Christian Unity
When People Leave: The Private Pain Of The Small Church Pastor
Even if the church is large and growing, it can be hard when people leave. But when the church is small, each loss is much more painful.

It’s hard when people leave a church.

It’s hard to leave. It’s hard being left.

Most who leave don’t make that decision lightly. They deal with some serious pain when they finally make the decision to go. As a pastor I’m more familiar with seeing good people leave the church than being the person who goes through the pain of leaving, so that’s what I want to address in this post.

If you’ve been a pastor for several years, you’ve had to deal with your share of such departures. Each one hurts. It’s especially hard when those leaving are long-term members.

The collective pain from years of those departures can wear a pastor down.

Even if the church is large and growing, it can be hard when people leave. But when the church is small, each loss is much more painful.

When a small church loses just one family it can mean massive changes in entire ministries.

First, there’s the math. The percentage loss is much higher than in a bigger church. When a small church loses just one family it can mean massive changes in entire ministries.

Second – and most difficult – it’s not just a drop in attendance, tithers or volunteers. It’s the loss of people we know. People we’ve invested in. People we’re friends with. And that hurts.

No Answers, But Maybe Some Solace

It’s taken me a long time to hit “publish” on today’s post because, when I raise an issue, I like to provide solutions. But today’s post is not about answers. It’s a public recognition of our shared private pain. With the hope that we can find some sort of solace by knowing we’re not alone in these feelings.

Here are some painful truths many pastors feel when people leave:

1. It Hurts When People Leave the Church

There are two realities about pastoral ministry that we cannot change: 1) People will leave the church. 2) It will hurt when they leave.

We can deny those truths or acknowledge them. Denial gives them power and allows the next departure to surprise us – and hurt us even more.

Acknowledging it… well, at least we can remove the weapon of surprise from this nasty beast.

2. It Hurts When It’s Someone We’ve Invested In

Sometimes it seems like the people who are most likely to leave the church are the ones we’ve spent the most time with, helped through the hardest trials and seen the most progress in.

I understand that people need a fresh start after they’ve been through some emotional and/or spiritual trauma. But it still hurts to invest all that time, energy, emotion and compassion only to hear them say buh-bye after you’ve helped them get healthy again.

3. It Hurts When They’ve Been Friends

Not everyone in your church needs to be your friend. But some should be. Yet a lot of pastors resist having friends in the church because when they leave, it’s really painful.

Ellen Jacobs addressed this issue poignantly from the perspective of a pastor’s wife in her blog post, It’s Hard When Friends Leave. Here is some of what she wrote.

Whether the reason for leaving is bad or good, it leaves a wound behind.

So what do we do? I think we mourn for a while, perhaps a long while if needed. We ask God to dress our wound. We process, we pray, and time goes by.

And you know what we don’t do? We don’t write that person off. We don’t forget all the good that existed in that friendship. We don’t subconsciously (or consciously) vow to never open ourselves up to people again.

Good words, Ellen.

4. It Hurts When They Leave Without Telling Us Why

Church consultants recommend doing exit interviews to help us understand why church members left. That’s a great idea. In theory.

Exit interviews work well in larger churches, but it’s one of those principles that doesn’t transpose smoothly into the smaller setting.

Exit interviews work well in larger churches because the person conducting the interview probably doesn’t know them personally. But it’s one of those principles that doesn’t transpose smoothly into the smaller setting.

When people leave a smaller congregation, who should conduct the exit interview? The pastor they now have an awkward relationship with? The deacon they’ve been gossiping with? The new family who barely knows the church and the issues involved?

No. In a small church, the pastor calls and/or emails the person they haven’t seen in a while to ask if they’ve been sick or on vacation. Even though we have a strong suspicion of what’s really going on. If they answer the phone or return the email, that’s our exit interview. And it can be very awkward and painful – for both sides.

If they don’t return emails or phone calls – which happens quite often – there’s nothing to do but feel hurt for a while, then soldier on. The silent, unanswered departure is never easy.

Since this post is about making private pain public, here’s a hard truth that I’ve heard some small church pastors admit to each other. We don’t always make that call when we know what the answer will be. We know we should, but we can’t always handle the rejection.

So, to all the church consultants berating pastors for not following up when members leave, we get it. We know we should make those calls. But it’s not always because we don’t care. It’s because we care too much.

5. It Hurts When They Bomb Us with Every Reason Why

This is the other side of the silent departure. The pastor gets a “we need to talk” call.

The truth is, small church pastors want to know why people are leaving. We really do. But that final talk is often a great source of additional pain to us. Especially when the problem is with something we did – or failed to do.

In my three-plus decades of ministry, these have been some of my toughest moments. People who I thought were doing well and were happy in the church sit down with me and pull out a piece of paper listing all the offenses they feel they’ve endured over the last few years. Some are legitimate. Some are really not. All of them are painful to hear.

But the most frustrating thing about the “here’s every reason why I’m leaving” conversation is…

6. It Hurts When They Don’t Give Us a Chance to Make Things Right

I wish people would tell me about their problems when there’s still a chance to make things right!

I’ve been through too many meetings where

  • I didn’t know there was a problem until now
  • The problem would have been fixable if I’d known
  • It was just a misunderstanding that we could have easily resolved

But it’s too late now. They’ve already made their minds up to leave.

7. It Hurts When They Leave for Another Church

It’s especially hard when they leave the long-term, healthy, faithful, smaller congregation for the flashier, new, big church. But it could be worse…

8. It Hurts Even More When Don’t Go to Any Other Church

To lose someone from our church is hard. To know they’ve left the church entirely is unspeakably heartbreaking.

To lose someone from our church is hard. To know they’ve left the church entirely is unspeakably heartbreaking.

9. It Hurts When They Avoid Us Later

Many small churches are in small towns, or in tight neighborhoods where people run into each other in the store or at civic events.

If I could give one word of advice to church members who leave, it would be this. Unless the pastor of the church you left is a toxic, controlling monster, you don’t have to look away awkwardly when you run into us or one of our family members on the street.

Our relationship may have changed, but we’re still members of the body of Christ. We may gather in different buildings on Sunday, but we’re still on the same team.

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January 19, 2018 at 10:00 AM

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