Pastors embrace a call to a new church with joy and excitement for all that God can and will do in this new season of ministry. Indeed, many pastors have dreams and visions for the church: exponential growth, Christ-like membership, friendships, joy for your family, and years of fruitful service. But what do you do when reality doesn’t match your expectations? What do you do when people you have shared life with (people you have grown to love by serving with and alongside them) leave the church? How do you respond when the church begins to shrink in attendance rather than grow?
These seasons of decline can become times of self-doubt: Can I really lead the church? Has God abandoned me? Is this all my fault? Through twenty years of pastoral ministry, and having walked through seasons of growth and decline, I humbly offer six words for consideration when you see members leaving the church.
1. Pray. Pray for the families who are leaving and pray for those who remain. In many congregations, members have worshipped together for decades. The reality is that as one family leaves and another stays the pain and feelings of separation are akin to a divorce. This is a season when your prayer life is vital to your health and the congregation’s health (see consideration six below).
2. Question. When you know a family is leaving (or find out they have left), schedule a time to sit down with them and ask why. Don’t use this time to argue your position or try to win them back to the church. Rather, ask why so that you might better know how to minister to those who remain. You will not always like the response. You may take exception to the reason(s) why. You will most likely disagree that leaving was a solution to the reason(s) they give. And yet, you may be humbled and have your eyes opened to errors you have made as you hear the response. Even when you do not agree with a decision to leave, there may be a kernel of truth in their reasoning that would lead you to a place of confession and repentance before the Lord. This leads to a third word…
3. Evaluate. Often families leave because the church has made “changes.” Change is a four-letter word in many churches. These changes may be stylistic with regard to worship, or structural with regard to the building, or personnel with regard to staff or lay leadership. When people leave because of change, it is a good time to evaluate if you have communicated the changes clearly and expressed significant reason(s) for the changes. Significant change can occur in the church when there is a clear understanding of the “why” for the change.
4. Talk. Spend time meeting and talking with members about why people are leaving. Let your members know you care about this issue and that it is painful for you. Express your love for those who have left, for the church, and for those who are hurting by the loss of membership. As you acknowledge the issue of people leaving, members of the congregation will know that you are aware of the issue and that you care about the issue. Your silence here may communicate that you do not care or that you are unaware.
5. Focus. In seasons of decline, focus on the gospel and outreach. Remind yourself and the members of the church that God is faithful, and that Jesus will build his church. Focus your attention and call the attention of the church to those places where God is at work (new members, testimonies of victory, transformation in the life of members, etc.) and celebrate those realities.
6. Renew. When you walk through a tough season of ministry, remember God’s calling. Ask God to renew and restore the joy of His salvation and His calling to ministry. Spend more time in His word and in prayer, knowing that you need to be filled spiritually to pour yourself out to a congregation who is hurting.
Pastor keep preaching the word of God and calling your congregation to deeper surrender and a renewed commitment to the Lord. I do pray God will use this season of decline to bring you to deeper surrender and renewed commitment as well.