When people leave the church you pastor, God often mourns—and so should you—at least for a while. As a young pastor, the worst days in my life were when people I cared about decided to leave. But now I understand those didn’t have to be my worst days.
When people leave a church it’s usually their decision, not ours. But it can feel like it’s our fault. And usually, it really hurts. We pepper ourselves with questions like: How will this departure impact the church? Will others leave on this person’s coattails? How much info should I share and with whom? What will this do to our finances? What if people are told a pack of lies about the circumstances surrounding this person’s exit?
Most of the congregation you serve will never know the real story behind someone leaving the church. It’s incredibly tempting as a leader to set the record straight, to defend yourself, to point out how right you are and how wrong the person is who’s leaving. But that doesn’t seem like the best strategy.
So, what are we to do? Running away screaming may enter your mind. Seriously though, how do we navigate the unsettled waters of people leaving?
Understand it’s sometimes right for people to leave
Perhaps God sent the departing person to you for a season. To teach him something he could best learn from you. To bring healing to a broken area of his life. To launch him into the next phase of his God-given purpose. Or maybe, God sent that person to teach you something. Sometimes it’s right for people to leave.
Legitimate reasons to leave a church exist: Leadership abuse and heretical teaching top the list. Sometimes God calls a person to help at another church. Sometimes a person leaves because of vision problems. A church member who can’t buy into the vision of the church, or wants to actively promote a different vision, needs to say good-bye and find a church with a vision he can get behind. Unfortunately, most departures don’t fit under these reasonable categories. Most of the time, it’s either an issue of control or consumerism.
But understanding it’s right in certain circumstances for people to leave helps reduce the pain associated with their departure. Which leads us to the next point. When people leave, it’s healthy to
When people I discipled left the church, I was shocked. Then I got angry. (Angry at them for leaving. Angry at myself for not preventing it from happening.) Then I got sad. I was unknowingly walking through the initial stages of grief.
It’s both appropriate and healthy to mourn the loss of people. Especially those you’ve poured time and energy into. Pastoral ministry is deeply personal. When people abandon ship for illegitimate reasons, it’s difficult not to mourn.
I’m of the opinion that ours is not to be a public mourning . . . in the sense we grieve openly in front of the entire congregation. Sharing our grief with God is a good start. If anybody understands what it feels like when people jump ship for no good reason—God does. He can relate to our pain. Pouring out our feelings to Him is both wise and therapeutic.
Sharing our grief with a select group of people—our spouse, a trusted mentor, our board—is healthy. Stick to the facts, ask for prayer, and remind them to maintain confidentiality. A shared burden is automatically cut in half, so avoid trying to walk through the loss alone.
Say goodbye graciously
Nothing is to be gained by vengeful goodbyes. Everything inside of you may be screaming “let the jerk have it.” Caving in to the urge to blast away may feel good in the moment, but the pleasure will be short-lived, and not worth the long-term damage you’ll do. Giving in to your anger in this way diminishes your leadership cachet with those members who remain.
Be gracious when people leave. Thank them for their contributions (if any) to the progress of the church. Wish them the best for their future. Commit to them you’ll never throw them under the bus—and ask them to extend you the same courtesy. If it’s true, tell them you will miss working together.
Lead with an open hand to those who walk in and walk out of the church you serve, and you will stay healthier emotionally. Lead with a closed fist and you will continually fight a battle you can’t win, and suffer through what you could have celebrated.
Finally, when people leave, you have to eventually . . .
Get back to work
Remember the vision God has given you. Get back to the mission. Keep executing your playbook and living out your core values. When people bolt, it may feel like it’s the end of the world, but it’s not. A disgruntled member leaving a church doesn’t change God’s plan. The local church you lead is more resilient than you imagine! My colleague Jim Wiegand and I wrote a book about how to process when people leave the church your serve, entitled, Putting the Good in Goodbye: A Healthy Conversation About the Comings & Goings of Church People.
So there you have it. Possibly the worst day in a pastor’s life—the day when people you love and care for leave—doesn’t have to be your worst day. Tell yourself the truth—that sometimes, it’s right for people to leave. Then take time to grieve your loss. Remember to be gracious when saying goodbye. And then . . . get back to work.
Rooting and praying for you,