Every pastor knows the feeling.
The news may have come via email, telephone, or second-hand conversation. In some cases, the person or persons themselves told you face-to face. They are leaving your church. They may already have another church to join, or they may just be beginning the search process.
But their decision is irrevocable. It is final. You cannot persuade them otherwise.
You feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut. You try to tell yourself not to take it personally, but you do anyway. You don’t understand. You are wounded. Many times you are blindsided by their decisions.
I cannot change the reality that most pastors will experience the exodus of church members. I cannot promise that you will have a new emotional state. But I do pray that the five steps I offer will help you deal with this matter better.
Pray immediately when you hear about the decision
The God we serve is the God of all comfort. He is the God of all wisdom. He knows our hurts and concerns even before we voice them. Before you do anything else, pray.
Talk to the exiting church members
If they are willing, have a conversation with those who are leaving your church. Listen more than speak. Don’t be defensive. Some of the words they say may bring you pain, but allow them to speak and vent if necessary.
Before the conversation ends, tell them that you will bless them in their new church. Have prayer with them, a sincere prayer for God’s best for them.
Accept their decision
It is sometimes hard to accept that not all church members agree with our leadership and our church’s ministry. But there is no pastor, past or present, who will make every member happy.
As hard as it is to accept, some church members will actually do better under leadership other than yours.
Make corrections if needed
When I was a pastor, I listened to exiting church members tell me why they were leaving. It was almost always painful, but it was often helpful. I asked God to help me not be defensive, and to help me listen carefully to any area where I could make corrections.
You know what? I sometimes learned that I could really improve areas of my ministry and life. I became a better person and a better pastor as a consequence.
Write a nice letter about the exiting members. When I could do so in good conscience, I wrote a letter about the exiting members and gave it to them to give to their next pastor.
Here is a portion of one of my letters written many years ago:
John and Mary Smith have chosen to join your church. May I be straightforward? Your church will be incredibly blessed by their presence and ministry. Our church was. I am grieving over their departure, but they have explained their reasons, and I accept them.
Indeed, I plan to make some changes as a result of our conversations together. You will be amazed how God uses both of them in your church. John and Mary are two of the finest and godliest people I know. May God bless you and them as you grow in Christ together through the ministry of ABC Church.
Pastoral ministry has great challenges, and exiting church members are certainly among those challenges. But you can turn a difficult situation into a blessing if their departure is handled well. And you can possibly learn some lessons to prevent some others from leaving in the future.