When Church Members Are a Blessed Exit: 5 Thoughts

Perhaps one of the most under-reported issues about the post-pandemic church is how some churches are doing better after the departure of some church members. We know that about 20 percent of active church attendees stopped attending during the pandemic and have not returned. What we rarely hear is that some of those departures actually helped churches.

I need to be careful with this topic. I am not suggesting that urging members to leave should be a church strategy. Nor am I suggesting that problems always reside with the church members. Pastors and other church staff can be problems as well.

Still, this issue is worth exploring. Here are five observations I have at this point,

1. Greater unity takes place when a negative church member leaves. My prayer is that any negativity in the church would be removed. It is hard to have a unified church when there is pervasive negativity present. One pastor shared with me about three church members who did not return after the pandemic quarantine. He and all of his elders affirmed that it was like a dark cloud had been lifted from the church.

2. Sometimes it is better for church members to find another church that better aligns with their focus and doctrine. In that sense, the problem was not as much a negative member as it was a mismatched church member. Any perceived negativity was the consequence of the member not being aligned with the church.

3. These blessed exits can be a form of self-selected church discipline. Of course, departing members do not see themselves as subjects of church discipline. Still, their exits were good for the church, its mission, and its unity.

4. Many of the pastors with whom we’ve spoken have learned not to chase these exiting members. It’s not uncommon for members to depart because they did not get their way on an issue in the church. Prior to their departure, they were negative and needy. Many pastors have learned the painful lesson about giving these energy drainers too much attention.

5. Beware of people coming to your church when they quickly start complaining about the church they left. That attitude could be a clear signal that they will start complaining about your church and about you personally. Be ready to “nip it in the bud” (Andy Griffith and Barney Fife fans will understand the reference.).

I remember well the first time a pastor friend of mine referred to his church experiencing a “back door revival.” Though his church endured some painful losses through this attrition, God used the exits for His glory. 

Sometimes a minus can become a plus for a church.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Posted on November 6, 2023

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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  • Ray Kilpatrick says on

    What a joke.

  • Ray Kilpatrick says on

    It’s also a huge blessing to a church when a professional pastor whose theology does not line up with a particular denomination leaves a church. It’s not always church members that are the problem. You as a professional pastor promoter fail to recognize this in my opinion.

    • That’s true. What does it have to do with the article? The article does not and can not address every scenario and I don’t see where it precludes your point either.

  • As someone, who has finally decided to remove myself from membership of a denomination, which has made it clear that, contrary to its official “diversity of thought” polity, only certain views will be tolerated, i.e. those of so-called Progressive Christianity, and those members not getting with the program will be slandered, no matter how societally mainstream, but more importantly, biblically orthodox (and generally still are), their positions were considered by all just a few years ago, I think letting those in leadership know exactly why you are leaving in a respectful manner is important. This is especially important, if it is for sound, biblically based reasons. It is not easy telling a pastor, who is a cradle member of a denomination that the denomination in which he (or she) has devoted his (or her) whole life has erred. But, if done in a polite, respectful manner, then it is wholly appropriate to do so.

    Also, as a member, I think it is wholly inappropriate to do the whole ambus, cryptic, “We need to talk” game, which is a form of power play. That is something sophomoric teens do, not adults claiming to be Christ’s. When telling my pastor how I felt about the direction of the denomination, I did not do that. I also think people need to show pastors grace, sometimes an overlooked or unresponded to message is just that due human error. But, if a pastor has decided to throw on the ignore switch, regularly does not acknowledge outreach via text/email unless it is only positive, and acts on Sunday as if you didn’t send anything the week before, then it is time to go.

    And pastors, sometimes a simple acknowledgement is all one wants, not necessarily to talk, unless your specific opinion is being specifically solicited.

    And yes, there is recent hurts behind this statement if I am going to be honest and transparent.

  • Our church experienced this. From Covid, we lost about 40-50 members that moved on to surrounding churches (of which there are many). Most of them moved to churches that weren’t wearing masks. Much of what I witnessed had more to do with perceived political stances than with church doctrine. Interestingly, many of the people that left were both politically conservative and theologically conservative, and that has left us with a different atmosphere. Our church is a Church of Christ, and I know this tradition has tended to be ultra conservative and sectarian historically. So this change has actually lightened the tone of our church culture. Also, most of the members who left were Sunday-morning-only attenders, so while our Sunday numbers are lower, I feel like we have a more honest number, if that makes sense. Interestingly, our Wednesday night attendance is as good as ever.

  • I have had people discuss leaving with me and I have given them my blessing. The church is better off with 200 unified people than 300 divided people.

  • Sheena Rader says on

    I agree with this article about it being better for a church’s unity when negative “constant complainers” leave! I do think it wise for a pastor to do an “exit interview” to see exactly why a member chooses to leave. And it seems right that they pray together against any bitterness or unforgiveness.

  • Yup! A professor once said “there is very little wrong in a church that the right funeral won’t cure!”

  • A couple thoughts, especially considering yesterday was my last Sunday in my current call. Their departure should be recognized and celebrated – not because they are leaving but because they were part of the community of faithful for some period of time. Not to lift them to a revered position, but to acknowledge the blessings and challenges each person brings to a community of faith. Part of the language we used yesterday was “celebrate the successes… remember the failures… to know God was, is, and will be with those who follow God…” I is often good to have the squeaky wheel depart because of the negative energy, but sometimes the squeaky wheel can cause us to consider whether our words match our practice.

    Number 4 is important, especially when the person has attended for a long period of time and departed at some change in clergy. When I was called, there was focus on a couple handful of people who had left about 3 or 4 years prior to my arrival. The remnant wanted to see if the new leadership (me) might be able to bring them back. Not a single person returned and few, if any responded to any overture. As hard as it might be for some to say, chasing after parishioners never brings the desired outcome. The one chasing cedes authority to the one chased.

    Number 5 is a power play – the person is more interested in being in charge or wielding power as opposed to being a member of the church.

  • But don’t wash your hands of them when they depart. If/when they attempt to join another church, it doesn’t benefit anyone if you send their membership letter stating they are leaving in good standing. I’m not saying hold their membership hostage and I’m certainly not saying slander the departing member, but ensure that the pastor of their next church understands that you desire some sort of reconciliation process before they officially depart.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jeff –

      That’s good advice for those who still practice the transfer of letters, but over 90% of U.S. churches do not. These members will likely show up at a church that will not have any knowledge of the issues that transpired at the previous church.

    • In the Episcopal tradition where the letter of transfer is canonically required, most of the transfers I have sent are from people in two camps: (1) ones not attending regularly – not in good standing (because of attendance), or (2) ones in good standing who are participating in worship and the life of the church in some way.

      Most of the malcontents simply go away and don’t transfer elsewhere. Even with the perfunctory letter (form letter filled with general data), I always send a cover letter. While I would never put a scathing statement in something which could come back to me, I make statements about the person (or none – which speaks volumes).

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Les –

        There is much truth to this statement: “Most of the malcontents simply go away and don’t transfer elsewhere.”

  • Bob Myers says on

    Not every problem-maker is a “mocker.” But some are. If you’ve ever dealt with one, you know it is a great relief when they go:

    Throw out the mocker, and fighting goes, too.
    Quarrels and insults will disappear. – Proverbs 22:6 (NLT)

    Love your last point. Most every pastor who has been at it for a while knows to be cautious with new arrivals that have a lot of experience and initial enthusiasm.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      There are so many good Proverbs, Bob. I have not looked at 22:6 in light of the topic. Great biblical insights.

  • I completely agree. Since the pandemic, our church has struggled with attendance. We made some decisions that not everyone agreed with. The pastor met with some families who were not happy & he heard it all. How he wasn’t a good pastor, how he should have stuck with something else, how he had too much power. Those families ultimately left & it has been like “taking off the lid”. We had consistently been hovering around 100. Yesterday we had 189. We still love those families, but are thankful for the growth & unity we are seeing.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, S. It is indeed painful when church members express negativity and then depart. But, for many churches, it has been blessing that they chose not to stay.

  • Excellent, Dr Rainer!

    I have absolutely experienced the benefits of a “back door revival” when negative members choose to exit.

    There have also been more than enough negative members who have declared war by announcing, “This is my church! I was here before you arrived and I’ll be here long after you’re gone…just like all the other pastors!”

    I appreciate your voice on subjects so relevant to ministry! Praying for breakthroughs in our local churches…lots of additions with a few blessed subtractions.

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