People leave churches just as they leave our lives. That is a simple fact. Oftentimes, pastors find more sorrow in people leaving then they find joy in people coming. Anytime someone leaves a church, it affects the pastor. If a pastor cares at all about the people in his family of faith, people leaving can often be quite devastating. Oftentimes, people can learn more about their pastor based on how he handles people leaving the church.
My heart in this article is to give some perspective on how to handle when people leave the church. I have heard of many horror stories about how people are treated by the leadership and congregation when they leave a church and I believe it breaks the Lord’s heart. For those of you who enjoy alliteration, our study on Leaving will center around 5 ‘L’s. Ultimately, I believe that the goal should be a heart that feels this way automatically (ie. the heart of Christ). But often the right heart follows obedient actions. I pray that this will be a blessing to you.
It’s an opportunity to LET
When people leave the church, it is an opportunity to LET God be God. We have to remember that not every person fits into every congregation. In reality, all of the redeemed fit perfectly into the kingdom of God and His universal church. But on this side of eternity, no every person fits perfectly into each ministry’s style. There are times when people, for whatever reason, can not learn from a certain teacher. Maybe the messages are too cerebral or too milky. Maybe the Lord wants to use a person’s gifting in another body for a specific purpose. Could it be that God, in His sovereign purposes, wants someone to be somewhere else for their own growth and the growth of another body? Could it be that a certain person’s attendance at the church that you pastor will hinder His work? We have to remember that God is sovereign and it is His church, not yours. When people leave it is an opportunity to LET God order His church on this side of eternity.
It’s an opportunity to LEARN
When people leave the church, it is an opportunity to LEARN about your pastoring and people’s perceptions of the church. Now I realize that this point will not sit well with some people but I believe that it is important enough to pursue. Each child of God, pastors included, is in the process of sanctification. We are all continually being conformed to the image of Christ. Not one of us ‘has arrived’. When people tell you that they are leaving, if you have a teachable spirit, you can learn much. I have made it a personal policy that when people tell me that they will be leaving the church, to ask them a few questions. Now before you ever do this, you have to ready for them to answer it honestly and you shouldn’t get upset with them for their answers. Remember, you are asking them because you want to grow and learn. Back to the questions, ‘Is there any way that I, as the pastor, could have tended to you better?’ ‘Is there anything that you feel that the church is lacking that is causing you to want to fellowship elsewhere?’ ‘If you could change anything about our ministry here, what would it be?’
The answers to these types of questions can range from the purely trivial (ie. I don’t like the new color of the sanctuary chairs) to the profound (ie. My children leave the Kid’s church all spun out on sugar without any recollection of what, if anything was taught). Now the reason for these answers can be manifold but at least you will get an understanding of how the ministry is perceived and how you can pray and grow. To be honest with you, I have found this to be invaluable to understand my failings as a pastor.
In conclusion on this point, I think that it is important to take EVERYTHING that is shared in these situations to the Lord for Him to address with you. Too many times, a pastor will hear the same reoccurring reasons for people leaving and instead of bringing them to the Lord; they just stay upset at the people. When this happens, the pastor is missing out on God’s gift of growth.
It’s an opportunity to LOVE
When someone tells you that they are leaving the church, I believe that the Lord is giving you one last opportunity to LOVE and PRAY for the person. Do people leave the church having felt disrespected and disposable? Or do you send them away blessed and encouraged? I have made it a personal policy to always pray for and bless people on the way out the door. I commit them into the Lord’s hands for His loving care. I ask the Lord to place them exactly where He wants them for His glory. When the prayer is over, I remind the people how much I love them and have been grateful for our time together. I tell them that I am always there for them and even though we may fellowship in different places, we are all part of His body. I believe that this gives God tremendous glory and I can’t tell you how many times, those same folks have gotten in touch when things have happened so that I can pray for them and encourage them. They may never come back to the church, but at least that relationship stays in tact.
It’s an opportunity to LEAN
When somebody leaves the church, it is an opportunity to LEAN upon Christ. The Bible teaches that we can ‘cast our cares upon Him because He cares for you.’ (1 Peter 5:7). As children of God, we are constantly learning how to abide in Christ. We know that we cannot bear any fruit unless we do. We abide in Him when we choose to lean upon Him at those times of struggle and trial. When people are leaving the church, it gives the pastor a great opportunity to walk by faith and to learn to rest in His everlasting arms. Whether the anxiety stems from ministry needs, a drop in the offering, what people might say, etc., when people leave the church it can cause intense amounts of pastoral anxiety. Brothers, lean upon Christ and be at rest when people leave.
It’s an opportunity to LEAD
When people leave the church, it is an opportunity to LEAD the church in grace. It is all too often that churches have a cultic feel to them because the people shun or look down upon people for leaving. As the pastor, we can often foster this type of mentality by speaking ill or talking down on the people who have left. Oftentimes the pastor does this to make himself feel better and it is totally carnal. As the pastor you are a sheep with a bell on at most. When people leave, do not abide gossip or maliciousness. Continue to lead the church as Jesus does: with grace, dignity, integrity, and love. Remember Jesus walked the Calvary road before us and leads by example. He didn’t stop walking in grace simply because He was hurt. He kept on to the glory of God.