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Two Hundred People Left Our Small Church

So we called our missing sheep, and found four main reasons that suggest four actions.
Two Hundred People Left Our Small Church
Image: Edits by Christianity Today / Source Images: Andrew Jalali / Getty / Taylor Brandon / Unsplash

About 200 people have left our small church. The number probably sits closer to 350 when counting their children. But they didn’t leave the way you might expect—no church split or splinter. They left slowly, with neither fanfare nor fireworks. Some, if not most, left without a goodbye. And they left not over seven weeks or seven months, but over the course of seven years.

I got to thinking about this when I came back from my summer sabbatical, because I was pleased to see that not only did our church still exist, but there were also a few dozen new people.

The new attendees shake my hand and introduce themselves. They smile at me as I preach. They participate in our membership class and ask about small groups and opportunities to serve. One couple invited my wife and me out for a date. Still, I struggle to open my heart to them the way a pastor should, fully and without reservation. And I wonder why.

Then it hit me. In seven years, our church—in terms of net attendance—has grown from around 150 to 350. But in the same amount of time, our church has lost as many as have stayed. The losses never occur rapidly, as though a levee burst, but more as a steady trickle or slow leak.

A few of our members died. One went to jail. One wrote me an eight-page letter of grievances I was instructed to share with the elders; another wrote a chapter-length blog post suggesting we’re not even a church. Some parishioners didn’t let the door hit them on the way out because they kicked it off the hinges and left us to pick up the shattered pieces.

These departures are by far the exceptions. Many of those who left told me neither why they left nor even that they had left. I often find out via back channels like social media and other impersonal means. And I don’t believe our church has an exceptionally large back door—I suspect we’re typical.

How does a pastor keep his heart from growing cynical when, over 350 weeks of pastoring the same church, I have lost an average of one person each week? And why are these congregants leaving our church anyway? What role might I play, even unintentionally, in sending sheep to what they perceive to be greener pastures?

I don’t know. But I recently spent a lot of time and effort to find out.

Why do sheep leave?

For a few months I brought these questions up with those I discipled and other pastors to see what I might be missing. One morning, I sat at Starbucks with a retired missionary who now teaches Christian leadership to PhD students and expressed my confusion and sadness over our lost sheep.

I told him I’d like to know the true narrative explaining the trickle of departures so that I don’t project a false one, which would likely be more dystopian than required. My friend and church member suggested we create a phone survey to see what we might learn. So we did.

A woman from our church called dozens of former members and attendees to ask them a few simple questions. We hoped those who left might be able to help the church they seemed to appreciate—at one point anyway—learn how to better serve those still under our care.

The overwhelming majority of former members and attendees received the phone calls well. We can’t talk unequivocally about statistically significant trends, but below are the top four reasons people left. Perhaps they resemble the reasons people consider leaving your own church.

Geographic relocation. The largest reason by far that people leave involves geographic relocation. People move—quite often, apparently. Only infrequently, however, do people tell us in advance of a potential relocation, inviting pastoral input and asking for prayer as they make big life decisions. I assume these conversations happen more often at the level of small group Bible studies. A measure of encouragement and relief comes from this data, though. Our pastors can’t do much of anything about the single largest reason people leave.

Doctrinal disagreement. Other people leave because of different interpretations of the Bible. One man told me I trashed the Bible because of my view of Creation, a view generally considered orthodox. Another man took exception with my view of the Millennium. One couple with a Seventh-day Adventist background saw, as you might expect, the Sabbath differently. Others left our church frustrated by our occasional attempts to speak biblically about issues of race—too bold for some yet too timid for others.

It’s possible for these sorts of doctrinal disagreements to serve as a spiritual mask for something less spiritual, but I want to take people at their word. And although I wished each of these people had stayed, their reasons for leaving also encouraged me that they involved important issues.

Christian cliques. The feedback from some families suggested they experienced youth group as too established and too closed off to newcomers. As much as pastors and youth directors try to work against this, I’m sure it still happens. And while this kind of feedback tends to focus on student ministries, I suspect adult groups are prone to the same pitfall. Even as the lead pastor of the church—and in this way probably the most trained and equipped member—it’s easy for me to spend much of Sunday morning talking with those closest to me rather than pursuing newcomers and those on the fringes.

Personal difficulties and unresolved conflicts. The final—and thankfully the smallest—percentage of departures had to do with conflict. We could lump in this group controversies over everything from mask protocols, philosophies of ministry, and pastoral blunders to a host of other miscellaneous misunderstandings too private and painful to write about in anything other than a prayer journal.

Despite the small number of departures that fit in this category, these issues and situations take up a disproportionately large share of pastoral resources, both in their time and emotional capacity to keep coming back Sunday after Sunday with a warm heart.

For example, at one point my wife asked to hear the names of those who left due to conflict. As I read the list, she told me her chest started to tighten—and I could see her face start to grimace. I had similar reactions at first. And from the phone survey, clearly a few of those who left felt the same toward us.

The only other discernable categories worth mentioning are the handful of those who left after a divorce or ghosted us altogether, whose reasons are yet unknown.

The church member who conducted the phone survey sent me a few text messages along the way with updates. Near the end of the calls she wrote, “This project has made me profoundly grateful I don’t have your job.” Some days I know the feeling.

What can shepherds do?

For years, both church culture and the broader culture have habituated pastors and parishioners to be consumers; we should not be so surprised when we act like it. Whereas institutions like churches were previously seen as the places we sought out to become molded by them, writes Brett McCracken, “now we expect institutions to be molded around us.”

I don’t want to shirk personal or pastoral responsibility for our missing members. But trying to fix problems without considering broader cultural trends is a little like standing in a burning church building contemplating how to extinguish the fire inside while ignoring a larger forest fire raging outside.

To say an individual church can’t fix everything, however, should not stop pastors from doing what they can. If you were trying to fill the baptismal and noticed water seeping across the floor, you’d address the leak as quickly as possible.

And as I personally reflect on the way forward, I believe pastors can respond to missing sheep in two principal areas: actions to do and truths to treasure.

Actions to do. I’ll just mention a few actions that seem most relevant.

First, a church should have meaningful membership practices.

Most people who left without telling us were regular attendees but not members—which means they never formally requested the kind of shepherding that invites us to look for them when they stray. In our membership class, we already give special attention to the topic of leaving well. And so many, if not most, of our members do leave well. But I think that for all the attention we give to joining a church well, most churches could turn up the volume a bit on how to leave well.

Second, I’d encourage pastors, especially lead pastors, to name the struggle of disappearing sheep out loud. It helps. When I made an initial list of the people who left our church, my 15 minutes of brainstorming captured nearly 75 percent of the people. Only after weeks of reflection and input from other staff and elders did we fill out the rest of the names on that list.

Thus, as painful as it felt to look at those names, my ability to make a list told me a meaningful truth: I am a shepherd who knows his flock. It might seem strange but acknowledging this is an aspect of pastoring—knowing not only the sheep who stay but also the ones who leave—has helped me navigate the pain and take away the sting.

Third, go after straying sheep. Every seasoned pastor knows the warning signs: a drop in attendance, a resignation—officially or unofficially—from regular serving, like leaving the nursery rotation, followed by an email that says they now attend elsewhere.

These signals of straying should be seen as invitations to discuss what might be bothering your people and as opportunities to nudge sheep back into the fold. Maybe the reasons people leave your church are different than mine, but take the initiative to ask them why they’re pulling back. They’ll probably tell you.

Last spring, our elders did three rounds of what I privately but affectionally dubbed “Operation Lost Sheep,” where we identified the members and attendees in our church who were hurting or straying and then provided pastoral care accordingly, as best as we could. It might sound cold and mechanical to phrase pastoral ministry in terms of “triage”—combing through church directories and Microsoft Excel files—but we saw this kind of care as an expression of our love, not the absence of it. Whether formerly or informally perhaps your church leaders may benefit from considering a similar process.

Finally, pastors must fight to keep our hearts both soft and humble toward our church, even when so many situations could cause us to become embittered toward the very bride of Christ God calls us to serve. You can’t truly pastor wearing Kevlar or bubble wrap as vestments. So repent if you have cynical feelings about an influx of people each fall just because you’ve seen a similar exodus each spring. Don’t become a pastor who quits pastoring without actually quitting.

As I talked about these issues with another elder, he told me, “Benjamin, I think you might hold sheep too tightly. When people leave, it’s not all about you.” Then he added, “I mean, if they stayed at our church, would you take credit for that?” His question hung rhetorically in our conversation, but I think part of my heart did believe I could take credit. And that’s wrong.

Truths to treasure. There is more to healthy pastoring than mere striving and strategies; pastors must also treasure truth. It’s not clichéd for pastors to go back—again and again and again—to our gospel identity: We are at once sheep, servants, stewards, and shepherds.

Before we care for others, pastors must remember we ourselves are sheep in the Good Shepherd’s flock. His rod and staff comfort us. And as we serve the Lord, we are, in the words of Jesus in Luke 17:10, unworthy servants who have only done our duty, stewarding each member of our flock until the Lord leads them to the care of another. While tending to our flock often requires sweat and sorrow, it is the work we’ve been called to do. Shepherding is not a distraction from the job; it is the job.

Could these gospel identities be the sorts of truths a pastor tells himself to make himself feel better about himself? Could these gospel identities be the sorts of truths a pastor tells himself each week to resurrect his heart for another sermon, another counseling session, or another funeral?

Yes—but that doesn’t make them untrue.

Benjamin Vrbicek is the lead pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the managing editor for Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and the author of several books.

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