Things I’ve Failed To Do When People Left Our Church

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.

Jesus said…

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.


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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.

Mark Altrogge

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.


  • Mark,
    Both Norm and I have been with you those 30 years or so. We loved you agreed and disagreed with some decisions, but this wisdom is on the money. We all have to apply this wisdom to our lives and situations when dear friends are no longer in our lives for whatever the reason.

    I do believe that you are right on the money here. (You often have been right on the money). I appreciate your insight and humble attitude in all of your dealings with our church body.

    Many thanks,

  • I’ve had the privilege of watching you over those 30 plus years and I thank God regularly for your example of Christlikeness. You’re one of the most humble men I know and I’ve witnessed the grace that follows the genuine humility you’ve sought to live by. God gives grace to the humble. We need more of God’s grace in our lives and in our Christian communities. It empowers us to be more like Christ and enables us to achieve the great and wonderful things we see in the Word – love, unity and peace. Thanks, brother for yet another great post.

  • Thank you Mark for being vulnerable in your sharing this article. I pray that more pastors and indeed all of us as believers will receive similar grace to humble ourselves and seek to fulfill Heb 12:14.
    Grateful for your example!

  • Mark thank you for your honesty and humility. Great article!
    Karen and I wrote a book about 6 years ago “We Must Forgive”.
    Matthew 6:15 (AMP)
    But if you do not forgive others [nurturing your hurt and anger with the result that it interferes with your relationship with God], then your Father will not forgive your trespasses.

  • Mark. I was a Thriving, participating & grateful member of SGM/ CLC SINCE JAN1990.
    We were broken & contrite ppl, and from the first pastoral interview I had some reservations and what I have confirmed to be Godly Holy Spirit guided discernment.
    We benifited much by God’s Grace in spite of severe deficiencies. Church polity/ governance & structure, no laymembers as Elders, church culture, young leadership (didn’t have more seasoned pastors), lack of seminary training, a dose of legalistic thinking & practice, an unreachable / arrogant/ haughty spirit from leadership, an uncomfortable veneration of cj $ senior leadership (apostles)etc.
    I would bring these issues thru-out the years to various pastors that I was under their care. No one really listened, they couldn’t or wouldn’t. I sawMuch Good being done but also Change needed desperately. UNTIL of course too LATE. At least 40% of Churches (ppl) ? left for good.
    It didn’t have to happen that way. Member since 1990, until 201x(?)
    Really have appreciated Ur music ? lyrics, been Blessed.
    In His Grace, Al Marino

      • That is so true, Mark. I also have been through crushing blows in close relationships and with leadership. We finally found the courage to break with our church 18 months ago. We are stunned that we are still looking for a new home. But through it all, that fact that we are still looking, is evidence of God’s grace and presence in our lives. It all points back to him, which is why, I hypothesize, God allows such disappointments to happen in churches. We can all fall into temptation of trusting in the leaders or church as a whole to be our #1 relationship, and now with Jesus himself. As I say to my kids “We are all learning”.

  • This is spot on. I do not find offense with you or your church. There is another church we have left. It took years after leaving to fully realize the damage that had been done there – damage we still are dealing with a decade later. If someone, anyone, would even just mention that they had made errors, even publicly and not one on one rather than vilifying those who had left, finding healing would be a lot easier. As it stands now, church is no longer a safe place. It is a panic attack trigger. It is a place to always be on guard and to never trust words or deeds again. When something as intimate as the relationship between a pastor and church member is violated through corruption, lies, and abuse of their position of seeming authority, it hurts. At least for me, church had always been a huge part of my life. A safe space. That may be gone forever. Thank you for being willing to meet with those who left. Thank you for your openness and humility. Hopefully some who really need to learn this crucial lesson will read and relationships somewhere will be mended. (And again – not you and not your church)

    • Hi Audra, I am so sad to hear about the devastating pain you have gone through. You guys were a wonderful part of our church and I didn’t know how sad and painful your experiences had been since you left. I hope you can find a church that feels safe and encouraging to you.

  • Good points, Mark. We’ve left a handful of churches. Two for jobs, two because it was time for us to leave. We always let at least one person in leadership know we were leaving so they could handle that. We didn’t always leave the best way, though we’ve grown a bit since then. We tried not to leave anything lingering or any holes when we left. However, we also rarely heard from any people in the church afterwards. I keep track with a couple now through FB and some have asked where we went, but not too many. One of the local churches has members we still keep in touch with because they’re local and we have some kids the same age.

    I know I’ve also failed in doing this as a teacher. People have left and I wasn’t good about following up. I usually tended to think the same way – that they had their own reasons. If ever in that position again, I know I’ll need to be better about follow-up w/ those who have left or haven’t been there for over a week.

    • Hey Peter,

      Thanks for your comments. I know it’s so easy to assume people have their reasons for leaving and not follow up. I’ve done that. I never gave it much thought from the perspective of those who left, that hardly anyone followed up or kept in touch. I too want to be better about that.

  • Thanks for your humble example mark It Ain’t Easy Being a pastor is it? Methinks you’re a good one. Not to mention your songwriting contributions…

  • Words of wisdom for sure. If only more pastors would take time to listen to their people before they leave. I don’t think people really want to leave a church. It is often a very painful decision. Yet, one often reaches a point of hopelessness where they don’t think things that really need to change ever will.

    Thanks for sharing Mark.

    • Thanks Alan,

      I can only imagine how painful a decision this is. Especially knowing a number of people who have had to make that decision. They said it was like they lost their whole world, all their friends, etc. Felt like they had no one who cared for them. I hope I can do better in the future.

  • And throughout this process, Christ is being formed in you!!! Nothing will be wasted. Thank you

    • Amen Barbara! You are so right. We all need to remember this, especially in our dark moments. Someday we will see our afflictions that seem so heavy as light and momentary compared to the glory God is producing through them.

  • Do you think there is a place for members to gently encourage their pastor to do as you are suggesting when they know people have left because said pastor hurt them? I’m wrestling with this right now, as several people have left my church, and at least a part of that is pastoral offense, though I know I don’t have the whole picture.

    • Sure Michelle, I think there is a place for that. I know a couple people encouraged me in a couple cases. I hope your pastor will listen and be open to it. All you can do is suggest it, and hopefully talk about it, and trust the Lord to open his heart.

  • This has me in tears. It is our story. 20+ years in a SG church. We were completely invested but then decisions were made that we really struggled with and finally left. Even after 7 years it hurts. I thank you for being humble and sharing your experience from a pastors perspective. I pray your article reaches far and wide and that God would use it to mend hearts and relationships.

    • I’m so sad to hear that this is your story Kathleen. I can’t imagine the pain you still feel. Thank you for your kind words. I hope the article can help some people avoid mistakes I made.

  • Wow. Our family at this moment is walking through the grief that all this brings. My husband had to make the tough choice to move his family to Birmingham because of his job. Our pastor, who my teens and kids adored, let us know “there are no churches in Birmingham” and preached a sermon from the pulpit about how unbelievers leave doctrinally sound churches and believers choose to stay with the church. We were also told that quitting his job and working at Walmart would be much wiser than leaving “the church”. We had people from the congregation (who we hardly knew) haughtily confront us about taking our kids to a city with no church, and one of the teaching pastors gave us a CD to listen to on the sin of selfish gain (ironically, this same pastor my husband sacrificed and bought tires for the previous year without this pastors knowledge). Our teens were crushed and confused, the pastor also brought up the subject of moving/church in the youth group. This man they trust says, in a roundabout way, threaded through sermons, that their dad is unwise and acting as an unbeliever. Does this mean they should stay in town with the church and let their parents go make a mistake??
    We went to each elder to plead our cause, to try and have them hear what this view of no churches in Birmingham was doing to our family, how senseless this baseless opinion from the pulpit was, how it was trying to pry our already hurting family apart. All but one elder circled the leader and agreed.
    Since we left five months ago my special needs daughter still weeps missing her “church friends “. How am I to make her understand why 99% of the relationships are suddenly over, why when all of us needed the body of Christ to help and encourage us we were judged and condemned and ignored instead? How to explain to my 19 year old that the elder who met with him 2 times at least a month to deciple him for 2 years never once reached out to him? How the 2 families bold enough to stand up for us are shamed when they question the leadership or called gossips if they reach out to us?
    All of this is so sad and crushing. If it were not for my strong husband (who by the way prayed earnestly with other godly men for years about his job and saw it as a huge answer to prayer) if it weren’t for him I would be tempted to never set foot in a church again.
    By God’s kindness and grace we have the privilege of starting the membership process at “The Church at Brook Hills”, David Platts old church. We are learning afresh the gospel as we heal and learn to forgive.
    Anyway, thank you for this article. I’m printing it out to remind my kids that we are not alone, and the deep deep dangers of pride partnered in the pulpit.

    • Wow Tara, that is unbelievable. Horrific! I cannot even begin to fathom the pain you and your husband and children have had to go through. I am so glad you have found a church where you can feel safe and heal. And to hear that you desire to forgive those who sinned against you is so glorifying to Jesus, so pleasing to him. Many people who experienced what you and your family have would have turned away from the Lord. Your perseverance and continuing to believe him and pursue him and still be a part of his church is so God-honoring. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • If all church leaders did only ONE of the nine things this pastor does when someone leaves his church, all professional Christian mediators would immediately be put out of work. Please God. Let us be put out of work.

    (Oh. And one other thing would happen: “the world would see that the Father sent the Son and the Father loves them.” John 17:20-23. BE FOREWARNED: I don’t recommend reading John 17 or 1 John 4, Romans 12, or 1 Peter 4 unless. You know. You are ready to repent of your lovelessness. Ouch.)

    Tara Barthel

    (I don’t know you personally, Pastor Mark, but I do thank you.)

  • This is so excellent Mark! Thank you for this humble and insightful article. This wisdom applies to us whether we are in leadership or not. Your desire to reconcile brings such glory to God! I am convicted that there have been folks that have “ just disappeared” from our church and I have not followed up.

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