Despite knowing what you ought to think and feel toward people who leave your church, you are likely tempted toward some unhelpful responses.
By Barnabas Piper
People leave churches; it’s inevitable. They move from one church to another for a hundred different reasons, some good and some bad. Every pastor has experienced this, and more often than not it is disappointing or even painful.
Some people do it kindly and with clear communication about their reasons. Others disappear without a word, never to be seen or heard from again. (I am specifically writing with those congregants in mind who leave for another church, not those who leave the church altogether. There are temptations and struggles unique to each of these circumstances, and I am focusing on the former.)
No matter the manner of departure, a good pastor yearns for the spiritual well-being of these congregants. We want to see them growing in Christ and fellowship with His people. Yet despite your best intentions and knowing what you ought to think and feel toward people who leave your church, you are likely tempted toward any number of unhelpful responses (often, several at the same time). Here are seven ways not to respond when people leave your church.“No matter the manner of departure, a good pastor yearns for the spiritual well-being of congregants who leave their church.” — @BarnabasPiper Click To Tweet
1. Making assumptions
Sadly, not everyone who leaves your church does so with clear, respectful communication. Many people just disappear, even among those who have attended and been deeply involved for years.
One of the great temptations—that usually comes from a posture of hurt and self-justification—is to fill that silence with assumptions. Rather than doing what 1 Corinthians 13 tells believers to do—bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things—we assume the negative or pejorative about their motivations and state of heart.
This kind of assumption protects our feelings and vulnerabilities, but it makes us callous and diminishes compassion. If we are unable to reach them and learn the honest reasons they left (which might be critical and hurtful), we must resist the temptation to assume the worst.
The best way to avoid assumptions is to fill the silence with something helpful. One of the temptations we face is to “shake the dust off our feet,” so to speak, at those people who have left. We tell ourselves something like “if they didn’t want to be here, we didn’t want them anyway,” and that is that. Except it isn’t. That kind of response is a cocktail of self-preservation and laziness.
Instead, we ought to seek understanding from the separated people. We don’t need to be maniacal or needy about it. But it is loving and wise to reach out to them. If we are not able to reach them, our efforts still communicate care for them. If we are able to reach them, it allows us to replace the assumption-fraught silence with explanation and understanding.
Even if we don’t like their reasons for their leaving, and even if their reasons are unbiblical, this kind of communication allows for encouragement, prayer, invitation, and if necessary teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
It is OK to be discouraged when people leave your church. Often, we are losing people we love and have invested in greatly. Sometimes they are people who have invested much in the church, so to lose them leaves a significant hole in the ministry. So, discouragement and sadness are natural.
But if we become despondent—that is, we become discouraged to the point of wanting to give up—we are in sin. Sadness is a response of love. Despondency is a response of idolatry. It indicates that our faith and hope is in something other than the power of the gospel and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.“Sadness is a response of love. Despondency is a response of idolatry.” — @BarnabasPiper Click To Tweet
In 2 Timothy 4:16-17, Paul writes of everyone abandoning him in his time of need. Yet the Lord stood with him and strengthened him. This is our constant hope. We have no room for despondency.
Sometimes the loss of congregants induces a sort of existential panic in us pastors. We wonder how we have failed. We see their departure as the death blow of our reputation, dignity, and purpose. Or we see ourselves as failures. We wonder if this is the end of our church, and we see our future as bleak. But friends, they aren’t our sheep.
We are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd. We are imperfect. And we fail. So it is a wonderful thing that we are not the saviors of our flock. We must recognize our limitations and God’s lack thereof. Pain and disappointment must not breed panic but prayer and pressing on.
The flip side of panic is pride. Panic stems from self-flagellation. Pride refuses to self-examine. When people leave your church there is a temptation to blame them and an even greater one to ignore their criticisms and feedback. If panic leads us to blame ourselves for their departure, pride causes us to blame them for their own stupidity in missing out on “my amazing church.”
Instead, we should recognize the departure of people from our church as an opportunity to learn, to look in the mirror and see where our flaws are. Every departure doesn’t mean we have failed, but how will we know unless we are humble enough to consider?“Every church departure doesn’t mean we have failed, but how will we know unless we are humble enough to consider?” — @BarnabasPiper Click To Tweet
6. Bitterness and jealousy
I combined these two because they are expressions of the same thing aimed in different directions. Bitterness is the feeling we are tempted to have toward the people who leave. Jealousy is the feeling we are tempted to have toward the church where they land. Both of these are wrong.
Ephesians 4:31 says, in no unqualified or uncertain terms, “Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice” (CSB). We have no room for hard feelings and ill will toward departed brothers and sisters in Christ or toward the local congregations they depart for.
How can we both yearn for their spiritual well-being and harbor resentment toward them? How can we be partners in gospel ministry with other local churches that we are jealous of? We must forgive as we have been forgiven (Colossians 3:13) and celebrate the gospel work in our fellow churches (even if we do have doctrinal and ecclesiological differences).
If I may be bluntly honest, and I likely speak for other pastors as well, there absolutely are people we are glad to see leave our churches—contentious people, hurtful people, divisive people, etc. Their departure brings a sigh of relief and sense of serenity.
However, we still care about their souls and their well-being. We still yearn to see them humbly and joyfully following Jesus. So to be gleeful or celebratory (usually in the privacy of our own minds or studies) about their departure isn’t right.
Consider this: If the Lord brought them to repentance and they returned to your church, would you be able to welcome them back with honest open arms, or would you yourselves need to repent in order to receive them?
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Barnabas is a pastor at Immanuel Church in Nashville. He is a husband and the father of two daughters. He is also the author of several books, including The Pastor’s Kid and Help My Unbelief as well as a small group study, Ecclesiastes: Finding Meaning in a World of Passing Pursuits.