Five Steps to Help a Pastor Respond When a Member Leaves the Church

September 14, 2013

Every pastor knows the feeling. The news may have come via email, telephone, or second-hand conversation. In some cases, the person or persons themselves told you face-to face. They are leaving your church. They may already have another church to join, or they may just be beginning the search process.

But their decision is irrevocable. It is final. You cannot persuade them otherwise.

You feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut. You try to tell yourself not to take it personally, but you do anyway. You don’t understand. You are wounded. Many times you are blindsided by their decisions.

I cannot change the reality that most pastors will experience the exodus of church members. I cannot promise that you will have a new emotional state. But I do pray that the five steps I offer will help you deal with this matter better.

  1. Pray immediately when you hear about the decision. The God we serve is the God of all comfort. He is the God of all wisdom. He knows our hurts and concerns even before we voice them. Before you do anything else, pray.
  2. Talk to the exiting church members. If they are willing, have a conversation with those who are leaving your church. Listen more than speak. Don’t be defensive. Some of the words they say may bring you pain, but allow them to speak and vent if necessary. Before the conversation ends, tell them that you will bless them in their new church. Have prayer with them, a sincere prayer for God’s best for them.
  3. Accept their decision. It is sometimes hard to accept that not all church members agree with our leadership and our church’s ministry. But there is no pastor, past or present, who will make every member happy. As hard as it is to accept, some church members will actually do better under leadership other than yours.
  4. Make corrections if needed. When I was a pastor, I listened to exiting church members tell me why they were leaving. It was almost always painful, but it was often helpful. I asked God to help me not be defensive, and to help me listen carefully to any area where I could make corrections. You know what? I sometimes learned that I could really improve areas of my ministry and life. I became a better person and a better pastor as a consequence.
  5. Write a nice letter about the exiting members. When I could do so in good conscience, I wrote a letter about the exiting members and gave it to them to give to their next pastor. Here is a portion of one of my letters written many years ago: Dear pastor. John and Mary Smith have chosen to join your church. May I be straightforward? Your church will be incredibly blessed by their presence and ministry. Our church was. I am grieving over their departure, but they have explained their reasons, and I accept them. Indeed, I plan to make some changes as a result of our conversations together. You will be amazed how God uses both of them in your church. John and Mary are two of the finest and godliest people I know. May God bless you and them as you grow in Christ together through the ministry of ABC Church.

Pastoral ministry has great challenges, and exiting church members are certainly among those challenges. But you can turn a difficult situation into a blessing if their departure is handled well. And you can possibly learn some lessons to prevent some others from leaving in the future.

What do you think of these five steps? What do you do when members leave your church?

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88 Comments

  • We left a church 8mo ago and last night got a letter stating the bylaws, and that we were removed from the membership roster. Interesting as we had a meeting with the pastor on why we left, (unheard of, but truly no offense, just needed something “more” for our young children in kids ministry) and are neighbors in a small community. I get the bylaws, but do the bylaws mandate that a letter be written when the parting is “official”? It’s not like we just stopped going on Sunday’s.
    Bc of this letter, my children do not feel welcomed back, ever. Nor does my husband. We have moved several times due to jobs, and have never received “you haven’t shown up for 3mo, you’re off the membership” letter, even though we have met with the pastor to let them know we won’t be members anymore, due to moving. Is it different when you don’t move away? It sounds immature and controlling to me. I will rethink becoming a member again, of any church I “join on Sunday’s” bc of this letter. A church can uphold bylaws but a formal letter of removal is unnecessary, especially in our case where there was complete transparency.

  • Pastor Perry says on

    When people have left our church I will reflect on what the real reasons are for them leaving. if I am at fault I will try and be transparent about it. But my personal experience with many people who leave churches is really spiritual immaturity and not being willing to come under authority and walk out their faith in a Christian community. Many people today have a rebellious independant spirit towards authority and are easily offended by trivial issues. Then you have wolves who enter a church in sheeps clothing who come into divide the church. These you have to deal with differently then those who have petty issues for leaving.

  • We recently left our church after 10 years of being planted and serving as leaders, my husband was also leading the Men’s group. My husband decided that he need it to step down for a couple of month, he has a regular job as an A/C technician and we were handling lots of responsibilities at church. No workers very little so basically everything felt on us Sunday after Sunday. On top of everything we had a second service added back to back and still less people wanting to serve.
    For our surprise we did not get any back up from our Pastors other than if you step down you will end up leaving. ?? My husband was convince in the conversation to revoke his decision and we kept doing what we have been doing for all this time. But something was no the same anymore. We ended up leaving and we tried to talk to them in person and to give the keys of the church and the van and to our surprise the Pastor’s wife call me and said listen just tell me over the phone why do you want to meet if is because you are leaving is ok we release you and bless you, please don’t forget the key…..I still have teary eyes writing this and it’s been over 2 month. To this day we have never received a call from the Pastor or any of the rest of our leaders. God guide us to another church and we have moved on, but honestly still hurts and I still do not understand. Of course no one has contacted us they have played the victim and we abandoned ship. Sometimes I feel like if I committed the worst sin. This is not the first time this same scenario takes place with other long time families that have left the church. You only at allow to leave the church if you move to another church or state.
    Reply

  • We recently left our church after 10 years of being planted and serving as leaders, my husband was also leading the Men’s group. My husband decided that he need it to step down for a couple of month, he has a regular job as an A/C technician and we were handling lots of responsibilities at church. No workers very little so basically everything felt on us Sunday after Sunday. In top of everything we had a second service added back to back and still less people wanting to serve.
    For our surprise we did not get any back up from our Pastors other than if you step down you will end up leaving. ?? My husband was convince in the conversation to revoke his decision and we kept doing what we have been doing for all this time. But something was no the same anymore. We ended up leaving and we tried to talk to them in person and to give the keys of the church and the van and to our surprise the Pastor’s wife call me and said listen just tell me over the phone why do you want to meet if is because you are leaving is ok we release you and bless you, please don’t forget the key…..I still have teary eyes writing this and it’s been over 2 month. To this day we have never received a call from the Pastor or any of the rest of our leaders. God guide us to another church and we have moved on, but honestly still hurts and I still do not understand. Of course no one has contacted us because they have played the victim and we abandoned ship. Sometimes I feel like if I committed the worst sin. This is not the first time this same scenario took place with other long time families that have left the church. You only at allow to move the church if you move to another church or state.

  • Murphy says on

    I recently left my church. I did not leave because of my pastor. I left because I had been attending a church several miles away where the church offered classes that were conducive to my growth, development, spiritual maturity, and ministry. I started going to this church for classes several years ago. Each time I went to a class, I always felt challenged. I did not leave the church I had been attending because this new church was the next best thing or the new rising star. I was lead to this church by the Holy Spirit because the call and mission of the church is more aligned to what I have been called to do.

    The church I left is a good church with a good pastor. I hope the best for them. Leaving a church is probably never easy for the pastor, leadership, or the people who are leaving and even those who stay. Especially if all involved are healthy and mature both naturally and spiritually. However, people do leave…for many reasons. If we are honest, we can admit that people sometimes leave and not just churches. They leave our neighborhoods, they leave jobs, sometimes due to painful circumstances such as death and divorce, they even leave our families. If we continue to be honest, the investment hopefully has been mutual. Because no one person can grow a ministry alone; pastors and leadership investing their time, talent, and resources in the people and the ministry and hopefully lay-members do the same. People can enrich our lives. Even when the experience has not always been pleasant, the wisdom and knowledge we gain can be fruitful. I think it is significant to remember that most importantly church ministries are called to share the gospel and make disciples. The local church is important and powerful in building a community of faithful disciples and believers of Christ. Perhaps the emphasis should be on making disciples of Christ than making church members.

  • What does a Pastor do when he has a member leave because he didn’t get the vote to be the new pastor? This man is married to a woman three times divorced. He bought an ordination certificate on line for forty dollars and is in the process of starting a Church. He is contacting members of the Church he left, contacting children from the Sunday School and from a Wednesday night children’s ministry. How does one combat that?

  • What does a Pastor do when he has a member leave because he didn’t get the vote to be the new pastor> This man is married to a woman three times divorced. He bought an ordination certificate on line for forty dollars and is in the process of starting a Church. He is contacting members of the Church he left, contacting children from the Sunday School and from a Wednesday night children’s ministry. How does one cobat that?

  • OLUWASEGUN says on

    (3) You are told you have been transfered to another parish and you do not feel the transfer is right or you see it as ok, how will you react/respond to such move as a worker-support your answer with scriptures.

  • Reedeemed3 says on

    We have had 5 families leave our church in the past 4 months, with 2 more planning on leaving by year’s end. These folks were deacons, SS teachers, ministry leaders, workers and tithers. That’s SEVEN families leaving, ALL due to the pastor’s refusal to lead and his indifference/lack of relationship with church members. I’ve spoken with all 7 of the families and they tell me that the pastor did not ask a single one of them why they were leaving, though he spoke with all of them. Our church is in deep trouble and the pastor is in denial. God help.

  • pastor. Dad omolo says on

    Thanks for this wonderful advice, I found it in my search for what to do, as our church is currently going through this experience.

  • Truth Seeker says on

    I have read, with interest, the (old, I know) comments on such such good advice.

    We made the mistake of joining a church that had essentially ‘broken away’ from another church. It was headed up by an inexperienced, power-hungry, controlling and fear-mongering person who believed he was called into ministry. He was encouraged by some others in the congregation and so he started a new church in the same town (he is from a different culture, so the people from his culture followed him). Any other members who joined the church were those from the same church who were disgruntled with the church they were in (which was undergoing major change and conflict but has survived and is now thriving, due to its original faithful congregation).

    We were new to town, having served diligently in our precious church, and experienced first hand that Pastors are not perfect. (How refreshing to be given the opportunity to extend grace to them in the same measure we wish to receive it!) But church-hoppers or leavers we are not.
    So when we visited the church and were almost immediately asked to head up the worship team, and having had experience in worship leading and various ministries, we believed God wanted us to serve in this way.
    The control, expectation and abuse we endured for the 19 months that we faithfully served, was akin to slave labour in Africa.
    The elder who had helped the ‘Pastor” start the church, (a wonderful, godly man) ended up leaving. A new ‘pastor’ and his wife joined and things became so controlled that we couldn’t even lead the worship and build up our team without being controlled and undermined behind our backs to our team, on the odd occasion that we had to go away to family in another city.
    The vision for the leaders, as is stated on their webpage is for a ‘large’ church. Not a good church, or a healthy church, but a ‘large’ church. Several references from both pastors from the pulpit about how important and well-known they both are (not true) and some lies that were concocted to support their grandiose claims were made. It was as though one were trying to outdo the other.

    We left 7 months later after months of prayer – we didn’t want to just leave. But we were essentially given no option when we were told that as leaders, we would be expected to, in addition to what we were doing, attend every meeting on weekends (Friday, SAturday and Sunday). There was also other expectation on our time, without regard to the fact that we have our marriage and family as ministries as well as the small issue of having to work full-time!!

    We are still looking for a home church after the horrendous spiritual and psychological abuse and dictatorship we endured. Others have left too, and most are now out of fellowship. The only new people that came to the church were those who left other churches, apart from 1 person who joined, became a Christian, but then left soon after.

    And yet the church plods along. The head ‘pastor’ enjoys discounted Christian school fees for his 7 children but has no qualifications as a Pastor. He just started a church with 50 faithful people who followed for the wrong reasons. The new pastor also joined for the wrong reasons, leaving a church he had been in (but had no ‘position’) of 5 years.
    At no time did we receive a phone call when we let them know we would be leaving, due to the fact that we were physically unable to meet their demands (given we have children and full-time jobs, and live a 30 minute drive away).

    I wonder, if we went to a different church and the Pastor decided to call up one of the ‘pastors’ of the church we served in, if they would “allow’ us to attend?
    When somebody leaves a church, the assumption is that they are ‘offended’ and therefore that there is something wrong with them, rather than the pastors were ‘offensive’ and caused damage and they should be held accountable.

    How about Pastors hold each other accountable in the same way they hold ‘exiters’ accountable? I wonder how this would go down?

    Fortunately for us, we have been Christians, and served (and continue to serve) in ministry for many years, but we were so shell-shocked and wounded after what we endured that we just had ‘home church’ with our children and have gradually started going back, to different churches, seeking a place to call home.

    Pastors do not own people or members of congregations. Whatever reason people leave, if a pastor calls the new pastor then their faith is not placed in Christ and Christ alone.
    I live in Australia so haven’t heard of this approach yet, and hope it doesn’t (like so many American trends) become popular here. We will have emptier and emptier seats, because people are all on a journey and its their God-given right to make that journey without having the interferance from insecure pastors whose egos are bruised when they lose somebody.

  • I wished I would have read this 3 weeks ago. My husband and I have been members of a church for about 11 years. For a long time now, over a year, we have been feeling the need to move on. There are several reasons of course, but the main ones are distance, schedules and our family. The church used to meet our needs, but our family has grown and now the schedules don’t fit our needs. We have nothing against the Pastor at our church or the staff. After all these years they are like family to us. I have a leadership role and I had a very hard time trying to figure out the best way to leave. I wrote a sincere, loving and heartfelt letter to the Pastor and his wife to give them a heads up. Mainly because our departure is too emotional for me and I couldn’t stop from crying every time I would bring the subject up. I told him we could discuss, but that I wanted him to know about our decision. He responded that we would talk. He met with me at church and talked about giving me more work and never acknowledge the fact that we were leaving. It’s been a bit over 3 weeks and no response or meeting. I have to admit that I found this article in an attempt to make sense of all this, because his reaction has made me feel that we were not loved at our church. After trying so hard, it’s very hard for me to leave the church feeling abandoned. I hope he comes through at some point, but I’m really doubting it and it’s just very sad and dissapointing.

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