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)