5 Reasons Pastors Have Such A Hard Time With People Leaving

This morning a photo popped up in my newsfeed of one of our early gatherings with the Mosaic launch team. Back then we were just thirty-five or so people meeting in a basement dreaming about starting a church together. My wife Megan and I smiled as we reminisced about those early days. We were young and crazy, full of excitement and anticipation for what God was going to do. Looking back it is truly humbling to think about all we have indeed seen God do over the past five years. But if I’m really honest, it also hurts. As I looked at that picture I saw faces of people I love, people we served with and bled with, many of whom are no longer a part of our church.

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One of the things I’ve found hardest about being a pastor is seeing people leave. Some leave because life takes them elsewhere – graduation, a new job, an opportunity that can’t be passed up, etc. There are others, however, who leave simply because they choose to go somewhere else. It’s always hard when people leave, but it’s this latter category that can be especially hard. I’ve sat with enough pastors to know I am not alone in struggling at times with the shuffling of the saints. On the other hand, I’ve also sat with enough parishioners to know that it’s not always understood why this is. Why do some pastors have such a hard time when people choose to leave the church they pastor? Why is it such a big deal? Why do some seem to take it so personally?

So I thought it might be helpful to share a few of the reasons why it can be so hard on us pastors when people leave:

1. We care.

Most pastors didn’t get into this work for the paycheck. In our most honest moments we will tell you there are some weeks when the paycheck in and of itself is hardly worth it. Pastoring is tough work. Anyone who doubts this needs only to take a look at one of the many bodies of study evaluating the general health (or lack thereof) of pastors. If that’s not convincing enough, take a gander at the dropout rate for those in our profession. Those two together will give you a pretty clear picture of just how tough pastoral ministry can be. This of course isn’t news to pastors. We knew this before we took the plunge. Some even desperately tried to talk us out of it (love you mom and dad!). Some of us tried just as hard to talk ourselves out of it. Yet here we are. We didn’t get into this work because we thought it would be easy or glamorous. We got into it because we couldn’t help ourselves. We got into it because we care. We care deeply about Jesus and the people He cares about. And that includes you.

2. We are invested.

Jesus taught that our hearts are intwined with the things in which we invest ourselves. For us pastors this is certainly true when it comes to the people we serve. There are people that have left our church who I counseled, married, baptized; people I led to Christ, people whose children I buried; people whose marriages I got to be a part of saving; people I counseled through addiction; people with whom I walked through very dark and difficult seasons of their life. The nature of our vocation involves a heavy investment in the people we serve. Even if we don’t spend a lot of time together, if you are a part of our church, we’ve prayed for you, hoped for you, dreamt for you, believed for you, and at times worked long hours with you on our heart and mind. For this reason, each time someone leaves it can feel like a part of our heart just walked out the door. It hurts because whether you’re aware of it or not, we are deeply invested in you.

3. We often have no idea why you left. 

There are few things more disheartening than finding out someone has left our community and having no idea why. When you leave without telling us, we and the rest of the community are left to guess what happened. Are you gone for good or just struggling to get to church on the weekends? Did I do something that hurt you? Did someone else? Are you having health issues? Did you lose a job? Do you need help? When you don’t talk to us about what’s going on and you just leave the community, we are left to guess what happened.

4. We know it will be felt by others.

Church isn’t business. It’s family. It may be a somewhat dysfunctional family at times, but it’s still family. We are a people who are connected together by a common faith in Christ and a common mission to our city. When you leave, it’s not just us pastors who feel it. The rest of the family feels it too. Many who knew you are left to wonder where you went and why you left. Some will be confused. Some will speculate. Some will grieve. Some will get angry. Some will be hurt. People will feel your absence in a variety of different ways. If there is no closure or reconciliation, it is likely those feelings will continue each time they run into you at the grocery store or see your name on social media. When you don’t leave well, these feelings can be used by the enemy to sow seeds of disillusionment in the church in general or distrust in our church and its leaders specifically. Us pastors are often left to try to help people pick up the pieces when you just disappear.

5. We are sinners.

There’s no way around it. We pastors are sinners too. Just like you, we struggle at times with things like pride, ego, selfishness and insecurity. It’s in our nature to want to be liked, to want to be loved, to want to be affirmed. And the thing is we know we should be finding the satisfaction of those desires in Christ and Christ alone. It’s just that some days (ahem, Mondays) we don’t do it so well. When someone leaves the community we pastor it often grinds against our pride and plays on our insecurities. It can bring all of the idols we thought we were past right back to the surface, reminding us that we aren’t nearly as far along as we thought we were. Whenever I find out someone is leaving our church my initial reaction is almost always a mixture of anger and frustration. And once I work through all of my self-justification for feeling the way I do, I almost always need to do some repenting. I’m afraid Jesus is still working on us pastors and there is no shortage of raw material to work with.

Leaving Well

While there are certainly bad reasons for leaving a church (which I’ve written about before and you can read here), I do believe there are times when God calls people out of one community and into another. However, this is something that should be done with great care and consideration for everyone involved. It should never be a hasty decision we make when our expectations aren’t met, when our feelings are hurt, or when we don’t get our way. Perhaps most importantly, it should never be a decision we make alone. It should be something we think and pray through with people we admire and respect (not just those we know will sympathize with our frustrations or tell us what we want to hear).

I think it is especially important that this include a pastor or elder from your church whenever possible.

As a pastor, I want to know why people are struggling or considering a change. It often helps me see blind spots in my leadership and gaps in our ministry. In the long run it helps us as a church do what we do better. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to sow the seeds of grace, peace and reconciliation right away. At times this has led to a lot of healing and people have actually chosen to stay as a result. Other times I’ve had the opportunity to bless and send them out, affirming their decision as the right one. Sadly, however, very few give their pastor that opportunity. Most sneak out the back without saying a word, leaving the community to make assumptions and pick up the pieces. Please don’t do that.

If you’re considering a change, do everything you can to sit down and have a conversation with those who have worked so hard to love and lead you to the best of their ability.

With that, I’ll let the Apostle Paul take us out:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” – Colossians 3:12-14

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