When I moved to Dahlonega, GA, a quaint, small college town in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, just off the AT about an hour from downtown Atlanta, I had dreams of a community where folks would experience a uniquely grace-centered Christianity, free from old school legalism and new world relativism.
It would be a city on a hill giving light to our region, exalting Jesus and preaching both the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the sinner leading to the enjoyment of spiritual adoption and life transformation.
It would be the church I wanted for my kids. It would be the church I needed for myself.
I'm thankful to God that people did come and got connected to the community. It has been a beautiful thing to see the interweaving of God's providence in the lives of people who previously didn't know each other at all come to know, really know another human with the depth of vulnerability that the gospel allows.
To my delight, people came.
Then, to my dismay, people left.
No, not everyone. But consistently, to my surprise, people in whom I (and even more so my wife) had invested began to leave. Yet my longing for them is the same longing I have for myself, which is to come alive to the moment by moment reality living in view of the cross of Jesus and all of the practical implications that has for our lives.
Some would talk to me about their reasons for leaving and I really appreciated that.
Sometimes the reasons for leaving are theological. I can respect that. No question. Sometimes the issue has been that I'm not the warmest "pastoral care" guy. Again, no question there.
I tend to love the church as a visionary, strategic planner--an architect of sorts who designs systems that help believers flourish and grow in community.
Another image for my role is a chef who loves to prepare and present feasts of expository grace for the sheep to come feed upon for their spiritual health and growth.
My deep desire for everyone who has any exposure to our ministry is that they experience the joy of knowing and following Jesus.
I thought everyone was craving the kind of community that majored on grace--really majored in grace in every strand of church life. That kind of church has been a dream in my heart and mind for my entire life. Not grace in theory but in reality. Where you could feel it oozing from the people around you. Okay, oozing is not the greatest image. Sorry 'bout that.
But with our church plant, the dream was becoming a living reality.
Then why would people leave? I moved my family 8 hours from the nearest relative to start this church. We came to the unknown so that others could be known, not just by other people, but by our Abba, Father.
I realize that our local church is just an expression of the larger kingdom. I get it and appreciate that. I guess what I found to be a really special expression of that kingdom wasn't as special to everyone else. Kinda like we all think our kids are the best at everything, or want to think that. Pastors are like that, too, about the churches we lead.
Is it a perfect church?
No, not close.
As you've heard before, if you find the perfect church, you better run for your life. Or else, you'll ruin it. 🙂
"if you find the perfect church, you better run for your life. Or else, you'll ruin it."
Am I the best preacher?
But like Charles Spurgeon said, "There may be a better messenger out there, but nobody has a better message!"
I assume if you are reading this that you have had folks leave the church you lead, too. You have stayed awake in bed staring at the ceiling, having fictional conversations with the departed, sometimes wooing them back; sometimes telling them off.
How do we handle the exodus of someone we thought was our friend? How do we face the feelings of insecurity, anger, resentment, condescension, and cynicism?
So, how can you cope?
Below is a 5-part coping strategy that I think will help.
1. Expect that some people are going to leave.
This is a hard pastoral reality. There is no way to prevent people from leaving if they want to leave. Well, there are ways to keep them, but those tactics largely are illegal.
You may find yourself needing to accept this fact early on. People will leave.
The challenge is to avoid cynicism. "Oh, let's get close to the new folks and invest all kinds of time in them. After all, they'll be gone in a year to 18 months."
When I have adopted that attitude, I have found myself pulling away from everybody.
But Jesus shows us a better way, doesn't he? At one point, all of Jesus's disciples would leave him. And not just leave him, but abandon him to suffer and die alone.
Jesus refused to be cynical. If anyone had a right to be, it was Jesus. But he loved until the end, and it was his love that ultimately was transformational for his disciples.
"Jesus refused to be cynical. If anyone had a right to be, it was Jesus. But he loved until the end, and it was his love that ultimately was transformational for his disciples."
Rather than blanket cynicism, I think it is a much healthier approach to invest in people without the demand or expectation that they must be as committed to the church or to you as you are to the church and to them.
In this way, even pastoral friendships can be manifestations of grace. No demands. No expectations. No exchange of goods. Just a one way love that says, "We will love you regardless of whether you love us back or not."
Whether you stay or not.
2. Prepare to ride the Grief Cycle.
When people leave, no one feels the sense of rejection more than the lead pastor, as no one else so figuratively represents the congregation publicly and stands in front of the congregation to teach from the Bible week in and week out.
"When people leave, no one feels the sense of rejection more than the lead pastor."
When people leave, it feels like personal rejection. Not that they are just leaving a church but that they are leaving you.
At times, people who used to attend Sunday morning worship continue to participate in the other ministries of the church, like community groups.
On one hand, we may be glad that they are still somewhat connected. But on the other, the fact that they are participating in other gathers except the one you lead feels like they are saying, "We like everyone except you, pastor. Even though we want to be part of this grace oriented community and love what have been built here, we prefer to get our preaching and teaching from someone else. And we give there now, too. But thanks for letting us mooch off your other ministries. Maybe if you were a more gifted preacher and a more caring person, we'd see you on Sunday mornings."
Has anyone said that. No.
Is anyone really thinking that. Probably not.
Does it feel like they are saying that. Yes.
Maybe the most painful loss is when long standing folks whom you thought were with you for the long haul leave. If you can't rely on established folks, who can you rely on to stay? Is everyone going to leave?
At this point, it is really, really hard not to grow cynical and pull back from investing in people's lives on a personal level.
What you likely are experiencing when you begin hearing these internal voices is a stage of the Grief Cycle that is akin to detachment. "I have been hurt and I will not be hurt again. So, I will not get close to anyone again."
In the Grief Cycle, denial leads to anger which devolves into depression and detachment.
We may then grow insecure and reach out to see if there is any way we can get them back. We are willing to make any changes, meet any demands. Sometimes we grovel.
Eventually in the cycle, we accept that they have left. That is the new reality. Time to move on and continue investing in others.
But how can I move on after battling that kind of emotional trauma?
I have to...
3. Consider God’s larger story.
In Isaiah, the Lord says, 8"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Believing God at his word here is a source of freedom and hope, but requires the humility of not knowing what God is doing and being okay with not being in the loop concerning God's plans.
According to Romans 8:28, we know that God is at work, weaving his larger story in which we all play a role. But we do not know how the parts fit together, how the present fits with the future, or why a tragic event is allowed to unfold in such a way that it plays a vital part to the development of the rest of the story.
The cross is one such event.
The original disciples couldn't see how the crucifixion of Jesus could possibly result in good. The act was evil and treacherous. But the ultimate intent of God was good, to save his people from their sins.
Peter even describes these twin motivations at work in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:22-24, 22"Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."
God is at work in the life of everyone who joins and leaves the churches we lead. It is not our job to discern what God is doing but to trust that he is up to something.
"God is at work in the life of everyone who joins and leaves the churches we lead. It is not our job to discern what God is doing but to trust that he is up to something."
Just like the cross.
It may feel like we are dying over and over and over again, but it will never compare to the suffering of Jesus. Regardless of who leaves and when, we must learn to trust God's larger story.
His kingdom is not limited to the local church I serve. My reputation is not ultimate, or even a concern on the radar. It is not about me. It is about what God is doing for his glory in the life of his people for their good.
And that good may require that they leave.
Even if just for a season.
Who knows what God is up to. But we know this: he is up to good.
And let's not forget that he is at work within us. In fact, it is likely that there are things we can only learn about abiding in Jesus as pastors if people leave, reminding us that we are not the Savior.
"It is likely that there are things we can only learn about abiding in Jesus as pastors if people leave, reminding us that we are not the Savior."
People do not need me. They need him.
4. Believe that the investment wasn’t wasted.
As I consider God's larger story, I am able to believe that the investment in the lives of those who leave wasn't wasted. It was part of the story, even if only a part. And every part matters and is used by God to fit into the whole.
After all, children eventually leave home. Was the time spent with them under the roof of the same house wasted? Absolutely not.
It is the same way with folks in the church. Whether they are under our roof for six months or six years, whatever we are able to pour into them by way of teaching and discipling and friendship and coffee talks, it is all worth it.
Nothing is wasted.
We have folks who leave because of job transfers. Most of our college students will take employment outside of our community. People come and go. Some try out the church for a season and move on to a community that is a better fit.
Just like we are not all a size 6 or extra-large, there probably is not a one-size-fits-all local church. The universal church is one-size-fits-all. But the local expressions of the universal church tend to come in flavors.
"Just like we are not all a size 6 or extra-large, there probably is not a one-size-fits-all local church. The universal church is one-size-fits-all. But the local expressions of the universal church tend to come in flavors."
I have said that for years.
What if I began to really believe that and live like I believe it?
Then I could be an advocate for the entire body in our community, helping folks find their best church fit where they can most effectively connect, grow, and serve.
But let's be honest. It is still hard when people leave, regardless of the reasons, but especially if they leave but don't move. Every time you see them the scab is torn off and you feel the wincing emotions of rejection.
This is not their problem. It is mine. And I wish it didn't feel that way. And maybe it only feels that way for the lead pastor.
Probably not, though.
Because there are times when pastors leave.
I assume that a congregation collectively may feel betrayed and rejected when their teaching pastor leaves for what he perceives are greener pastures or a more enticing (larger, better paying, more responsive) flock.
Yeah, that has got to hurt. I get it. So, maybe we do understand each other, shepherd and sheep, better than I thought.
But the main thing for us, whether a pastor or congregant, is to...
5. Find your righteousness in Jesus.
This might be the root reason why people leaving the churches we lead hurts so much, as every pastoral insecurity gets exposed for what it is: a desire to be seen as righteous in the eyes of the congregation.
We call this "pastoral righteousness," where my identity is no longer in Jesus's work for me but in my work for Jesus. It is not in the cross that Jesus carried but in the cross I carry.
If I am affirmed and praised, I feel righteous. If the church grows, I feel righteous.
If attendance wanes, people leave, or just attend community groups rather than Sunday morning gatherings, I feel unrighteous.
When that longing for righteousness is stripped away, I become desperate to cover myself. It may even be a replay of the grief cycle. Exposure leads to loss, then to anger, then to depression and detachment and eventually bargaining.
"Someone clothe me with a compliment or affirmation! Please! I'll do anything to be covered and feel righteous again."
If the Lord does not let that cry be answered, be glad. For he would rather us go naked than wear the peasant rags of man's praise. What he offers to us instead is the robe of Jesus's perfect righteousness that is gifted to those who merely ask.
Whether people leave quietly or in a huff, remember the larger story and the smaller story, not only of what God is doing in them, but what he wants to do in you and in me. His deep desire is for us to stop striving and start resting in the finished work of the Savior, who delights in covering us with the only righteousness we will ever need.
How have you faced people leaving? I'd really appreciate hearing your own insights and ways you have learned to cope with the loss of members or attendees.
Feel free to share also how this post may have helped. That is why I write. To help others as I am finding help for myself in the gospel.