One of the harsh realities of any church is that people are constantly cycling in and out. Regardless of the reasons for it, the fact is that we will lose some people. When that happens, and especially when the family leaving is close to the core, the pastor and people left must wrestle with feelings of betrayal, loss, and grief.
Remember that churches are always in a state of flux. In larger churches, pastors may not even realize when people walk out the door. In 200churches, we are privileged and burdened with the knowledge of when a family leaves. Remembering that this is just a reality of all churches helps the pill taste a little less bitter.
Complicating issues further, many 200churches are located in small towns, where the pastor and church members may frequently see people who have left the church. This can cause awkward interactions, and even painful feelings for the pastor, his or her spouse, and the church members. As pastors, we must choose the kind of attitude we are going to have toward those who leave our churches. Having some experience in this area, here are four reflections on how to manage your thoughts and heart when people leave your church.
1. Recognize that the Body of Christ is so much bigger than your church.
This is so obvious, but so pivotal to remember. When a family leaves for another church, it’s important to remember that they have not become an enemy. The Kingdom of God is bigger than our four walls.
2. Allow yourself to feel the loss, but don't take it personally.
Allow yourself to feel betrayal, grief, anger, or frustration. Trying to bottle up your feelings will only backfire in the long run. If necessary, see a counselor or trusted adviser to gain perspective and don’t allow bitterness, resentment, or unforgiveness to take over. And always remember, it’s not personal. Don’t allow someone’s departure to make you second guess every decision and public statement you make.
3. Let their leaving be a learning opportunity.
This will be hard, but is very important. When a family leaves, take a moment and consider if there are some things that should change. Talk it over with your spouse or church leadership, people who will speak honestly to you. Learning from difficulties instead of just being defensive is a mark of a good leader, and the people in your church will take their cue from you.
4. Treat them as though they never left.
Regardless of the terms someone leaves on, we need to speak to them, love them, and treat them exactly the same in any interactions as if they are still attending our church. People might be surprised to be treated with such kindness (especially those who were less than kind when they walked out) but it is our responsibility to do so. Remember, these people are not our enemies simply because they no longer worship with us. If we are the Body of Christ, we are family, no matter what building we worship in.
There is no denying that it hurts when someone leaves a church. The pastor, the congregation, and the people leaving all experience hurt and pain. If you’re dealing with this hurt in your own church, we hope this has been helpful. If you have experience with this and have something to add, please leave a comment!
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