If you lead a church, you will have people come, and people go. It’s not talked about often, but it’s a reality of serving in a church at any level. Sometimes you’re thankful that a difficult person has moved on, but more than often, people you love deeply, have invested in, worked side by side with, and prayed with will leave. The question is, how will you or how have you been responding to people you love who have left the church you lead?
The way we treat people who leave our church or ministry area is critical and reveals our spiritual and emotional health. One principle I have embraced over the years is that I should be as encouraging and caring to people who leave as I am to new people. I am not a salesman; I am a pastor. I don’t sell people on our church when they arrive, and I don’t sell them on why they should stay with our spiritual family. I have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide me on both ends of the process. Your church or your ministry is for some people, not all people. This is why we have so many expressions of the local church. The minute you try to sell people on staying at your church, you begin to steal resources and energy that another local church needs. If you fight to keep people, you miss the chance to invest in the people choosing to be with your spiritual family. Guard your heart in the process and realize that people come and people go, and God works through the entire journey.
We are pastors and ministers, but we are also human. This is a messy process because we are dealing with sinful and broken people, and we also carry our own sin and brokenness. Here are a few suggestions when it comes to people you love leaving the church you lead.
- People are at your church for a season and a reason. When that time is done, they must move to the next outpost of God’s Kingdom.
- If you are going to lead with focus, vision, and conviction, you have to make room for people to walk away when they need a different direction or leadership. This is the price of leveraging the power of “No” so that the church you lead stays on mission. If you try to convince people to stay, you will say yes to things that are destructive to your church’s mission.
- Listen and learn from people who leave your church but work hard not to take them leaving personally. Give yourself some time to grieve the loss and then treat them as you want a pastor to treat you. If they have valid insight into problems in your church or with your leadership, then work to get more healthy.
- Never burn bridges with people who leave your church. You may have to hide their social media feed for your own heart but make sure you leave the door open for people to return to your church if God leads them in that direction.
- Don’t talk poorly to other key leaders about people who leave your church. Model grace as people leave and help your team treat people who leave with kindness. This starts at the top of the organization.
- Stop treating your church like they are “your people.” The people at your church are followers of Jesus, not followers of you. These are not your people; they are God’s people and may need to be in another church.
- Don’t allow your heart to grow hard with hurt when people leave. If this is a problem for you, I suggest you talk this out with a ministry coach or a counselor. Cover people who leave with prayer and let them go emotionally.
- Have a list of healthy churches you can suggest to people who leave your church. There are several churches I would unite with if I were not pastoring my church. I intentionally send people to healthy churches and warn them about places I have discovered are stuck in unhealthy cycles.