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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  • This is indeed a sad page to read. I was once a licensed minister and worked in a few churches. After entering the private sector, I realized that most pastors have no friends…so I volunteered to be my pastor’s friend. We formalized the arrangement, meeting regularly. I was very involved in the church as a board member, backup preacher, youth leader, and more.

    It became clear after 4 years with our new pastor that he had no clear vision of what a church (any church) should be doing, even after attempting a restart with some professionals. He couldn’t answer any questions about the the purpose of church, or what God intends for any local congregation, and he had no goals for the church…let alone any ideas about how to reach them.

    Our hearts were broken after 14 years at that church, because we could no longer stay. Our responsibility to God will always come before our responsibility to any specific congregation, and our obedience was starting to create friction because our direction didn’t match our leader’s direction. Rather than create new problems, we felt led to find a church where our efforts would be in step with the leadership.

    I told no one but the pastor that we were leaving. Nothing changed on our end, except where we attended church. Unfortunately, it appears the pastor and his wife were so hurt that they put us down in front of the church. We hated putting them through that, but we couldn’t stay. I love them still, but I can’t be part of their church anymore.

    It’s not always the case that the pastor is the victim. Sometimes the entire congregation is the victim, and the fallout hurts everybody involved.

  • Most of my friends left the church in a coffin – they were dieing to leave, you might say. That’s the legacy of pastoring for 42 years, I guess. I knew going in that dealing with sin is a messy business – Spurgeon said if you can’t take the heat stay out of the fire. Seeing Christ as the Head of HIS church and not just my church is why I never took departures by the living personally. Transferring the hurt to Christ has saved me much bitterness. Samuel the prophet – rejected by his own and replaced with a king -showed me that. When the Lord is your best friend, there is sufficient company that remains, and more comforts down here than we ever deserve. I never swallowed those seminary rules about pastors and friends, mostly because I understood the application of love was meant to get me past myself – “we must decrease, that He might increase” – as the apostle taught us. I understand the pain, yes. But I understand the peace-giver more.

  • Friendship between shepherd and sheep is rare, much rarer than Ophir’s gold. If it is friendship between pastors, it is even more complicated.
    I was betrayed and abandoned by brethren who approached us when we arrived at our last church in early 2014. At last I discovered that they could be ’emotional parasites’, approach when they need to, and turn their back when you have nothing left to do to offer.
    Even today 2 years after my sudden departure from the church in early 2017, where I could not even say goodbye to brothers …
    I still do not know why they left us, I suspect gossip and lies from evil people, presbyters to be clearer and gossipy and lying women.
    It is not easy to be abandoned, more so because after all we are in a very bad situation in terms of finances, and everything because people who we thought friends and sisters did allied themselves with the evil people to destroy us.
    But I’m still here … I’m here.
    God have mercy on us all, whether in the US, Canada, Mexico or Brazil.
    Grace over all …

  • I have been pastoring for 7 years (I am 52 y/o) & have recently felt the pain of having some dear friends leave the church. I believe that if we could build greater community within the church we serve, we may have fewer people walk away. The only way I see to build community within the church is to do life together like the early church did in Acts 2.

    As one person said, “people can be fickel.” I think our people often don’t know how much we really love them. I stress from the pulpit (& conversation) that church membership is a commitment much like a marriage, & is not to be taken to lightly.

    …mostly just wandering thoughts…any & all input appreciated.

  • Having been molested by a lady in our church when I was a young teenager I learned early to put up high walls to keep people out. After counseling I have learned to trust a few people. I am ashamed to say most of my church relationships are kept at an arms length distance. They may not know it or recognize it but most are kept at a distance. I generally expect that everyone will hurt you eventually. Besides my wife my best friend at the moment is an unbeliever that is chief at the fire department where I am chaplain. I love my church, and I love my people. I have been pastor there over 15 years but genuine friendships are hard to come by. Not their fault but mine.

  • It is inevitable that this will happen. Acknowledging it up front is key. I’ve learned that a shepherd must be close and involved with his sheep. Sheep bites are painful, but rarely lethal if handled internally correctly. I particularly loved the don’t burn the bridges” segment. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves is a often misunderstood Scripture, but it applies here for sure! Keep swinging the bat Pastors!

  • I am really concerned about this for my own pastor. I can see him being devastated by something like this.

  • The pain of broken relationships is part and parcel of human existence. It is not really unique or ‘special’ when one is a pastor. Our Lord experienced it. We will.

    Pastors are human first and have varying degrees of emotional and spiritual health just like everyone else.

    How often have I heard that the reason folks must be in a church is for the relationships, ‘we’re a family’, etc? That’s why small groups are often encouraged so much as well.

    But when the pastor limits his relationships because, well, he’s the pastor and doesn’t want to get hurt, he can no longer model nor teach what emotional and spiritual health in relationships should look like. In fact, he separates himself due to his ‘rank’ or ‘position’. I see no justification for this in scripture. (Jesus not entrusting himself was wisdom and health, not an example to stay separate, btw)

    Pastor’s, don’t believe for one minute that only you can feel this deeply. You’ve got a large room full of people who have experienced the whole range of rejection, betrayal and hurt.

    It’s especially galling that both pastors and church members can only see supposed friendships thru the filter of where those ‘friends’ sit on a Sunday morning. Are they only friends because they sit in the same building as you? or are they friends because they are people you like and relate to and are part of the greater Body of Christ?

    To Sonya’s point- folks generally leave without giving ‘reasons’ because they’re either seen as giving ultimatums or as whiners or as dangerous dividers. On the opposite side, those who remain and don’t ask why, only reveal that the relationship was conditional. Church members and pastors alike don’t do well in this whole area…

    You probably can guess how I know….

  • John Cheek says on

    Sometimes the problem with developing close friendships with congregants is the problem of perception. Others will indeed notice the closeness and will perceive that they close friends have greater access to the pastor in terms of activities in and around the church, and who is in the “informal” power circle of the church. I have seen this cause division. To a degree it has happened to me when those who I thought were firm supporters withdrew. So, I nurture relationships; but I am very cautious about close friendships with church members.

  • Kyle Stanford says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    I appreciate this post, because it is a current reality for me. When I came to the church two years ago, I was befriended by a couple who were leaders within the church. My wife and I developed a good friendship with this couple and enjoyed our time together. At the beginning of the year, this individual had a dramatic change in attitude (negatively). This individual’s attitude and actions were hindering the work of ministry within the church. As the pastor and friend, I had to confront his attitude and action. When I set down to discuss the problems, the individual decided it was a good time to in return tell me everything wrong with the church and myself. As a result, we no longer have a close friendship, and I have been struggling with it. I pray my wife and I will continue to develop friendships within the church, and do not allow this experience to hinder us from relationships with others. I appreciate this post, because personally, I needed to read it.

  • I have been through this a few times now, but I cannot shake the idea that my closest friendships ought to be in my church. Early in my ministry I was mentored to keep some separation, but I can’t reconcile that with the ideals of family, unity and connection set forth in scripture. So I continue to seek out relationship with people and when I find individuals that I am particularly compatible with in deeper camaraderie I don’t hold back. I am sure that this can produce further hurt in the future, but I think that finding deeper friendship within the body is worth the sacrifice.

  • This article touched my heart. From my youth I have been active in church ministry and took on the responsibility of an elder in my previous church and when we moved to another city, did so again in my current church. While I have a secular day job, my role as an elder has always been one of teacher-pastor in our small church. Relationships inevitably bring pain, and the closer the friendship, the greater the potential for pain. Fortunately, our Chief Shepherd understands pain, even the pain of betrayal of those closest to Him. These betrayals bring us closer to Him which is a good thing. “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task”, in my experience this noble task brings pain with it. If we are to minister to the needs of the flock, we cannot do so from an ivory, pain-free tower. Church leadership can be a lonely job, the flock often doesn’t fully appreciate “the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches” (as Paul puts so beautifully and passionately) but I don’t think that it prevented him from forming deep friendships. That is why I believe that church leadership should be a plurality of elders who serve together for the love of their little flock. And while people come and go and sometimes our friendships will be betrayed, I still think it’s our job to love the church, we can’t do that by keeping a safe distance. Our closest friendships would naturally be within the church, to have our closest friendships outside the body of Christ would be a path to shipwreck as we cannot have true fellowship with those who have rejected the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have friends outside the church but if they get too close, I pray they come to Jesus rather than the other way around.

    • Ron, thank you for the powerful testimony of ministry “free of charge”, not “peddling”, “not seeking what is yours but you”, etc. What a freedom and partnership you have.

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