffered as a young and insecure pastor when people left my flock! Many a time I took it so personally when it wasn’t meant personally at all. What a waste of sorrow! Gordon MacDonald wrote about this with excruciating honesty in his fine book, “Who Stole My Church”:
“…as a pastor, you give your heart to the people of a congregation if this work is indeed a calling. You invest in them, think about them constantly, try to find ways to build Christ into their lives…If you really do give away your heart, then when people leave they take a piece of it with them. I have known more than a few pastors who’ve given their hearts away piece by piece until one day there was nothing more left to give. It’s not unusual for some pastors to reach a point where they can no longer manage the disappointments of people leaving or just hanging around and making trouble. Something dies within them and they either quit or begin to treat their work as a regular job in which the person counts the days until retirement.”
Adding to the pain of the young and inexperienced shepherd is the fact that in most cases, he is leading a very small church. The Church (with a capital “C”) is the family of God; every church (with a small “c”) is the family of God at the functional level; the small church is the family of God at its most intense, functional level. For the most part, the smaller the church the greater potential there exists for sweet, tight, fellowship and conversely, the greater potential there exists for conflict and dysfunction. One of the churches I interimed had, as one of their core values, “We want to be a real family.” After months of sorting out the family dysfunction that existed there, we were able to change that to “We want to be a healthy family” with a lot of therapeutic laughter.
Statistically speaking, most churches are small churches and when the family of five departs they’re taking an alarmingly high percentage of the church family with them when they go. (Five people in a church of fifty is 10% of the congregation; there goes your church growth goal for the year!) One more complicating and pain producing reality of the small church is that, generally speaking, the small church has a higher percentage of its attendees serving, sometimes in multiple roles. Switching Biblical metaphors to that of the body (I Corinthians 12), a single departing Christian is an “amputated” body part and a single departing family can represent a half-dozen or so amputated body parts. No wonder it hurts.
Why do they leave?
The list below is suggestive, not exhaustive. The most important point to remember is that not all church departures are the same. In the throes of taking an impersonal act personally we can be blind to this, causing ourselves and others needless pain and strife.
• Some people leave because they are bitter against the pastor or some other church member. They are running away, pure and simple. This is not good, healthy, grown-up conflict management of course, but in most cases, once the Christian has decided to go away, he’s going to do it.
• Others move on because of philosophical and/or doctrinal differences. Let’s face it, many of us pastors are serving today with some very different views and ministry philosophies than those we embraced when we arrived at our current church. If these viewpoints are important to us, it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re important to others. When we change our church (or ourselves) we are changing the unwritten contract that exists between the leaders and the followers: “I, Pastor So and So, will give good sermons focused on the Christian life, personal shepherding care (including hospital and home visits) and will give attention to every member of your family (including the dog), in exchange for your loyalty, attendance, service and giving.” If today, your sermons are aimed at “seekers” and your shepherding care is delivered through small group leaders, you have significantly changed the contract; you can expect some folks to change their minds about your church. As one departing brother put it (eloquently, I thought), “People change, churches change, people change churches.”
• Still others leave because their life-situation changes. Maybe your church is a family of families where there are very few singles. Your church member who lost his spouse to divorce or death last year may be looking for a new church where singles don’t “stick out like sore thumbs.” Closely related to this,
• Some leave because they want or need a fresh start. Some people can’t walk in the door of their church without being overwhelmed by memories of the spouse or other family member whom they have lost to death or divorce. They need fresh scenery. Let them go in peace. Young couples raised in your church frequently want to get away from mom and dad's church and establish their own, new identity in their own, new church. Saying goodbye hurts when you just spent many hours on their premarital counseling. Let them go anyway; it's the right thing to do.
• Sadly, growing numbers of people leave one church and attach to another as simple consumers of a service. When I was a new Christian, hoppers hopped around to find the best preacher. That was not very mature of course, but it was better than what thousands do today: hopping around to find the best band or the best youth group. Before you come down too hard on these people, ask yourself if you ever made a move to meet a need of your family (like a better youth group). Besides, once the hopper has decided to hop, there’s precious little that can be done about it. If there’s anything we can do it is to proactively, passionately preach and pray our people towards real, committed, church-body involvement. This will not eliminate all church transfers but it will reduce the numbers and glorify God.
Can we prevent people from leaving?
This is an easy one. The answer is “no.” I’ve known pastors who put themselves through a lot of pain with their passionate opposition to Christians changing churches. I’ve yet to see how the pain they suffer does much good. I’m not saying that people don’t change churches for poor reasons; I am saying that most of the effort we put forth to get them to not do so is wasted. “People change, churches change, people change churches.” There’s no question that Christians sometimes change churches for frivolous or even sinful reasons, but it seldom works to try to change their minds as they’re on their way out the door.
Should we try to dissuade people from leaving?
In most cases I don’t think we should. The rule of thumb is that persuading departing church members to change their minds usually has poor results. The folks stay in your church but with a bad attitude. Worse yet, they feel empowered to threaten to leave again every time they disapprove of something. As former Evangelical Free Church, Southwest Border District Superintendent Gus Bess says, “It’s not a sin to change churches; it’s a sin to stay in your church with a bad attitude.” In most cases those who stay in your church with a bad attitude will eventually leave anyway, it’s just a matter of time. The secular work place has discovered that it’s better to get the bad attitude out the door as soon as possible. (This can be brutal of course, but I understand where they’re coming from.)
In the worst case scenario, some churches fill up with people with bad attitudes who were persuaded to stick around by a well-meaning but misguided and persuasive pastor. Over time, the people who want to be a part of a healthy church move on to greener pastures to get away from the many folks around them with bad attitudes. As more than one writer has pointed out, there will always be somebody in the process of leaving your church; the key is to have the right people leaving for the right reasons and the right people staying for the right reasons.
The exception to the “do not pursue” rule is the sincere brother or sister, in most cases a young, untaught Christian, who genuinely doesn’t know God’s way of handling his conflicts and is running away from something he really needs to face. This guy or gal is well worth the patient teaching it takes to get him to stick around.
• Run to God with your pain. Tell Him all about how it feels (He knows). Talk to Him about what you find in Psalms 3, 5, 9, 11, 16, 23, 27, 94 and more. We all have “abandonment issues” to some degree – it just plain hurts to be left behind. If you have so much difficulty with abandonment that you can’t discern between the person who stabs you in the back and the good brother who disagrees with you about ministry philosophy, you probably shouldn’t be a pastor.
• Trust God with the departing persons, your church and your soul. A faith-filled, joyful attitude on your part will help attract new folks who will love your church. My goal is to be able to weather my own church storms as well as Paul was weathering his when he wrote his joy-filled letter to the Philippians.
• Forgive liberally. Some people feel very guilty about changing churches. Some churches make sure that anyone leaving had better feel very guilty about changing churches. This is a cult mentality. Are we pastors or cult leaders? Determined to depart anyway, usually for deeply personal or emotional reasons, such persons are forced (from a psychological standpoint) to vilify the pastor or the church to justify their decision. This makes the whole situation much worse than it needs to be. Give them a break and let them go in peace.
• Remember the good things that can come from this. Like what? You can grow spiritually, improve your church or your own life. The person leaving might find his way to a church where he is a much better fit and serves God effectively and with a great attitude. Your church can be freed up to make an important change you couldn’t make with this individual still on board. A dysfunctional and influential person in your church who goes to the bigger ministry down the road (we all have one) will find himself instantly disempowered when he walks in the door (not greeted like a conquering hero as he imagines) and in many cases this is exactly what this person needs. Your church will be more unified, more joyful, maybe even more powerful.
In interim pastoring in particular – or in the first few years of a long-term pastorate – the departure of good folks who don’t share the unified vision owned by the church leadership can be crucial in bringing unity to the church. The ideal of church unity seen in Romans 15:5,6 usually cannot be attained without some “blessed departures.”
• Have as peaceful a “going-away” visit as you possibly can. You may need to bring a supportive board member with you both to help you cope with a tough conversation and to vouch for your good behavior, should the departing individual/couple choose to misrepresent your words and actions after this visit is over. Don’t use this time to “beat up on” the departing individual or couple. There is nothing to be gained from this.
Be aware that some folks use the “leaving the church” ploy to try to get their way. It worked well for them with a previous pastor; they will expect it to work with you and will be furious when you do not beg them to stay. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (William Shakespeare). While you’re not actually scorning anyone (hopefully you are continuing to love your former members) these folks will view it this way – and will tell their friends. Best policy: let the whole church know (often) that the leaders of your church don't make bargains with departing members.
• Learn any good thing you can. People leaving my church are not my favorite teachers; nevertheless, let’s face it, they often point out legitimate weaknesses that I need to know about.
• Ask them for an “official” explanation regarding why they left which you can pass on to those in the church who ask about them. You are not locked into this answer of course, but God and others will notice when you seek to be gracious in how you explain the departure of those who leave you.
• Remember that pastors leave too. I’ve heard that the average church member changes churches every five years. We pastors change churches too and always claim that God led us to do so. If God leads us to change churches, maybe He leads others to change churches also.
• Remember what matters most: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). Can you glorify God as someone you have loved for years is leaving? Yes, by the grace of God, you can.