When a Friend Leaves Your Church
Practical ways to respond to a friend leaving a church
By David Drury
It happened 10 minutes before the worship gathering was to start on an autumn Sunday morning in our one year old church plant. One of our children’s ministry leaders came up to me with a frustrated look in her eyes. Of course, as a pastor I was used to seeing this look in the eyes of children’s ministry leaders. She went on to tell me that one leader was absent that morning and that they had not returned calls about missing the prior week. The leader was frustrated to no end. Just as the conversation was ramping up the husband of the missing volunteer entered the room. He walked right up to me holding a sealed envelope in his hands which he promptly handed me, like a court summons, and said, “You need to read this, Pastor.”
Before I could gather my wits he had turned around and walked out. I stood dumbfounded as I read the letter from this couple effectually resigning her role as a children’s volunteer and his as one of our sound technicians. They were leaving the church. Just like that. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think they ever talked to me again. We couldn’t do much about it afterwards. Or so I thought then.
It happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it easier. People leave churches. For a variety of reasons, from disagreements about the direction of the church to worship styles… from a feeling of disconnectedness to feeling a lack of personal spiritual growth—people begin to leave a church.
Sometimes no one sees it coming and it’s a shock. But often there are tell-tale signs of the impending departure:
They start to complain to friends, family, small group members and staff about church.
They “no show” at church-related get-togethers and worship services
They visit other churches.
They drop out of their small group
They seem distant in conversations with people that are sold out to that church.
They don’t return contacts.
They stop tithing and the treasurer notices it (whether anyone else does depends on who tracks it).
They stop serving in the areas of ministry they were previously committed to.
They often go as far as telling someone “we’re thinking of leaving the church.”
They sometimes go the distance and tell the pastor, but by then their minds are usually made up.
When any of these things happen the clock starts to tick and the people leaving have their radar up for any slight or offense to put them over the edge. Then there’s the “last straw” and they quit the church. When the “church divorce” is final the separation is similar to a marriage ending: everyone stops talking, chance meetings are awkward, gossip about each other slips out, no one talks about the obvious elephants in the room and everything, in general, become relationally “icky.” I think we can all agree that when people leave a church it’s usually not a pretty situation.
So what do we do about this? What do I do when a friend of mine leaves the church? After years of hits, misses and lessons learned I’ve started to realize what can be done when someone is leaving my church:
MY CHURCH NEEDS TO HAVE A FOLLOW-UP SYSTEM
It can be a bit complicated to set up and requires a database and an attendance system, but some have a follow-up system for people that stop attending church. At Spring Lake Wesleyan we have a basic system of letters to people when they’ve missed a certain amount of weeks. The letter is a simple effort to “notice” that they are gone (a common complaint of people leaving is that “no one noticed.”) They also receive a phone call from a volunteer asking for feedback on why they’ve been gone. Then, if they haven’t been here for 3-4 months they get a “final” type letter from the Senior Pastor acknowledging that they are leaving the church and asking for specific feedback on a little card that they can send back and inviting conversation beyond that. Very few churches our size do a system like this (actually, in researching this one of my staff members found zero churches our size doing this, but I’m sure there are some out there—or should I say I hope?) But once set up the system doesn’t take that much time and we feel it’s a bare minimum effort to “close the back door” in our church. As churches grow larger they often only keep growing because more people happen to be coming in the front door than are rushing out the back door. We think that is unhealthy in the Body and we at least stop people at the back door and say, “Hello, there. You seem to be leaving, could we talk about it?”
I think my church needs a follow up system like this indefinitely in one form or another. Since the whole staff sees the list of those not around it enables us all to relationally connect with those that may be leaving. On top of all this the Senior Pastor can make calls to people who might be leaving simply because we’re a large church and he’s never made a personal contact with them. What a simple problem to solve!
I SHOULD NOTICE AND CARE
But here’s the flipside of that follow-up… it’s not really the exclusive job of the staff and pastor to respond to people leaving. Thinking, “That’s the pastor’s job” is a little inaccurate. When one of my friends is leaving the church I should notice and care. I should notice because I look for my friends at church. When they aren’t there I don’t need a database to tell me they aren’t. I don’t need a form letter. They’re my friend. I hang out with my friends. So when they aren’t there I shouldn’t shrug it off and say, “Oh well, maybe they’re sick.” I can e-mail them or drop them a note or call them—even if just to say, “are you sick?” I can show them I noticed. If I have a pretty strong sense that their relationship with the church is suffering, I can take the initiative to talk to them about it. After all, I am the church. If their relationship with the church is suffering their relationship with me is suffering. I can jump in there and show them that I care—because I do care. If I don’t care, then I have to wonder if I’ve been faking the friendship thing with them.
I have to admit that in the past when a friend of mine was leaving the church I have done the worst possible thing: assume someone else was talking to them about it and figured the problem would go away. Of course the problem was my friend and they would do just that—go away. I’m ashamed to admit that months have gone by before I really thought about it again, and by then I would tell myself, “It’s too late now.” And so that friend would go unnoticed, uncared for, and feeling like “that church didn’t notice or care that I left.” And again, I am the church. I didn’t notice enough to care or care enough to notice. I have to do both to be a true friend.
FRIENDS NEED TO TIP OFF THE PASTOR
Even though we’ve established that it’s not all the pastor’s job, there is a relational role for the pastor in all this. After I’ve had some heart-to-heart discussions with my friend thinking of leaving the church, it’s my responsibility to tip off the pastor unless I’ve been sworn to secrecy. In the very least I can say, “Hey, Pastor, have you talked with Joe and Jane Blow lately? I think they’d really appreciate a contact.” This is code language my pastor immediately understands and does something to follow up on. I’ve done this a couple times in the last few months, and it was really great to have my friend come back to me and talk about how the Pastor had called them or gotten a personal note and how they feel “reconnected.” In any church over 75 people the Pastor will not be able to keep up with the private concerns and feelings everyone has. And actually, I’ve personally been the pastor of a few churches under 75 and in those it’s pretty impossible too. Human beings can only keep up on about 10 people in this way. Our span of care is quite limited. That’s why small groups and small circles of friends and family members are the keystone in building a bridge to people thinking of leaving a church. We can help our friends build the bridge back from one end first and then tip the Pastor or other key leaders off to build it from the other end. We could simply call this “the ministry of reconciliation.” This is also important because the Pastor will want to process the reasons why that person is leaving and determine if some changes could be made that are truly needed for the future.
SOMETIMES I NEED TO CONFRONT MY FRIEND WHEN THEY ARE LEAVING
There are times when I have a friend leave the church for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes I’m the only one who knows all those reasons too. Admonishing them is part of my role as a friend (admonishing is the biblical idea of giving accountability, confronting or perhaps you could say “coaching” someone who is in the wrong.) If my friend is in the wrong in why they are leaving (the facts they are basing it on are incorrect) or they are leaving in the wrong way (slandering people, gossiping about the pastor, causing division and pulling others along with them), then I need to roll up my sleeves and say, “I’m your friend and I always will be, but you need to know that I think your facts aren’t correct and the way you’re going about this isn’t the best.”
Is that hard to say? For sure. Is it still my job? You bet. Do Christians do this much? Hardly ever. Is the absence of this a big part of the problem with the Church today? I think so. This “ministry of admonition” is the crucial way to resolve conflicts in the church. In Matthew 18 Jesus outlined how to go about this in different stages. I need to live that out with my friends if their incorrect thinking or hurtful behavior needs to be confronted. My closest friends in the church will be able to take this from me as a friend. I’ve earned the right to speak this into their lives. Even if the Pastor knew what I know, he likely isn’t as close to my friends as I am, so the responsibility is mine.
AFTER THE FACT I CAN STILL BE A FRIEND
Some people leave a church for very good reasons. God may be leading them to help out another church. They may be leaving to help start a new church plant. Perhaps they disagreed with the direction of the church for some time and feel like if they stay longer their honestly held opinions will cause disunity and know they should leave rather than do that. They may even distrust the leadership of the church, and if so they really can’t continue to follow. Or it may be more practical: they may be moving away or a family member really needs them to attend their church or they get married and choose to go to their spouse’s church, or they lost a loved one and the church reminds them to intensely of their grief. Or they may have such a vastly different worship style than the church that it makes no sense for them to stay. Ironically, in these cases where someone is leaving for good reasons there can still be hurt feelings. As their friend it’s important for me to let them know my feelings. I can write a note saying, “I know you’re leaving the church for good reasons, but it still hurts to see you go.” Or I can call them up and say, “It’s going to be really hard not being in the same church and small group with you.” On the opposite end the people leaving may have no hard feelings at all; but after they leave and no one says anything about it, they begin to question the friendships with people in their old church. Simple contacts acknowledging they are leaving and saying they are missed will bridge those gaps.
But this is also true of people that leave the church for what we feel are the wrong reasons. Maybe they don’t like the new youth pastor’s haircut, they thought a message series was “getting too personal” or they think that they can only really worship God when the leader plays a guitar and not a piano. From time to time I’ll have a friend leave the church for reasons that I think are dumb. But they are still my friends. I might question their judgment, but hey, they probably question mine from time to time too. After the fact of a friend leaving my church I need to do the little things to still be a true friend.
When a friend of mine is leaving the church I need to remember that when Jesus died on the cross nearly all his disciples abandoned him for a time. Peter even denied he ever knew him. So far my friends that have left my church haven’t gone that far! But Jesus sought them out and called them out and let them know they were forgiven, that they were still friends… that he “laid his life down for his friends.” These friends who left and then came back became the First Church of Jerusalem. All of Church history is founded on this process of what is done when things aren’t going well and someone leaves a group following Christ.
Build a list of some more good reasons people may leave a church:
What are some other “tell-tale” signs that someone is leaving a church beyond the list in this article?
Read Matthew 18:15-20 as a group and then discuss what you think the different stages of confrontation should be when someone else offends you or sins against you. What is our responsibility and what should we “leave up to God?”
Have you ever left a church and felt like you were treated poorly or improperly in that transition?
Have you had a friend leave your church and you didn’t know what to do? How would you respond to that friend differently now?
Build a list of practical ideas on responding helpfully to a friend who is thinking of leaving your church or another church:
© 2005 by David Drury