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

  • Love Thoms blog, but some of the comments are always from the same people who are argumentative and always disagreeable. Gets old pretty quickly….you know who you are

  • Love Thoms blogs but some of the comments are from the same people and many are argumentative and seem to delight in disagreeing with everything he says….you know who you are, and it is getting old. Just a thought.

    • You and Chris make valid points, Anthony. I can handle the negative comments personally, but I am concerned they are becoming a distraction to those of you who are really interested in the content.

      We will be making major changes to the site in the near future. Changing from a blog and comment format to a e-magazine format could be one of those changes. And, yes, I too am weary of the same names (or IP addresses when they fake their names). Thank you for your input. It is well received.

      • Thank you Dr. Rainer…that sounds like a great idea. These same redundant people are getting very depressing. Keep up the good work you are doing

  • I wish it were possible to share your blogs without the comments.

  • Dennis Turpin says on

    Exit interviews with one or more of the family unit is always appropriate. Sometimes the family will grant and sometimes not. I have conducted an interview that resulted in misunderstandings between members, and we were able to reconcile differences!
    I have set questions with a time for the family to add to the interview.

  • When a pastor leaves a church to take a new position, is he selfish?

    • It can be, depending on the pastor’s reasons for leaving. Adrian Rogers used to tell young pastors, “When you go to a church, go for life. God may move you, but plan on being there for life.”

  • Been there and done that. My advice was going to be “call it like you see it”, but that’s pretty much what you said in your first point. Unfortunately, attitudes like the man you described are all too common in churches today. It’s rather ironic that they claim to be followers of the One who said “deny yourself”. 🙁

    • Mark Smith says on

      So you are supposed to stay at a church that you do not fit in any longer because you are “denying yourself”? Are you sure that is what Jesus meant?

      • John Willingham says on

        Dr. Rainer –

        I haven’t commented at your blog in quite a while because of all the negative people. Mark Smith is one you know will end up arguing or making snarky comments. I was on Church Answers when he was a member there, and I left because of him. A pastor friend told me he left Church Answers, so I just returned. It’s good to be back in a healthy community.

        And, yes, I really do like the idea of an e-magazine for the future. I think most of us pastors and church leaders really just want your good information, and not the endless debates of the Mark Smiths and his ilk.

      • Mark Smith says on

        John I ask you in Christian love and liberty, how is asking what I did argumentative or snarky? I asked serious questions. Should a person stay when they are not happy? How is that negative? How is that rude? How is that rude to Dr. Rainer?

      • John Willingham says on

        Mark –

        I don’t think I can convince you that you have a pattern of commenting that is argumentative and, at times, snarky. It is the cumulative effect of your interactions at this blog and at Church Answers when I was there. You do not seem to have self-awareness you have a negative disposition that takes away the joy and benefits on interacting with a healthy community.

        I don’t know if you are rude to Dr. Rainer directly. When I contacted him about you at Church Answers (as did several of my peers), he made the decision not to ask you to leave. I respect Dr. Rainer, but I disagreed with him on this issue. As a result, several of us left Church Answers. From my perspective, he sacrificed the good of the community for one person. And I fear he is making the same wrong decision to allow your comments and other consistently negative comments at this blog. We will just stop reading the blog rather than put up with the negativity. If I want negativity, I’ll go to Facebook.

        Thank you for your offer to pay for my subscription at Church Answers, but I can handle the costs with no problem. It’s highly affordable. I know for certain your comments have cost Dr. Rainer, not me.

      • Mark Smith says on

        John,
        Thank you for your response. You are entitled to your opinion, but I do want to say that, while I am not perfect, I never interacted on Church Answers in the way you are implying. Did I challenge assumptions? Yes. Did I ask questions? Yes. But I was not negative in the way you describe.

        May I ask, how do you know other people contacted Dr Rainer about me? Sounds like gossip to me if you did.

      • Mark Smith says on

        John, I am sorry that my actions were seen by you as so negative on Christian Answers. If you will email me at [email protected], I’ll pay for a year’s subscription.

      • John Willingham says on

        Mark –

        This comment will be my last interaction with you. I also plan to stop viewing this blog as long as the comments are on. I am weary of the constant debate.

        Again, you want to debate. Again, you question people. To answer your question directly, I know four other pastors who unsubscribed to Church Answers because of you. We have a private Facebook we created as a regional group of Church Answers’ subscribers. Five of us (the four and me) all made the decision to leave. There are 12 in our Facebook group, so I assume the other seven stayed.

        It is not gossip that five of us left, but I would speculate your attitude has been much more harmful than you will admit.

      • Mark Smith says on

        This too is my last comment John. When I left CA I could not figure out what was so bad about what I wrote.

      • What do you define as “fitting in”? That’s a very subjective statement. I don’t always agree with Dr. Phil McGraw, but I’ve been a pastor long enough to know one of his favorite catchphrases is spot-on: “No matter how flat you make a pancake, it still has two sides.” I’d be interested in hearing the church’s side of your story.

      • Mark Smith says on

        Ken,
        Thank you brother. Love and peace. When “fitting in” is seen as a negative… well I leave that for the readers to consider.

      • Where did I ever say it was a negative? You seem awfully determined to take offense, and that’s why I’m interested in hearing the church’s side of things.

  • I sure hope “Bill” reads this.

  • Just a note to say thank you for this article. As always, you’ve shared some very wise insights but it’s oddly comforting to know that other pastors can relate to this pain.

  • Ronald Welch says on

    As you say there are many reasons for leaving a church. My case is unusual. I have only belonged to 5 bodies in Christ, and 4 of them were necessary due to moving to another state. The last move was after 32 years, deacon, S.S. teacher, other ministries, and love for pastor, and brothers and sisters there. However in my case, the church has gone much younger, and at 76 my opportunities for service had become limited. God called me to another body where I can better use my experience, gifts, and time I have left to his honor, and glory. It was not an easy decision, but I am in good health, and refuse to give in to age.

  • We always try to honor the person/ family…if they come to leadership. We had a board member husband and worship leader wife leave; yesterday was their last Sunday. Their tome was up- the season with is was over. They knew it and we comfirmed it. We honored them, blessed them, and prayed over them as they went out. We also provided them a moment to speak to the congregation in their own words of love and confirmation of why they were leaving. It was healthy, it was honoring, and it closed the door for any rumors, arguing, or the like.

    Sadly, that is only one out of many who depart silently to leadership, yet complaining to everyone else.

    • lovelypeace says on

      This is the situation we currently find ourselves in. Our pastor was visibly hurt when we told him that we were pulling our son from our church’s religious education program. However, a lot of families just leave w/out telling anyone why they are leaving (toxic staff people). A lot of our families want to “be nice” and “not create waves” and quietly leave, but that really has hurt the families left behind because the toxic staff people still remain and nothing changes.

      I’ve told my friends who still have kids in their education programming to start telling our pastor about their experiences with certain staff people and to stop complaining among ourselves. The pastor is only going to know the version of events that he gets told. If he doesn’t know what people (who aren’t staff members) are experiencing, then he won’t understand why so many families are leaving our church.

      We are in an awkward position now because we will be attending and rotating through two churches for the foreseeable future. We don’t want to leave our current community behind because we are still involved there, but we also realize that, as parents, it’s our responsibility to make sure that our child understands and knows his faith – and he just isn’t getting that piece at our current church.

  • Related questions: “What are the warning signs” that a church member is in danger of leaving; how are you looking for those “signs;” and what can you do to address their concerns?

    In my experience, some of the reasons people give for leaving are shared by those who stay. At the very least, many “exits” are an opportunity for a trusted group to identify potential problems and offer support and advice to the pastor.

  • Several years ago our church went through a lot of turmoil. The pastor who led our congregation for 16+ years was given the opportunity to move to another position within the convention (such a great move for him and the convention!). Our church declined for about 6+ years even after the church called a new pastor but he did not have the tools to lead our church (big with numerous campuses). He left and the church gets plunged into another time of transition. During that 6+ years, we contemplated leaving. However, my wife in all her wisdom says to me, “To where are we called?” Those words stuck with me and we remained members at our church. New leadership came in and the church is prospering now with real, baptized growth, not just church jumpers. I thank God for my wife’s council and the Spirit to keep us in our church.

    Leaving a church, I think Thom addresses this elsewhere, should be based on moral issues, doctrinal issues than whether or not I am being fed or whether my needs are being met.