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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  • Wow. A lot of experiences. My friend, who has ministered in > 1,200 churches over the past 25 years and heard and seen it all, has stated emphatically,

    “I have never seen a close Pastor/congregant relationship turn into other than a contemptuous one and lead to big trouble. Never. Do not look to within your church for your close friendships!”

    • Steven Conger says on

      That is the saddest comment of them all. I was told by a supervising pastor once that you should never get close to people so that when you left it was easier all the way around. Worse advise I have ever heard and thankfully I did not take it. Have I been burned by friends? — yes both in the church and out — but the successful friendships make it all worthwhile!

    • This is too much of a generalization.

      “I have never seen a close Pastor/congregant relationship turn into other than a contemptuous one and lead to big trouble. Never. Do not look to within your church for your close friendships!”

      We ministered in the USA for 15 years and outside the USA on cross cultural teams for 20 years. We have had good friends within and outside a congregation, within and outside our team. So did Jesus and Paul. Both Jesus and Paul had some of their friends who betrayed them and some who stuck through everything. We are called to be like Christ and Paul said to imitate him in everything. I have suffered from friends and I have been comforted by them. The tendency to withdraw from friendships is a refusal to suffer. As one person said above, we are asking our members to make these loving friendships and we know that at times they will be hurt. We as the shepherds must model how to walk through the suffering of betrayal and rejection while being able to speak the truth in love. We need the healing of the Spirit to stem the flow of blood, stitch up the open wounds and heal our hearts to continue.

      At times this rejection does teach us about our faults and shortcomings.

      At times this rejection teaches us about the nature of our congregation.

      At time this rejection only teaches us about the persons who left.

      In each case, we have a painful lesson to learn that Jesus wants to walk through with us.

      Avoiding people is disobedience to the constant command to love.

      “for Demas left me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica;”

      “Only Luke is with me.”

  • When a close friend and his wife left the congregation and later divorced it was hurtful. I realized that I was collateral damage and prayed that I had been a pastor during the times of vulnerability rather than just a friend who took sides and may have not intervened where I should have. Not to be self-centered but I wondered for a few months what I could have done to prevent this. In prayer and study I found that God’s plan overrides my preferences and it’s not always about me. I did self examination and feared that my private thoughts and comments would be shared publicly. There’s a place for friends and there’s a place for congregants and for me maybe the two shouldn’t meet.

  • John W. Mason says on

    I’ve pastored for 35 years and there is always been someone I’ve had a closer friendship with. Most of these have continued to grow even after we were called to another church. I had one friendship that broke so suddenly that to this day it still nags at me.

    We were very close, prayed together, discussed long term ministry goals and worked to begin a new ministry that they oversaw that was starting to grow. Out of no where I get a text message that says we are not coming back, we know it is painful to part but like the disciples it’s time for us to move on. I called, texted and even tried to make a visit. No response. Finally I received another text, please just let this go, we love you and pray for you. I was devastated for months and the back door comments ramped up. Then I found out the reason.

    I had church bullies that targeted this family. They assaulted them at every opportunity and tried every way possible to get them to move to their side. Their way of escape was to leave the church and sever ties with me.

    That’s the unfortunate result of church bullies, they not only target the pastor they also can go after those who support the pastor and any close friends. Not long after this the bullies were confronted and they left but the damage they caused took a long time to heal. In hindsight I wish I, the deacons and the church leadership had confronted the bullies sooner.

  • Dr. Rainer, as painful as this subject is, when this has happened over the last twenty five years, it has caused me to start looking at myself first. For many years I always sought someone else to blame. There are times when we may be responsible for someone leaving. When someone says, “Don’t take this personal’, it is always personal! That is the hard part. It is then we recognize that we serve a God who will hold us up as we feel crushed by the weight of the circumstances. When this happens, and it will, don’t leave, walk away, or shy away from others. Let it be a time of learning, humility, and spiritual growth as we continue to serve and trust the Lord.

  • I can comment from the point-of-view of the friend who left. It had to do with everything else going on in the church-not the pastor. It was so painful, but made unbearably more so when the pastor’s wife said to me, “do you know what this has done to (pastor)? It’s as if you think we’re not worthy of you.” Such a shattering experience. No one should ever stay in a church just because they fear hurting the pastor’s feelings.

  • Craig Kemper says on

    I’ve been that person who was a close friend with my pastor, yet the reason I left was because he drove me out after stabbing me in the back. There were several men in the church who didn’t approve of our friendship and he finally caved in and turned on me. Now he refuses to speak to me and has chosen to spread vicious lies about me and my parents. I hope someday we can make amends. Pastors need close friends inside the church, but they also need to ensure that those friendships stay intact despite what other members think.

  • Anybody ever considered the Lord may move people for His purposes? It is not always about us. I hear a lot of whining. If you have done nothing wrong to harm the friendship give them your blessing to go and serve the Lord where he leads them.

    • I hear pain, Jan, not whining.

      • Jan, people sharing their experiences and painful only to be told it sounds like whining is the reasons Pastors don’t talk about these things. Thank you Tom for providing a forum that this issue can be shared. I too have experienced the pain of friends leaving the church I pastored. I cried, prayed, mourned and finally got pass their leaving. I still love people deeply and refuse to let the hurt of some effect my relationships with others. The pain is real. I might add the pain is just as real for members when Pastor’s they love follow the will of God to other places. As it has been stated here the important thing is to leave in right way. That can help minimize the pain for all.

    • A lot of people blame the Lord for their own pettiness and selfishness. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous. “The Lord will not hold him (or her) guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

  • I’ve been burned a couple of times in 20 years of ministry. Once very badly. Though I am still very friendly with the folks in my church, I let it remain there; in the church. My strong friendships are forged outside the church.

  • I have been a pastor for most of my adult life, and I grew up as a pastor’s kid. I had the hardest experience of my life last year when my best friend left the church without a word to me personally. The situation was complex, but I still felt betrayed. I know I’m wounded. I saw my dad go through similar experiences and become jaded. I committed myself never to allow myself to get to that point in ministry. I am saddened to hear so many pastors say they won’t make friendships in the church as a measure of self-protection. I believe that is a mistake. How can we model the Christian life if we are unwilling to trust the very people we are called to serve along side in ministry? I think that kind of distrust will filter down into the attitude of the church. It would be unlikely that a church would be a place where close relationships are forged if the pastor is constantly on guard. I could keep going, but I hope this helps…

  • I am in my 34th year of full time ministry – 16 years as senior pastor at my current church. If you are a Pastor with a Pastor’s heart, it hurts no matter who leaves. I normally grieve almost as if there has been a death in my family. We have always thought of our church as “family.” I’ve often allowed myself to be as close to people as they will allow, and I love them. When someone you thought was close, loyal, and faithful leaves it takes a while to recover. I know the strategy – continue to love and pray – but the reality is that the pain sometimes continues. I appreciate this article and all the comments that have been given. It is good to hear from those who understand. My closest friend has always been my wife. Outside of that I have several other pastor friends, but we often find it difficult with the busyness of ministry to get together. It helps me to remember our Lord often suffered the same things and understood betrayal from a close friend. For Him we continue to serve…

  • I’m a PK and now a pastor’s wife. When my dad was a pastor my parents were hurt by friends in the church so they ended up keeping their members at a distance. When we planted our church 12 years ago we decided we wanted to have close friends in the church.

    Well, the ones that we would have over for dinner and games and go to movies with, the ones we invested in more than any other members are the ones who have hurt us the most and have left us.

    I laughed at the feeling of wanting to punch them in the face but praying instead. I’ve never wanted to actually punch someone but my husband has ????
    And it has taken a TON of prayer to move past the hurt.

    But now I just can’t bring myself to open up to those close friendships in the church anymore. I’ve tried to be different than my parents but now I see why they built the wall.

    As for the comment on pastors being approachable, we still take members to dinner and spend time getting to know them at church events. I just can’t have real friends in church anymore.

  • I’m fortunate that I have friends in my church. Deep friendships.

    I know that the odds are in favor of being betrayed and feeling hurt.

    But I’m not willing to give up relationships, even if that were to cost me my job in a truly brutal act of betrayal.

    I know God will show up even then. Jesus sure knows what betrayal feels like.

    I’m sorry for all the hurts that have happened to everyone. Closing the door on friendships for our own protection can’t be the right answer, can it?

    • I agree, closing the door is probably not the answer. Rather, keeping a healthy eye on the relationship is. The balancing act between pastor/parishioner, employer/employee, and friendship is delicate. How well a person navigates those relationships depends on both/all members of the relationship.

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