The reality of people leaving your church is one of the hardest things to swallow as a pastor, but how to handle it is rarely something for which we've received adequate coaching. We are often simply encouraged to “not take it personal,” or we’re handed the old battle cry, "Worry more about those who haven’t come yet!” Even so, it still stings when someone leaves your church.
There are certainly good reasons for someone to leave a church. I would quickly leave a church for theological reasons, especially beliefs that center around the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, as well as the way a church defines the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a church I belonged to drifted away from orthodoxy on any of those issues, either the elders would be out the door or my family would -- quickly.
There are certainly other good reasons to leave a church, as long as one does so with class and grace, not making a spectacle, but simply agreeing to join somewhere else out of theological or missional reasons. The truth is that your church just isn’t for some people’s styles of preference, and that's usually fine, as all believers have preferences when it comes to church. No harm, no foul. People leaving due to differences on secondary matters is certainly something that's happened at our church. Someone will discover I am a Calvinist or a complementarian when it comes to my view on gender roles. Other times they decide that I am too theologically conservative or they end up disagreeing with elder governance or that they don't think we are driven enough by social justice causes. Some people don’t like our music style and want something more traditional.
None of those reasons really stings, honestly. But there are also times where reasons given are personal and real, and you have the opportunity to shepherd people through what almost sounds like a threat to leave your church. These people may want to leave because of a relationship conflict, rather than work through the mess and seek reconciliation. Other personal reasons people have for leaving church include running from sin or avoiding awkwardness that comes from relational conflict or failing to forgive a brother or sister. These are discipleship moments that can display the power of the gospel in the local church.
There are times I have to preach to myself about not having my self worth tied into people leaving, but what has also helped has been learning to decode what is really going on, and why this person or these people are really leaving. Using decoding skills moves your sting to an eye roll, and honestly, every church leader needs to do this at times.
Here is some interpreting I've done to understand why some people leave. Figuring out these reasons has helped me come to terms with some departures.
1. Reason: “I just need something deeper.”
Unless it truly is a gospel or theological issue, or the pastor only preaches principles rather than a passage of Scripture or doctrine (good reasons to leave), “I Just Need Something Deeper” Guy will probably never, ever, ever be able to tell you what he means by that claim.
Here is the profile of this type of person: reads a lot of blogs, listens to at least 5 podcasts a week, and doesn’t have a non-Christian friend.
Decode: This is a feelings thing before it is a substance thing. If your church truly considers the visiting guest on a Sunday morning, there will be language used and explained in your sermon that indicates these values. That will translate into Deeper Guy’s mind as “this is a place for new Christians,” and he will think he needs to graduate to the meat from the milk. He’s right, meat is essential, but without realizing (or perhaps admitting it), the “meat” he is craving is really just information. “Wow, I never knew that the grass next to the empty tomb was the same kind of grass from the Garden of Eden,” type stuff.
This is the same type of person who complains, “There aren’t enough old people.” Is he or she seeking to be mentored by any of the older people that ARE present in the church? Nah. It goes back to what church should feel like, not what it is.
This guy will eventually end up at a church that answers questions nobody is asking and models a culture of removing itself from the world. Bank on it.
Here is another loaded reason I’ve learned to decode:
2. Reason: “I don’t agree with how decisions are made.”
Profile of the person giving this reason for leaving: Comes from a church background of committees, business meetings, and one hundred and forty-seven deacons, one of those being her husband.
Decode: She has a problem because SHE is not making the decisions. It really is that simple.
Another one that is generally easy to decode:
3. Reason: “I can’t find community.”
Decode: I haven’t met a significant other yet.
This reason almost always comes from a single person. If it’s a guy, he has been very aggressive in asking out ladies in the church and hasn’t had success getting one to date him. If female, she often claims, “there are just no Christian guys.” What she means is that she just hasn’t been asked out by any of them. If she had a boyfriend, she would have ZERO issue with “community.”
This reason can also apply to friendship. These folks believe the church should find friends for them. “Community” is expected to be given, rather than created over time.
And finally, the last reason to be decoded when people leave your church:
4. Reason: “Things have changed.”
Profile: This person was there in the early days and probably very faithful when the Church was smaller. He or she had influence then and was known by a lot of people.
Decode: I miss being known, and/or having power. I didn’t realize what it would be like when we really did grow.
This person has something called “prayer’s remorse.”
This could also mean, “I don’t have the access to the pastor I once had.”
Be gentle with this person, as this is an adjustment for many when the church grows. Help him see that his prayers from the beginning are being answered. Point to the great community and pockets of influence he does have in the church. There is a good chance that this person type in every church will leave eventually, they just take longer to make the decision, sometimes because of the investment that’s been made, other times out of pride. At a new church these people still won’t be “in the know,” or have unlimited access to the pastor either, but it will just not be as difficult for them because they haven’t seen their new church through changes.
These are the primary reasons people leave for non-theological or missional proposes. When you learn to decode, it will truly save you a lot of unneeded anxiety. There are times when people need to leave, there are times when having someone leave will miss a great opportunity for discipleship, and there are times you just need to roll your eyes. Learn to distinguish between the three and the whole process will be much less dramatic.
A version of this article originally appeared at DeanInserra.com