The reality of people leaving your church is one of the hardest things to swallow as a pastor, but how to handle it when you’re the one losing a church member is rarely something you are coached through. We are often simply encouraged to “not take it personal,” or we’re handed the old battle cry of, “Worry more about those who haven’t come yet!” Even so, it still stings when someone leaves your church.
There are certainly good reasons for one to leave a church. I would quickly leave a church for theological reasons, especially beliefs that center around the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, and concerning how the church defines the the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a church I belonged to drifted away from orthodoxy on any of those issues, either the elders would be out the door, or my family….quickly. I would have more patience and not be as quick toward leaving for missional reasons, unless the folks simply want to remain insider-focused with no evidence of change, or if they really desire a social justice center, more than a church.
I struggle with people who remain part of churches that are not on mission, especially when they stay for sentimental reasons. I would also struggle to stay part of a church where I wouldn’t be excited to bring a friend. A month does not go by where someone from another local church in town shows up to one of our services because an unchurched coworker or friend agreed to go to church, and that person didn’t want to bring his or her friend to that person’s own church. While I am grateful City Church is trusted as a place one would want to bring a friend, a Bernie Sanders rally would drive me less crazy than a Christian being part of a church where they wouldn’t be excited to bring a friend. Few things makes me more perplexed.
There are certainly good reasons to leave a church, as long as one does so with class and grace, not making a spectacle, but simply agreeing to join somewhere else out of theological or missional reasons. The truth is that your church just isn’t for some people’s styles of preference, and that is fine, as all believers have preferences when it comes to church. No harm, no foul. People leaving for those reasons has certainly happened at our church. Someone will discover I am a Calvinist, or a complementarian when it comes to my view on gender roles. Other times it is that I am too theologically conservative, or the church member disagrees that elders are the biblical model of church governance, or that we aren’t driven enough by social justice to meet their personal standards or exact, literal, passion. Others don’t like our music style and want something more traditional. Those reasons don’t sting, they are usually cultural or come from a theological persuasion that is different enough to break local church fellowship.
There are also times where reasons given are personal and real, and you have the opportunity to shepherd people through their threat to leave your church. These people may want to leave because of a relationship conflict, rather than work through the mess and seek reconciliation. Other personal reasons can be running from sin, or avoiding awkwardness that comes from relational conflict, or failing to forgive a brother or sister. These are discipleship moments that can display the power of the gospel in the local church.
And still…there are other reasons. They aren’t theological or missional, but they will sting and hurt. I have found the way to navigate through these kinds of reasons. Yes, there are times I have to preach to myself about not having my self worth tied into people leaving, but what has also helped has been learning to decode what is REALLY going on, and why this person or these people are REALLY leaving. Using decoding skills moves your sting to an eye roll, and honestly, every church leader needs to do this at times.
Here are some reasons I’ve decoded to understand why some people leave. Figuring out these reasons has helped me come to terms with some departures.
1. Reason: “I just need something deeper.”
Unless it truly is a gospel or theological issue, or the pastor only preaches principles rather than a passage of Scripture or doctrine (good reasons to leave), “I Just Need Something Deeper” Guy will never, ever, ever be able to tell you what he means by that claim.
Here is the profile of this type of person: reads a lot of blogs, listens to at least 5 podcasts a week, and doesn’t have a non-Christian friend.
Decode: This is a feelings thing before it is a substance thing. If your church truly considers the visiting guest on a Sunday morning, there will be language used and explained in your sermon that indicates these values. That will translate into Deeper Guy’s mind as “this is a place for new Christians,” and he will think he needs to graduate to the meat from the milk. He’s right, meat is essential, but without realizing (or perhaps admitting it), the “meat” he is craving is really just information. “Wow, I never knew that the grass next to the empty tomb was the same kind of grass from the Garden of Eden,” type stuff.
This is the same type of person who complains, “There aren’t enough old people.” Is he or she seeking to be mentored by any of the older people that ARE present in the church? Nah. It goes back to what church should feel like, not what it is.
This guy will eventually end up at a church that answers questions nobody is asking and models a culture of removing itself from the world. Bank on it.
Here is another loaded reason I’ve learned to decode:
2. Reason: “I don’t agree with how decisions are made.”
Profile of the person giving this reason for leaving: Comes from a church background of committees, business meetings, and one hundred and forty-seven deacons, one of those being her husband.
Decode: She has a problem because SHE is not making the decisions. It really is that simple.
Another one that is generally easy to decode:
3. Reason: “I can’t find community.”
Decode: I haven’t met a significant other yet.
This reason almost always comes from a single person. If it’s a guy, he has been very aggressive in asking out ladies in the church and hasn’t had success getting one to date him. If female, she often claims, “there are just no Christian guys.” What she means is that she just hasn’t been asked out by any of them. If she had a boyfriend, she would have ZERO issue with “community.”
This reason can also apply to friendship. These folks believe the church should find friends for them. “Community” is expected to be given, rather than created over time.
And finally, the last reason to be decoded when people leave your church.
4. Reason: “Things have changed.”
Profile: This person was there in the early days and probably very faithful when the Church was smaller. He or she had influence then and was known by a lot of people.
Decode: I miss being known, and/or having power. I didn’t realize what it would be like when we really did grow.
This person has something called “prayer’s remorse.”
This could also mean, “I don’t have the access to the pastor I once had.”
Be gentle with this person, as this is an adjustment for many when the church grows. Help him see that his prayers from the beginning are being answered. Point to the great community and pockets of influence he does have in the church. There is a good chance that this person type in every church will leave eventually, they just take longer to make the decision, sometimes because of the investment that’s been made, other times out of pride. At a new church these people still won’t be “in the know,” or have unlimited access to the pastor either, but it will just not be as difficult for them because they haven’t seen their new church through changes.
These are the primary reasons people leave for non-theological or missional proposes. When you learn to decode, it will truly save you a lot of unneeded anxiety. There are times when people need to leave, there are times when having someone leave will miss a great opportunity for discipleship, and there are times you just need to roll your eyes. Learn to distinguish between the three and the whole process will be much less dramatic.