If you have pastored for any length of time then you have experienced people leaving your church. An Association of Related Churches conference speaker described it well—“Pastoring is like driving a commercial bus. At every stop people get on and people get off.” It ‘s a fact of ministry life, sometimes people will leave. Sometimes they leave for reasons like job transfers or moving to another city. They love the church and they love you and even though you wish they weren’t leaving, you get it. Sometimes they leave because they never really found their fit and it was fairly obvious from the start they wouldn’t be there long. Sometimes they leave and you’re never really sure why they left. They just kinda drifted off, occasionally drifting back by, but never re-engaging like they had at one time. I call all those leaves “Peaceful Leaves”—they are easier to handle. You see them somewhere and it’s not awkward. In fact, for the drifters, you still seize every chance meeting as an opportunity to re-engage them and win them back. Most of these Peaceful Leaves we accept as part of life in the ministry, and we keep the bus moving ahead on the planned route.
There’s another type of leaving, which I call “Violent Leaves”, that are harder to handle. Sometimes we will even allow them to cause the bus to come to a halt, stalling out at a stop for a prolonged period rather than moving on to the next stop. These Violent Leaves occur when people leave hurt, angry or in disagreement. They are sometimes unexpected, sneaking up on you and surprising you with the intensity of the emotional storm. Other times you could see the storm clouds coming and you knew you were going to have to go through them, like having to dismiss a staff member or knowing that when you confronted a leader’s behavior that it was not going to end well. These Violent Leaves are the ones we most struggle with, the ones that keep us up at night and the ones most often slow or stall the bus.
So here’s some things Sheryll and I have learned over 30 years of ministry and five church plants:
1. Don’t take it personally.
When we started LifeGate I was bi-vocational. I was excited about the way our new church was going and growing and my team members at my other job were well-informed about our progress, probably way more than they wanted to be! We spent eight hours a day together and, not only did I want to win all those who weren’t involved in church, they were my friends and we shared things with each other. One day I was talking about the disappointment of someone deciding after a month or so of visiting that we weren’t going to be their church and my teammate Kelly said, “Well Tony, you can’t be everybody’s pastor.”
She nailed it—I wanted every person that came to our church to fall in love with the church and with me and that’s just not going to happen. Sometimes people just won’t like your church or you and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a great church or that you’re not a good pastor—it just means you aren’t their church or their pastor.
2. Do take it personally.
What can you learn from it? Sometimes your worst critics can be your best resource for finding areas where you, and your church, need to grow. Use every leave, Peaceful or Violent, as an opportunity to grow. Don’t beat yourself up, but look for things that could have been done to prevent or avert the leave.
For instance, our second church start went through a very destructive time with lots of Violent Leaves in our ninth year that finally resulted in shutting it down. One of the things the autopsy revealed was I had given the wrong people too much authority. As a result, one of the things I am careful about doing is giving someone the title Pastor. I think we sling that title around too much. I read church websites and they have Senior Pastors, Lead Pastors, Teaching Pastors, Worship Pastors, Kids Pastors, Small Group Pastors, Facility Pastors, Parking Lot Pastors, Coffee Pot Pastors, and on and on! But when you call someone a pastor, people will let them pastor them. There is an anointing that is required to pastor, and just because someone can lead doesn’t mean they are a pastor. And if they are not pastors, if they are not representing you with their pastoring, then you have a set up for Violent Leaves. We have Leaders, Directors, Coordinators, but we have very few Pastors. And that healthy change in our culture is a result of taking it personally when people left, of looking for ways to ‘fail forward’ as John Maxwell calls it.
3. The impact will last longer than you think and affect more people than you think.
Don’t minimize the influence those leaving have on others. As Jesus said, “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents.” It’s hard to sneak up on a serpent; they can feel you coming through the ground. Be wise about the impact the leave will have on people. Get your eyes off of your hurt and understand that some of those you pastor will be confused, bewildered, hurt or even angry about the leave. Some of them will eventually leave too, but as long as they are under your care, care for them.
Don’t compromise your place as a pastor as you do this. As pastors, we know things about people that should be kept in confidence. We know things about the ‘inside story’ behind the leave that, if revealed, would harm those who left. But we have a sacred obligation to our Father to protect people, even to our own hurt. It’s tough to sit with a church member who has gotten only one side of the story from their friend who left and try to help them, all the while knowing things that you cannot reveal because you are a pastor.
When a leave occurs, assess the impact and be proactive. Determine to be a blessing, to be honest and open, and to be understanding and compassionate. As pastors we usually process the leave faster than those we lead and we’re ready to move on. But others are still struggling with it so don’t just tell them to get over it. Help them. But determine to keep moving forward toward the place God has called you and your church.
Without vision people will wander, so this is a crucial vision time. There is no vision without supervision, so cast vision clearly about where you are headed. Don’t let the vision become all about who left. You may need to set aside some planned series and spend more time re-casting the vision. Keep the vision clear and in front of people and you will make it through.
4. Don’t demonize those who leave.
Don’t make statements like, “We’re better off without them” part of your strategy for handling the leave. Just because they are no longer in your flock doesn’t mean they are not part of God’s flock and we should be careful of how we talk about the sheep of His flock. You may think those things in your own mind, or even share those thoughts with your spouse, as you process the leave. But guard your words and speak blessing and not cursing over those who leave. It’s not only healthy for you and your church, it will plant seeds for the right kind of harvest.
Pray for those who leave to find the right church where they will be blessed and be a blessing. Pray for them to be whole and healthy. Pray and speak blessing over them. It’s hard to curse someone you are continually blessing in your prayers. And you’ll find that you aren’t awkward at all when you run into them at the grocery store.
5. Focus on who’s there, not who’s not there.
Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop them.” I think one of the biggest mistakes I see pastors make when handling the leave is focusing on those who left rather than investing in those who are there. Those who left dominate their thought life, their prayer life, their conversations, their emotions. And that means we aren’t taking care of those who didn’t leave. You can only shepherd those who are in your flock, and you can only shepherd them well if you are focused on them. The leave may have surprised you but it didn’t surprise God and everything you need to move forward is in your house. Going back to the bus analogy, your job once people get off the bus is to take care of those on the bus. Do they have a seat? Are they in the right seat? Are you driving forward on the route? If you sit idling at the stop where the last folks got off too long, those who are still on the bus will eventually get off and find a bus that is moving.
6. Leave the lights on and the door open.
A motel chain used to have a slogan, “We’ll leave the lights on for you.” One of the things I have learned is that our God is a restorer. It’s part of His nature and He doesn’t think any relationship is beyond restoration. Over the years I have seen Him restore friendships that I thought were forever destroyed. Sheryll and I have great leaders at LifeGate who actually participated in the violent destruction of our second church. When people leave our church we tell them, “We hope LifeGate has been a blessing to you. We hope you find a great church where you will love serving. And we want you to know you are always welcome here.” It’s always amazing to me how many people eventually find their way back.
7. Include teaching on How To Leave A Church in your message planning.
Now I’m not saying you should do this in the middle of a leave! That would not be productive. But I think one of the reasons we have as many Violent Leaves as we do is because the Body of Christ has not been taught how to leave a church in a healthy manner. As stated above, people leaving churches is a fact of life in ministry, but there are right and wrong ways to leave a church and we should include that as a teaching topic from time to time. Biblically, the only reasons to leave a healthy church are either a geographical move that makes membership impossible, or an inability to submit to the vision of that house. Part of understanding church membership is understanding how to leave.
8. Last, do a heart check on how you left.
Most of us have left churches. How did you leave? Was it a Peaceful or Violent Leave? If it was an unhealthy leave, have you done what you can to repair and restore? Don’t leave any destructive seeds planted that will affect your harvest.
One of my fondest blessings was the night my former pastor spoke at our church. Our parting had not been the way I had hoped it would be, but once again our restoring Lord found a way to restore the relationship. He died just a few years later, making that restoration even more important.
As small town pastors and leaders, how we handle it when people leave will have a tremendous impact of the influence our churches have in our towns. In the small town everyone knows your business so being a church who continually grows through both Peaceful and Violent Leaves will give you and your church stronger Kingdom influence.
I hope you found these helpful. How about sharing your Leave tips with us? That’s part of the goal of SmallTown.Church—a network where we make each other stronger and our churches healthier. Send me your tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.