One of the frustrations of pastoral ministry is members deciding to leave the church. This post does not address every reason people leave, nor does it seek to treat every complex church membership issue. Rather, I’m suggesting ways to respond to more common reasons members leave: personal hurt, disagreement, or dissatisfaction with the church.
- Reach out to them. Once you learn a member has decided to leave the church or has been worshiping elsewhere, reach out as soon as possible. Don’t allow fears of confrontation or rejection to hinder your outreach. While contacting unhappy members is difficult, our timely action honors them and opens the door for possible reconciliation. Call and ask for a few minutes of their time. Consider saying something like, “Can we meet for a few minutes? I’d really like to learn how we can be a better church.”
- Listen carefully to them. Genuinely listening to disgruntled members is often easier said than done. Our tendency is to become defensive and start speaking before they have finished sharing. Be sure to allow appropriate time for them to express their concerns. You don’t have to agree with their conclusions for them to feel heard. At the same time, there may be elements of truth in their concerns or criticisms, so listen with a view toward becoming a better minister of a better church.
- Respond graciously to them. Without compromising your convictions or your sense of how God is leading the church, respond to them in grace (Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6). Most disagreements are over relatively small concerns, so remember the wisdom of Solomon: “it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). If you’re at fault for something you said or did, consider simply responding, “I’m really sorry about that and take full responsibility.” Be sure they know you love them and don’t want to lose them as members.
- Leave the door open for them. For varying reasons, reconciliation is not always possible. Some members will have already decided to leave the church, and others will not wish to meet or share their concerns. When this happens, leave the door open for their return and always send a follow-up card expressing your love. My own practice has been to write a personal note with the concluding phrase: “While I will no longer be your pastor, I will always be your friend.”
- Know some of them will return. One of the joys of longer pastorates is welcoming former members back into the church body. When members return, they often share how they have missed the church family or how they just sensed the Lord was leading them back. In any case, it’s always encouraging to know they genuinely missed their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Pastors: What are some other helpful actions you’ve taken when learning members were leaving the church?