When a Pastor’s Friend Leaves the Church

I’ve asked the question dozens of times. In one way or another, I simply ask pastors: “What has been one of your most painful moments in ministry?”

Obviously, the responses are diverse, but one response seems pretty consistent. Let me summarize it with this quote from a pastor who spoke to me just two weeks ago.

“Critics and bullies bother me,” he said. “But at least you know where you stand with them. The greatest pain for me took place when one of my good friends and his family decided to leave the church. At least I thought he was a good friend. I felt like I had been stabbed in the back.

I am not surprised at the pain. I am, however, surprised how common the experience is with so many pastors. At some point, I will do some digging to find out why these friends left. For now, I asked the pastors how they dealt with pain both positively and proactively. Here are the common responses:

  • They accepted the reality of the pain. “For a season, I pretended like it didn’t bother me. But I was lying to myself. I honestly felt like I had been betrayed. Once I admitted the pain, I was able to deal with it better.”
  • They prayed for the friend and his family. “That was tough. My carnal self wanted to punch him in the face. I had to pray for the strength to pray for him. God began to do a work in me that got me beyond the intense pain. It still hurts today, but I am making progress.”
  • They avoided burning bridges. “I’m glad I resisted the temptation to bless him out. It could have happened so easily. But I prayed and bit my tongue. I am so glad God gave me restraint.”
  • They answered members’ questions honestly. “The questions from other church members were expected. They knew how close we were. But he never gave me a reason for his departure. So, I just shared what I knew. I told them I was hurt. I told them I was clueless about the reasons he left. I was straightforward and honest.”
  • They were careful about forging close friendships in the church from that point. “Maybe it’s not the best thing to do, but I am wary of making close friends in the church now. I love my members. I serve my members. But I am not going to get burned again. My closest relationships now are outside the church.”

Pastors, if this painful reality has happened to you, please know you are not alone. It is so much more commonplace than I would have ever imagined. I pray you will find good friends you can trust and enjoy, whether they are in inside the church or outside the church.

You need those friends. And I have little doubt you will be a blessing to them as well.

Posted on December 19, 2018

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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  • Todd Wright says on

    Yes these are the deepest of wounds. Our “best friends” left the church and our friendship 2 years ago, with no explanation. The sense of betrayal felt much like a death or perhaps a divorce. While we try to hit the “reset” button on how to have relationship in ministry, we question if real relationship can happen outside of immediate family. All friendships have hidden motives, but if the motives are more specific than “enjoying life” together, then the friendship is often over when the motives are met or permanently unmet.

  • I have read the comments about the negativity in Pastors forming relationships with members. However, My wife and I had AND have a very close and deep loving Biblical relationship with our former Pastor and his wife. We moved to another city when we retired to be closer to our Daughter, Son-in-law and two Grandchildren. We are very close, to this day with our Pastor and his family and will continue to be. We dwell on the positive nature of our relationship, in Christ and pray for those who desire this kind of lifetime relationship. May God Bless you, Thom Rainer, for discussing topics like this. Merry Christmas and may 2019 be even more joyful for you and your Ministry. Love you Brother.

    • It’s one thing when they leave the church because they’ve relocated to another city. I still miss them when that happens, but I don’t feel a sense of betrayal over it. It’s quite another when someone suddenly decides they’re too good for you or your church.

  • Just a comment here, I find that when you leave a church in good standing with the pastor and members, they say that they hate to see you go and we will be praying for you and the family. When you see them at a gathering or out in public they either get nervous or hide from you. Like they never knew you. But they try to keep up with you are doing.

  • Lot of wisdom there.

  • It can be difficult to not allow yourself to get close to any members within the congregation. But… you are their pastor, not their friend. Any sense of a relationship can ruin your ability to continue to preach the “Whole Word.” Because of this, I think most pastors are quite lonely. They have their “pastor” hat on all the time and finding friends can be difficult.

    You have to avoid having any appearance of favorites in the membership.

  • Thom this has been one of the most painful things in my 33 years of pastoral ministry. Its happened more than once, where people I really liked and felt kinship with left. Several were best friends. One guy was so weak after surgery at one point I helped him get to the bathroom. And, then months later he left for something else, in a moment of my greatest weakness. It hurt. A lot. I love him and bless him now many years later, but wow!

    I affirm the value of cultivating friendship with other pastors outside your church and denomination. Nobody understands like they do. They have helped me through some real trials. But I also have some of my closest friends that are on our elder board. They have stood with me through the worst of it. They are standing with me now as I leave this church of 21 years to pursue a missions ministry. Develop prayerful discernment, invest wisely, and go deeply. After all, we are asking our members to do the same thing when we encourage them to join a small group. In the same breath, are we unconsciously telling them, “but know you can’treally trust people here-I dont’t! “. Ministry is painful! Suffering and glory are always linked together (Philippians 3:7-11). Some of Our Lord’s disciples walked away (end of John 6). But many of them ended up giving their lives for him. I think there are some deep friendships out there waiting to be enjoyed.

  • Jordon LeBlanc says on

    I’ve had this happen. It’s rough. It hurts. Though, I’ve found that it’s not always a reflection of my relationship with them. It’s easy to make it about me: they’re leaving, so it must mean there’s a problem with me. One family had experienced pain in their last church, came to us for a couple of years but felt that they missed their home church. It was tough, and I certainly felt betrayed and belittled (mainly because I tend to make things about me), but after much prayer and seeking, I found that our friendship sustained through it.

    I am one of those people who firmly and wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that we should somehow separate ourselves from our congregation (at least in the area of friendships). I understand the “once bitten, twice shy” or “fool me twice, shame on me” mentality, but I have found that deeper relationships formed through these friendships within my congregation have been a clearly-definable net positive. Just be sure not to throw out all friendships with congregants because one or even several hurts you. You do yourself and your congregation a disservice.

  • Just a comment here (more of an observation). As a church member, I’ve seen this idea of pastors not forming friendships with church members become an “unapproachable pastor”. Just wanted to comment the possibility of this going to the other extreme.

    • Good caution, Jamey.

    • Yeah… I have served as a pastor for 11 years. I have had many friends leave for no good reason. I have felt all of these emotions. I have been through some horrific seasons in ministry. I have been betrayed in ways I never imagined I could be. But I have never shut myself off from making close friends inside the church. It troubles me that so many are saying that a pastor must protect himself from getting “burned.” My question is why? What if Jesus had that same attitude towards us? How many times have we betrayed him? And even if you do manage to protect yourself from the discomfort of being betrayed or rejected, what is the cost of armoring yourself up like that? How effective can you be as a shepherd, if you hold your sheep at arm’s length?

      • I agree fully. As a pastor of 34 years now, I recently had a man with whom I had a close relationship and was even grooming him for a future ministry position in our church. He shocked me with the announcement that he was leaving over a minor ecclesiological difference. What??? No biblical grounds at all for breaking the covenant he had made. I was shocked. It hurt tremendously. I still miss him. But I have a faithful flock which needs me to be ready to minister to each of them effectively. I refuse to allow the misguided actions of others affect my ability to have healthy relationships with others in the congregation.
        I agree that the distance between the pulpit and the pew must be minimal for effective shepherding of the flock.
        I continue to seek relationships with the men in our flock. Oh, by the way, it wasn’t long after all of this before God have us 9 new believers for me to disciple each week and now the connection between them and I is something I have never yet experienced in ministry. God is good even when others are not!

      • Very nice word on obeying the Lord.

  • I was betrayed in a previous pastorate by a man, who I mistakenly thought, was my friend. He was a deacon: one of six. He treated my family and me decently the first 2-3 years. Later on in my tenure, he turned on me and was critical. I did nothing to him to warrant it. There was a situation, which occurred, in which he got a little mad and he caused me problems the last year or so of my time. He would never admit it. Hot-tempered, easily mad, and not self-reflective at all. The emotional pain was hard. A veteran pastor later told me, “Those, who try to get close to you early, often will turn on you later. Be wary of any (or even 2-3) who attempt to cozy up to you very quickly as you get settled in a new place.” He was right. A pastor is better off not to forge close friendships with those in his congregation. People are fickle (Vast majority) and will turn on you on a dime. The pastors, who form close friendships with 2-3 or 4-5 in their congregations, are rare. They’re at wonderful churches. Best to form 2-3 close friendships outside the congregation. You will get burned. Trust me on this. Not cynical here, just truthful.

  • I experienced this very thing this year. Without question you have to really pray and battle bitterness. It’s easy to think about everything you did for that person or family only to see them betray you and walk away. All of the points made in the article to deal with it were spot on. For me, praying for them has been a huge help. When I feel anger or resentment rising up I try to combat that by praying for that family. I have also learned that it is alright to let people go. God brings certain people into your life for a season. Saying goodbye is difficult but when it’s time to let go we have to walk in faith and trust the time was right.

  • Daniel Bardales says on

    I have been a pastor for 10 years. Seven years in Honduras, Central American as lead pastor and three years here in the states as an associate pastor. My experience wasn’t all good. I would like to read about associate pastors and lead pastors and their relationship in ministry and outside of ministry; specially when it’s with someone from another country.

  • Over 26 years I have had the burden and pain of (what I perceived to be) a friend turn on me and leave the church. As a result, I have kept my friendships outside of the church. Call it what you will, but a degree of separation protects you and your family and creates a safe harbour away from the church and office for yourself

    • Thank you, Jeffrey.

      • Rev. Tracy Mallory says on

        My situation is very scary: I am a 57 y/o rookie pastor who was called in March of 2018. The other candidate was from the church I was called to. His wife was a deacon there and he served as an associate Minister. Although he was not ordained, his name went into the hat. We were both invited to the vote and God spoke and I was called with 2/3 majority. Now, I did not know this man, but I embraced him and asked if he would stay and help me navigate through the transition. Even though him and his wife was very, very upset, he said he would.
        I had an official licencing service for him and began to prepare him for the 2019 ordination within our local convention. I gave him preaching engagements and set him up with three vacant churches. This is where it gets weird:
        One day, out of the blue, he calls me and ask for a meeting; we had one and he told me that he did not like me and did not want to be under the covering of the church. He also told me since I did not support him or click the like button on his “Facebook” page, that I was not supporting him and he was taking his family and leaving the church. He told me I was a “showboat” because I go to all of the community events, and I thought I was better than him since I had my degrees.
        Needless to say, I was devastated, The hate he had been holding in for seven months all came out in a 20 minute meeting.
        How did I deal with it? I cried: Yes, like I baby, I cried to my wife, and I cried to God. I began to re-read the Bible, and God put scriptures in my path to sooth the pain. I realized that I can no longer be gullible, rather wise in my pastorate. Some members of the church heard so many false rumors I begin to question the spirit within the church. I continue to pray for this minister and his family, which is making me a stronger and more confident pastor.

      • I have been through similar experiences myself. Two books that have really helped me to sort through my own pain and offenses are “The Peacemaker” By Ken Sande and “The Bait of Satan” By John Bevere. Praying for you right now Rev. Mallory and hoping that the Lord will continue to lead you through this and give you His peace and mercy.

      • Tim Aagard says on

        The Bible very clearly says “appoint elders (shepherds/pastors) in every church. Instead of that, they hired in a stranger from out of town. This instruction is so often ignored in favor higher Bible degrees or experience it seems a normal option. We invite corruption of may sorts when we accept as options men’s alternatives to God’s instructions. Secondly, the normal course of leadership is to focus leadership on one man, not a plurality of believers. Clergyism is considered normal. Obedience to God’s instructions should be our first consideration.

      • Emily Mead says on

        I’m a 57 year old PK (with an advanced education) and this reminds me of how my parents were treated. It also brings back painful memories of 4 church splits (2 in my adulthood not involving my parents) complicated with these types of issues between ministers and other members of the congregation.

        I attend church. But, I haven’t had a minister in my house in at least 35 years. My current minister is well grounded in the Gospel & seems to be a decent person. Our church evangelism program is going very well. But, once you have been burned multiple times, you are more careful where & how you invest emotional energy.

        I see another book in Rev: Rainer’s future. Autopsy of a Deceased Church was excellent by the way.

        Romans 8:28

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