A few years ago, I arrived at the church to prepare for the morning worship service that was scheduled to begin a few hours later. As I walked across the platform, I noticed a piece of paper on the piano. I picked it up and read a note from the piano player explaining that they would not be back at the church. This was the first I had heard of it. We went ahead with the service; the lady and her family left the church. (However, they did come back and leave several more times in following years!)
Having served as a local church pastor for over 25 years, I have had more than my share of people who left the church I was serving. I am ashamed of the number of people who quit the church under my leadership. It was never pleasant, it always hurt and, with the exception of a couple of very dysfunctional people, I was very sad as a result of their departure.
In the numerous conversations that took place around these departures, most of the talk centered around the concept of people “leaving the church.” Usually people just stopped showing up. A few times, they informed me personally why they were leaving. I have received emails, text messages and phone calls telling me they were quitting the church. Facebook messenger, grapevine and cryptic messages on the church answering service have also worked well. But I can’t recall anyone telling me that they were quitting me, the pastor. But in essence, that is what many of them did.
Complaints by those who leave a church vary. Some involve talk about the music; others cite the lack of programs for their kids. Conflict is a major cause of people leaving the church. Rarely does doctrine come into play. On most occasions, it’s an issue of style or preference or opinions about the operation of the church. The reason I say that people leave a pastor rather than the church is, all of these things are (or should be) under the influence of the primary leader – the pastor. While the pastor shouldn’t run everything in the church, as the primary leader, their philosophy is, in most cases, most predominant. Most people who leave, leave the Pastor.
As a Lead Pastor, if there is an issue in the Youth Ministry, it is my issue. If the music is bad, I own it. If the nursery is dirty, I am to blame. Of course, I am not a proponent of the Lead Pastor doing all of the work. In fact, a micromanaging pastor is a reason why some some leave a church. But the Pastor must provide a level of leadership that influences the entire church.
Regardless of how many people tell me, “don’t take it personally”, it is very personal when people leave. When you pour your life into a group of people, it is silly to think that it is not personal; of course it is. Today, as a church denominational leader, when someone leaves our group, it is personal. People don’t leave our movement; they leave the leader. It’s personal for everyone – if it’s not, your heart has already departed.
I’ll never get accustomed to the pain of losing people. If I do, I am in dereliction of my duty. I can’t fix everything. And sometimes people need to leave a church. But let’s not try to fool ourselves into believing that, in many cases, the pastor is not responsible.
For clarification, I am not writing this blog post to make pastors feel even worse than they already do. That is the farthest thing from my motivation. I am writing this to let people know, leaving a church is a very painful and personal issue for many people. It hurts. Please don’t leave assuming it doesn’t matter to anyone; It does. If a pastor is being honest, it hurts them deeply. I hope we can see a way to avoid this trend – and yes, it is a trend. My advice would be to engage in healthy communication with the pastor long before you make a decision to leave. Perhaps it won’t work, but just maybe it will.
And finally, Pastors, I love you, but we must own this concept. We simply can’t exonerate ourselves when numerous people leave the church. You may not be directly to blame but, as the shepherd, you are in most cases responsible if the flock scatters.
How about if we stick together and work toward making the church as good and effective as it can possibly be?