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What To Do When Church Members Leave

By Pastor Robby Greene

Lavon Drive Baptist Church, Garland, TX

Ask any pastor that has been in ministry for longer than a month, and he can tell you the all-too-familiar story: a church member is leaving the church.

Often, the exiting church member will avoid telling the pastor directly that he is leaving; the member will send a text or a letter. Others will tell fellow members of their displeasure on the way out usually cloaked in comments such as “We are simply not being fed,” or “The worship just isn’t our style,” or “We just can’t seem to connect.” Sadly, by the time the information makes it to the pastor, there is little to anything that can be done.

Worse yet, there is another group that never tell the pastor or deacons that they are leaving at all; they just disappear. One would be hard-pressed to find a pastor that has not experienced this scenario. The result for the pastor is usually hurt, frustration, and often insecurity concerning their leadership ability as pastor.

What does one do when this situation occurs?

When I became the pastor of Lavon Drive, I lost over 250 members in a two-year period. I know the pain. I have felt it personally, and for the pastor that is going through this painful experience right now, let me offer you some advice and help that has helped me tremendously.

First, allow me to share with you a fact that we all need to learn to accept. If a church member is unhappy and tells you that they are leaving or you hear that they are leaving, do not beg them to stay; allow them to leave.

Often, we as leaders are tempted to beg, bargain, and nearly plead with church members asking them to stay. It almost always ends in disaster. I determined years ago that once a member decides to leave, I will take the following steps to help facilitate them, the church, and me to begin the healing process.

1. Get alone with God and pray.

Give them back to God. They were never your members to begin with. Ask God to allow you to truly release them. Ask God to help you guard your heart against becoming bitter. Guard your heart religiously. At this point, you are likely hurting deeply, feeling betrayed, and even feeling angry or cynical. Tell God about it; He already knows.

This step is the most important, but we often skip this step completely. This step may have to be repeated many times over many days or weeks, but as pastor, I have never regretted the time I have spent in prayer over former members.

2. Write them a letter.

Depending on the circumstances of the departure, it may be necessary to handwrite a letter so that no one else sees it. Resist the urge to send an email or a text; this letter is likely your final act as their pastor, and it should show that you care enough about them to personally write to them.

Express your love for them, tell them that their spiritual growth is important to you, and that you are available to help spiritually regardless of where they go to church. I have even offered to help them find a new church that will better meet their needs.

Also, tell them the door is open for their return should they ever want to come back. this is important!

Remember, the way you loved them on their way into the church is exactly how you should love them on their way out of the church.

A well-written letter will help you and them get some closure. A wise pastor once told me that when the ink dries on the signature of a farewell letter, that is his final act as their pastor, and he releases them to the Lord.

3. Never say a negative word about them to anyone in the church.

Yes, you are hurt, and the temptation will be to defend yourself at their expense. Do not do it!  This means do not criticize them to your deacons, do not criticize them to your staff, do not criticize them in front of the church.

Promise the Lord that you will speak nothing negatively about them even if they have spread lies and bitterness on the way out the door. If anyone asks about where they are, acknowledge that they have left the church, that you miss them, and love them, but never criticize them.

It is also important to emphasize the need not to share negative facts about the departing member to your own family. The relationship may have just changed for you as the

pastor and member/friend, but there is no need to make the situation more awkward for your wife and children. You will never regret shielding your family from negativity in ministry.

Again, you will likely have to carry this burden to the Lord numerous times. If you feel the need to share your hurting heart with someone, find a pastor, mentor, or friend outside the church that you can ensure will keep your confidence and not share details.

4. Take an honest assessment and try to determine the real reason that they left the church.

This is hard to do but do it to the best of your ability. God may use this assessment to allow you as pastor to make improvements for future church members. If possible, I want to know the real reason that they are leaving.

It may be that the pastor or church has legitimately failed them, and if so, always apologize in the spirit of humility. Ask them how you can make improvements in ministry for future families that will attend.

Resist the urge to be defensive; God may very well use them to point out a true deficiency in the church that needs improvement. This, of course, assumes that the cause of the member leaving is because of a failure of the church; this failure may or may not be an issue as it may be an actual issue on behalf of the former member. 

5. Put the emotion, energy, and love into finding new people that need Jesus and your church.

Instead of spending all your time despairing the former member’s departure, begin to look for the new people that God is going to bring to the church. While you likely do not even know their name yet, begin to pray for the new member and ask God to prepare you to minister to them.

I mourned the loss of many former members but have found that God brought an entire new group of people to our church.

These new people love Jesus, our church, and love serving. I would not go back if I could! It may be that God is pruning your church to prepare for growth. This is exactly what happened at Lavon Drive!

While it is painful at the time, God used the departure of hundreds to prepare our church to receive hundreds more through salvation and baptism. The new life that God brings to the church will invigorate you, refresh the church, and allow you to heal fully and move forward in ministry.

One Big Idea

Please, pastor or church leader, rise above the issues and take the high road.

You never know, God may bring some of them back to you because you were pastoring them even as they were leaving.

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