When a Group Leaves the Church: Five Perspectives

It is one of the most common and painful issues pastors face.

A number of people leave the church around the same time. The exit is painful for the exiting members, the members who remain and, of course, the pastor. I have walked with hundreds of pastors through these scenarios. It is painful. It is messy. And, though I wish I did not have to say these words, it is often inevitable.

Allow me to share five perspectives on what is often taking place when a group leaves the church. For certain, there will be a myriad of exceptions. But these five issues are common in many of these situations.

  1. The exit usually takes place when the pastor’s leadership becomes clear and established. It is, therefore, common for these exits to take place somewhere between the second and fourth year of a pastor’s tenure. The exiting members may have had unmet expectations of the pastor. The vision the pastor cast and the direction the pastor was leading them were not aligned with their own hopes and dreams.
  2. Hurt exiting church members do not often leave well. Please hear me clearly. I am not pointing fingers and placing blame. But, in many of these exits, the departures are handled from a posture of hurt. Letters are written. Unhealthy conversations ensue on social media. Matthew 18 is not followed. The departures are messy and engender more conflict.
  3. Those often neglected are the members who remain. The pastor is hurt. The exiting members are hurt. But, on too many occasions, we forget the pain experienced by those still in the church. They had friends leave. They saw relatives get angry. They know the church budget was hit hard. Relationship patterns are sorely disrupted. One of the most difficult but necessary things a hurting pastor must do is to minister to the remaining members with compassion and hope.
  4. The recovery period usually takes months. I don’t have a neat guideline for church leaders to follow. I can say that most churches begin to feel some degree of normalcy somewhere around nine to twelve months. That period can be tough on the pastor and the church members, but it is a part of the healing process.
  5. The other side is a place of hope. As painful as these exits are, there is usually a better church on the other side. A church with unaligned members creates an unhealthy situation. It holds the church back. The culture is conflicting and sometimes toxic. Exiting members can offer a time for healthy re-alignment. The departing members find a place where they are better aligned. The church from which they departed has an opportunity to get everyone on the same page.

While I don’t wish this situation on any church, any pastors, or any church members, I do think two points are worth remembering. First, these departures are common, more common than most people realize. Second, if the pastor and the remaining members handle the situation with prayer and grace, the church is usually much healthier on the other side of the departures.

Posted on April 22, 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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  • Thom,
    Man oh man did I need this article/post. This is my current situation and it is very hurtful to look and see all those empty seats and read the low number reports. I had one family leave and took all my young families with them about 3 months back. Currently, I have many members that are left worried over finances, church health, and are sadly becoming very apathetic. I was crushed on Sunday as Easter was not a high attendance Sunday. We were actually lower in attendance than Palm Sunday. It didn’t help make matters better when an CEO Christian left and said, “See you next year.” I am thankful that you made mention of the fact it takes a long time to recover from these events. It encourage me as I dealt with the bombardment of discouragement. The church I am serving is one I knew from the get go needed revitalization. It hasn’t been an easy year and a half. I still have a strong support here, but the vision is far from being fully embrace. It is the season of one step forward two steps back, but ,thanks to your post, I am in the midst of turning the gospel ship back on course.

  • Great article Thom! This is the pain of many churches and pastors. In my experience as a church consultant, four of the difficulties that crop us often in these scenarios are that church leaderships: (a) don’t know or admit when the level of the conflict is too high for them to deal with and seek external help, (b) don’t seek that help early enough (c) don’t have preventative conflict policies in place, and (d) don’t have a clear, well-consulted (with the congregation) vision in place. Doing these 4 things so can avert a lot of heartache, sometimes loss of attenders, and speed the recovery process for those remaining. Not simple, but powerful!

  • Thom

    Thanks…the observations are timely. I too experienced such seasons in our local church ministry.

    Preparing for times like these includes reading books on managing conflict and developing emotional intelligence. And lots of prayers.

    It also means understanding the dynamics of power in terms of the world versus the gospel. Reflecting on how we speak the truth and show love in the midst of people seeking power in their quest for security and significance demands thoughtfulness and self-awareness.

  • Michael Huff says on

    Thanks for these words. We have just experienced a group leaving the church and your points hit home. The hurt is definitely real but I am thankful that there is hope on the other side.

  • Thom, thank you!! We are currently living this reality. We merged a church plant with an established church last June and by the fall this was happening. I can’t tell you enough how your articles and podcasts help me! This is not easy to go through, but I know I’m not blazing a new trail because others have been here before me. I also know I’m not crazy thanks to your insights and advice. Please continue to help those of us on the front line who are experiencing things we’ve never felt or observed before, but we’re united by your experiences and warnings.

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