When People Leave:

The Private Pain of the Small Church Pastor

by Pastor Karl Vaters

All of us have felt the pain and disappointment of someone leaving our church. It’s hard on everyone. It’s hard to leave and it’s hard being left. A while back I read a blog about this very issue written by Pastor Karl Vaters. He pastors a small church in Southern California. I asked him if he’d be a guest blogger for me this week and he gave me permission to share his story. Here it is.

LET’S TALK…

Most who leave don’t make that decision lightly. They deal with some serious pain when they finally make the decision to go.

If you’ve been a pastor for several years, you’ve had to deal with your share of such departures. Each one hurts. It’s especially hard when those leaving are long-term members. The collective pain of all those departures over a long period of time can wear a pastor down.

Even if the church is growing, it can be hard when people leave. But when the church is small, each loss is that much more painful.

First, there’s the math. The percentage loss is much higher than in a bigger church. Losing one family can mean massive changes in entire ministries.

Second – and most difficult – it’s not just a drop in attendance, tithers or volunteers. It’s the loss of people we know. People we’ve invested in. People we’re friends with.

Today’s post is not about answers. It’s a public recognition of our shared private pain. With the hope that we can find some sort of solace by knowing we’re not alone in these feelings.

Here are some painful truths many of us have felt when people leave our churches.

It Hurts When People Leave the Church

There are two realities about pastoral ministry that we cannot change:

People will leave our church

It will hurt when they leave

We can deny it or admit it. Denial gives it power over us and allows it to surprise us the next time it happens. Admitting it… well, at least we can remove the weapon of surprise from this nasty beast.

It Hurts When It’s Someone We’ve Invested In

Sometimes it seems like the people we’ve spent the most time with, helped through the hardest trials and seen the most progress in are the most likely ones to leave.

I understand that people need a fresh start after they’ve been through some emotional and/or spiritual trauma. But it still hurts to invest all that time, energy, emotion and compassion only to hear them say buh-bye after you’ve helped them get healthy again.

It Hurts When They’ve Been Friends

No, not everyone in your church needs to be your friend. But some should be. Yet a lot of pastors resist having friends in the church because when they leave, it’s really painful.

Ellen Jacobs addressed this issue poignantly from the perspective of a pastor’s wife in her blog post, It’s Hard When Friends Leave. Here is some of what she wrote.

Whether the reason for leaving is bad or good, it leaves a wound behind. So what do we do? I think we mourn for a while, perhaps a long while if needed. We ask God to dress our wound. We process, we pray, and time goes by.

And you know what we don’t do? We don’t write that person off. We don’t forget all the good that existed in that friendship. We don’t subconsciously (or consciously) vow to never open ourselves up to people again.

Good words, Ellen.

It Hurts When They Leave Without Telling Us Why

Church consultants recommend doing exit interviews to help us understand why church members left. That’s a great idea. In theory. And it works well in larger churches because the person conducting the interview probably doesn’t know them personally. But it’s one of those principles that doesn’t transpose smoothly into the smaller setting.

When people leave a smaller congregation, who should conduct the exit interview? The pastor they had a disagreement with in the first place? The deacon they’ve been gossiping with for years? The new family who barely knows the church and the issues involved?

No. In a Small Church, the pastor calls and/or emails the person or family they haven’t seen in a while to ask if anyone’s been sick or on vacation. Even though we have a strong suspicion of what’s really going on. If they answer the phone or return the email, that’s our exit interview. And it can be very awkward and painful – for both sides.

If they don’t return emails or phone calls – which happens quite often – there’s nothing to do but feel hurt for a while, then soldier on. The silent, unanswered departure is never easy.

Since this post is about making private pain public, here’s a hard truth that I’ve heard some Small Church pastors admit to each other. We don’t always make that call when we know what the answer will be. We know we should, but we can’t always handle the rejection.

So, to all the church consultants berating pastors for not following up when members leave, we get it. We know we should make those calls. But it’s not always because we don’t care. It’s because we care too much.

It Hurts When They Bomb Us with Every Reason Why

This is the other side of the silent departure. The pastor gets a “we need to talk” call.

The truth is, we want to know why people are leaving and why. We really do. But these final talks are often a great source of additional pain to us. Especially when the problem is with something we did – or failed to do.

In my three-plus decades of ministry, these have been some of my toughest moments. People who I thought were doing well and were happy in the church sit down with me and pull out a piece of paper listing all the offenses they feel they’ve endured over the last few years. Some are legitimate. Some are really not. All of them are painful to hear.

But the most frustrating thing about the “here’s every reason why I’m leaving” conversation is…

It Hurts When They Don’t Give Us a Chance to Make Things Right

I wish people would tell me about their problems when there’s still a chance to make things right!

I’ve been through too many meetings where

I didn’t know there was a problem until now

The problem would have been fixable if I’d known

It was just a misunderstanding that we could have easily resolved

But it’s too late now. They’ve already made their minds up to leave.

It Hurts When They Leave for Another Church

It’s especially hard when they leave the long-term, healthy, faithful, smaller congregation for the flashier, new, big church. But it could be worse…

It Hurts Even More When Don’t Go to Any Other Church

To lose someone from our church is hard. To know they’ve left the church entirely and that we’ve possibly lost them from the body of Christ is unspeakably heartbreaking. (Please, no eternal security comments. This is not about that.)

It Hurts When They Avoid Us Later

Many Small Churches are in small towns, or in tight neighborhoods where people run into each other in the store or at civic events.

If I could give one word of advice to church members who leave, it would be this. You don’t have to look away awkwardly when you run into your former pastor or one of their family members on the street. Our relationship may have changed when you left. But just because we’re no longer your pastor doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.

BEFORE YOU GO…

So what do you think? What challenges have you faced in dealing with people leaving the church?

You can go to http://newsmallchurch.com for more insights from Karl Vaters about pastoring a small church.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Bill Vermillion says:

    You are right on and I remember weeping when folks left whom I had invested in but they no longer felt they were receiving what they should have. When folks left because of moving, we would do a special service of commissioning them for their new area of ministry. Getting exit briefings were a very mixed bag as you indicate. I think most the time they did not want to meet with me. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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