The Five Stages of a Church Dropout: From Highly Committed to Goners


It’s painful enough to lose any church members, but it is particularly painful when the church member was highly committed. We call these dropouts “Goners,” because they were once one of your best church members. Now they are gone.

It has been both painful and amazing to see the consistency in the patterns the Goners follow. Though Goners have been a sad phenomenon for years, the pervasiveness of Goners is a reality since the pandemic.

1. Lower commitment in key roles. Goners begin their dropout journey by attending small groups less frequently, by attending elder or deacon meetings less frequently, or any number of reductions in key roles.

2. Less frequent worship attendance. At his or her most active state in the church, the Goner was present in worship services at least three or four times a month. At this stage, they attend worship services once or twice a month.

3. Resigning of a key position. In stage 3, the Goner steps down from a key position such as teacher, elder, or a key ministry leader. Their stated reason is typically “family reasons” or “personal.” They will keep the reason vague lest someone suspect they are simply less committed to Christ’s church.

4. Reduces or stops giving. When the Goner gets to this stage, he or she is almost gone. Most pastors don’t have access to financial records, so they don’t see this stage. That is why it is important for the person with access to the records to let the pastor know that the church member might need a visit.

5. Leaves for a “good” (not really) reason. The most common reason is that they are not getting fed. You would think these members would have learned how to feed themselves by this point. Another reason is that the church does not have adequate ministries for their children. Can you imagine a missionary saying that about a church? Someone with a true mission heart would see this void as an opportunity to start a ministry.

Yes, losing any church member is painful. But when that church member was once one of your more committed members (and/or a good friend), it is particularly painful.

By the way, most of the Goners never find another church that meets their perceived needs. They are gone from any commitment to a local church.

They are truly Goners.

Posted on July 4, 2022

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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  • Hello Thom:

    As I stake my claim at my congregational departure gate, though not yet passed on to the ramp, nor withheld any checks including $2600 annual dues, the description kinda matches my trajectory but ignores my thoughts. I put myself in cherem until the fall, just tired of being dismissed in an instant by decision makers. People are either useful or important. And they can tell which. In the meantime if I am asked to chant shacharit or haftarah I will, or if my wife has something to do I will sit politely in our sanctuary. I am on one committee, as an experienced physician, they asked me to help set policy on post-covid worship safety.
    Was watching a superb presentation on inclusiveness this week sponsored by the Hartman Institute North America on JBS TV. Their director Yehuda Kerzner presented two nuanced models of synagogues in particular and Jewish organizations in general. Most like to regard themselves as Big Tents, sometimes an enclosed one like a circus, sometime an open one like Abraham or Job offered. But even the big tent has an owner with visitors who are by definition less. The other model is more of the Gated Community. You have to pay dues to come in, but once you do, you can claim entitlement. Those gated communities not only demand dues, but sometimes demand conformity of thought and some measure of deference that never brings you to full entitlement. I think the departures are more from those gated communities but even in a big tent without sides, those coming are often reminded that they are visitors rather than people who have their own stake in what the tent offers. I think defectors can find another gated community. I think if they leave for not having a stake in the activities, another big tent with a different owner rarely provides a suitable alternative. You need a certain amount of ownership to have relevance.

  • Alfred Nyangule Wetaba says on

    Wonderful insight and Godly thoughts.

  • Debbie Wilson says on

    Thanks for writing this article. It’s a good one, but it’s a little unfair to present that the fault of the people leaving is only due to their own issues. We currently have an issue at my home church – that started before the pandemic – where a small group of domineering and exclusive leaders (including the pastor) have taken a hard fisted rule over everything in the church and wounded so many deeply dedicated people. The pastor speaks in a way that is accusatory from the pulpit and shows no real desire to connect with many of the members. The people who took issue with leadership, but could not get a foothold with them, collectively (more or less) decided to stop tithing at that church in order to hopefully get an audience with the leadership that would be heard. That did not work. People were leaving in droves. After the pandemic, so few came back because they were tired of being ignored and hearing a one sided argument from the pulpit on Sunday that they couldn’t respond to.

    So, I don’t think that your article leaves room for this type of situation. We are at our rope’s end. The church went from about 200 to 50 during this pastorate. They can blame the pandemic if they choose, and I’m confident that they do, but that is not the case.

    Thank you and God bless you.

  • Donna Bkankman says on

    “Goners” in our parish are those who have done everything for over 30 years and are tired and older.
    Or have retired to another town/state.
    Thanks to CoVid outreach for new members has been slowed drastically.
    The question is how to entice new members when we cannot gather/celebrate as we once did?
    New ministry outreach methods need to be established and tutorials available. No minister wants to see empty pews and SS classrooms closed.
    It is incumbent on the leaders to devise new strategies.

    • Ronald says on

      I can certainly relate to this Donna. After having “done it all” for 45 years, I’m just about running on fumes now. While I would never consider myself to be a “goner” as described in this post, the fact is I’m bone weary.
      I work about 30 hours a week as a “part time associate”, and I wear more hats today than at any other time in my long ministry. Mostly this is because there is work to be done and no one else cares enough to hitch themselves to the plow.
      Honestly, I find myself trying to think of an exit strategy more and more. Blessings to you!

  • Rev Tracy G Mallory says on

    Oh my goodness, you hit the nail on the head. I have a little over four years now as the Senior Pastor of my church and this has happened to me; and the truth is, it still hurts. I poured into this person countless of hours, she was on the choir, praise team, and the church clerk; and then one week turned into two, and so on. In one of our last conversations she informed me that she even went to a Palm Reader to get answers; that broke my heart, as I felt like a failure. The last time she came to the church was to drop her parents off through the handicap entrance, and she went straight out the front door, not even staying for the service. Thank you for this article.

  • Debbie Vander Heul says on

    The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.

    Is it possible the “goners” aka “losers” have experienced the above?

  • As a deacon and long time church member, I have witnessed the phenomenon described in this article. But, as someone who recently left a church that I had attended for 50 of my 55 years, there is another side to the story. Just as there are members who are “Goners”, there are pastors who are “Trojan Horses”. They answer the call to pastor a local church only to reject the music, history, and traditions of that church. Their rush to replace choirs with praise teams and bands and remake the church in their image is so unsettling to some members that it is demoralizing. Pictures of former pastors disappear and church constitutions are ignored. These “Trojan Horses” tend to focus on the college age group and neglect the seniors. Please consider writing a companion article on “Trojan Horses”.

    • Debbie Wilson says on

      Good points! We have a Trojan Horse pastor and a few lay leaders who are doing this, but their hearts seem to have been hardened. Most in our congregation accept a certain amount of change, but the aggression from the leadership is what pushes away.

  • Kevin Ewing says on

    Several thoughts and questions (in all seriousness);

    1. Why is it when a pastor leaves for another church, it is a “calling”, but if a member leaves for another church they are often branded a “church hopper” (or in this case, a “goner”)? (I have some real concerns about the term “called” but, for the sake of this discussion, I will use it.). Many a pastor has served numerous churches through their life, but they are not generally termed “hoppers” and their moving from church to church is not generally lamented as a problem. But many times they are leaving for a larger, more prominent pastorate. Cannot church members be “called” to a different church as well? But the way this discussion is often framed (pastor vs. member) makes it appear that the pastor is the only one that can receive the divine “call” or “leading” to another church. That is setting up a de facto “priestly class.”

    2. If churches and pastors wanted to limit this, they have a way to do so: Not accept transfer members from churches geographically close to them. So, why don’t they do this?

    3. Even “worse”, while pastors and churches lament “hoppers”, they advertise and promote all of the programs at their church, enticing others to come. They would say that their intent is not to steal sheep. But they’re still showing the other sheep how “tasty” their grass is.

    3. Finally, what is the biblical basis for all of this? In the first century church there likely weren’t multiple churches to “choose” from but, as long as the member is not forsaking the assembly, what is biblical basis for saying that they should not go to another church?

  • Cody White says on

    I made it to stage 4 (except we never lowered attendance to 1 or 2 Sundays per month). We were experiencing abuse by a “lead elder” as he was leading in a direction contrary to our bylaws and believed he had veto power over the other elders. I was ignored and marginalized for trying to speak out about the pattern of abuse. I was proven right when he resigned and took half of the church with him. It has been a long road, but I’m glad we stayed and have been restored in a church that now recognizes its errors.

  • Good article. It is not true for all situations. My late husband was a Preacher. As a former Pastor’s wife, I’ve been the one to leave a home church and go somewhere else,. Leaving was hard. There was a lot of prayer and counseling. In the end, it was the best thing for me to do. Community was and is key.

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