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

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.

Posted on September 2, 2019

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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  • Mark Smith says on

    If you send contact info to my email address I will provide $100 for one person to have a gift membership to Church Answers as some way to make up for the damage I did to your business.

  • Personally I love the comments, even the odd negative one.
    My thought – block Mark, and the rest of the group can enjoy the discussion with each other.
    I may be wrong, but it seems a little over-the-top to shut all the comments down because one or two people steer everything negative.
    The blog format is dynamic and allows for great interaction, I always learn a lot and enjoy perspectives I had not considered. Either way I will be a reader.

  • Mark Holman says on

    Why I went from a independent church to a Denominational Church was partly divorce, (very long story) a Pastor who is a Narcissist he wound up caught in a Ponzi Scheme, he has some serious issues.

    I met and REMARRIED, so did my ex. She’s busy following misguided voices.

    My new wife is retired, active in church, I’m attending Bible University and later Psychology Degree for counseling.

    I’ve found certain people may not be the right fit, or indecisive in what they are looking for, they bounce around, in some cases need professional counseling.

    Then there are those who may need to leave, between TOXIC PERSONALITY, and TAINTED VIEWS. Again mentally skewed.

    • Lest anyone misunderstand me, I do think there are legitimate reasons to leave a church, (and unethical pastoral leadership is a very good reason). My comments have been directed toward people who leave for trivial reasons.

  • Mark Smith says on

    Several people above have commented about negative comments and “endless debate.” Perhaps I foolishly thought the comment section was a place to discuss the blog post. If it isn’t, then by all means you should disable comments. If all that is welcome are “Thom you’re great” posts, then say so. I have never sought to be rude or mean or negative. I have tried to present another view if I thought that was needed or helpful. If comment and debate is not wanted, then please disable it.

    In Sincere Love, Mark

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Mark –

      I have kept quiet regarding your comments, but I will respond at your request.

      First, I don’t think you have attacked me directly.

      Second, a number of people on the blog and, formerly, in Church Answers (I haven’t counted) have complained about their perception of your attitude in your comments.

      Third, a number of people did leave Church Answers because of your comments. I don’t remember the number, but it was not large, probably under 20.

      Fourth, my perception of your comments, right or wrong, is that you can indeed be negative, even snarky, to use another commenter’s words. For example, this comment seems snarky: “If all that is welcome are “Thom you’re great” posts, then say so.”

      Finally, you say you just want to discuss the blog post. This particular post was about how pastors and other church leaders respond to members who ask why people leave the church. You turned the discussion into a debate about why it was okay for you leave a church.

      Mark, I have no ill will toward you. If we make the decision to go to an e-magazine, it will be for much more strategic reasons than silencing you.

      • Mark Smith says on

        Thom, thank you. If you read the timeline, others had already turned the thread. And yes, I realize that the thread was about pastors responses. When I posted it I thought that. But you have not provided a delete button, so it was there.

        As for Church Answers, I left did I not? I still am not sure what I said that was all that negative. We discussed this at the time.

        As for snarky, yes I can be. So are others. My comment “Thom you’re great” was directed mostly at the ones calling me negative. Is that all this blog is to be?

        I apologize and I will no longer post here.

        I hope you all are blessed and I apologize that I damaged your day, business, blog, and Church Answers. If I had $2000 I would pay you (20 x $100).

  • Mark Smith says on

    Thom Rainer,
    Do you think I have attacked you on this blog? People above are saying I am. Read what I wrote and let me know.

  • My understanding is that some believers have never attended a different church than their first one – and cannot understand why someone would ever leave. I myself have visited regularly other church services from the beginning to get to know denominations, visions, styles, variety, people, traditions – and sometimes due to moving.
    I left one church because my wife was asked again and again when she will bear our second child. They were so child friendly and large family focused that we (mayself and I) found no place with one child only. They were consistent with their vision of church as a large family (consisting of large families). Should I argue with their vision?
    And yes, I have left another church as teenager for a better suiting one. I went to the pastor and told him how I receive the preaching and all other initiatives and how I made up the vision of the church – there was no official one = space for your own thoughts. The pastor confirmed my thoughts with words about tradition that binds us together with previous generations. OK, so you cherrish tradition over the next generation and so one of this next generation leaves today, no surprise?!! He did not understand.
    I do not expect that one church fits us all – and yes, I do not know “Southern Baptist” and others, so yours might be the exception 🙂
    In my current church the introverts are the majority – and some extroverts took their families to a new campus of a regional church. I understand well why they hope to thrive there … and no longer here.
    Just my thoughts and experiences.
    And yes, please contact those who left if your interested in their story. Else you are curious and you want to build your opinion about the case – without interest in the person.

  • William Alan Secrest says on

    My experience with these types of situations has been negative to say the least. The pain that I have experienced from people who left has been at times unbearable. I just celebrated my 11th year at my current church. One of the most painful experiences i have ever been through occurred about 5 or 6 years ago. I had three young families leave about the same time. One went to help begin a new church plant which was Southern Baptist. Another began driving a good 30 or 40 minutes to a mega-church over the state line. The last couple decided to go to another local church that was growing at the expense of other churches in the county. When people wanted to know whey they left and I said that did not know, it then became my fault. It took a long time for that to blow over. I recently had a Baby-Boomer couple leave the church and when I asked them why, she said that telling me would be gossip. I later found out from two of my deacons that I was the reason why they left. It hurt me and yet I knew deep down in my gut that it probably had to do with me. The bottom line is that most people do not tell their pastor or church staff why they are leaving. I hope that we can all agree that is immature, irresponsible, and unbiblical when we lie to each other in the church. I do not believe that a pastor should tell remaining church members why a family in the church left if we truly do not know. To say anything is to become a gossip!

  • My family left our home church of 20 years. It was the hardest decision we had ever made. The church was in a hamster wheel of Pastor hired; stay 2years then the head bully and a gaggle of congregation members would force him to leave. After 20 years and 5 pastors later, we wanted to get off the merry go round. Our hearts were burdens and we held on as long as we could. Our reason leaving was sinful leadership, not by the pastor but the deacons. Everyone’s knew the elephant in the room but people would rather “not see” what’s wrong. With much prayer and two Godly inspired confermations, we found another church. We visited and waited almost a year to join. It was hard leaving blood family and friend family. But ido not regret it.

  • If a family leaves the church and another member ask me why, my response will be “I have no idea.” Why dont you call them.” It is not my job as a pastor to explain why someone chose to leave the church. PERIOD!

  • Suggestion #1 to be transparent in discussions about departing members is wise counsel. Stick to the facts as you know them, keep emotions in check, maintain agreed upon confidentiality, and move on.
    Yes, it hurts, it hurts deeply. And sometimes it is messy(ministry can be that way). As in all dealings with people who consider themselves to no longer be a good fit in the church, you can never go wrong by taking the high road.

  • 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

  • Thom, I too am grateful for your articles and advice. Some comments that challenge our opinions can be good for us because we’re able to consider our opinions through other perspectives. Sometimes you can just read the comments and realize how little people really understand the subject. I do not know a pastor who doesn’t care about people leaving their church so the real question is how do we handle those situations best? Thanks for your advice!

    • Thank you so much, Ric.

      • A little late to the conversation about comments: I often do find the comment section to be a help — especially to bring out perspectives that I had not contemplated or another viewpoint or angle on an issue. I just try to ignore the unhelpful comments, though they can be a distraction -especially those off topic, but … for me the benefit of different perspectives is greater than the distractions – which are normally in the minority. Thanks