When People Leave (Part 5)


So far in the four parts of this “When People Leave” series we’ve touched on a number of factors and assumptions involved in church departures. It’s never cut and dried, nor is it ever one-sided; in other words, it’s never any one person’s or party’s fault—not even Satan‘s—when individuals leave our churches! As pastors keenly aware of our leadership deficiencies and personality defects we often  assume “It’s My Fault” out of self-pity. Then, turning defensive, our pride and self-protective instincts might lead us to point the finger of blame at the departing ones enumerating all the reasons why It’s Their Fault: “They’re the ones whose expectations are too high; they’re the ones whose commitment is too low, etc.” Further analysis can then swing the pointed finger church-ward noting all the known imperfections within the congregation resulting in an “It’s the Church’s Fault” assumption.

These highly emotion-based reactions and assumptions can quickly follow an announcement of departure, only then to be rehashed and revisited over a period of weeks, months, or even years as we come to grips with the fact that those we’ve loved, served, and who have supported us for a season are not coming back. Slowly we realize there’s some truth to each of the first three assumptions: we are imperfect leaders of imperfect Christians who together make up imperfect churches. And on top of that, we have a spiritual enemy always ready to seize upon our own, our church members’, and our congregation’s imperfections with lies, wounds, suspicions, and other tactical distractions from our mission of making and multiplying disciples.

And yet once all the guilty ones, human and demonic, have been ascribed their portion of blame in the dismembering of our churches, I speak for myself at least when I say this: I’m not satisfied! I’m not satisfied because I know another person is involved. And by involved I mean invested – invested to an infinitely greater degree than all the sinner–saints who will ever call on Jesus’ name and all the fallen angels who will ever seek to divide his body on earth. But because this one is perfect I want to be clear that I am not attributing real blame nor using the “f”-word quite the same way when I say…

It’s God’s Fault.

By “fault” I mean responsibility, involvement, permission. No one has ever divided nor could ever divide Jesus’ bride and body without His permission. The question we must ask is of course why He would ever grant such permission.

In short, the answer boils down to one word: sanctification. I don’t need to tell you that sanctification and sanitization come from the same root word. Jesus is always cleaning up His bride, making her ready and beautiful for that great marriage supper to come. And yes, while our sins were all forgiven on the cross, they are still found in abundance, clinging to us, gunking up every aspect of our lives, even our church families. No matter how precise and edifying the preaching, no matter how attentive a pastor is to his flock’s spiritual health, no matter how eager the volunteers nor how smoothly the programming runs at any given church, sin is there collecting like dust in the corners. It’s why at bath time moms tell their kids to wash everywhere, especially in the cracks and creases where the different parts of our bodies come together. Well, in the body of Christ the cracks and crevices where different parts join are inter-human relationships between flawed people. Those relationships can sometimes be held together by unholy things under a mask of church unity: co-dependencies, idolizations, self-serving infatuations. The body-washing metaphor breaks down somewhat in that at times in order for Jesus to get at our most dingy parts, He actually has to separate pieces.

Separation works a couple of different ways in the process of sanctification. First, separation may need to happen between two or more true Christians. Again, on a level we can’t even see, something unholy has gotten trapped and held in place by a relationship. Like dirt under the skin, infection will eventually set in, and then the whole body will suffer. In due course, after the parting happens, the separate parts will eventually see what Jesus was doing. Better that Jesus separate parts of the same body temporarily that they might be further sanctified and reunited in a glorious eternity than letting sin fester and do greater damage to the whole.

Secondly, separation is part of how Jesus rids His body of false parts. The sheep will be separated from the goats. Yes, that will happen on Judgment Day. Likewise wheat and tares are sometimes permitted to grow up together right up to the harvest, then comes the threshing, the separating, the burning. On earth, the Church and all of Her millions of local expressions, will never be fully sanctified. Sometimes, members will leave and their attitudes and actions afterwards will reveal that they never were really part of the true church. They were there for entertainment, to socialize, to network, to self-promote, or in some cases to play at being religious while on a secret (and evil) mission to purposefully sow division.

It’s the church’s job to pray that Jesus would first root out sin by saving any among us who are not truly His disciples. We should also pray that He would sanctify the body by separating those who would do harm (by the way, it’s probably be best not to use names in these prayers—unless we’re willing to use our own too). But we should always pray with a view to the supreme wisdom of our Lord in sanctifying His bride in His way for His ultimate glory…and ours.

The Church—and every member of it—belongs to Jesus. None of us want or look forward to separations and departures of people from our churches, any more than my kids want or look forward to bathtime. But God—like any good earthly parent—is not going to let His children remain in a state of uncleanness. It’s not their favorite part of the day, but my kids know that getting baths, washing behind ears, under arms, between fingers and toes, and all the other places where their parts come together, is just part of being in my family. We cry when people leave our churches. Like soap in a cut, it hurts; but it also cleans!

May we labor with Jesus—not against Him—in continually uncovering and washing away sin with the Word and the discipline of confessing it to God and to each other. And may we seek His strength to shepherd His people well, even when the process of sanctification means people must leave.

When People Leave (Part 4)


So far we’ve seen how pastors view the departure of members and families from the churches they shepherd through several lenses. “It’s my fault,” “It’s their fault,” “It’s the church’s fault” are some common ones. Often these “fault” lines intersect and overlap…at least they should! Hopefully as pastors we’re mature enough to know that in a world (and churches) full of sin and sinful people (ourselves included) no one person or party is ever completely at fault. What’s more, since ministry is a spiritual endeavor engaged in both the physical and spiritual realms, it’s not uncommon to add to the mix of these first three assumptions a fourth:

It’s Satan’s Fault. We’re not completely off-base in making this assumption. The Devil is after all the father of lies, an angel of light with a desperately dark heart intent on deceiving, dividing, devouring, and destroying anyone and everything the Lord loves. Ample biblical evidence proves Satan’s involvement in bad and painful things in the human realm: the garden temptation & fall of man, the anguish of Job, the delusion of Israel’s kings, the temptation of Jesus, the sifting of Peter, the seduction of Judas, and the physical torment of Paul—the list goes on! But despite his vile viciousness, humility again forbids us from ascribing him absolute blame.

So, if we’re imperfect leaders, our church members are imperfect, and the churches we lead are themselves troubled and flawed, in what ways and to what extent might we justly attribute the dis-membering of our churches to Satan? For example, when we see disunity or its potential rising in our fellowship, is it right to pray against Satan’s dividing spirit among believers, or is that just neglecting the hard work of confronting and confessing sin in order to keep harmony between believers? Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one,” and later in v. 22, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one …” Why does Jesus pray for such unity? Because of an evil (Satanic) spirit of division He knows will come against them, as we see in v. 15, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Some early manuscripts just say “evil,” but apparently it’s not abusing the Greek to attach such evil to an individual (the same translation renders the same Greek as simply “evil” in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:13).

So yes, it’s perfectly right to pray against Satan’s divisive tactics. But remember, Satan never divides two Christians against each other without first doing a dividing work inside of one or both individuals. Take the case of Peter and Jesus. No one could’ve given a stronger verbal affirmation of Jesus’ true identity than Peter in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” Yet in short order he denied Jesus (essentially departed from Him). Why? Because he was inwardly divided. Why/How was he inwardly divided? It’s not that Peter didn’t want to support Jesus, it’s just that in that instance he wanted personal safety and comfort more. He was divided against himself. Interestingly, before the denial (departure), Jesus tells Peter at the Last Supper that Satan had demanded to “sift you like wheat,” but then says, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Wait a minute. Peter’s faith failed royally just a few hours later! So, was Jesus’ prayer ineffective or pointless? Not at all.

Nor are our prayers against Satan’s sifting/dividing tactics ineffective or pointless—no matter what happens in the short-term! Jesus takes the long view in His prayers for the outer unity of His people and the inner unity of His individual disciples. Peter’s faith did fail; he denied Jesus and departed from Him; he and all the disciples scattered, but that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. His faith didn’t ultimately fail. Jesus and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit overcame his inner dividedness and eventually led him to serve the church, to work for the unity of believers (Jewish and Gentile ones), and to sacrifice his once-beloved earthly comforts and even his life for the testimony of His Lord.

Satan is a real enemy who really wants to divide Christians and dis-member churches. We have to pray against him and his manipulation of our desires and those of our fellow church members. But we also have to pray with the mind of Christ which says that even if God permits Satan a degree of divisive access to the church in the short-term, while it may be painful, Lord willing, it won’t be permanent. Of course by “not permanent” I’m not suggesting that everyone who leaves your church or mine will eventually return to it. But if those persons are truly the Lord’s born-again people, there will be a final (and glorious) reunion with them one day. Maybe Satan is using sin and self-interest to draw people away from our churches. Perhaps their faith—like Peter’s—is weak at present, and only by the distance of separation from Christ and other believers will they see that weakness and come to cling more humbly and desperately to Jesus.

In Peter and all the other examples listed above (Job, Paul, etc.) we must never forget that Satan is not rogue. He wants to be, but he isn’t. He’s a created being who has never done and will never do anything outside of God’s permissive will. He’s a rebel to be sure, but he’s on a rope that can’t be broke! God doesn’t have to be pleased with the actions of His creatures in order to permit them. His permission simply points to a higher purpose for those He loves, AND at the same time produces a more devastating punishment for the Devil and everyone else whom He in His sovereignty permits to rebel.

Well, we’ve got one more assumption of fault to deal with in this series of posts about “When People Leave” our churches. Any guesses who’s left to blame?

See you next week for Part 5!

When People Leave (Part 3)

An initial impulse for many pastors when folks leave a church is to assume the blame: “It’s my fault.” A second assumption—usually somewhat intermingled with the first—is that “It’s their fault” (i.e., the departing ones). But a third assumption is never very far away from either of the first two…


It’s the Church’s Fault. For many pastors this assumption is closely tied to the first assumption because of how tightly, consciously or unconsciously, we bind our sense of self worth to the churches under our care. The flaws we see in ourselves we often project onto the church and assume that folks leave because the church (a reflection of ourselves and our leadership) just doesn’t make the grade. Pastors are important to church health, but not as important as we may convince ourselves we are. We often forget that we too are members of a body of believers all of whom are gifted to help the church function as Christ’s representative in the broader community and world. Pastors have an important equipping role to play in the equation, but we don’t have more of God’s Spirit than any true member of the church. When people leave a church, they’re not just leaving a leader; they’re leaving a local Spirit-indwelt body of believers. It’s hard to not take what we feel is a departing person or family’s vote of no confidence in our pastoring as also an unfavorable verdict on the church as a whole.

On the other hand, pastors can tie an “It’s the church’s fault” assumption to the second assumption (see last week’s post). Assuming people leave because it’s the church’s fault may be our way of diverting blame not to the departing ones this time but to everybody else in the church for failing to secure the departing person’s continued participation. The first part of the “It’s the church’s fault” assumption flows from the self-pity version of pride, but this part flows from outright pride, which says, “I’m doing everything right as a pastor, but this church is so ... whatever ... that it’s no wonder people eventually want to leave,” a sentiment usually accompanied by, “and I wouldn’t mind leaving either.”  

Of course both of these angles on the “It’s the church’s fault” assumption fail to address the outgoing person’s’ part in the equation. Did they have a consumer mindset (“The church exists to serve my needs, and I think XYZ church can meet them better than this one”) or a critical spirit (“The pastor, programs, vision, structure … is just not to my liking”) while sitting on the sideline never fully engaging in the church’s overall mission?  In a society utterly saturated and constantly bombarded with marketing appeals for products, all of which are designed to enhance one’s comfort and self-conception, it’s all but impossible to ever entirely rule out the influence of consumer logic in church choices.

Careful pastors! This applies to us as well. I know you’ve wondered recently if another church, perhaps in another town or state, might just be a better fit for you (and you for it) than where the Lord now has you. Nationwide, the average pastor tenure is 3-4 years. (See Thom Rainer’s article “The Dangerous Third Year” for some helpful insights.) Ever wonder if the frustrating frequency of member departures might be (at least partly) a conditioned response linked to a pattern of pastor departures they’ve experienced themselves or heard about from friends in other churches? Pastors, we train God’s people to love and commit themselves to His bride and body not just by our sermons but by our staying! I’m not suggesting it’s never right for a pastor to leave a church (see Mark Clifton’s video now up at the Cleveland Hope Pastors & Planters Facebook group: https://m.facebook.com/groups/1644263689119484?view=permalink&id=2274626739416506&_rdr). There are indeed times and situations where our continued presence at a church may be counter-productive, but by and large I think it’s safe to say that few things lead to greater instability in churches and among members than rapid pastor turnover.

Every honest church leader knows his leadership and his church can always grow and improve, nevertheless a person’s or family’s departure will seldom if ever be entirely the fault of the church. We mustn’t be guilty of making that assumption! Again, should our goal be to place blame when people leave? Placing blame does nothing to identify root causes. If there are glaring problems with a church’s practices or structures they should be addressed as expeditiously as possible for the good of the whole body. But the roots of most church unrest run much deeper than the realm of the structural or practical; it’s spiritual; it germinates in personal strongholds of doubt, fear, unbelief, and unholy desire in the hearts of pastors and parishioners alike. Like bandaids on a tumor, no amount of re-visioning, re-strategizing, re-programming, etc. will ever make a church healthy or its members and leaders content and committed. Only the surgical searching and purifying power of the Word, the Spirit, and prayer brought to bear on our sins and insecurities can sufficiently settle us in patterns of humble, sincere, and prolonged service to the local body of believers with whom we sojourn in the faith.

Jesus is not going to fault His bride one iota on Judgment Day; she will be pure and perfected, readied for her eternal union with Him. We likewise dare not hold the bride of Christ in contempt now either. But as His instruments of truth and exemplary self-sacrifice to the other members of His body, let us rather labor and pray for her purity through painstaking, prayerful discipleship, examining our own hearts for faults, confessing them and lovingly, patiently helping others do the same. May our hearts be that of Paul for the troubled church at Corinth:

“For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:2)

When People Leave (Part 2)


In the first “When People Leave” post, we looked at the issue from the pastor’s assumption “It’s my fault.” That’s a common assumption, but in the mixing bowl of emotion and ego honesty requires us to admit that we probably don’t think it’s all or mostly our fault as pastors when folks leave our churches. Sometimes in fact we may not even think it’s partly our fault but that…

It’s Their Fault!

Yep. Sometimes those leaving are just plain wrong. They’re wrong about our church; they’re wrong about our leadership; they’re wrong to want more topical preaching; they’re wrong to want a rock band and fog machines; they’re wrong to want to be part of a big church where it won’t be noticed if they’re gone with travel softball three of four Sundays a month all summer long, etc. “They’re just selfish, lazy, unspiritual consumers; I’m not even sure they’re saved,” we might think to ourselves. True, some people can sit for years under biblical preaching, just checking a box on a weekly or monthly religious to-do list. Again, pride. No, not theirs. Ours! If someone can be a visible part of a church we’re pastoring for years and remain so spiritually deficient (or even dead) that they leave for another church (or no church at all), rather than sticking a pious finger their way and assuming they alone are at fault when at last they announce they’re leaving, or (more likely) gradually disappear from church life, shouldn’t we wonder whether or not our labors for their maturity have been as thorough as possible? I’m all about biblical preaching, but the pulpit cannot be our only means of disciple-making. Primary? Sure. Exclusive? No way!

Only when all efforts: preaching, prayer, one-on-one meetings, home/workplace visits, small group invites, phone calls, encouragement cards from pastor, group leaders, kids’ teachers, youth pastors—and these over a substantial period of time—fail to engage a person’s or family’s participation in meaningful discipleship can we assume the departure is their fault.

But wait a minute…

Is that what we’re doing here? When someone leaves is the objective really to fix blame…either on ourselves or on them? Like you, I get disappointed when I don’t see someone at church for a couple weeks, a month, or even longer. But what am I doing about it? Am I unduly assuming it’s their fault, that their priorities are just wrong, etc? Maybe it is. Maybe they are. But maybe not! Have I sought these dear ones out? Have I inquired about their absence with genuine pastoral concern? Or have I just brooded over it Monday morning only to move on with other tasks by Monday afternoon and let another week go by? Maybe they’ve been sick and didn’t want to bother me. Maybe a family member was hospitalized over the weekend. Maybe a shift-change at work means they can’t attend Sunday worship for a while. Maybe they’re battling deep depression and can’t find the energy or will to get to church but are desperate to know they’re loved, etc. Now whose disappointment is justified? “Why hasn’t the pastor (or anyone else from church) reached out to check on me?” they wonder, “I thought Christians were supposed to care about each other. I’m not sure I want to keep being part of such an uncaring church.”

A blog post (or even a series of posts) like this can’t possibly examine all the reasons why folks drift away or depart from churches. Many times the reasons are terrible. But sometimes they have some validity. As an encourager to pastors and as a pastor myself, my concern in these posts is not the departing ones. They are an important but secondary concern to me here. My primary concern is the deepening of Christ-like care and character in our hearts as pastors. This is why I say that when people leave, our goal should not be to find fault but to foster faith. Our flesh may not want to, but true shepherds will crucify the flesh’s wounded pride and desire for affirmation by instead praying for the renewed and strengthened faith of those who leave—praying that God would root them in a new church where they will grow and serve in ways they didn’t at ours, or praying that in time God will use our periodic phone call, text, card, or visit to spark a conviction to renew their faith commitment to Him and reengage with His body, the church.

If we fixate on who’s at fault in a departure, we’re going to miss our chance to deepen our own faith by looking to God rather than men, we’ll miss the chance to pray for the building of the departing one’s faith, and we’ll waste precious time and energy that could be better invested strengthening the faith of those still under our care and reaching those still lost in our neighborhoods.

I’m not suggesting we go soft on sin, or just let people walk away from our churches, but fault-finding is a fool’s game—especially when we’re all at fault in more ways than we can even see. Finding fault and ascribing blame might be instinctive to our flesh, but these actions and the attitudes that drive them are not from God’s Spirit. Better to err on the side of grace and to labor for faith through genuine pastoral concern and prayer when dealing with Christ’s sheep than to fixate on fault.

“But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12)


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When People Leave (Part 1)


Few things hurt as bad in church life as when people leave. People leaving a church for a job- or family-related out-of-state or cross-country move is one thing, but I’m talking about the more common and troubling experience of seeing folks leave for a church across town or for no church at all. Many temptations confront us as pastors when those we’ve worshiped and served alongside, for whom we’ve cared, with whom we’ve cried and celebrated depart. A range of emotions and assumptions rush at us as we process these partings.

This is the first in a series of five posts outlining a few of the common assumptions that confront me when people leave. I hope to offer some helpful lessons I’ve learned (and am learning) from tough partings over the years and to encourage you to look toward faithfulness and focus.

“It’s My Fault.”

This is the tip of the dagger for me—the first assumption. When folks tell me they’re leaving, when I hear they’re visiting another church, or when they simply stop coming to Bridge, I instantly hear a gavel smacking the bench: “You’re not a good enough pastor.”

Pride is a real problem, especially when it so often and so easily masquerades as self-pity. “I guess my preaching isn’t as good, my vision as thrilling, or my leadership as dynamic and engaging . . . as pastor So-in-so’s.” Well, let’s be honest, for most of us, that’s probably true! God has some very gifted shepherds out there whose abilities are off the charts. They’re the exception, not the rule. There’s a undeniable magnetism about them—people want to be near them, to hear them, to follow them. They want to see them in action up close and to experience the excitement and dynamism for themselves.

More on this in another post, but perhaps it isn’t the pastor so much as it is the church, and all the wonderful things going on there. There’s energy; there’s life; there’s vitality; there’s . . . Zumba!

When we learn that a member or family is leaving for pastor So-in-so or Such-in-such church, we have to call out self-pity for the version of narcissism that it is, and then kill it with prayerful gratitude to God for allowing us to serve this member or family for a time. Some good questions to ask ourselves when we learn folks are leaving: Did I teach them faithfully? Did I serve them through prayer, encouragement, and a godly example? Did I seek to lead them with sincerity (that is, with no grudges or bitterness toward them) during their time under my leadership? If we answer “no” to any of these, then we’re right to assume some fault in their departure. Confession needs to be made to God and them—and perhaps to others yet to leave. However, even if we can answer “yes” to these, though they would probably affirm their love and gratitude, the likelihood of changing their minds about leaving is still quite slim (I’ve never been able to convince a member or family intent on parting ways to stay). The temptation here is to promise things (changes, improvements, growth, new programs, etc.) that are likely not in our power to deliver, and that may in fact be more in keeping with man’s agenda than God’s. If we can answer “yes” to these questions, then despite the sadness and disappointment of losing fellowship and partnership, we will be able to stand before God with integrity having served them with a right spirit and with the abilities He’d given us at the time.

But, that’s not to say that the abilities God gives us for one season are the abilities needed for the next season of ministry leadership. Richard Blackaby said something very profound in a message to me and a hundred or so others at an associational leaders’ conference this week. He said, “It costs others dearly when leaders don’t continue to grow.” I’ve come to realize that departures from my church are quite possibly God signaling that I’ve gotten stuck and have some growing to do as a leader. Nevertheless, we mustn’t pursue personal growth as leaders just to do a better job keeping people around. Growth as Christian leaders should always be focused on reaching, equipping and sending more people into the harvest.

At times some may need to go in order that we grow. In John 6 Jesus teaches on the true bread that comes from heaven, namely, Himself. It was a hard teaching and offensive to many in the crowd, including some of those who had begun to follow Him. John tells us in v. 66 that after hearing Jesus’ words, many of them turned back and no longer followed Him. Jesus knew well the pain of seeing followers walk away. And I suppose, in one sense, it was His fault. I’m in no way saying your leadership or mine is perfect like Jesus’ was, but if we’re diligently teaching His word it shouldn’t surprise us that at times people won’t have a stomach for it and won’t stick around. …But some will.

And that’s the point!

When a person, a family, or even a rash of families leave a local church, it’s important to remember that not everyone has left! In small churches parting pains are more acutely felt, the holes left behind bigger, the serving pressure on those remaining becomes greater and the financial burden heavier. Satan loves when we lick our wounds and pine after those leaving. Why? Because in doing so we neglect those remaining and still looking to us for spiritual leadership AND we neglect the lost of our communities whom Jesus is still calling us to reach and disciple!

Humility forces us to admit (daily, hourly) that we’re imperfect leaders who need to come to terms with and labor to remedy our failings and faults. But humility must also remind us that even if we’ve served with a clear conscience, Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. He will at times move His sheep to other folds, sometimes for their benefit, sometimes for ours, often for both. Furthermore, He will at times re-move those who we thought to be His sheep (but who really weren’t), those who simply lose interest in church or for whom the gospel no longer suits their desire for comfort, out of the way so that our leading and shepherding energies can be channeled with greater focus and intensity into making disciples who make disciples from and for the harvest.


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Have a blessed Palm Sunday weekend as you love and lead the Lord’s people!