How Do You Explain Why Members Left the Church to Members Who Stay?

September 2, 2019
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Pastors are usually hurt when a member decides to leave the church. Sometimes the pain is deep. It feels personal.

In addition to dealing with their own pain, pastors also have to offer explanations about these departures to members who ask about them. The pastors cannot just ignore the questions and walk away.

I was recently in a church where a church member informed me that he and his family would be leaving the church. It was none of my business, so I simply acknowledged his comment. But he insisted on telling me why he was leaving.

Every comment he made was about his needs, his preferences, how he wanted to do church. The worship style did not meet his needs. He was not getting fed. He wanted church to be more organic, whatever that means. He had three people he desired to please: me, myself, and I. He never made one comment about his own commitments to minister, to give, to serve, and to be fed.

Before the conversation was over, he proudly told me he and his family would leave quietly and peaceably. There would be no problems after they left.

Yeah. Right.

I spoke with the pastor a few weeks later. Multiple church members came to him to ask him why Bill (not his real name) and his family left. You can’t blame the inquiring church members. The family had been active in church, and they just disappeared. Bill left a mess for the pastor.

So, how do pastors and other church members respond to these difficult questions? I’ve seen the best responses have four key components, so here is the counsel I offer pastors.

  1. Be as transparent as possible. The inquiring church member can sense if you are withholding information. Perhaps, for good reasons, you can’t say everything. But offer as much information as possible. If there are perceived gaps in your explanation, the inquiring church member may fill those gaps with his or her imagination. That’s not good.
  2. Admit your own feelings. While the inquiring church member should not turn into your therapist, there is something healthy about pastors sharing their own pains. It would not make sense if the pastors were impervious to the pain such departures cause. It would raise more questions.
  3. Explain that such departures are common in most every church. Some inquiring church members should know that the circulation of the saints takes place in almost every church. We live in a consumer society, and many people simply jump from church to church. While this explanation does not minimize the pain, it does let the inquirer know your church does not have unique problems.
  4. Provide hope. If possible, conclude the conversation with hope. Point the inquiring member to the ways God is working in your church. While you acknowledge the pain and frustration of the departure, you also acknowledge the positive future God has for the church.

Some departures of members are done so with good reasons. There may be significant doctrinal issues. The member may have moved to a new neighborhood and wants to be able to invite his or her neighbors to a closer church. Perhaps the member is in the sad situation where his or her family broke up due to divorce, and both families in the divorce find it extremely difficult to be in the same church.

But, frankly, many church member exits are the result of self-centered motives. The church member is asking the unspoken question, “What have you done for me lately?”

Such situations are both sad and painful for pastors. But pastors should expect remaining members will have questions. Most of those inquiries are made out of concern and love for the church. Respond with transparency, facts, and hope. The painful situation will soon pass.

Until it happens again.

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107 Comments

  • Mark Smith says on

    Let’s say you joined First Church because you thought it seemed good. Now its two years later. You wake up one Sunday and it sinks in that you have no real friends, only acquaintances. Your interests don’t match others interests, so it just never synced up. Your wife is in the same boat. Let’s say all the other ladies have known each other for years. She never felt accepted. The kids have some fun, but a similar situation.

    You’ve helped out. Volunteered for various things. Tried everything you know to connect with people. Just nothing hooked up. The pastor is a nice guy, but he’s busy and despite inviting him over to eat a couple of times, and various other discussions, you just aren’t really friends in the real sense.

    Now I ask, do you stay because of some sense of duty? Or are you free to go? Is it selfish to go?

    I say you are free to go. You are a social animal. You need some kind of connection other than a contract to stay.

    • Those are very subjective reasons, and (if you’ll pardon me for saying so) more than a little self-centered.

    • I say you are absolutely right.

      I retired from pastoring after 45+ plus years.

      We went to a church where I knew the pastor.

      We tithed and gave above to three projects (about $1500), attended, and offered ourselves.

      We did not fit into the “club”.

      We left about 2 months ago. We have not been contacted by anyone.

      They obvious didn’t want or need us.

      Shameful.

      The only one of 2 financial statements I saw in 1 1/2 years indicated that without our tithe, they would have been in the red.

      Neither of the two ministers have contacted us.

    • If you have tried to connect to other people and you just aren’t, maybe try inviting some of your already friends to church with you. We need community and accountability. Not every church is for everyone. Yes it would be sad that you could not connect with anyone, but if this is the second or third church, that you just haven’t been able to connect with people, maybe we are putting to high of expectations on people and sometimes we are the problem. I have been at my current church for 12 years and have seen this time and time again. If you have truly tried then yes you can leave as long as when someone leaves, they don’t say well i left there because no one is friendly there. It’s also not the pastors job to be your friend. He is to be your Shepard.

  • Judith Gotwald says on

    There are reasons people tell you and reasons people don’t tell you. The issues are often deeper than are ever voiced—and many times exactly opposite of what they are able to put into words. People leave when they don’t feel loved or that the sacrifice of their time in being present is making any difference—in their lives or in communal church life. “My needs aren’t being met” is easy to say. “I’m feeling lost” or “I’m feeling hurt” or “I feel like I’ll never be good enough” or “My presence doesn’t seem to matter” is much harder.

    • Some church members feel some sort of an “entitlement” .
      Ask not what the church can do for you but rather what can I do for the church or what I can contribute to help the body of Christ to healthy and effective ministry .

    • “they don’t feel loved or that the sacrifice of their time in being present is making any difference—in their lives or in communal church life.”

      And pastors all over America say, “Welcome to our world!”

    • Judith,
      I think this is very insightful! People usually leave in pain but cannot articulate it or are too embarrassed to. A relative of mine recently left a church with the spoken reason of, “the sermons are not ministering to me.” But underneath that, she routinely felt ignored or condescended to by the pastor and his wife. She was fully vested in the life and ministry of the church, too, so was not merely “consuming.” But the tip of the iceberg was the only reason she articulated. It takes humility from leadership and humility from congregants/members to work through painful issues in order for folks not to leave under simplistic, consumer-driven guises.

  • Many people in today’s mobile world are “church-hoppers.” Coincidentally, they have many characteristics of grasshoppers. They swarm into the field, eat their fill, do nothing to prepare for the challenging time to come, and fade away come winter.

    • Well put. Very well put!

    • Good analogy.

      Some are wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

      They run in packs, create havoc, and leave damage behind them that takes years to correct.

    • When churches relate to congregants in consumer terms — programs and services we’re offering — members feel free to compare churches and move to a different church that offers other/better programs and services. Our church has been through a split and it’s still painful. It’s like a death. But our pastors seem to be incapable of acknowledging it in that way. Losing some of the families that left was like a death or divorce for my kids. People they considered part of their family just disappeared from their lives and they felt their pain and loss wasn’t acknowledged in any way in our church. If we aren’t truly doing life together as the family of God and instead are doing some sort of program-driven, schedule-driven consumer model of church then why is it wrong for people to shop and hop?

      • Astute point Barb! I have experienced this kind of death/divorce in church, too, and it hurts deeply, Much better for pastoral leadership to address it with grace and truth than to pretend it away.

  • J Strickling says on

    What about when people ask the “where’s Bill?” question, and are either given a fabricated reason or nothing at all?
    Somewhat different scenario when an associate pastor is forced to resign. The people share the fabrication, or are given the freedom to make up a story that suits their imaginations.
    What if you’re the Associate Pastor who was resigned (under false pretenses), and come across members of that former church? Now them members has the opportunity to ask the horse to hear it directly from Reverend Bill.

    My name isn’t Bill, but I went through this. I have healed and forgiven them. I yet pray for them. It takes an unfolding of God’s grace and transparency to become whole.

  • If there is an emphasis on fideism, of course I am going to leave.

    • You seem to be fond of the word “fideism”. Would you care to define it?

      • -The concentration of autobiographical statements in evangelism.

        -Constant surface level interpretations of the Bible.

        -Little to no rational thought is required in the Christian life.

      • Guy in the Pew says on

        Do you mean people who just talk about themselves instead of Jesus when doing “evangelism”?

      • Guy in the Pew:

        It’s a concentration on what Jesus has done in someone’s life. Instead of these stories augmenting doctrinal discussions with, for example, non-believers, they become the emphasis.

        The problem is, this is not much different from many Latter-Day Saint approaches (e.g. Moroni 10:3-5). Way too subjective. Mainly offering personal testimonies is not really offering an apologia (see 1st Peter 3:15) for the gospel. It just isn’t.

      • Fideism: blind faith

    • “Fideism” is the name given to that school of thought—to which Tertullian himself is frequently said to have subscribed—which answers that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason. In contrast to the more rationalistic tradition of natural theology, with its arguments for the existence of God, fideism holds—or at any rate appears to hold (more on this caveat shortly)—that reason is unnecessary and inappropriate for the exercise and justification of religious belief. The term itself derives from fides, the Latin word for faith, and can be rendered literally as faith-ism. “Fideism” is thus to be understood not as a synonym for “religious belief,” but as denoting a particular philosophical account of faith’s appropriate jurisdiction vis-a-vis that of reason. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

  • We’ve had. Few families leave our church recently for other local churches and it feels like I’ve been dumped by a girlfriend. I thought we were a team, working together, only to learn they feel like the grass is greener over yonder.
    The families that left recently all told me they left because they’re getting nothing out of the pastor’s messages, but none of them were willing to tell the pastor that because they all love him so much for other reasons. Seems to me a simple conversation stating the true reasons to him (alone) could have been beneficial, but what do I know. Now I’m left trying to decide if there is ever a right time have a conversation with the pastor that starts “People are saying…”. That seems so unbiblical. I just wish people would talk to our staff instead of about them. ??‍♂️

    • There is never a time to have a conversation with the pastor that begins with, “People are saying….” That is simply a cop-out in which the person is trying to establish credibility to his own opinions. If people are really saying whatever they’re saying, then THEY need to have a conversation with the pastor THEMSELVES. Otherwise, it is gossip. And as you rightly said, “That seems so unbiblical.” Indeed, people need to talk TO and not ABOUT others.

      • I have been contemplating this same reason, “We don’t get enough out of the pastor’s sermon” as I have heard that more than once. I also talk to folks who say the very opposite, the reason they love our church are the sermons. I think Thom has put up articles on it, but it seems the vast access to ‘high end’ communicators tempts folks into thinking they are only fed if the pastor reaches a certain bar in his communication . As an executive team at our church we are committed to communicating better and better for the sake of the Gospel and clarity and being compelling. Our lead pastor is even now going through a preaching coaching process. On the other side of this, I believe maturing Christians need to consider if they are engaging with their pastor’s sermons as a student or as someone wishing to be wowed or shown something new each Sunday. Chances are, if you are active Christian for 15 plus years, you will have heard up to 700 sermons if you only count Sunday morning. I have pondering how to challenge folks with the response of looking for a better communicator if they are really engaging with the sermon, post reflection and study, or are they expecting the 35 minutes on Sunday morning to do all the lifting for them in that moment.

    • They probably won’t get anything out of the next pastor’s messages, after a month or two, either.

      That is a rather lame excuse.

    • Do you care for the family leaving and/or your preacher? Sometimes we do not, so we are “standing in the need for prayer”. And if yes, I would invite for a coffee to listen. Maybe I can encourage the friend to talk to the preacher following the basic feedback rules (I miss this and that versus You do not …).
      Often the first reason given is the one that is most likely socially acceptable. If others have mourned about praching, why not choose this, too?

  • There are times when members leave because the pastor believes he is above accountability. When he is “called out” , then attacks members from the pulpit…why would they choose to stay?

  • The best and most transparent response is: “Why don’t you ask them yourself?” No need to try to explain; no need to try to defend.

  • Andrew McKee says on

    I am afraid in today’s churches, the preachers(we don’t have dedicated Pastors anymore) don’t really care why folks leave and neither does the membership at large. It is very sad to say, but if they did they would have more than 40%, or less, of their roles showing up on Sunday morning, and 10% – 15% on Sunday night and even less on Wed night. There is no leadership by example in our churches anymore, not from the preacher, staff, or deacons, or elders, therefore the membership doesn’t do anything either!! They have lost the concern for the members who have fallen away as well as a heart for the lost within view of the steeple. This breaks my heart, when 90% on folks who used to go to church have said they would go back if someone…anyone cared enough to simply come say, “We love you, and we miss you! Won’t you please come back and join us?” Instead they are totally apathetic to them, and sit there on Sunday in their padded pew doing nothing they were instructed in His Word to do and checking the box “i went to church today”

    • Andrew –

      Please share the source for this statement:

      “90% on folks who used to go to church have said they would go back if someone…anyone cared enough to simply come say, ‘We love you, and we miss you! Won’t you please come back and join us?’l

    • I have been advised:
      1. by a MFT Chaplain that if you counsel a church attendee through “secret” type issues, they will soon leave the church due to someone knowing. I found this to anecdotally to be true. He advised preparing a network of other pastors in town to do that type of counseling.
      2. If a church member or leader says they are leaving without good cause, let them go; they will find another reason to leave and cause damage and division in the meantime!

    • No pastors who care?

      Do you know every pastor, everywhere?

      How could you make such a statement otherwise.

      That is a totally unfounded and judgmental statement.

    • Andrew – echoing Thom, of the 30 “lost sheep” who attended the church at one time who had disappeared years before I was called, not a single person came back to church when asked more times than I care to admit.

      Most who aren’t committed to a church won’t return simply because they are asked. In fact, many leave because of the tension between them and the ones who are still attending.

  • Wise words. Thanks for the advice!

  • And what do you do when you feel that the comments for why someone left the church is told in confidentiality?

    • See Point #1: “Perhaps, for good reasons, you can’t say everything.”

      • Prentiss Yeates says on

        If pastors and churches are not able to address family conflict, sin or quarrels within the members own lives with truth, love and grace without ruffling feathers, then leaving because of “ organic reasoning “, is pretty much systematic of the first problem.

    • It still may be important to share at the appropriate level the concern, but without the name attached.

  • And Gee Tom, you didn’t challenge the person at all? You “listened” but did reflect back? I guess the pastor in question has yet another person to thank

    • Gary David Holt says on

      by the time these people are in the exit lane, they are not changing their mind and are probably looking for a fight.

    • I’d have to assume there’s more nuance than was provided in the brief and poignant account. I’m also confident Dr. Rainer or any mature church member can see the difference between an invite for insight or an announcement of action.

    • Mike McKay says on

      Enjoyed the podcast this morning, as well as thinking back to my years as a PK, a mark I gratefully own even still at age 48. It gave me a perspective on church that very few people have, and in my role as a lay elder it is invaluable. Gratefully, I was never made aware of people who thought I was misbehaving; rather, the higher expectations on us were placed there by my own parents, and I can only think of one time I felt that was an unfair burden. 1 Tim 3:4-5 teaches that elders must manage their households competently and have children that are under control. Exactly what that means would be a great podcast, but we took it to mean (as I do now with my own family) that children of elders/pastors should see in their parents examples of genuine faithfulness, and seek to emulate that. Kids that are out of control—not little children flopping on the floor of the narthex, but true patterns of wildness—will reflect poorly on a church leader, and can ultimately cause harm to his ministry.

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