3 Ways to Respond When People Leave Your Church

“Reflect Jesus to people when they come to your church; reflect Jesus when people leave your church.”

Weekly, calls come in from pastors wanting to talk about a variety of subjects. I welcome calls like that. Why? I want to learn and grow and I think conversations with fellow co-laborers is a great avenue to let “iron sharpen iron.” I feel every interaction I have with a fellow minister is an opportunity for both of us to grow.

One of the subjects that inevitably comes up is the struggle that comes when people leave the church.

I’m not necessarily talking about people abandoning their faith. I’m talking about that moment when people decide to stop attending the church you pastor and attend somewhere else because your church community isn’t a fit for them.

It’s a moment that can be incredibly difficult to deal with. I love people and I wish everyone could find their fit at our church. But I realize that isn’t realistic.

Related: When someone you’ve invested in leaves the church »

Seven years ago, a very good friend told me that, minimally, 30 percent of the people who voted you in as the pastor would eventually depart and go somewhere else. Some will go because you didn’t turn out to be who they thought you were (expectations both realistic and unrealistic). Some left because of too much change or not enough change or because they didn’t see the change they wanted to see. Some departed because their hearts were too connected to previous leadership styles and approach. Still, some left because of offense and frustration.

Pastors, if there’s anything I can implore of you during congregational transitions, it’s this: Reflect Jesus to people when they come to your church; reflect Jesus when people leave your church.

What does this look like? As a pastor, how do you approach people leaving because they didn’t find a “fit” at your church?

1. Bless them.

If they’re courageous enough to leave in an honorable way AND let you know, you need to push past any hurt or frustration and do what I believe is the most honorable thing to do: Bless them.

Offer prayer over them. Bless their search for a church community. Speak a blessing over their home. Offer to help them find a church. It’s rare people take me up on that, but my heart has to be for the kingdom more than my church or denomination.

From Outreach Magazine  Leaders, It’s Time for a New Message

2. Speak well of them.

Shut your mouth. Shut down any gossip about them. Let the words of your mouth and the meditation of our heart be honorable to the Lord. Just because they left your church community doesn’t mean they departed the kingdom of God.

“Pastor, did you know ______ left the church?”
“Yep. We talked and had prayer.”

“Pastor, I heard ________ left because of _________.”
“Well, first, I choose to believe the best of _________. Second, stop talking about it. Third, tell the people you’re hearing this from to stop talking about it. That’s between _______ and God and we can’t run our church community by gossip and assumption.”

3. Respond well to them.

I see people in the mall, neighborhood, social media, etc. who have left our church. Their choice of a church home doesn’t determine if I like them personally or not. For some, our church wasn’t the best fit for them, and that’s OK. I’ve developed some great friendships with people in the community that didn’t find their “fit” at our church. That’s fine. That happens and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Don’t respond to people in a hurtful way just because they no longer attend your church. I wish I didn’t have to type that. Grow up and treat people with respect and kindness.

Here’s some final thoughts to lend to you:

Be merciful. I believe mercy is best illustrated as “velvet steel.” If someone encounters you, they experience the velvet: kindness, honor, respect. Yet, the steel prevents you from being a doormat. Know who you are in your identity in Christ.

If I offended someone, I’ll be the first to ask for forgiveness, regardless of whether I feel they’re justified in their offense. It could have been a complete misunderstanding, but regardless, I offended that person and I should initiate asking for forgiveness.

If someone is offended, they should be the one to initiate a connection. If I know about it (sometimes someone is angry and never tells me), I’ll try to connect with them. But he or she needs to take responsibility and step up to Matthew 18 the situation.

From Outreach Magazine  How Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message Be Received Today?

Anyone telling me that “God is leading me away” will always get a reply: “I’m going to respect what you have personally heard from God.” Who am I to argue with what God is speaking to them, as long as they’re not going to a place of sin? (A reminder: Leaving your church isn’t a sin.)

I don’t play politics. “If I do _________, will you stay?” When someone is departing from your church community, negotiating doesn’t fix anything. It only temporarily pacifies the situation.

If someone has experienced hurt and/or offense, my goal isn’t to “keep” them, but help them into healing. If they stay, I want them healthy. If they still leave, I want them leaving healthy.

If someone disagrees and wants to leave, I just ask that we agree to disagree. I just believe that we can embrace Jesus, not necessarily see eye-to-eye on every detail in life, and STILL be cordial with each other.

I don’t do exit interviews. That has been a place for me to get annihilated while empowering someone with the hammer to do it. They get to leave and I’m left picking up the pieces.

Don’t tolerate sinful practices. Gossip, slander and bitterness are not kingdom attributes. Again, reflect Jesus to people when they come to your church; reflect Jesus when they leave your church. Perhaps if we (the pastors) do a better job reflecting Christ during these situations, the parishioners will have the example to follow.

My prayer over you is that God would give you abundant wisdom (James 1) as you traverse through this amazing opportunity to lead a local church community. I speak God’s blessing over you in handling both when people come AND when they leave.

I believe in you, pastors. You are a tremendous gift to the kingdom.

Dave Barringer (@PDBarringer) is the lead pastor at Kalamazoo First Assembly of God in Portage, Michigan. He blogs about pastoring and marriage at PDave.me.