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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  • Good work I love to partner you as a servant of God from you I look forward to seeing you some time to serve God in Uganda Africa
    Pastor Samuel Emuron Healing Mission Church Uganda Africa

  • Always take the opportunity to build close relationships in your church community. As a pastor I must model bearing with one another and loving one another. The people in our churches are not perfect. The will come and they will go. There is a blessing in the temporary. When friends leave we develop new deeper friendships with others that richly bless our lives. The temporary things of this world give us a greater appreciation for the eternal. I deepen my dependence and appreciation for Christ, and that makes me more effective in the ministry of the gospel.

    Ministry is difficult and there are always disappointments and suffering, but it shouldn’t take us by surprise. A pastor’s meditation on the Word and trust in the Holy Spirit will empower you to finish the race. Our goal is to hear, “Well done.”

  • Dennis Williams says on

    I have been a pastor since 1980 and this issue has caused me more pain than any issue I’ve faced! And not being able to share this with fellow pastors have equally tough! Thanks for addressing this painful subject’

  • It seems all the pastors here are celebrating a self-pity party instead of focusing on what they did wrong. It is always easy to blame others for personal failures instead of taking responsibility.

  • I have been reading these responses and would now like to give you another prospective. I am the wife of a Lay Pastor. We have an Interim and 2 Lay Pastors. When our full time pastor left he stated that our church would be considered a failure. (Talk about gut punch). They joined another church in our area that is vibrant and joyful. We were left to pick up the pieces. We interviewed two potential pastors. The first needed at least 500 people and the other told us to shut the doors. That it was only a matter of time. For two years we have hung in there. Unfortunately I find myself reading cookbooks and the bible when our Interim and Lay Pastors preach. I don’t sing the songs and I have no JOY in my heart in going to church. I, have therefore, started visiting with other churches in our small town. I am actively involved with the Ministerial Association and have wanted to hear and experience the numerous pastors and churches in our area. I prayed about this for 6 months. It has been the hardest decision I had to make. The experience of “Church” to me is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. To praise him in song and worship. I just wasn’t getting that. I was beginning to believe that I didn’t really need church. Wrong. Church should bring Joy. I now that some of my church family will feel betrayed. I don’t know how to fix that. Just a prospective from “the other side”

  • Alan Anderson says on

    Friendship is two street with people. As a layperson, I truly felt the pastor turned on my wife and me. He pushed us out. Several orher members got the same treatment. It hurt, commucation is a big thing.
    Sonya had some good point.
    Paster and layperson relationships need to like be husband wife. Grow toward Christ.

  • I understand the caution against forming close friendships within the church you serve, but it seems to me that pastoral ministry is relational in a way that is inherently risky. All true friendships are laden with risk, especially when combined with another enterprise such as a business partnership, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to write off friendship as an impossibility within the context of a church community. How do we hold at arms length those with whom we are to be “completely one” as Jesus prayed in the high priestly prayer of John 17? And don’t all the “One another” commands, when viewed in the aggregate amount to a command to pursue deep intimacy within the body? If obeyed in tis entirety, God’s vision for His church is actually many times deeper than what we often call “friendship.” Are we to avoid that because we or our family might experience hurt? Jesus didn’t avoid Judas. He washed his feet. Is the Christian life about avoiding potential hurt and betrayal? The Bible so often calls us to hold contradictory things in tension- to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves for example. Someone once said, and I paraphrase here, that Pastors must have the hide of a rhinoceros and the heart of a vulnerable friend. I guess I choose the risk of being a friend to people in my church over the certainty of disobedience.

    • I love your line, “Jesus didn’t avoid Judas.” As I read your comment, I was already thinking about Peter. But Judas takes it a step further. Friendship in a cursed world will always be imperfect. Perhaps our expectations need to be lowered and our courage increased.

  • I haven’t seen a single Scriptural citation for this sentiment that pastors and their own people shouldn’t be close. I don’t think the Bible is silent on this matter; in fact, I don’t think it could be clearer.

    Philippians 1:7; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 13:34-35; John 15:12,17; 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12; 1 Timothy 5:1-2; Matthew 23:8-12, etc., etc., etc…

  • On a similar note, I had a friend turn on me and manipulate the elders so that *I* had to leave the church. On top of the betrayal and broken trust, I was also unemployed.

    It took awhile to get back on our feet, but we temporarily went to a small, caring church, then eventually found a new pastoral call at a much healthier church.

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