Five Major Questions and Answers about Losing Church Members

I still have painful memories about the first time I experienced losing church members as a pastor. I took it personally. Too much so. In fact, I didn’t handle the situation with much maturity at all.

But it’s still a common concern I hear every week. Allow me, then, to address the five most common questions I get about losing church members.

  1. Why do they leave? There are three broad categories of church members who depart. The “movers” are relocating to another community. They are common in our transient culture. The “dropouts” stop attending church altogether. Third, the “transfers” move to another church in the community. The dropouts typically leave because they were not connected in the church. The transfers move for a myriad of reasons, some legitimate, but some are self-serving. Those in the self-serving category typically see church as more of a country club where they pay their dues and get their perks. If they don’t get the perks the way they expect (if they don’t get their way), they will move to another country club church.
  2. Should I contact the disgruntled members who leave? That’s a tough one to give a uniform answer. On the one hand, it helps to find out why people leave so we can make legitimate changes and improvements. On the other hand, listening to a series of self-serving complaints can be a draining distraction.
  3. Should I do anything about a member who is moving to another community? Absolutely! You should view that departing member as a missionary sent by your church to another area. Some churches actually have commissioning services and commissioning certificates. It is a really healthy process to send a member. Indeed, you begin to view them as “sent” rather than those who “left.”
  4. Other than members who move out of the community, what can I do to reduce the loss or inactivity of members? Remember, the more a member is involved and connected to others, the more likely he or she is to remain active within your church. You should be moving all your members to groups. You should seek to get members involved in ministry. And you should exhort your members to give as an act of stewardship and discipleship.
  5. Losing a member makes me feel sick. Am I alone in my feelings? Not at all. You are among the majority of pastors who have the same feelings. Accept your pain as real and common, and then channel those feelings to lead your church to become more effective at assimilation and discipleship.

These are the type of questions we answer every day, almost every hour, at Church Answers. If you are interested in becoming a part of the largest ongoing gathering of church leaders in the world, you can join us during this brief seven-day registration period.

Thank you, pastors and church leaders, for your ministries, and lives. You are truly my heroes!

Posted on February 5, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Hi everyone,

    Thanks for sharing.

    If we have never received feedback from an individual, then it seems like we would be missing a potential opportunity to improve if we do not at least ask for feedback when a member chooses to leave our local church.

    They may have some perspective that is helpful for improvement.


    Southern NH (U.S.)

  • I’m a small church pastor, and one of my big frustrations is people who leave because they get bitten by the “big church bug”. Many of them say they’re leaving because their needs aren’t being met. The brutal truth is, many Christians these days think they’re too good for small churches.

  • A member just run out of a church, because a group wanted ‘control.’ Now after the pastor is gone after three years in my new church. Yes, there other places for people. Is that why there are some many churches? I am refusing to leave. But I am tired of hearing of MY ‘needs’ and ‘wants.’ I suspect most chancels have a cross up there. Maybe more “giving” would help people connect? Blaming the pastor is just too easy. I will stop my rant. God help you pastors.

  • Robert H Wright Jr says on

    All of us need to be associated with a local Body of Christ. We need to be fed and nurtured.

    Why did the member or members leave our church? We need to find out why. After all, they are God’s sheep and our responsibility. We need to focus on spiritual growth and not numerical growth.

    A comprehensive self analysis of our church should be done.

    God has called and gifted each one of us. Called in the sense that God has given each of us a task or tasks to do within His Kingdom. Gifted in the sense that God has given each of us the necessary gift or gifts in order to complete the assigned task or tasks.

  • “The dropouts typically leave because they were not connected in the church.” This has some truth to it. Connections within a church can be very difficult to make, and cliques seem impenetrable. I quit trying to make friends in a church because I could never break into a clique. Besides, the different classes of church member which have been created feel like different classes of Christian. I also found that when not a lot of the Bible is read in the service it makes it easier to use selected verses (proof-texting) to make a strange argument that the people will never understand and so they really do leave because they are just gaining nothing. Lashing out at other groups in the communion meditation did not help either. Also, some church leaders do not attempt to figure out what is really going on in a congregation (until it is too late). I saw this over decades when only certain people mattered.

  • Kelly Wiley says on

    In Steven Lawson’s book “Famine in the Land”, John MacArthur’s book “Shepherds as Preachers” and D. L. Moody’s “Preachers and Pastors” share there is a need to return to biblical preaching. Maybe the Pulpit with Preaching which lacks a biblical foundation or proper application can cause a hungry soul to go elsewhere.

  • Kelly Wiley says on

    Steven Lawson in his book “Famine in the Land” Maybe people leave because they are starving.

    • Kelly Wiley says on

      I typed in quickly because my internet is acting up. In the book “Famine in the Land” It mentions how people are starving because of week pulpits. The same thoughts are in John MacArthur’s book, “Shepherds as Preachers” and D.L. Moody’s book, “Preachers and Pastors”. Maybe hungry people are looking for a place to be fed.

    • If your children don’t eat what you serve them, does that mean you’re a lousy cook? Not necessarily. It could mean they’re just finicky eaters. Anyone who’s been on a diet can tell you there’s a big difference between what tastes good and what’s good for you. I remember what a friend of mine told me after he had bypass surgery: “Now I know why they call it bypass surgery. I have to bypass McDonald’s, bypass Wendy’s, bypass Burger King….”

      The truth is, many modern Christians are hungry for spiritual junk food.

  • William Secrest says on

    I have the same question that someone else has already asked. “How do we keep people who are leaving from negatively effecting the rest of the church.” When people began to depart my church it became an opportunity to attack me. The anger and hatred that I experienced, from a chosen few, was hard to address in a productive way.

    • That’s where our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek comes into play. I know it’s hard to sit silently while someone is attacking you, but many times it is the best approach. Someone has wisely said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”

  • Specifically to #3: I make it a habit, if someone tells me they are moving on, whether transfer or moving, to see if there’s anything I can recommend. I had a person attend for a while but our church wasn’t what they were looking for (demographics and programs) and they were going to look elsewhere in our community. I offered some potential landing places for them in the community – pastor’s name and a little about the church – as points to search. My rationale is (1) our church probably isn’t the church for everyone, (2) if I facilitate them finding another parish home then “I win for the Kingdom” – the fact that they are in church being fed is more important than being unhappy in my church, and (3) once it gets out that I refer to other churches I might get some reciprocity.

    The hard part is you have to know about many of the other churches in your area and what they stand for/what their programs are. But if you have colleagues that is easier.

    As for people departing, when the person tells me they are leaving I will ask for feedback once. If they choose to decline (the most common) I don’t push. The hardest ones are those who have theological/biblical interpretive issues and are unwilling to discuss the issues or have come to a specific, set answer. The problem is, most people simply drift away and don’t say anything.

    One associated item, what do you do when you’re a new pastor and there are some disaffected folks in the area? That was the case in my ministry location. I would recommend touching base to let people know that there has been a “change of the guard” and that they are invited to renew their attendance. Again, as with the departure note above, there wasn’t much feedback. But it was worth touching down one time.

    • Les, I disagree with the idea of touching base with the “dissatisfied people” and to tell them there has been a “changing of the guard”. That group most likely falls into the “self-serving” group and the “It wasn’t done the way I would do it, so I will leave” group. To intentionally reach out to them to tell them things have changed just encourages that attitude all the more. They will no doubt hear that there has been a “changing of the guard”. You can count on that. If they decide to come back and “check it out”, fine. If they don’t, you are probably better off in the long run because after your honeymoon period, if they disagree with anything you try to do, they will just leave again, and usually not quietly. As you reach out and get new families who are committed to Jesus (as you disciple them), the vision of the church and your leadership, the ride may still be bumpy, but more pleasant than the other route. Yes, I have been there.

      • Bruce, as with most things in ministry context is important. As the 5th pastor in 10 years in a rural parish that had had some difficulties with their clergy (which I won’t go into detail about). It was worth hearing the stories and contacting the disaffected; when the disaffection was not theology based.

        In honesty, there were no takers to come back initially but reaching out did open up an avenue where now, ~7 years later, there is interest in some of the members rejoining the Parish.

        It doesn’t work in all places but in the context of a rural setting where a lot of people go back a long way it doesn’t hurt. And, it opens a door for referrals and increases the visibility of the Parish.

    • I agree that “most people simply drift away and don’t say anything.” When no one wants to hear what you have to say when you do attend regularly, why should you say anything on the way out? I saw churches where there was no regular Q&A session, no annual meeting, and no access to the leadership. That told me that the leadership believed they alone knew best. I left quietly. No one cared.

  • There is another major question that needs to be asked; how do we keep the departure from negatively impacting the church?
    When someone leaves for the wrong reason, the reaction from others can be emotional. Rather than evaluating the merit of the person’s reason for leaving, there can be great lamenting and then uproar over losing a “good” church member (not necessarily spiritual), tither, and warm body in the pew or on this or that Committee. It gets worse when other leadership such as the deacon body buy into this. The pastor either gets blamed for the person’s departure or for not chasing after the person hard enough to get him or her back. Pressure can even be put on the pastor to compromise principle and reward bad behavior.

    • I’m not sure what a “wrong reason” to leave a church is. Having seen a church lose 1/3 of its members over a denominational policy, which left the church in tough financial and membership straits, in the end the parish was healthier without the 1/3 who left. (They did leave for a selfish reason – a power struggle).

      One of the fallacies we suffer from in our church (at least mine) is the gathering of members is (wrongly in my opinion) the work of the clergy. My issue with that is a clergy person is supposed to “sell the product” and is often seen as biased by a non-member. But, if a member tells a non-member about the church that has a lot more power – if someone who isn’t “an employee” of the church tells of the Christ-centered experience in a church that is powerful.

      When I get blamed for someone’s departure that is a point of reflection and of teaching. Reflection on the push back from the one departing, reflection on the principle they are fighting against, and reflection on the ministry of the church. Once that happens I sit with the leaders of our church and have them give feedback aloud. By engaging them I hope to either point to the flaws on both sides regarding the departure. Part of the major issue is the board often places the responsibility for growing members on the shoulders of the clergy as opposed to taking responsibility for their part of the ministry.

      I hope that makes sense.

  • As I read through these question #2 stands out. In the past I have made appointments with someone who was leaving the church but not moving to a new area to find out why they felt they needed to leave. On more than one occasion it was a time to tear me down and vent everything they thought I was doing wrong. I heard this “If I had been the pastor I would have” and you can fill in the blank from that point on. What I’ve found is that by meeting with them it validated their need to control and make someone or me the villian. I try to love them and pray for them. I have also found that many of these that leave “disgruntled” have a history of doing this and I become another notch on there list.

  • Helpful and positive post, Thom. I’ve led “commissioning” services for those who were leaving the community before and it is a very uplifting experience. Highly recommended.

    Sometimes, leaders who undermining you will also “twist the knife” even more when they demand to know and give credence to the disgruntled members who leave for self-serving reasons. That hurts even more. It isn’t happening to me now, but I’ve felt that pain.

    Thanks for addressing a common discouragement to pastors, offering positive ways of processing it.

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