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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