“Everyone Welcome!” I can’t count the number of times I have seen a sign like that at the entrance of a church. It’s an encouraging sight. For pastors, the spirit behind those signs is genuine. We want you here! We want everyone here!
But here is the hard truth I learned many years ago: One of the reasons there is more than one church in nearly every town in America is because none of us is capable of being everyone’s pastor. Furthermore, while we should do all we can to “close the back door” so that we are doing an adequate job of keeping up with those we disciple, there is nothing we can do to close that door completely.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, people are going to leave. In my experience, there are five types of individuals who are most likely to not stay very long. I’m afraid there is nothing in this article that will help you keep them. But perhaps, if you have advanced warning, their departure won’t hurt so much.
1. The “Big Fish”
The Big Fish is the man or woman who comes to you from another church, usually nearby, who felt their position and influence at their former church was no longer welcome and decided to take it elsewhere. Often, the Big Fish was a board chairman, or a deacon, or a prominent Sunday School teacher, or maybe all of the above! While in some cases a person with this kind of background is someone to be excited about adding to your roles, be wary of anyone coming into your church who cites their credentials in the first conversation.
The best way to discern the true motives of someone like this is to quickly assign them something that requires a servant’s heart. Once while planting a church, I had a gentleman and his wife visit us. On his way out the door he informed me that he had lots of skill and knowledge about how a church should operate, and would love to help us out. In response, I literally handed him a toilet brush and asked him if he’d be willing to help our volunteers clean the bathrooms. We never saw him again.
If the pastor is any kind of genuine leader, the “Big Fish” will likely swim off.
2. The “Recovering Patient”
Hurting people are everywhere and many times the source of their injury has been a church. When these people find their way through your doors, they should also find an opportunity to heal. But once that healing takes place, don’t be surprised if they head for the door again.
This can happen for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps the healing process produced in them a desire to go back to their former church and patch things up, or perhaps they are a little nervous knowing that the guy preaching to them every Sunday has seen the contents of their psychological underwear drawer. Either way, don’t be surprised when they start to leave. Any good shepherd hates to lose sheep, but in this case, be gracious and ensure that they land safely in another pasture where they can be fed.
3. The “Lobbyist”
The Lobbyist has an agenda, but unfortunately, it’s not Jesus or his Great Commission. Fortunately, the lobbyist is usually easy to identify because the issues he or she cares about are normally plastered on their shoulders like sponsors on a stock car at the Daytona 500. When the first conversation a pastor has with someone involves questions like “How often do you preach explicitly about the doctrines of grace?” or “What supports do you have for my home-schooled kids?” or “What do you believe about the rapture?” or “Can I talk with you about distributing voter guides to the membership about efforts to take our guns away?” well, you have a lobbyist on your hands. Nearly everything in the church has to take second place to their poverty initiative, mission trip, or theological agenda. Such a person will only hang around for as long as he/she feels the body is appropriately feeding his/her agenda. They are there for themselves, not the overall health of the body.
4. The “Early Adopter”
It always strokes the ego when someone very quickly falls in love with your church and seeks membership. But beware: with rare exception, people tend to walk out in generally the same way they walk in. Allow and encourage people to take their time when considering your church. Membership as a local expression of Christ’s body is viewed by the Scriptures as a covenant relationship—not at all unlike a marriage. So don’t get too excited when people treat your membership process like a Vegas wedding chapel.
5. The “Critic”
It was a four minute drive from my office to the restaurant, and in that time, the new prospective member I was treating to lunch had already given me detailed information about what was wrong with three other churches in our town as the basis for why he and his family were now worshipping with us.
I should have seen that one coming.
Six months later, after multiple exhausting meetings with many leaders and endless questions, I received an email that they would be searching out “new church options.” Wherever he is now, I’m sure his new pastor is getting an earful about my congregation. I pray for that pastor daily by the way, because like me, he probably has no idea what’s coming.
When your first conversation with a prospective member involves multiple, hyper-critical questions, answer them as best as you can, but don’t allow the critic to sap your energy and side-track your time. Chances are, no matter how much time and energy you invest, he will eventually find something wrong with you and your congregation that is just too much for him to bear, and he will move on.
Pastors should be kind to all who enter the churches they shepherd. But pastors should also be wise, and tough enough to realize that you can’t count on everybody to be with you for the long-haul. If you want to grow a church, give less time to “short-timers.”