In last week’s post we dug deep. Dredging up the feelings of processing departures can be emotional and exhausting. Hopefully you found some peace and tangible tools in our dive into Chapter 6. This week we continue to Chapter 7 of Putting the Good in Goodbye . . . When People Come Back.
You’ve probably felt it: It’s Sunday morning—years after that person left. The worship center doors open, and they slip quietly into a seat near the back. Your stomach hits the floor and your mind races: Are they here to stir up trouble? Air grievances? Interrupt the message?
Maybe they left for bad reasons. Maybe they left because it was time. Maybe they left because they were legitimately hurt and needed time to heal. Whatever the case, it seems they are back . . . and our goal in today’s post is to help you respond properly and to help them reacclimate.
Returning begins the day they leave
How you handle their initial exit from the church you lead greatly affects a person’s return. When you handle an exit with grace, it leaves the door open for a less complicated return.
But sometimes, a family leaves clandestinely and you don’t realize it until weeks later—your unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls seem to be an indication that they don’t want to talk about it.
In this moment you have a choice: Be full of grace if and when people mention it to you OR make snarky comments about their disappearance.
I’m speaking from experience on this point. During the pandemic, we realized that a family quietly made their exit without talking to us. After trying to contact them to no avail, we made the choice to be grace-filled. When asked, we simply said we weren’t sure where they ended up, but we were confident they’d landed at a great church and are serving faithfully there.
‘Lo and behold, a year later while visiting a church not too far outside our suburb during a family “staycation,” we bumped into that family. Cheerful, clear-conscienced greetings were bestowed by us while something awkward and lacking eye contact was mumbled by them: “Oh. Hi. We go here now.” But when they realized there was no guile in us, their demeanor changed as we exchanged pleasantries and caught up. If they ever chose to, a bridge leading back to our church was wide open.
Honesty can be the beginning of reconciliation
Sometimes our people struggle to take sound advice and godly counsel.
At the church we pastored, Child Dedication services were performed with the goal of the parents making a public declaration not only would they dedicate their child to the Lord, but also, they would play an active role in the spiritual development of that child by showing them a godly example. Years ago, a woman came to us wanting to participate in one of our “Parent/Child Dedication services” (as we called them—to emphasize that we viewed it as more than a formality, but an agreement to raise the child in the way of the Lord).
However, the woman was living an unrepentant, sinful lifestyle and did not do much to hide it. When that was brought to her attention prior to arrangements being made for the service, she was asked if this was something she’d be willing to rectify with the help of the Lord and her church family. She said she had no plans of removing the sin from her life but still wanted to move forward with the dedication. She was told that was not possible. As a result, she angrily left the church.
Years later, she and her now teenage child came back to the church. After a few awkward weeks, we were able to have a good conversation with her regarding the reason for her initial departure. She apologized and said that she realized that she should have heeded our advice from years ago. The sin that she persisted in for those many years now made it difficult for her to parent her teenager from the moral high ground. So, she repented to the Lord—and to her child—and came back to church hoping for a fresh start. An honest conversation kickstarted the process of reconciliation.
Letting people go allows them to discover that no perfect church exists
Many times, departures are a result of a “the grass is greener on the other side” mentality. Someone may simply need a break to realize that no church will meet all their expectations.
We lead pastored the same church for 13 years. Prior to that, we’d been on staff at that same church in various capacities since 1999. We deeply loved the church. In our minds, it felt perfect. However, when we were called to a new ministry assignment in 2021 and had to find a new home church, we saw the areas where our new church excelled that weren’t so great at our previous church. Yet conversely, our old church did some things better than our new church. And this is church life.
At the end of the day, people need to decide they like more than they don’t about a church in order to stay there. As pastors, we need to be okay with that nuance of human nature.
Not everyone who leaves comes back
Early on in our lead pastorate, my husband had a disagreement with a teacher in our Christian Education department. We were young and naïve and could have handled the situation better. As the teacher indicated his time at our church had come to an end, my husband told him, “Well, you’re always welcome back. Because, you know, everyone always comes back here.” That last comment was probably a bit arrogant and unnecessary. The man told my husband, “Well, let me assure you, that will never be the case with me.”
Over time, my husband and the man had some Facebook interactions and apologies were exchanged. I attended his wife’s funeral—we pastored this couple and we still cared deeply. However, to this day, he’s made good on his assurance to never step foot back into that church again.
And sometimes that happens.
No matter the circumstance, commit to conversations seasoned with grace. Do not get drawn into the fray. Remember, your behavior is not dictated by the actions of others.
Again, Natalie Runion, content creator of Raised to Stay, says, “Hear me, my brothers and sisters…when people decide to go, let them go. Don’t provoke them, add to their story, diminish their choice, worry that it is wrong or make up false tales or endings.”
Your graciousness can act as a bridge should they choose to walk back into your church.
Next week, we will discuss how to handle the departure of a staff member. Here are a few questions for you to consider:
- How often have people who left your church and then decided to return?
- How did you handle their return?
- In this chapter, what is the most challenging principle for you to adopt? Why?
- Who can you talk with to help you process your thoughts?
Cheering for you,
John & Jaime