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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  • In 5 years our church plant went through 2 merges and a church split (one split and merge happened at the same time – and yes the church survived).

    The main cause? I was in the midst of believing a theology of equal co-pastoring and also co-pastored with a best friend, twice. The first one up and left me after 4 months without warning (never revealed his depression and marriage sliding downward), the second I brought in with a small group of believers he was pastoring, church voted all in favor, only to have a ringleader take 1/3 of the membership and bolt.

    My friend and I worked for months on organizing ourselves but I had to meet twice with him about his lagging behind in his areas – which he readily admitted but did nothing (as promised) to fix that. He and his wife took people we opened the floodgates to be and work with – and maneuvered them to exclude us to the point we were the ones who left. He and his wife never asked why and barely said goodbye. The betrayal we felt was unparalleled and to this day we don’t speak. I have forgiven and reached out but to no avail.

    He later chased off good core people who started the church with us and even gave loyalty to him. He later disbanded the church when he could no longer handle it, and later suffered a stroke. Breaks my heart still on several levels – another couple that he ran off later felt betrayed by us later and don’t talk to us and yelled us out of their lives.

    A real mess all around. The church still grew and did so much for the community, lives changed and missionaries supported. The first pastor and I talk here and there but no real friendship in spite of my efforts to have one.

    One major thing it changed in me – or actually placed me back into what I believe is the true biblical reality before I went off into multiple pastors/elders back then. I studied it again and realized how far off that really is with one example after another in the Scriptures leading me back to multiple shared responsibilities but a voice that is the final closer and decision-maker and lead servant among many. No more shared authority, but shared responsibility and delegated leadership is the biblical model – not shared authority and everything else all being equal – it doesn’t work, I had been so blind. Since returning to that biblical model, all has been well in later ministries I am involved in leading still after 13 years straight.

    Praying for them and blessing them and wishing the best for them is indeed a healer over time – even if they don’t reciprocate.

    BTW, Carey Nieuwhof mentions this battle in his newest book Never Saw It Coming, in the chapter on cynicism. Excellent insights.

    That’s our story.


  • I’ve been a pastor for 23 years, and at least three times I’ve been hurt by people I thought were my friends. In all three cases, they involved wives who suddenly decided they were too good for small churches like ours (they made that quite clear to me). They really made me feel like a failure as a pastor. The last time it happened was four years ago. I seriously considered leaving not only the church, but also the ministry.

    That being said, I have to agree with the ones who warn against going to the opposite extreme. I was a socially awkward teenager, and I was often hurt by people I tried to befriend. I responded by shutting myself off to people altogether. I finally learned that was no way to live, and it’s certainly no way to minister to people. Anytime you make a friend, you run the risk of getting hurt. However, you also run the risk of forming cherished friendships that will last a lifetime. Thankfully, in my case, the latter have far outweighed the former.

  • A lot of good analysis on here from various pastors and others. I am always gracious, polite and respectful to my congregational members. I have mixed feelings, though, about close friendships with ones in the church as a pastor. I agree with the statement that we have to try invest ourselves in our people. No disagreement there. But I’m not trite (not saying anyone on here is) when it comes to offering criticism to pastors who refuse to forge close relationships with congregational members. Many of us are walking around with wounds: wounds that occurred yesterday, six months ago, last year, 2-3 years ago, or even 10-20 years ago. When you spend time with people (of your church) outside the church walls and friendships begin to form over 2-3 years or longer and then all of a sudden you’re a goat or the enemy, that is deep betrayal, hurt, and pain. Pastors shy away from this and understandably so. The emotional pain is too bad and it’s tough when you thought someone was your friend and then they turn on you for little to no reason at all. Just because you didn’t do something the right way, as a pastor, in a church. Not even for some real argument. That is agonizing, folks. Again, if you’re a pastor, you’ve been hurt, and you continue to put yourself out there, trying to form friendships with your people, I commend you. But I’m not going to condemn the pastors who don’t.

  • Pastor Kevin says on

    I had very good friends ask to meet with me after church to tell me that they were giving me a month’s notice before they left and began looking for another church that would better meet the needs of their children.

    At the time it, it felt like a kick in the face, especially since they were our youth leaders and their children along with my own made up most of the children in our small church.

    It felt so weird to be given a 30-day notice for something like that, and my first thought was “If you’re gonna betray me, just go ahead and leave.” But I have to say that I do respect them and their decision, They did give me a reason for their departure unlike so many others who leave and never give you a reason (or don’t give you the real reason). The notice also gave time to find replacements for them since they held multiple positions within the church, a luxury that a pastor also rarely has. And the time gave me the opportunity to come overcome the initial shock and feelings of betrayal, so that we could remain on amicable terms in the future.

    I still would have preferred that they had stayed but I understand their decision, especially since my wife and I wouldn’t have minded to have gone with them for the sake of our own children! It was just one of those catch-22 situations that pastors in small churches often find themselves in where because we did not have young families we could not offer the programs to attract young families (nor keep the couple we had).

  • The sentiment felt by many here could be echoed a thousand times more I am sure. I remember asking one of my mentors after my first stab in the back how this could happen. He gave me some practical counsel for sure. More about dealing with the hurt than combating it. Here are 3 of the points he made. It is not all of his counsel for sure, but it was a help for me and I pray for others as well.

    1) JOHN 15:20 says the servant is not greater than his master. We must remember that we are His servants, and as such are susceptible to like trials (like, not exact same). His friends abandoned him, denied him, betrayed him…etc.

    As James says, in the midst of trials we ought to pray for wisdom. He does not encourage us to pray for strength, deliverance, healing, or any other request. He says pray for wisdom. Why? So we can learn, grow, and become more like Christ.

    If the goal is Christlikeness, then be ready for trials like that of Christ’s.

    2) this counsel was a little tongue in cheek humor, but true.

    We preach a lot about being compared to sheep and that she are dumb. Don’t forget we are sheep shepherding sheep. We do dumb things and so do those in our congregation. While there could be something that I should have done differently or they should have done differently, there is also the possibility that it is just dumb actions by dumb sheep.

    3) as difficult as it may be, we must remind ourselves that dead men have no feelings. As we experience things like this let it be a reminder to us to mortify the flesh. I believe Hebrews 12:1-2 could apply here. Sunday school answer, I know. But it does not make it any less true.

    Does this advice fix the problem? No… but it helps deal with it.

    Praying God’s Glory is seen above my hurt.

  • I find this clergy / laity distinction and lack of Biblical support that shepherds should not form friendships with their flock disturbing in spite of the painful experiences recorded.

    If Jesus called the disciples His friends and the apostle Paul could form friendships as evidenced by the many greetings at the end of his epistles I fail to see why clergy today are apparently unable to do so.

    We read at the end of 2 Timothy where Paul wrote” No one stood by me the first time I defended myself me; ALL DESERTED ME. May GOD not count it against them. BUT the LORD stayed with me and gave me strength.”

    No where do I find Paul warning against friendships with the flock. He does however caution us to be aware of false brothers and the unfortunate reality of church bullies that Thom Ranier frequently reminds us of.

    After Paul had written off Mark in Acts 15:36-40 as Mark had left Paul and Barnabas early on their first missionary journey Paul was able to write years later to Timothy:”Get Mark and bring him with you , because he can help me in the work.”

    Reconciliation is always possible.
    Are we really seeking “To GOD alone be the glory” or are rather concerned about “our” Church or the Body of Christ?

    In Ephesians 4:15 we read” Instead , by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ , who is the head. Under his control all the different parts of the body fit together , and the whole body is held together by every joint with which it is provided. So when each separate part works as it should , the whole body grows and builds itself up through love”

    ‘No more lying then, then! Each of you must tell the truth to one another, because we are all members together in the body of Christ” Ephesians 4:25

    In 1 John 4:17 we read :”But if we live in the light – just as he is in the light -then we have fellowship with one another , and the blood of Jesus , his Son, purifies us from ever sin”

  • As both a PW and a PK, i’ve Experienced much hurt from people thought to be close friends in the church. For me personally, my closest friends are outside of church and I have no desire to make close friends in the church. Have relationships yes, but close friendships no. Unfortunately, I have no trust for friendships in the church.

  • As a lay person, an active volunteer in leadership roles, I have had situations like this happen to my family and it was the pastor that we thought was our friend. When a major event happened with one of our children, said pastor never even tried to help minister to our hurting daughter. We were very active and thought these people were friends, thought that even if we did not always agree on some things that as long as we agreed on major things, we could put aside the small things for Christ and just try to find common ground as mature Christians. We called the pastor to tell him what was going on with our family, told him we would be taking a break with our leadership duties etc and after 3.5 weeks were removed from the email list and when we asked about it, we were treated in a hateful manner. We had planned to go back, but after that, we felt unloved and unwanted. Sometimes the pastors hurt people too. I have prayed for this church and the people there because I do not want others to be treated this way. We are fine…we follow Christ and not men so we moved on and even though we miss the people, we have to worship and follow Christ first and foremost. I only comment to maybe help pastors realize that they have to be careful with hurting people. We are all just humans and need to love each other more and try to understand each other better.

  • Daniel from South Africa says on

    Dr Rainer
    This sounds very familiar.Nothing was as traumatic for me as the departure of very close friends and members in our church!It has been 4 years now!Healing has been progressive!The departure of this close couple (after a disagreement) triggered the departure of others in the church,leaving our church with a remnant & huge bills & low morale.It shattered my self esteem and left me questioning my desire to continue with the ministry!The pain was just too deep!

  • A very close family friend left after about 20 years together. We raised our kdis together, home schooled together, high school sports together, served in multiple places in the church. Departure was sudden, over a desire for a more “spirit filled” church. Very painful. Denial for a while…anger…cynicism. For a year or so we stopped pulled back from close friendships in the church for fear of more pain…but decided after a time that there is no IMPACT w/o CONTACT.

    I’ve opened my heart again…and been hurt again. We still feel the pain, but have decided that we must stay open to our people or we’ll not be able to grow the church as we could. And it’s hard to disciple people w/o opening your heart. Ministry is a risk… but one my wife and I have chosen to take. After 25 years in a slowly growing church, I can’t pull back now. Coasting and self protection are not in my DNA…nor my wife’s. So we press on to take hold of the prize… of the upward call.

  • Dan Jackson says on

    It is difficult for me to read this article and the responses that followed. I happen to be “that guy” who walked away. What makes it even more difficult to read, is that my brother is a pastor who has experienced this same injury. I am not without compassion or understanding.

    I was the chairman of our elder board. A friend of my pastor. An ardent supporter of his ministry and a loyal soldier.

    He, was (and is) a good man, a phenomenal bible teacher, a wonderful husband and loving father.

    I wanted our parting to be friendly. I thought it was. It wasn’t and I too bare wounds. Wounds that will hurt until God calls me home.

  • Thanks for article. My wife and I just went through this. We had a couple that we became very close to and did many activities with them. They suddenly left the church over an issue that was ‘silly’. When I tried to resolve the issue they would not listen. So sad and so hurtful. The article was an encouragement

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