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

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?

Posted on September 14, 2013

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89 Comments

  • I have stopped trying to have an exit interview with departing members. You never seem to get the real story or the whole story, and you always have to listen to things that are painful. And the kick in the gut feeling will still be there for weeks and months, no matter what you do. I have found, furthermore, that once a person threatens to leave, it’s only a matter of time before they do. It may be six months or a year, but they always leave. After several years of struggling with this issue, I am learning to realize God is in charge of the church and all things work together for good–including the loss of attention-seeking members who want to play games. The Lord knows my church has no use for them.

    • I appreciate this wisdom.

    • I sense a large amount of bitterness that a member would dare to feel about leaving. Please have a humble heart. Don’t take this so personally. If a member is deciding to leave listen, pray,and feed God’s sheep that God has given you to take care of.They to are part of the body of Christ, and Christ is the Head. Don’t be quick to judge or condemn. Walk in love, be patient with them. Ask God to give you wisdom to reconcile the situation. Ask and God will listen and He will answer your prayer. But this takes faith on your part. Revenge is the Lord, not from you. Remember not all Christians are mature or perfect. You who are spiritual repair the broken relationship, If you walk in the flesh the result will be- else you will also, be tempted and fall. This is your job to equip the saints so the members of your church grow to a perfect man in Christ. see Eph.4:11.
      Pastor Ray

      • I just found this wonderful blog. I have my own share of experiences with these issues. The writer has made some good suggestions but it all depends on the context. In Luke 15, Jesus gave three parables. The lost coin, the lost sheep and the prodigal son. For the lost coin, the woman searches for the coin; for the lost sheep, the shepherd searches for it; but for the lost son, the father doesn’t go searching for his dear son.

        If a member wants to leave they will no matter the level of spiritual investments (or even physical in some circumstances) we may have made in their lives. I would act like the father who allows them to go without asking why they were leaving or why they wanted their share of the inheritance. Then I would pray for them while they are gone. If I need to explain to anyone who asks me, ‘well, they have left the church and I am not sure why. They have not given me any reasons as to why they made this decision. Let’s just continue to pray that God leads them and helps them in every way.’ In prayer, I believe the Lord is able to show you if the problem was you the pastor. Then quickly make the necessary corrections. Perhaps they had to leave so your eyes would open to God’s prompting about what you yourself may need to watch in your ministry. If it’s for a petty reason, then so be it. Hopefully, they will grow up oneday and realise they didn’t have to leave you. For my part, I would just pray for them.

        ‘Exit interviews’ in church potentially generates more bitterness and pain. I wouldn’t go that way anymore. My caveat however, is that some contexts may need this ‘exit interview’. That is for ‘mature’ contexts. People will leave us whether we like it or not, raise the dead or not, help them or not, this is human nature. Apostle Paul experienced departures. Demas forsook him having loved this present world, Paul wrote. Now, I’m not sure Demas told Paul in an exit interview ‘I’m leaving the ministry because I love this present world more than all this ministry stuff?’. My humble advise in situations of departure is that, let’s be sensitive to the specific contexts by the Holy Spirit and we will know what to do. From my own learning, I just let it be in many situations. It hurts but that gives me more peace at heart and I take it in prayer and wish them well.

        Having read the thread, there are those that come from other churches into your church. If they have come because they were abused by their pastor, sexually harassed by the pastor and so on, then accept them and help them. I have some examples in my own church. For this, they will tell you what the pastor has done to them and NORMALLY or USUALLY you will find out from other sources that they are not spitting lies against their former pastor.

        I have learnt that in all things, we are in the ministry for the Lord. It is HIS work, not ours. If we remain faithful He will also be faithful. Let’s stay on course. A member wants to leave to another church? Fine. Prayerfully deal with the emotions and pray for those leaving, bless and do not curse them no matter what. (I know a pastor who curses everyone who leaves him – this is witchcraft). Thanks once again for this wonderful article you have, Thom. Bless you.

      • Thank you brother for your gracious and honest words of wisdom. Well said!

  • Great article. We attempt to talk to any individual who leaves our church. A few times it was a simple misunderstanding that was easily corrected. More often than not though, it is a matter of self-centeredness. There have been times when I have attempted to talk the person out of leaving our fellowship. With the exception of one case, I’ve regretted doing that every time.

    Of course, the more you invest in and minister to an individual the more it hurts when they leave.

    don

  • When members leave under direction of flesh or the Holy Spirit it always seems to hurt the congregation. It is hard to see them struggle with this. I look to learn from it and in the hurt seek to keep my mind and theirs on the Kingdom.

  • What I always ask someone who is leaving my church or even another church is this “has the Holy Spirit led you to this or is this based on your feelings”. My church another church does not matter unless you are where God wants you to be. And that is followed with the reminder we are not called to be comfortable but suffer with love and gentleness toward others for the cross. Even those who usually express what we call “petty” reasons will not express what the real turmoil in their lives are and should not be written off. They should be sought after with love and gentleness.

  • Thank you for this wisdom, Thom. One thing I have done as a pastor that has really helped moving forward is to communicate kindly but firmly ongoing expectations. It’s the church break up, define the relationship talk. I want departing members to find a new church and am willing to help in any way. But once they do, I encourage them to receive pastoral care from leaders in their new church. I also am clear to let them know that although I wish I could give them the same time relationally that I’ve done in the past, it’s just not possible with pressing needs of ministry and family. I know that may sound harsh but I’ve had way too many former members still want me to pastor them through their challenges. And this takes me away from those who have remained at the church I serve. And if I don’t explain the new relationship on the front end, I end up disappointing and hurting departing members who have unmet expectations.

  • Wow! Can I just say this is so timely that this showed up in my email this morning. I have to talk to a dear friend tomorrow about her leaving our church. My heart is broken. Thank you for your words of encouragement.

  • I’ve been pastoring at our church for 20 years, so I’ve seen my fair share of departures. One thing I have to remind myself of frequently is that God will make all things right in eternity. I look forward to some great reunions in Heaven with people who have left our church in the past. A few of them are already there and it is comforting to know that they now know the truth and would want me and our church to go forward with vigor! P.S. I once had a lady get mad and leave the church on the same day that she joined the church!

  • I don’t think you can always say that a member leaving your church would be a good member somewhere else. Sometimes I think the pastor should be warned about a person. We had a family leave as they had wanted to be the Pastor instead of my husband. Looking at the history of the man’s volunteer internship he had fallen into sexual sin with a person he was counseling. Others maybe divisive and would not be a blessing to another church. I disagree with the letter you are suggesting because I think it could be misleading to another pastor.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      GW –

      Please read the entirety of my post, especially in #5: “When I could so in good conscience . . . ” Not all exiting members can converse reasonably. Not all exiting members should receive that letter. That us why I wrote the caveat above.

  • I would like to hear something about how that is perceived by others in the congregation–how the church can learn from it and not just blame the pastor for someone leaving.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good point BJS. Maybe we can hear from others on that perspective.

    • I for one have a hard time when people leave the church for petty reasons. I understand when people move, or are called to a different body for a better use of their specific gifting’s, Their departure is bitter sweet.. They are prayed over for their new venture for the good of the Church and there are no hard feelings or stumbling blocks, but when someone leaves because they clash with someone or no longer like the music selections, or no one is greeting them properly, well that cut’s me to the heart as a member of the Church. It’s as though a divorce has happened. When you develop bonds with other people, sharing your gifts and make yourself vulnerable by sharing your hearts, you have become one. You are in union with them and them in you. It has become a stumbling block to me on many occasions. I don’t feel it’s showing a good testimony or example for the body of Christ. We are suppose to forgive 70×70. We are to love one another. There is no perfect church. We are all broken and needing God’s forgiveness.

    • still a member says on

      I am a member of “Used to Go Baptist Church” (so named because so many people used to go there). When I run into former members around town I usually get asked if I still attend Used-to-Go, as if it’s expected that I will leave at some point, too. Over the years I’ve seen people leave Used-to-Go (and other churches) for a variety of reasons, some more “legitimate” than others. Though I have grown accustomed to the revolving door at my church, there’s usually still a pang of sadness (or disappointment or anger) when someone leaves. I imagine that pang is immeasurably greater for my pastor and have added this to the list of things to pray about for him.

      • Thank You, for that sentiment. I would be a blessing if all remaining church members would pray for the Pastor that way, because in the end he has to be the one that explains to others why the “Smith Family” doesn’t come anymore…or where is “Jane” and so on. It can be very awkward and very confusing, as well as a little disheartening.

      • I’ve been pastor a church for seven years that fits your description of Used to Go church. My predecessor was here 20 years and was both a great evangelist and a explosive temper. I’d say 75% of the people I’ve met in my community Used to Go to this church. Although very few have left our church in the past seven years, our reputation has made it difficult to gain new members. My heart stops regularly when I am introduced to some who Used to Go to our church.

      • I’m the pastor of “Used To Go Baptist Church.” We’ve had hundreds leave our church in the past two decades. Thom, your recommendations are absolutely perfect, in my opinion. When the first wave began to leave the church under my tenure, I tried to talk them into staying. I called it the reclamation ministry. Needless to say, I wasn’t very successful. Even the ones that I did convince to stay ended up leaving later. As each person left, I received a lot of push back from leadership that kept telling me that I wasn’t doing enough to bring them back. We had meeting after meeting where we thought of new strategies to win them back. I was frustrated.
        Added to that frustration was pastors who were over-zealous in their pursuit of our disgruntled members. Even so far as bragging at pastor’s conferences about how many members from “Used To Be Baptist” they now had. My frustration level was nearing an unhealthy tipping point.
        When I started doing what you are proposing in your blog, my entire church atmosphere began changing. Our shifted from reclamation ministry to reconciliation ministry (those who need to be reconciled with God…the lost.) In just 18 months our attendance has doubled. But more importantly, when someone leaves our congregation (they still do) we bid them farewell and pray for God’s blessings on their lives. I always speak to the person leaving. When I can, I write a letter. When I can’t, I speak to the pastor. But with all departures, I trust God to guide his flock.
        My heart cries out to those pastors who are losing their flock. God bless you Thom for this blog.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Great testimony Ricky. Thank you for sharing it!

  • I’ve been at my current church for two years and have had church members leave for silly reasons including: I’m too loud when I preach and I don’t stand in the lobby and shake hands with people after the morning worship service (I’m at our guest reception area.). If there was some substance to why they left it might be easier. It’s never easy and it does hurt a Pastor to the core, especially when it’s a family he’s ministered to directly during his tenure at the church. This is one of the most baffling and discouraging things in the ministry.

  • Milton Kornegay says on

    Good article. I would add that dealing with situations where church members lie to you about why they are leaving and tell others different tales is quite difficult to handle. I have sought to contact some of these departing member without success. Others I’ve contacted and sought to have a civil but very frank discussion with them about the error in what they are saying. Also, you will have church members who go to the departing members and ask about their departure because they have a “bone to pick” with the pastor. This normally doesn’t fuel a cordial exit.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Spot on Milton. Sometimes the exiting member can just be too unreasonable to have a civil conversation. Been there too.

  • Good thoughts. I wish I could have handled some departures that maturely.
    I am wondering what you would suggest if you saw a small trend of folks moving out to one church. Is there a point where you call the pastor and encourage him to, not so easily, receive members from other churches? Especially if they leave for immature reasons

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Kevin. There is certainly the possibility that you should contact the pastor. I would need to know more details though.

      • i’ve never met a person who told their friends when leaving, “I am leaving church because I’m petty and didn’t get my way.” OR “I am leaving because I am not the center of the church anymore”.
        When someone leaves (for immature reasons), they will usually tell their friends that the church failed them in some way to justify the move. Of course the church does fail people.

        My frustration is when pastors of other churches casually receive people who are leaving their churches for less than credible reasons. I feel like if churches worked together, we could be applying the gospel in a redemptive way, instead of encouraging members to burn bridges and shop for something better.

        hope that makes sense. this is coming from several years of frustration.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Kevin –

        My son, a pastor, approaches the situation this way. If someone desires membership in his church from another church in town, he inquires to determine the reason. If they have grievances against another church and its leaders, he will not receive them until they are reconciled. He sometimes calls the other pastor to get his perspective as well.

      • Kevin;
        [Thom]
        I ask potential new members why they left their other church and I do a lot of listening. It’s amazing how much people will tell you if you listen.
        Then if there is a problem I will “strongly” encourage them to try and reconcile the situation. And then I’ll follow-up to see if they have. The result tells me a lot.
        Part of my responsibility as a Pastor is to ‘protect’ the current members. I’m not willing to openly invite a problem in at the cost of current members.

      • What a control freak!

      • When people make a decision to leave, they will leave whether or not you agree. No matter what they have done, they still need to be fed spiritually. Why try to sabotage them because of their immaturity. It sounds like they we not the only ones that needed to grow up. Something God needs to handle, because humans just muddy everything up. Would you rather them leave a church and go no where? Of course, pray about them and the situation, then ask God for your next move. But talking to the old pastor is just gossip, because pastors are capable of lying too.

      • We have made a point of doing contacting the church they are leaving, especially if it is near to us. This avoids awkward situations, in particular any appearance of one church “poaching” members from another (sadly, it does happen).

        It isn’t a question of sabotage, but of determining the right way to help. By talking to both the people who arrive and their former church, you can get a pretty good idea of the true situation. Sadly, people who leave a church for “less than credible reasons” tend to repeat the experience, leaving a string of churches behind them.

      • Hmmm, LOri, so pastor’s can’t have productive conversations about church members cause we’re all a pack of liars? Its always gossip? I feel bad for you and what you must have experienced.
        I was told by a former pastor of the church I pastor to watch out for Mr X he’s just evil. Well, Mr X wasn’t always easy to deal with but we became friends.
        On the other hand, there are times when you need to warn a pastor that person Y has caused damage in your church body, please don’t send them back!

      • Jerry Hall says on

        Amen! Brother Amen!

      • Clark. be fair. Lorie did not say that pastors always lie, please do not twist her words. and she did not say it is always gossip she was seeing it from a different perspective. lets face it in some cases pastors could gossip. In a way she has some good points that she is making. I think the post is excellent. I have had pastors that have been extremely destructive in the way they handle people leaving. We need to remember 1 Corinthians 12 we are one body. We as pastors do not own them, they are Gods people. I personally think that if we stop and do what the Bible says about giving and not expecting anything in return i.e. yes we have helped them and served them but they owe us nothing. The sooner we get that I believe we will be healthier church leaders, and less inclined to burn out.

      • onelordone says on

        What about if a member leave becuase of lack of fruit and delieverance in a church and the presence of demons and pride and spirits of Jezebel and leviathian those leaders are never going to admit this this is strong spirits and people need to run from cold churches and places where they are hindered spiritually, places that criticize other ministries to make up for their own lack, places where people use members to preach on and throw rocks on theri heads, places of legalsim and pharasees there is such a long list their is no need to so called work together if a ministry is strong in practicing Isaiah 58 then they would even help a disgrunted or person who is sin burdened-demons filled what ever you call it to be set free to many churches believe that christians cant have demons but any habit or thing thatn has a hold on you is a demon working behind this actitude, behavior habit and they use your complacency and subconcious mind to keep you doing what you already knwo is wrong which is a stronghold suc as smoking cigarettes, cursing, lying, overeating, anger, pride, lust all these things frustrations are frmo the enemy..but under a holy spirit filled deliverance ministry that is annointed will help usher these things out other wise if you never tap into the spirit world you cant do it on your own..in a dead dry cold chruch that doesnt really worship and pray and fast..
        King James Version (KJV)
        58 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.

        2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.

        3 Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.

        4 Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.

        5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?

        6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

        7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

        8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.

        9 Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

        10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day:

        11 And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

        12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.

        13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:

        14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

      • PREACH BROTHER!

      • Phil Hoover says on

        What may be “credible” to one person may seem “less-than-credible” to another person. I left a congregation (a long time ago) because the senior leadership proved it could not be trusted with sensitive information that I had given them about myself. I wearied after being “lorded over” and manipulated. I wearied of being accused of not being “spiritual enough” because (as a single man) I didn’t spend every free moment of my life “at the church.” This is a well-known congregation…so I won’t mention any details.

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