Six Ways to Love Someone Leaving Your Church
I sat across the room from the couple, trying to slow down my mind and open my heart to the criticism they were leveling at me. They had been offended by my sermon and had reacted on Facebook, indicating they were leaving the church. I reached out privately and asked if we could meet to talk. They agreed to do so. When we met, he was relatively calm, but she was very upset and I knew that I needed to hold my own emotions in check to be able to listen to the heart of what she was saying and respond in love, not hurt. As I had prayed to prepare for the meeting I genuinely didn’t think I was going to be able to ask for forgiveness for anything as I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. But in the midst of the meeting God opened my heart to see an area of blindness. I was able to ask and receive their forgiveness for the way this blind spot had injured them. I then asked if they would be willing to ask for forgiveness for their slander. They were willing to do so and I forgave them.
These are not the meetings that you think about when you sign up to be a pastor or leader, but there are few moments more important in your ministry than these tense conversations.
Two friends have responded to my series on leaving and finding a church with questions about a pastor’s responsibility in the midst of church departures. It’s a fair and helpful question. Over the course of this series I’ve reflected on a congregant’s responsibility, but pastors and leaders bear a responsibility to help congregants navigate departures well.
One friend wisely said, I think the pastor needs to do his “part in hearing the discord, attempt to reconcile, and when reconciliation is not the solution for continued membership, to ensure a good relocation.” I think she’s exactly right. Let me echo this and add to it, with six ways a leader should respond to those who are leaving:
1. Remember who they belong to
We are under-shepherds: those who serve under the true shepherd, Jesus Christ. There is no sheep that is mine or yours. They are all his. Peter exhorts us to “shepherd the flock of God” not “shepherd the flock of (insert your name).” As it has been said, we are all interim pastors. Our ministry, no matter how God-glorifying, will end. Steward your under-shepherding responsibilities well, but realize you cannot control, you cannot create heart change, and you cannot create growth. All you can do is be faithful and be godly.
2. Humbly relinquish your rights
My daughter plays on a really good Middle School basketball team. Sometimes they double or triple their opponents score despite the coach putting in his worst players. As the game wears on and the gap between the teams grows wider, inevitably the referees tend to slant their officiating against them. As a pastor, it can feel as though you are playing a game with two sets of rules. Or maybe a game where the rules only apply to you. For those of us who are wired to want fair play or justice, or have a strong desire to be acknowledged as being right, this is a tough one. But we are called to relinquish our rights for the sake of the flock. One of the hardest earned lessons I’ve learned as a pastor is to die to my idols of respect and fair treatment. As a pastor we receive disproportionate respect and disrespect, and disproportionate honor and slander. Lay down your defenses and your self-justification for the sake of the gospel and grace.
3. Be a peacemaker
Don’t confuse this with avoiding conflict. Walk into the difficult places of conflict and make peace. If a congregant is gossiping, do the hard work to confront it. If you’ve learned a congregant is leaving, don’t leave it on them to contact you, reach out to them. If there is a conflict going on in the church, lean in and do the hard work of mediating it.
4. Be an example
Peter concludes his admonition to elders in 1 Peter 5 by calling elders to be “examples to the flock.” It is not just our words that shape the church, it is also our example. So, be an example to your flock of faithfulness, of steadfastness, of hope, of costly love, and of prayerfulness. Be the first to ask for forgiveness and do so without expectation of any reciprocal offer.
5. Release with blessing
The majority of times a congregant has left and I knew the circumstances, I didn’t agree with their decision. But we are still called to release with blessing. Remember that the church is not a static but a multiplying entity. And while most who leave aren’t leaving with a heart for multiplication, God uses even our broken motives for his redemptive purposes. In the midst of this, develop relationships with other local pastors and reach out to them to have conversations with them about those who have left to attend their church, or those you have received from their church. Do so with a heart to help them shepherd the new members of their flock well and to speak the truth that we are not competitors with other churches, but in the same family, franchisees of the same boss, under-shepherds of the same over-shepherd. Release those who depart with grace, release with hope, release with blessing.
Mine wisdom from those who depart, under good and bad circumstances alike. What truth can they offer to help you improve? What critiques have they leveled that are true and you need to grow from? Learn even from those who hurt you.
Unfortunately the couple I sat across from who leveled criticism at me ended up leaving the church. Perhaps they were offended on another occasion I wasn’t aware of, or the initial rift made them uncomfortable with me or the church. I’m still glad that I sought them out and did everything in my power to mend a bridge and shepherd them as best as I could and benefit from their insight as well.
May we all grow in leading well, even in the midst of those who depart from our leadership.