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5 Suggestions When People Leave a Church

By October 22, 2013Church

church crowd

One tough reality of being a pastor is when people you thought were supportive leave the church. For a variety of reasons, people will leave.

Make any change and someone is not going to like it. Life changes and relationships often impact a person’s church attendance. Misunderstanding and unmet expectations cause some people to leave. There are a variety of reasons. I wrote about some of them HERE.

The point of this post is addressing how we respond as pastors and church leaders.

How do you respond when people leave?

Here are 5 suggestions:

Accept it happens – It actually happens in churches where everything seems to be working at the time. Regardless of the reason…people leave. We shouldn’t be surprised simply because they do or think it can’t or won’t happen in the church in which we minister.

Admit it hurts – God is in charge of numbers. I get that. People are responsible to God and not the church. I get that too. People may leave because it’s the best thing for them spiritually. I totally get that also. The bigger issue is whether or not a person leaves “the” Church or “a” church. If they are attending another church we should take comfort in that, but pretending it doesn’t still sting a little is like saying you didn’t feel the bandaid being ripped off your arm. You are human. It hurts. It is difficult not to take personally. Depending on the circumstances or way it happens it may hurt more sometimes than others but it always hurts.

Analyze the reason – This requires asking the hard questions, and admittedly, this too can hurt, but it’s helpful to know even if the answer is you. It requires humility to admit you’re not the church for everyone nor the minister everyone wants to shepherd them. But, you can’t address what you don’t know and there are often valuable lessons to be learned from why a person chooses to leave a church.

Adjust if necessary – Don’t be afraid to admit you could be wrong. If people feel the church wasn’t meeting their needs try to discern if it’s them or the church. If it was a matter of style they didn’t appreciate that’s one issue, but if it’s something lacking from the church’s offerings…that you should have…you may need to make some adjustments. Be willing to learn.

Attune your vision – Okay, it was obvious I was looking for an “A” word, but this is actually a good one. Attune means “to bring into harmony”. And that’s often necessary when people disappear from the church. Most likely their absence will affect others. You may need to realign people to the vision, especially when those leaving were previously and visibly committed. Assure people you are listening, and genuinely be listening, but in the end stay true to the God-given vision God has called you to lead.

Again, no one wants people to leave, especially if they are leaving upset with you or the church. But, it is a part of church leadership. Learning to process it will make us better equipped to minister to the ones who stay…and the new people God will bring.

Pastor, help me out with this post. What tips do you have for addressing this issue of what people leave the church?

(Update: the comments are already making this post better.)

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Heather says:

    Taking the opportunity as a learning experience is probably the best way to handle this. People leaving is a tough reality, but if you can gain some insight for their decision, you’ll ultimately grow as a pastor. Thanks for sharing!

  • Larry McCoy says:

    As a pastor I find that many times all that is needed, is for the ones that have left ,especially because of some failure in their life need to be contacted. The pastor and also others should let them know none of are prefect. We are none perfect, but we know the one that is. In short just love them back to your fellowship. This does not always work but we need to do our part and try. Let them know you love them anyway!

  • Paul says:

    If possible, have a happy "send off" event for the individual or family that is leaving. It will help heal the hurt, and keep the leaving family as friends.

  • Bill says:

    Paul and Barnabas; sometimes we just can't agree on he details of God's calling in our individual lives. Paul takes Silas and Barnabas leaves with John Mark and so now we have two teams. God will find a way to get past our personal desires to accomplish all He has in mind for us. We are all just people after all and we generally act like people.

  • Mike says:

    We just left a non-denom church where I was a lay pastor on the leadership team. I was also the last lay leader out the door, so I have a few observations from others leaving and then my own departure.

    1) Make sure your polity does not do away with pastoral accountability. Yes, we all have heard the horror stories about deacons running the church into the ground, but I can match that with stories of churches "owned" by a sole proprietor pastor with no substantial oversight that runs off everyone with a desire to serve in ministry.
    2) Do not immediately attempt to "discover" the problem with the person who left and attribute the episode to this problem. Since we are all flawed, it will not be difficult to find a problem with the person who is leaving. You do yourself a disservice by assuming it's all on them. It may be, but be brutally honest.
    3) DO NOT attempt to strengthen your position by poisoning the environment in regard to the other person, even if the problem predominantly originates with them. Gossip from a pastor (or pastor's wife) will eventually yield a ministry killing harvest.
    4) Evaluate your calling. Yep, I went there. If you want to be a vision caster for building an organization, get an MBA and join a company. If you want to shepherd dumb, stupid, messed up people, be a pastor.
    5) Create an environment so that when people leave, they can discuss the whys and hows with the leadership team without fireworks.

    Finally if you are going to leave, don't be a coward. Meet with leadership and explain why you are leaving, even if it is uncomfortable. If you are in a church with bad polity, you need to use this time to speak bluntly to the leadership as this is the sole option you have.

  • Jay Jones says:

    Great article!

    As a director of church planting in our state for our organization, I get to hear many stories of success and hurt. I was just speaking with a church planter today who had an influential member leave. My advice was this…

    – It will hurt every time. The balm comes with the next Bible study, the next baptism, or the next spirit infilling. It's coming!
    – Some people are blessings coming… Some are blessings going. They may have issues that could harm you more if they stayed.
    – Just celebrate successes and do sleight of hand with the negatives.
    – You'll calibrate your own style of leadership, but I have chosen to never address the whole church about someone leaving, and only do so in private individually when asked.
    – Pressing on without slowing down or missing a beat has been the best response for us to someone leaving.
    – Some leave quietly, and others want to leave a wake behind them… I will only allow "quietly". 🙂

  • Cindy says:

    I am not a Pastor here and hope it is ok to input. I would like to add that I feel that Churches should make sure that people do not fall away and not be noticed. After our daughter died we found it hard to go back to Church. This was for many reasons. We never had anyone ever come and see how we were doing or what was going on. We were in a large Church (about 1200) but even in that there should be people that knew that we were not there and checked on us. In this Church there is Sunday School that was keeping up with others but we were teaching and was just not noticed that we were not there. Just something I wanted to add. Thank you for sharing this. I feel that it is very important in our Churches.

    • ronedmondson says:

      This is good perspective. Thanks for sharing. 

    • Larry McCoy says:

      Cindy this is sad, but many times I have found that when people don't know what to say they say nothing. Please give them another chance, show them by example what should be done. That could well be a place of service for you and your family.

  • Lanny Smith says:

    This is fresh on my mind as we lost a highly visible family -he was a deacon – recently. Our kids were/are close friends. It's been traumatic for us as a church family. One of the goals I had was to make sure that they left out the "front door" rather than slipping away out the back door.. I tried to arrange meetings with the leadership team (I'm the sr. pastor) and the family but couldn't. This has left some ragged ends of relationships and caused the situation to linger much longer than it should have.

    Lessons learned:
    1. don't delay as soon as you know what's going on. Get everybody in a room and go through the hard issues of their reasons for leaving. We waited too long and the window of opportunity closed on us.
    2. If you can arrange a meeting, use that time not only as an "exit interview" for growth, but as a time to bless. I wish we could have gathered over them to pray for their spiritual journey. This would have brought closure and a clean(er) break.
    3. Be as transparent as possible while maintaining confidentiality with the church. That's been the toughest part by far.
    4. Use this tough time as an opportunity to refine your ministries. It's a tough look in the mirror but I believe that God never wastes a chance to help us grow as individuals and churches. This time in our congregation has really helped us to focus more clearly on our ministry goals.

    Hope this helps!

  • Tom says:

    As far as possible be at peace with them – sometimes there is still ministry that happens with people who have left if we leave the door open, and don't burn bridges with them. It might not have been you at all and a friendship(albeit different one) can remain. They didn't leave the kingdom, only the branch office I serve – it is very hard though and it hurts

    • ronedmondson says:

      That's a good word I should have included. Makes the post better already. Agrees. Thank you.