I have been a pastor in the same church for over 30 years. Over the years many have joined our church. But over the years a number have left, for all kinds of reasons.
Some left when they graduated college or to take a new job or move closer to their children or other “good” reasons. Others left for reasons I felt were maybe not so good – for doctrinal reasons, or they felt a need for a change. And some left because they had an “offense” toward me – they felt I had handled something poorly or wrongly.
One time many years ago, in my arrogance as a young pastor, I thought that our church was the best in town. That our church was the closest to a “New Testament Church.” So why would anyone want to go to an “inferior” church? Even if it was a good church, why leave the best church?
One unemployed carpenter told me he was going to move his family to Houston where there were a lot of construction opportunities. I told him that since he didn’t know if there were any New Testament churches in Houston, it would be better to stay in our church and take a job at McDonalds. At least he would still be in a NT church. How stupid was that? He moved to Texas. Probably one of the best things he ever did.
Fortunately God convicted me a year or so later, that I should ask his forgiveness. He had either moved back or was visiting so I called him, we got together, I asked his forgiveness for my arrogance and for how I made it so hard for him to leave and he graciously forgave me. There were several others at the time I had sinned against in similar ways, and they also agreed to meet and they too forgave me.
Well, you’d think I would have learned my lessons. But in recent years and months and weeks I’ve been freshly convicted of some things and reached out to some folks who left our church, and they have graciously met with me, shared with me and taught me some valuable lessons. I’d like to share them with you. So what should you do….
When People Leave Your Church
If you know someone is offended at you, ask if you can meet and hear them out.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. MT 5:23-24
Why are we so slow to do this? People have left our church because they were offended at me – felt I didn’t handle a situation right, or didn’t care for them in crisis, and I didn’t call them. I figured I had done all I could, I didn’t intentionally hurt them, etc. and they were angry at me, but that was essentially something they had to deal with. I had done all I knew to do. In one case, I contacted the individual, but when they shared their perspective I kept saying things like, “But remember, I did this and I said that.” Defending myself. I hadn’t done anything wrong. That didn’t help.
Listen. Really listen.
Then someone said I should meet with them and just listen. Take notes. Don’t defend myself. Don’t make excuses. Really try to hear them and ask God to convict me and show me where I sinned. Not to put the blame on them.
It was hard for me to do that, because of my inclination to defend myself. But when I tried to really listen and see it from their perspective, God opened my eyes and showed me a number of areas I had sinned in the situation. And here’s the key: IN RETROSPECT, I could see how I had really blown it with this person. I didn’t maliciously try to hurt them, but I had really handled the situation wrongly. And God gave me the grace to take notes, then ask their forgiveness for a number of ways I had blown it.
Ask what you could have done differently
Another thing someone suggested. In addition to listening without defending myself, they said I should ask how I could have handled the situation better from their point of view. When I did this, God convicted me again, and I believe gave me wisdom for how to do better in the future.
I have met with several people recently I knew were offended at me. I know several others I want to contact. But this has been the first step in reconciliation with some folks I had offended, and I’m grateful for their gracious response. Here’s the next lesson…
Reach out to those who leave your church
Even if there is no offense there. How many times people left our church – for any number of reasons – and I just never called them. I’m not talking about someone leaving because of major sin that you have confronted them on. I’m talking about leaving because they just weren’t connecting, or they disagreed with a doctrinal issue.
As I have met with a few who left because they felt I mishandled a situation, they said, “And you know what? Not only did you not call me, but no one from the church called me.” Or maybe one or two called to see how they were doing. But it was like they had just ceased to exist.” A couple people said something like, “I felt like I had lost my whole world. My whole family. All my friends that I had shared my life with for the last 20 years were just suddenly cut off.”
I was convicted. I was guilty of that. People have left and I never contacted. I guess I figured it was their problem. They were wrong. I tried to help them and they misunderstood. How wrong I was.
So when you notice someone isn’t there or you hear someone has left reach out to them. And when you do…
Thank them for their participation and serving
One person recently shared with me, “Yeah, nobody called me. Nobody reached out to me. Nobody thanked me for 30 years of participation, serving in children’s ministry, etc. I wasn’t looking for that, but it was just like…I was gone.”
Even if we disagree with someone’s reasons for leaving we can still thank them, get them a gift, express our appreciation for their years of serving and participation in the church. Another thing we can do is…
Thank them for being willing to meet and share with you.
It’s not easy for people who are struggling with you to get together. Especially if you are a pastor. Sometimes they are angry with you. But often people who have left a church are hurting and it’s painful for them to share their offenses. At any rate, thank them for being willing to meet.
Affirm their new church
If they are going to a church that preaches the gospel, affirm them. There is only one church. We aren’t in competition with other churches in our town. If God blesses them and adds to their numbers, that’s wonderful. We should rejoice. I now tell people, “I just want you to be where Jesus wants you to be. I’m so glad you are prospering there. We’re all on the same team, serving the same Lord. I hope you really prosper there.”
Tell them you love them and they are always welcome in your church
I now say, “I’m so glad you love the church you’re going to. I just want you to know that you are always welcome at our church any time.” And finally,
Remember, the goal is reconciliation.
And though it might feel hard to humble ourselves and hear where we blew it, remember, God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. You can’t go wrong in humbling yourself.