What Every Pastor Should Do When People Leave the Church

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You haven’t seen a certain family in some time. They used to be faithful in their attendance on Sundays and during the week. Recently their attendance has waned, and now they are no longer attending. Every pastor has experienced or will experience this situation. People leaving one church and attending another is a cultural regularity in contemporary Christianity. Whether due to job transfers, life changes, disputes, or any number of other things, people will leave your church. How you, as a pastor or church leader, handle people leaving the church will go a long way in determining the kind of leader you will become. Here are some things that every church leader should understand and do when people leave the church.

Don’t take it personally

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t personal. Sometimes people leave a church and will tell the pastor and anyone else who will listen that they are leaving because of you. You cannot take it personally. This is probably one of the most difficult things that comes with pastoral ministry. How can it not be taken personally when they’ve said it is about me? The answer to that question is simple. Remember Jesus. With all that the final hours of his life entailed, Jesus didn’t take it personally. As crowds railed against him, hurling insults, accusations, and threats in his direction, Jesus didn’t take it personally. Christ’s ordeal ended in crucifixion. The ordeal of someone leaving your church doesn’t end in your death. It may kill your ego or pride (neither of which is necessarily a bad thing) but you will not die.

If at all possible, remember the good

The person who left your church, for the time that they were there, contributed something good. If they didn’t contribute anything you probably wouldn’t even notice that they left. As difficult as it may be in the moment, you need to remember the good that was done and acknowledge it. This acknowledgment doesn’t have to be during a Sunday morning service or even a public statement, but you need to remember and acknowledge that this person was a good member of the church you lead.

Relationships are the true currency of life. The person who is rich in relationships will never be poor or go without.

Fight for relationship

Relationships are the true currency of life. The person who is rich in relationships will never be poor or go without. That is a mantra that every church leader should remember. Ours is an endeavor of relationships. We are constantly pointing people to a reconciled relationship with God. We also recognize that one cannot be reconciled to God and stay at odds with his brother. Armed with this knowledge we must then model what we preach. Relationships matter. Just because the person or family no longer attends the church you lead doesn’t mean the relationship must end. You can still be friends. You should still be cordial. You can still invite them to events or functions. To think or act as though it does is not only petty but antithetical to the teachings of Scripture. They have not left the faith, they left your location.

If you are hurt, then acknowledge it

Sometimes people leave your church and it catches you off guard. They were a key leader, maybe even a friend and now they’ve left. You didn’t see it coming and you feel both blindsided and hurt. Acknowledge your feelings. Where is it written that a pastor is a superhuman cyborg, void of feeling or emotion? How can it be possible to preach and teach with such passion and feeling and yet be emotionless when dealing with other areas of life? If you are going to miss the person then tell them so. If you are sad to see them go then tell them so. If you don’t understand why then tell them so.

Don’t try to talk them out of leaving

This isn’t due to ego or attitude. This is a simple reality of leadership. If there is an issue that is leading a person or family to leave the church you should always ask what the issue is and seek to address the issue. That is good leadership. The issue may something that you are blind to and need to address to strengthen or increase the health of the ministry. Acknowledge any feelings you may have about the family and their leaving, but don’t try to talk them out of leaving. This is a mistake, and one that typically comes back to haunt a leader later. This is especially true if the person or family decides at a later point to follow through with the decision to leave after being “talked into” staying. The decision to join a church should be a God-directed, Spirit-led decision of the individual or family. The decision to leave should be the same.

Leading a congregation is a highly personal vocation. The nature of the work means that a pastor will become intimately involved in the lives of the families in the church. Births, graduations, marriages, divorces, baby dedications, celebrations, and deaths will all draw the pastor into becoming a “member” of the family. When a family or individual makes a decision to leave the church it can be very difficult for the pastor. This is especially true for new ministers. You begin to wonder what you did wrong or what you could do differently? It may never get easier, but you can become better in how you deal with people leaving the church that you lead.

Question: What has been your experience with people leaving the church that you lead? How have you handled it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Elizabeth Bookout

    Great points… Completely agree! As a church leader having had to recently leave our church for a brief season due to extenuating circumstances not even connected to the church (temporary move out of state), it was the fact that our Pastors continued to care for us relationally from a distance (even though there must have been hurt involved at the time of our leaving because of how deeply involved we were in leadership) that gave us great confidence and assurance in their belief in us as people and created great anticipation in our ability to return when our season ended… And return with great joy, we did! We were grateful for the depth of trust involved in open-handed relationship, releasing us to go where God was leading and in believing the best for us, even at a distance. We appreciated them continuing a relationship with us apart from being completely connected with church because they valued us as individuals.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your testimony Elizabeth! That is as it should be in my opinion. Even when the circumstances that lead individuals or families to leave the church are less than ideal, it is still incumbent upon clergy to default to love. Having experienced it, on both sides, I know that it may be difficult but not impossible. Thanks again for sharing. Stay blessed.