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How Should Pastors Respond When People Leave Their Church?

People leave churches for many reasons, and your response to their leaving will depend, in part, on why they are going. Remembering that Scripture will help you keep even the most difficult exits in perspective.

My pastor friend was downcast—a family had decided to leave his church. They told him the final straw was not recommending a book by their favorite author when my pastor friend preached a series of sermons on a particular topic. The irony was that my friend had recommended–in fact, had strongly recommended–the book in question. The family had just been away that week. It would have been funny if it had not been so discouraging.

A church member emailed another pastor friend, claiming to be furious with him about things she heard about him. However, she refused to tell him what she had heard. She also declined to explain, even after he asked if he had done anything that required forgiveness. My friend had to piece the false accusations together from family members and friends. She subsequently left the church. 

People leave churches for many reasons, and your response to their leaving will depend, in part, on why they are going. If they leave the church because they are turning away from Christ, your response will be lovingly calling them back to Christ. That is one end of the spectrum. On the other end, they may be leaving because they are moving to a different location, and it would no longer be feasible for them to attend your church. In that case, your response will be to pray for them and wish them well as they leave. However, between those two extremes are the tricky cases where a person or family leaves your church—for a whole host of reasons—to go to another church. For whatever reason, they are dissatisfied with you and your ministry. How do you respond in those circumstances?

First, consider whether their exit may be best for them, the church, and you. People usually leave because of a string of things they do not like about the church—even if it’s just one presenting issue. In such cases, it seems best to wish them well, pray for them and let them leave “well.” It is sad, and it is not ideal, but the Scriptures recognize that even mature Christians can have differences, in which it is best if they do not spend time together (e.g., Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36–41). It is wrong to stop going to church (Hebrews 10:25), but it is not (necessarily) wrong to move from one church to another. Letting them leave “well” keeps the door open for them to return and also models to other members of the congregation that you care for the people in your church. It demonstrates that you care that they are encouraged and loved, even if it means they go to a different church. It shows people that you are not just interested in building your empire.

Second, it may be worth examining your heart and ministry once they have left. Is there anything you can learn? Did you make mistakes? You may have received a barrage of mostly unfounded criticism. Could some of it be worth considering? It may be difficult, but prayerfully considering the criticism may help avoid similar mistakes in the future. 

Third, remember you are human. It is hard not to be affected by a “bad” exit. When someone leaves in a negative way, it takes a toll on you and your family. You are a pastor, but you are also a Christian believer. Like any Christian believer, you need the encouragement of other believers. Ideally, this encouragement should come from within your church family (your leaders, elders, etc.). If, for whatever reason, it is not coming from your church, it is crucial that you cultivate supportive relationships outside—perhaps people with whom you went through seminary or the like. People leaving “badly” is only one of many challenges in pastoral ministry. It is a good reminder that the work God has called you to is difficult, and you need support and encouragement—like any believer. 

Finally, remember that Jesus is Lord and that he will build his church “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV). You are only an under-shepherd, and your goal is to work for the glory of the chief Shepherd. As Peter puts it:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:2-4 ESV)

Remembering that Scripture will help you keep even the most difficult exits in perspective. It is Christ whom you serve, not a disgruntled church member. What’s more, in anticipating the day when the “chief Shepherd appears,” you look forward to a day when the Lord promises to “settle disputes among many peoples” (Micah 4:3 ESV). That is the promise you can hold onto amid conflict—that there will be a day when God ends conflict and reconciles everyone, and peace will reign. 

©2023 Peter Orr. Used with permission.

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