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!