walkingaway1

When People Leave by Daniel Fusco

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.

10 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Good post, Daniel. I used to take this kind of thing so personal and would feel sharps pangs of rejection that went deep. Over the years I have either matured or have become hardened (sometimes I can’t tell which) and when people leave, the experience is not traumatic. I bless them in the name of the Lord and let them know that there are good churches in the area that exalt Christ and preach the Word. I have learned not to burn bridges – I may see them out and about and want to be able to look them in the eye. Some even make their way back because of the gracious treatment they experienced on the way out. You’re right, people leaving is a great stretching exercise for the pastor.

    Reply
  2. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:

    Sadly many western churches in our day seem to have revolving doors at the entrance. Much of “church growth” is actually transfer growth.

    I find the departure of people from our church much easier when they speak with me personally, and I don’t hear it through other people… “Did you hear that so and so started going to such and such church…” I’m also amazed at how many times – when people do come and talk to me – that their reason for leaving has nothing to do with me, and actually is an interpersonal/relational problem with other people within the body. This one is also a bit more difficult for me, in that we should be seeking restored relationship and not just finding another church.

    Great post Daniel, very good alliterated points!

    Reply
  3. Daniel Fusco
    Daniel Fusco says:

    Thanks Tim.
    I’ve been thinking about wanting to finish well in relationships when we are told that we are ‘not enough’ for folks. I hear you about hte wondering of maturity or hardness. In 10 years, I’ve grown very used to people moving on.

    ON ANOTHER NOTE:
    I’m really hoping as we get this new blog rolling that there will be some great discussions about the articles. That this can be a place for some dialogue on the articles posted. So folks, leave a comment!

    Reply
  4. Jon Langley
    Jon Langley says:

    If the body of Christ is truly bigger than the churches we pastor (and it IS), then “pastoring” people out of our particular fellowship and into another (I confess up front I stole that thought from Bill Walden) is not only an opportunity to learn the things you’ve mentioned here, but to just plain be a solid and authentic member of Christ’s church at large.

    Does is sting? It sure does! Is it frustrating? Absolutely. Can the Holy Spirit empower us to truly shepherd a sheep to a neighboring flock without resentment, or the fleshy indicators like pretending we don’t care or having a “fine, whatever” attitude? For sure. It just isn’t easy. But as you (Daniel) stated in the OP, it’s an opportunity for so many positive things, too! (all of which, of course, start with an L!)

    Reply
  5. Terry Szalai
    Terry Szalai says:

    Daniel – Very good thoughts to consider when pastors, leaders and congregations take these situations personally and our emotions tend to spin us out… remembering that He is the Good and Chief Shepherd and pastors are the sheepdogs.

    Also a good thing to pray for folks moving on – and exhorting them directly – that they would walk with the Lord more closely, grow in the Lord more deeply and serve the Lord more fervently than they have in the coming days where they will be fellowshipping.

    And – to pray for and check in that they do find and get plugged into a new fellowship and not fall into the danger of being a lone ranger.

    Reply
  6. Terry
    Terry says:

    I have a bit of a different take: though I appreciate your thoughts Daniel, and for many pastors this particular line of thinking may save us great grief (among others things) related to the perpetual revolving door, it strikes me as perhaps a defense-mechanism-response for the cultural-oddities of Western individualism, consumerism and the like. So, we may have no choice but to navigate these sometimes emotional waters in this fashion, but I’m not sure it’s best as its reinforcement furthers the wrong-headed thinking that the church is “a church organization.”

    The church, biblically speaking, is not that. The church (among its many, many organic metaphors) is family. Miles is right when he says: “we should be seeking restored relationship and not just finding another church.” It’s that, and so very much more. When we recognize the nature the church in this manner, it changes up everything.

    I have never had one person leave the church that gathers here asking about whether this is good for them, or good for the congregation, or inquiring as to what impact their absence might bring, or what might be of benefit to the whole as they look forward. The organic-organism that is the church, and the relationships represented there, generally ceases to exist, and all sights are set on the individual. Not once has Philippians 2:3, nor Mark 12:31 been asked about, or discussed, or considered (in what has been spoken of in departure conversations, or follow-ups at the very least.)

    So, of course, there’s a sense of pragmatism that likely needs to be adopted in the kinds of responses that are most loving within our culture. But does our pragmatism effect the church that we are? I think the answer is yes, and I continue to look for a better way forward.

    Reply
  7. Daniel Fusco
    Daniel Fusco says:

    Terry,

    I totally agree. But what you are speaking about (a biblical way to view the church and the ramifications of leaving a local body) was not what I was writing about.

    That is a whole other post.

    In essence, yes, my post was a a dealing with it when someone is leaving, not what God’s heart is for the church or seeking to help people view church in a proper way in a consumeristic culture. Your third paragraph shows it. You have had people leave (the topic of my post) but not asking a Biblically informed question (the topic of your comment).

    So again, I agree with you.
    That’s another post for another day 😉

    Reply
  8. Terry
    Terry says:

    Thanks for that Daniel. My fourth paragraph question then continues to swim in the current of the real topic (particularly from LET and LEARN): Does our pragmatism effect the church that we are? I think the answer is yes.

    Of course, that then begs the question how do we become the church we are to be?

    I’ll look forward to your post for another day. 😉

    Reply
  9. Gunnar
    Gunnar says:

    Great article. This post hits something that every pastor will experience. I agree with you totally that there is greater sorrow over a departure than there is joy over a visitor. There is another type of leaving that I found is hard yet joyful–the departure of one who is launching into another area (i.e. like missions, or something of the like). There is joy to see the seed of the Word take root, but often these are people who are great assets to the church.

    Reply

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