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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  • Pastor Jim Panagoplos says on

    I experienced this in September of this year. We had been friends and ministry partners for about 5 years. He was a deacon and Men’s ministry leader. He and his wife and me and mine would often go for lunch or dinner. Even when traveling we would keep in contact to share our experiences. Suddenly, one Sunday morning as we, the deacons and myself, were finishing praying before service as we did each Sunday, he handed me his keys and said he and his wife were leaving the church. They needed to go “where the Spirit was manifesting itself.” Of course I was blindsided by this and did not handle the situation well. I had suffered a tbi caused by an auto accident a few months earlier and well, I’m ashamed to say I blew my top. I told the guys “you all need to go out.” I thought we had a relationship where we could talk with each other if there was a problem. Apparently I was wrong in that. My heart still aches because of this. I pray we can resolve this.

  • Honestly, this is why I’m considering not staying in vocational ministry. I believe I’m called, but we’ve made the structure and professionalism of ministry a place that’s too cold and too business like to be in natural relationships with people. I don’t think this is how Jesus intended it. Most of my friendships are outside the church. Some friendships started outside the church, that led to their coming to my church, then they left the church and don’t talk to my wife anymore. 🙁 It’s very hurtful. I tired of people looking at the church likes it’s a brand/ store and when they don’t like that place anymore… they shop for a new and better one.

    • Chris you are on the right path. When I was in Pastoral school, a visiting nation wide preacher came and told us “You are the shepherd and they are the sheep. Keep a professional distance.” I knew right then there was disfunction and disobedience in the routine. Paul and Jesus were intimate and mutual with those around them. The system is “cold and too business like” because it IS a business. It IS a brand/store where believers consume 84% of their “giving” to pay for leadership and pulpit buildings that benefit mostly themselves. Brand names are required. Everyone IS CALLED to “the ministry” – “make disciples..”. Marketplace ministry is “full time” ministry. Col. 3:23; 1 Cor. 15:58. There is a path in the NT for church life where “you are all brothers” Matthew 23:8-12. It’s hard to find so you may need to start one.

  • Great article. I’m a Jesus girl, a wife, a mom, a Pastor’s wife and most importantly a church member. 😉

    I think any time we have a relationship with someone and we believe it to be a “good” healthy relationship and then it just…isn’t (all of a sudden) it can be unsettling and devastating.

    A few thoughts jumped out at me.

    #1 I wish you would have added to this article is a “SELF Checkup” and what I mean by that is each one of us perceives ourselves to be a certain way. What I have found in ministry is that what I believe I’m putting out there, is NOT always what is received. Any time we’re involved with any situation, self reflection and examination should be happening. I think it’s important to create and practice a lifestyle of truthfulness and constant reality checks when we’re the ones “in charge”.

    It begins with me. What part did I play in this situation? Consistently asking ourselves the hard questions: Are WE being kind? Are WE being honest in ALL things? Are WE using people? Are WE only gravitating towards those that make us feel good about ourselves? Do we say one thing but act another? Do we have an honest picture of who we truly are? Are we manipulative? Do we get defensive when one of our friends try to come to us and tell us something negative about ourselves? This doesn’t mean that it’s ALWAYS our fault. A humble heart will seek to find their part in all things instead of always blaming the other person when something goes wrong.

    It’s the Pastor who has the GUTS to look in the mirror and say, “Jesus reveal ANYTHING that is not from you” and then have the courage to change that? Now THAT is powerful. How open to the negative part of the friendships are we? We’re human, so probably not too open or willing to listen when one of our good friends tries to tell us something about ourselves that we don’t want to hear.

    #2 Being best friends with the “BOSS” never works. Why? Because expectations always happen! People feel a sense of special inclusion as if they have a “say” in matters when they’re “IN” with the boss. Then when a decision is made and they don’t like it, suddenly the Pastor is “not who they thought he was.” Most people are not healthy enough nor mature enough to handle relationships like this. That’s what is so cool about Jesus. He IS the boss, yet he treats everyone the same. He is friends with everyone so there are no favorites. He took His concerns to the Father. I think we should all use that as our example.

    #3 Teaching and training our people about proper conflict resolution is CRITICAL. When a friendship breaks and someone leaves the church, 9.8 times out of 10, the people leave without communicating anything. I have purposefully made it a point to ASK. Sometimes I’ll get an honest answer. Most of the time it was because they were hurt by words or actions of the pastor or leadership but didn’t know how to properly handle the conflict. It’s easier to tuck tail and run…then to look at someone’s face and have a “negative” conversation. So that’s why they leave and never talk about it. They don’t know how to do that. And are we surprised? We’re the leaders, right? And most of us, even though we speak in front of people every week, have a very difficult time expressing hard, negative comments about someone else to their face. Conflict resolution is an every day skill that needs to be learned in order to function in life. As a church, it should be just as critical to our spiritual health as learning the heart and character of Jesus, the Word, what baptism is and biblical truth.

    Dealing with crud is always hard. I’m thankful that the Lord is always teaching us and doesn’t leave us where we are. He is the only one that is worthy of our trust.

  • Pastor's Wife says on

    When my husband and I were engaged one of my co-workers, whose husband was a retired pastor, offered one piece of advice. She said, “Just remember, the people at church are not your friends.” As a 22 year old I thought that was a sad and bitter statement. After 14 years of marriage/ministry life, I totally get it.

  • Joe Pastor says on

    I’m a pastor of 32 years, 16 in my present church. What is described in this article is expected for those in ministry. We don’t expect to be betrayed, but perhaps we should. Even Jesus was betrayed. I found an interesting verse that may apply to this discussion, John 2:24, “But Jesus didn’t entrust himself to them, for he knew what was in their hearts.” Yup! My response: First, there are different levels of friendship. It’s not “be friends” or “don’t be friends.” It’s choose your LEVEL of friendship wisely. Have I been hurt and betrayed by close friends in the church? Of course I have! The pain of those betrayals is awful! And yet, slowly and cautiously, I continue to develop friends within the church–some (not a majority) end up being close friends. Why I don’t completely seal off my heart: Because opening my heart to people, to me, is a part of deep ministry. How do I NOT love people on a deep level? Will I be hurt again? For sure. Par for the course. Goes with the territory. But slowly, discerningly, I will continue to open my heart in various measures to my people.

    • I agree. I’ve been a pastor for 23 years, and I’ve been hurt by people who I thought were my friends. Still, shutting yourself off from friendships is not the answer. I was a socially awkward teenager, and I was often hurt by people who mocked me. I responded by withdrawing into my shell. I learned a long time ago that it’s no way to live.

  • Hi Tom,

    Awesome topic as always. I was helped by the comments above. Thank you.

    I think few pastors realized what was coming regarding this issue when they got into ministry. I have been deeply wounded by such attacks over my 35 years as a pastor. I think every pastor has to understand such things from a Biblical perspective. Our Lord Jesus had his Judas by design. Judas was chosen by Jesus to prepare us for what we would experience. I think we sometimes forget that and think everyone of our “friends” is OK spiritually. That is clearly a Biblical mistake. That is not a cynical comment, it is truth and I think it helps us be realistic about expectations.

    My general attitude now, nearing the last season of my ministry as a full time pastor is let friendships unfold organically, but don’t seek them out. Don’t be cynical about forming general relationships with folks in your church, but don’t think they are lifelong friends. I do think that some pastors who are looking for lifelong friends may really be needy people and that can be a professional and spiritual liability that we pastors have to look at ourselves.

    Bottom line folks, let’s just enjoy the Lord more and draw some discerning and healthy boundaries between professional and personal relationships. Hard to do, but a must in these last days as our Lord’s return nears.

    • I agree with this post most of all, based on 36 years of pastoring. Let the friendships happen organically and when they are broken and friends leave, chalk it up. Its part of the game. Pastoral work is sacrificial. Leaders get blamed and attacked. A lot of this in our time is due to the consumerism of the times. People are consumers, they are looking for the better deal. This has impacted the church to a huge degree. The superficial reasons are many and varied, but the underlying reason is consumerism. Accept it. Move on. Try not to take it personally.

  • Brian Lassiter says on

    I have seen and/or experienced several possibilities:

    Many could well have left for reasons that have nothing to do with the pastor, but the friend may not have felt close enough to share – still something of a stab.

    Those who try to get close quickly may have been a part of the previous pastor’s inner circle, (not necessarily “friends”) and presumed to be the same. Losing that influence often causes festering resentment.

    Back in my single days, I was summarily released after sharing in confidence that I was considering dating a woman who was divorced for biblical reasons not of her doing. “Considering” being the operative here. Opinions vary.

    It is wise not to seek out those close relationships within your church, but they may just click into place, as in life in general. Just be careful and pray for wisdom.

  • As one who has experienced both, I can tell you that it is more painful than a divorce.

    With a Divorce, you have legal recourse, an opportunity to hear a reason, and to at least settle some of the issues. You are GUARANTEED regular access to your children.

    But when a family you love leaves, they take it all away – *Poof* and you have no rights to visit and hug the children you have poured so much into. You can’t chat on the phone with them or the parents and you have no idea what the children know or don’t know about why they can’t go “to my church” any more. If you are *lucky*, you can cyber-stalk their pages for pics of their lives and milestones.

    I fear for their spiritual growth, and their growing cynicism, because all too often, the parents don’t join another church – they just stop going at all! I guess you can tell that I haven’t learned to roll with those ‘breakups’ as yet.

  • Evan Mitchell says on

    Let me clarify the problem discussed here. Most of the comments put a pastor on a pedestal, not as one of the church members. We get the word pastor from the Latin for “shepherd.” Jesus said shepherd my sheep, not expect the sheep to agree with you in every thing you do. In the early church we have the church “fathers” which developed into popery or church fathers. Church history reveals how this distortion lead the Roman church astray. Pastors aren’t the only ones hurt when families leave the church. Look at it from the church members perspective. Many are called to leave by the Lord. Why? The Lord has another ministry or purpose for them. By the way some deductions are postive.

    • Other times, people are just being petty or selfish, and they try to justify themselves by saying “the Lord is leading me”. That’s a dangerous game. “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

      • Pastor Mike says on

        Thank you Thom for this discussion. I’m crying as I read the comments of how common this is. I thought I was alone.

        This has happen so many times. I believe honesty is the best policy. If you want to leave a church be honest about it and say it plain. Don’t say God told you your time was up.l or God told you to leave. It reminds me of the Assyrians who told Israel that God told them to attack them.

        We had a family leave the local church and take 25-30 people with them. This family came into our church very very financially poor. We gave them clothes and food. We had one on one ministry with them. They were like blood family. We were very instrumental in giving them business ideas. Working tediously one on one with them to build a business from the ground up. We help get business proposals, generate business plans, pointed them to the right people at the right time. God blessed. Success came in a mighty way. All along this process our local church kept ministering to the outcast. This Church has very little resources because of the type of people we ministered to.
        This couple before their success, made it clear they would tithe to the local church to ensure the local church could buy and move to a safer area. A lot of drugs and sex trafficking was prominent in the area. We started building a new facility in 2018. Everyone was excited. The church was growing. People were excited.
        That couple became owners of a multi million dollar business. Once we started our building process, out of nowhere the wife of the couple, said the Lord had called her to pastor. We disagreed, for many reasons. So she said God told them to leave.
        We were in the middle of a $1.3 million dollar building program. We had half the funds and they walked out taking 25-30 tithe payers with them.
        It hurt beyond measure. They took all musicians, praise and worship leaders and several ministers. We were and still are devastated. Our new facility had to be halted because we have no funds.
        We love this family but they left a thriving church in ruins. They were like our own children.
        Pray for us. We continue to minister to the unfortunate and the broken, but the pain is real, especially when we drive by the new church that’s half built and we cannot finish it.
        It hurts so bad!

    • Evan you are right. Clergyism as one man with an official title who does all the expression of truth when the priests gather and is focused on so much that he is exempt from working in the marketplace should have been corrected at the reformation. The scripture is full of instruction for shepherding to be a shared and always multiplying ministry. Sadly they are ignored. Luke 6:40; 2 Tim. 2:1,2. So the solo Pastor practice is loaded down with false dependency creating carnality rather than maturity. The pain should wake people up to the corrupt system, but it doesn’t.

  • Victor close says on

    Couldn’t help thinking about Jesus and Judas and although Jesus knew he would be betrayed before it happened, we know that it had to hurt. I have had a similar situation in a friend and I. I found the only way to heal this is to pray for that person to be (truly) blessed by God. Through this sincere love towards that person God heals you.

  • Sounds like some pastors consider church membership a condition of friendship. “he is not my friend any more because he joined another______” Substitute bridge club, tennis club, fitness club, or anything else for church and see how stupid that sounds. Maybe that person wanted to be your friend more than he wanted to be a member of your church and simply wanted to separate the pastoral relationship from the personal one. I get that.
    Given the social issues that are tearing some denominations apart I can easily see why someone might leave a church for reasons other than local ones that have nothing to do with the pastor. If leaving a church severs a friendship then maybe you were not really friends.

    • Comparing the church to a bridge club or a social club sounds pretty stupid to me. It’s one thing when a person leaves the church for legitimate reasons, such as relocation to another city. It’s quite another when someone suddenly decides he or she is too good for you. If you’ve never had that happen, consider yourself blessed. If you have had it happen and didn’t feel a sense of betrayal, then you either weren’t much of a friend or you’re just being dishonest.

      • Who said anything about being too good for you? I see you have posted that refrain up and down this thread. I am sorry if you have been hurt in that way and I can understand your lingering pain. There are reasons people stay in a church and reasons why they don’t. The pastor who takes it as a personal betrayal is not being a good friend. Here are some reasons for leaving;
        The guy in the next pew over keeps hitting on your wife.
        There are only 5 kids in children’s Sunday school while the church up the road has 40 and you want your kid to be in the larger group.
        There is a bully in Sunday school who makes your daughter upset every Sunday and she cries all the way home from church.
        Your treasurer embezzled 100,000 dollars and now you are being asked to give even more to make up the loss.
        Your (synod, conference, denomination) has just endorsed same sex marriage.
        Your regional Bishop says that the virgin birth is not true and the resurrection is a metaphor.
        The mixed race couple who has been attending were told that they might be more comfortable worshipping somewhere else.

        I could go on but you get the idea. None of these reasons constitutes a betrayal of the pastor but they are reasons. Why can’t pastors understand this? Instead the pastor posters on here all seem to be thinking it is all about them.

      • I’m not talking about people who leave churches for legitimate reasons. I’m talking about people who suddenly decide they’re too good for a particular church.

        You said, “There are only 5 kids in children’s Sunday school while the church up the road has 40 and you want your kid to be in the larger group.” Let me ask you this: what did YOU do to try and reach more kids for the smaller church?

      • I have clearly failed to make my point. Have a merry Christmas.

    • I just want to say that I appreciate your perspective here. Church attendance should not be a condition of friendship.

      Faith is personal. No one else can own my faith, not even my husband, and certainly not my friends. If my faith leads me to attend church regularly, AND I happen to become friends with the pastors of that church, then that is great! But if my pastor is pained that I, his/her friend, have decided that my personal expression of my own faith means that I will no longer be another person filling his/her seat and offering plate, then the pain is certainly felt on both sides. It is very painful to realize that your friend and pastor only spends time with you because you’ve chosen to go to “their” church.

      Pastors, I urge you, if you feel personally rejected by a friend because they no longer attend the physical building that you minister in, please seriously consider that you’ve put real conditions on that friendship. Pastors should never be more personally invested in their friends’ faith than they are. The moment a pastor becomes more invested in their friend’s church attendance than their friendship is the moment that friendship becomes exposed to the possibility of manipulation and control.

      I’ve been on both sides of this scenario. The first time, I was the one being “betrayed”, or so I thought…now that I’m on the other side, and realizing that my pastors care more about my church attendance than they do about me, I truly regret not being a better friend to those who left my church.

      And let me just say that there is no illegitimate reason for a person to leave a church. Again, faith is personal. Anyone who leaves a church has a reason, and I can guarantee that the longer a person has been at a church before they leave, the harder and more painful it is for them to leave.

  • Larry Quinnell says on

    If you believe that they are listening to God in their decision making for moving on, then talk to the One who is talking to them.

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