If it hasn’t happened yet it will; get ready. No matter how great of a pastor, leader, preacher, shepherd, or friend you are, someone you swore would never leave is going to leave your church.
I remember my first gut punch. Service had ended on a Sunday morning, and my worship pastor walked up to me and said, “Hey, can I meet with you in your office for a second?” I jokingly responded, “Sure, as long as you’re not meeting to tell me you’re leaving the church.” He gave me a nervous laugh, and I knew.
We went to the office, and he informed me he had taken a job at another church in town as a full-time worship pastor; he was volunteering for me at the time, so it was a no-brainer for him and his family. I smiled, encouraged him, told him how much we would miss him, and that I was happy for him, but when he walked out of the office, I sat in my chair feeling betrayed. ( I wrote a blog about how to tell your pastor you are leaving the church in this post.)
I had not been betrayed, he did nothing wrong. God was beautifully orchestrating his life, but in that moment, and for a few months afterward, I couldn’t catch my breath. That was my first experience with a friend and staff member choosing to leave, and I took it personally— too personally.
Over the years I’ve had lots of people leave for all kinds of different reasons. Most of the time it was God, sometimes it was because I mismanaged a situation, and a few times it was because they were certifiably crazy, but regardless of how it happened, I can honestly say I am a better pastor to the people I have because of the people who chose to leave.
Whenever a pastor friend of mine calls with a painful story of someone leaving, I tell them the same thing they tell me when the shoe is on the other foot. It’s the same thing all your friends told you in college after a bad breakup, “You’re better off without them.” When your college friends said it, they were usually suggesting you’re better off because your ex was a terrible person; that is not what I’m suggesting. I believe you’re better because every challenging and painful leadership moment makes you better in the long run.
It doesn’t make it easier at the moment, but I’ve been through enough “breakups” now to recognize God is always up to something. Sometimes, the big giver is leaving because God wants you to learn to trust in Him more than your benefactor. Sometimes, the close friend is leaving because God needs to elevate your leadership in the eyes of the people, and those who are too familiar can’t honor your leadership position. Sometimes, the talented leader is leaving because as long as they’re around, they will bottleneck the development of future leaders.
Whatever the reason, when families leave the church it can cause a pastor to get defensive or deflated. You wrestle with all kinds of emotions, and if you’re not careful you let your mind go to unhealthy places that hurt your leadership and influence.
It’s important we learn how to manage our emotions and focus on what is true so let me give you 9 things a pastor needs to remember when someone leaves the church.
1. The Person Leaving, Left Another Church to Attend Your Church
I know I know, you’re only reaching lost people and none of your growth is transfer growth, but the truth is most of the people sitting in your church attended another church before they attended your church.
I can’t remember when exactly, but there was one night when a few families had left our church over the previous weeks, and I was throwing a pity party of epic proportions. My wife said to me, “I bet this is how Bro. Larry felt a few years ago when all those young families from his church started attending our church.” Bro. Larry had pastored his church for over 30 years and as his church aged several 2nd generation families left to attend my church. They showed up trained, talented, tithing, and ready to serve. It never crossed my mind that our gain was someone else’s loss. I assumed that God was sending us the help we needed to accomplish our mission, and he was, but I never stopped to feel empathy for Bro. Larry.
Flash forward several years later, and all of those families but one are still attending our church. The people who left aren’t bad people (more on that later), but it was one of my earliest lessons learned in pastoral leadership. Most people who come to you from someone else’s church eventually go to someone else’s church; you can’t have it both ways.
In the darkest parts of our hearts, we assume they’re better off at our church because the kid’s ministry is better, the preaching is better, or we’re more equipped to reach their friends. “If their former church did a better job, they wouldn’t have left,” we assume, which is why we come unraveled when someone leaves our church. We convinced ourselves new people showed up because our church was “better,” so when they leave, they must have found something better. It’s a sinkhole to emotional despair.PASTOR: Most people who come to you from someone else's church eventually go to someone else's church; you can't have it both ways.Click To Tweet
2. Losing A Member to Another Church Doesn’t Mean You’re Losing to Another Church
My oldest daughter Sadie loves soccer, but for the first few years of her soccer career she played in a league that didn’t keep score… at least officially. Everyone was still keeping score; the kids, parents, and coaches, knew who won and who lost. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “ministry is not a competition.” No one argues, at least out loud, but I’ve wasted too much time keeping score. You probably have too.
Every week church leaders tabulate to see their ranking; and no matter how many times someone tries to tell you, you can’t let go of the belief that a church with more people is more successful. The more you compare yourself to other pastors and churches, the more you cripple your confidence in the calling God has placed on your life. The fear of losing haunts you. When two families leave your church to attend another church it feels like they’re winning 8-0, but they’re not; you’re keeping the wrong score.
I love the way John the Baptist responded when his disgruntled followers wanted him to confront Jesus because some disciples had left to follow Jesus, and now he was baptizing people which was what John the Baptist was known for. John the Baptist kept the right score…
“So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us. John replied… I am filled with joy at his success.”
3. They’re Not Leaving You, They’re Leaving Your Church.
I know it feels like someone leaving is an indictment against you, after all, you’re the pastor, you give your life to help them know Jesus, but when someone decides to leave your church to attend another church they’re not leaving you, they’re leaving the church.
When the worship pastor I mentioned earlier took the new job across town, I made it WAY too personal, I allowed it to affect other relationships within the church. I became paranoid, self-conscience and developed a mega-church complex. (I wrote more about my megachurch complex in this post.) Like a boxer who gets TKO’d for the first time or a batter who gets hit by a pitch, I lost my confidence, because I incorrectly assumed what most pastors assume— when someone leaves the church they are leaving me, but they’re not. They’re usually leaving for reasons way less important than the pastor or the preaching.
If you assume everyone who leaves is leaving because of you, then you will assume everyone who shows up, shows up because of you and neither of those things are true; you’re not that important. They have a reason, they may tell you, they probably won’t, but in the end, new people are going to come to your church, and current people are going to leave. It’s the life cycle of a church.
4. There Are Still A Lot of People Who Love You And Want You To Pastor Them
In the moments of sadness or anger, it’s easy to forget that more people are for you than are “against you.” Pastors are great at noticing who is not at church while they preach instead of who is. We’re great at obsessing over missing families on Sunday afternoon, but if we’re not careful, we overlook faithful people because they require little maintenance. The majority of the people in your church love you and want you to be their pastor. Go back and read that last sentence 2 or 3 times.
King David understood the frustration of feeling betrayed and abandoned, and he allowed those who left to mean more to him than those who remained. That’s when his executive pastor Joab walked into his office with words of wisdom…
2 Samuel 19:6-7
You seem to love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that your commanders and troops mean nothing to you. It seems that if Absalom had lived and all of us had died, you would be pleased. Now go out there and congratulate your troops, for I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a single one of them will remain here tonight. Then you will be worse off than ever before.”
5. Jesus Knows What You’re Feeling
Don’t rush past this point. Jesus had a core leadership team of 12 and after 3 years of mentoring his clerk left for more money. Take comfort in the fact the most significant leader to ever live who performed miracles and literally laid down his life for his followers couldn’t keep 12 people together for 3 years. The next time you feel hurt or betrayed because someone leaves the church talk to God about it, he understands.
6. God Maybe Saving You A Lot Of Trouble Later
Someone leaving your church is not always a bad thing; everyone is not meant to make the journey with you. It doesn’t make them bad or wrong; it just means you need to do your best to pastor them during the season God entrusts them to you. Regardless of why they’re leaving, I’ve learned the hard way that I shouldn’t try to hold on to someone God is trying to move on. The only thing worse than someone leaving your church is someone staying at your church when they need to go.
In my experience, God might be doing you a favor transitioning someone out of your church or team for 2 reasons: #1 is because their responsibility grows beyond their capacity. It doesn’t mean they are a terrible person, or that they are not a talented person, it just means they can’t lead at the level necessary for where God is trying to take your church. If you work too hard to hold on to them when God begins to stir them to do something else you are setting yourself up for a painful, possibly controversial, decision down the road. If they leave on their terms, you can bless them and pastor them to their next season, if you convince them to stay because you don’t want to “lose” them, you will eventually have to fire or remove them, and that is WAY harder with more significant consequences.
The second reason God transitions people from your church is that they can’t view you as the growing spiritual leader that you are. Jesus said it himself, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.” It’s difficult for people to view you differently than the first version they met; as you change their perception of you doesn’t. They’re too familiar, and it doesn’t make them bad people, but it does make it almost impossible for them to honor you in the way necessary for your church to grow. This exit can be the most painful because they are usually friends or people who started the journey with you, but if you try to hold on to them when God is moving them on you hold back your leadership potential. (I wrote about the painful realization that everyone doesn’t finish with you in this post.)
Some people come for seasons, some people come for reasons, and some people come for life. Don’t expect everyone to be with you for life; they won’t be, and you’re not a bad leader because you have turnover.PASTOR: Don't try to hold on to someone God is trying to move on. The only thing worse than someone leaving your church is someone staying at your church when they need to go.Click To Tweet
7. Every Person Who Leaves Isn’t A Bad Person
You know how it works. It’s like when you got dumped in middle school, and you tell all your friends “I didn’t really like them anyway!” When someone leaves your church, it’s so easy to revise history and retell every story with a tainted perspective. It’s easy to question their motives, to assume they had agenda, or to assume they’re a terrible person. I’m 99% sure none of those things are true. Yes, there are legitimately mean people who go out of their way to make the pastor’s life hell, but if that’s the kind of person we’re talking about, then it’s time to throw a party. Be careful that you don’t allow your hurt feelings to cause you to rewrite history or feel the need to create a narrative.
I love the way the disciples talked about Judas after his death. It would have been so easy for them to tell awful stories about him, after all, he betrayed Jesus, but that’s not what they did.
“Judas was one of us and shared in the ministry with us.”
8. God May Want To Do A New Thing With New People
Sometimes, people leaving is God pruning. In 2009 researchers at the University of York made a discovery about the science behind pruning. It was always believed you cut the tallest leaves of a plant precisely because they were the tallest, but scientists at the University of York determined that the height or length of the tallest shoot was insignificant. More important than size was tenure. In other words, when pruning, you cut the tallest shoots because they have been there the longest, not because they’re the tallest. There comes the point in the life of a plant that if a shoot is alive for long enough, it dominates the resources of the plant and hinders the newer and lower shoots from flourishing.
I’m not advocating term limits for church membership, but we have all seen churches where a few people dominate all the resources. Sometimes, the people who have been around the longest can become the ceiling. Every situation is different, but there are times when shaking things up, creating a new seat on the pastor’s counsel, or putting young people on the praise team is a good thing, because it helps identify individuals who view themselves as more important than the vision of the church. Sometimes, you have to subtract before you can add.
Before God could take Israel into the promised land he had to remove a generation.
“The LORD was angry with Israel and made them wander in the wilderness for forty years until the entire generation that sinned in the LORD’s sight had died.
9. The Chances Are Good You Will Leave Your Church Too.
I know that right now you’re intoxicated with vision, you’re focused on the future, and any hinderance feels like rebellion or betrayal, but before you are too quick to demonize someone who chooses to leave, keep in mind that you will probably leave your church too. Statistically, very few pastors finish their pastoral career where they start. When you decide to go you will probably believe God is transitioning you, so keep that in mind when a member says the same thing to you. Is it God? Maybe. Who really knows at the moment, but if God transitions pastors, he transitions members too.
We’re all trying to follow God and build the church. People who leave aren’t as selfish, deceitful, manipulative, and disloyal as you assume, you know how I know; because you’re not either and there will come a day when you will leave too. Show grace. Talk it out with a counselor or spouse if you have to. Call a pastor friend. But don’t allow someone leaving the church to derail what God is trying to do in you and through you.