Ron Edmondson writes that people leave churches for all kinds of reasons, but it’s still hard not to take it personally. He shares five tips to ease the pain of losing those in whom you’ve invested.
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One tough reality of being a pastor is that people you thought were supportive of your ministry leave the church. For a variety of reasons, people will leave a church. Yes, it often hurts. (Of course, it is not “your” church; it is God’s church, for those who are going to correct me.) Like when I was in the business world and lost a good customer, it is hard not to take it personally. (And, for those correctors, I realize the church is not a business.)
There are lots of reasons why someone leaves. Make any change and someone is not going to like it. Life changes and relationships often impact a person’s church attendance. Misunderstanding and unmet expectations cause some people to leave. Some people are choosing a different style of worship or a different size church. There are a vast number of reasons.
How are we to respond as pastors and church leaders? Here are five suggestions when people leave your church:
1. Accept that it happens
It actually happens in churches where everything seems to be working at the time. We shouldn’t be surprised simply because it happens or think it can’t or won’t happen in the church in which we minister.
2. Admit it hurts.
God is in charge of numbers. I get that. People are responsible to God and not the church. I get that, too. People may leave because it’s the best thing for them spiritually. I totally get that also.
The bigger issue is whether or not a person leaves “the” Church or “a” church. If they are attending another church, we should take comfort in that, but pretending it doesn’t sting a little is like saying you didn’t feel the Band-Aid being ripped off your arm. You are human. It hurts. It is difficult not to take it personally. Depending on the circumstances or way it happens, it may hurt more sometimes than others, but it always hurts.
3. Analyze the reason.
This requires asking the hard questions, and admittedly this, too, can hurt, but it’s helpful to know even if the answer is you. It requires humility to admit you’re not the church for everyone nor the minister everyone wants to shepherd them.
You can’t address what you don’t know, and there are often valuable lessons to be learned from why a person chooses to leave a church.
4. Adjust if necessary.
This is not a blanket answer when people leave. Again, people leave and that shouldn’t alter who you are as a church every time. At the same time, don’t be afraid to admit you could have room to improve. If people feel the church wasn’t meeting their needs, try to discern if it’s them or the church. If it was a matter of a style they didn’t appreciate, that’s one issue, but if it’s something lacking from the church’s offerings — something that you should have — you may need to make some adjustments. Be willing to learn.
5. Attune your vision.
OK, it was obvious I was looking for an “A” word, but this is actually a good one. Attune means “to bring into harmony.” That’s often necessary when people disappear from the church. Most likely their absence will affect others. You may need to realign people to the vision, especially when those leaving were previously and visibly committed. Assure people you are listening, and be genuinely listening, but in the end stay true to the God-given vision that God has called you to lead.
Again, no one wants people to leave, especially if they are leaving upset with you or the church. It is a part of church leadership. Learning to process it will make us better equipped to minister to the ones who stay and to the new people God will bring.
Ron Edmondson is a church and organizational leadership consultant. Previously, he has planted churches, pastored turnaround churches and most recently served as CEO of Leadership Network. This article originally appeared on RonEdmondson.com and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. Republished on ResourceUMC.org with permission.