What Happens to the Pastor When People Leave the Church

By Deacon Godsey, Northern Student in the MA in NT Context cohort

WHAT A PASTOR GOES THROUGH WHEN PEOPLE LEAVE THEIR CHURCH…

Deacon Godsey
Pastor, Vintage Church

Over the last 6+ years of serving as a Lead Pastor in a local church I like to think I’ve grown as a pastor, preacher, teacher and leader. I’ve expanded my skill set, broadened the pool of voices that speak into my life, and deepened my theological education. Unfortunately, one of the things I often feel like I’ve done most effectively is develop the “spiritual gift of ecclesiastical repulsion,” or “the ability to cause people to leave your church at an alarmingly consistent rate” (#NonTraditionalSpiritualGifts.)

I emphasize the word feel here because, while I logically know this isn’t completely accurate, the emotional side of the equation makes it extremely difficult to stay in a place of reason over emotion. As a pastor, when someone leaves the church you try not to take it personally or have it affect you on an emotional level, but unless you wall yourself off and become spiritually bitter and relationally isolated, that strategy just isn’t feasible over the long haul. I can’t speak for all pastors, of course, but the truth of the matter is – for me – whenever someone leaves the church it does feel personal, whether I (or my wife) want it to or not, and this gets compounded over time.

A couple leaves the church because your theology of God’s sovereignty isn’t quite as “detailed” as they’d like it to be, or your teaching is a little too “heady” for the young people they’re trying to bring on Sunday mornings, and though it takes some time, you eventually realize you can’t please everyone and do your best to move on.

[I, SMcK, jump in here to draw attention to why I wrote A Fellowship of Differents: loving those who are not like us is at the heart of the church.]

Soon after they leave, you accidentally fail to show up for the “pastor appreciation” breakfast at a child’s local Christian school, and despite your sincere apologies and efforts to make it right, the family gets offended and decides your church is no longer for them. You do your best to learn from it so you don’t make the same mistake twice, and though it takes some time, you realize no one is perfect and do your best to move on.

Several months later it becomes clear that your view of sin and God’s wrath aren’t quite as “reformed” as some key couples on your leadership team would like, so they elect to graciously step aside (so as not to cause division on the team, which you respect and are grateful for.) Unfortunately, both couples are the point leaders of your college ministry, have done a great job of developing deep, personal relationships with those students and, as a result of their decision to leave, a minor exodus occurs, effectively decimating your outreach to college students and your connection to their campus ministry. You try to live in the knowledge that this is ultimately for the best for all involved, but still…it sucks. You feel like a failure. You feel angry, rejected and betrayed…like you’ve squandered the last several years of investing your heart, soul and mind into these leaders and students, but its all fallen apart and its all because of…you.

I could go on, of course, but you see where I’m going. Situational details change, but the overall reality is the same: people leave. For one reason or another, despite your best intentions and your best efforts, people you genuinely love and view as members of your “extended family” (whether you consciously refer to them that way or not) decide to leave your church, and if you’re honest with yourself, it often hurts like a punch to the gut.

It takes time (sometimes years) to figure this out, but eventually the weight of reality hits you. No matter who you are, or how Christ-like you try to be, the fact is: you’re too “liberal” for some people, or too “conservative” for others; too into “justice ministry,” or not “woke” enough; too “Calvinist” or too “Arminian;” too intellectual or too emotional; too into “law” or too into “grace;” too reliant on sports or movie analogies, or not creative enough to effectively use them in your preaching; too “transparent” with your life, or not “authentic” enough; talk too much about money, or…well…no….no matter what you do, you just talk too much about money.

When this weight hits you, you start coming to grips with a corresponding reality: no matter how faithful you try to be Scripture, no matter how hard you pray for the people in your church, some of them – for one reason or another – are going to choose to leave, and though you may not want to admit it, the truth is: that hurts.

It hurts not simply as a pastor, but as a human being…as a friend…as a sibling in Christ…as a co-laborer in ministry. It hurts your spouse who walks through this with you, who loses these friends right along with you, all while carrying the extra burden of trying not to carry offenses on your behalf. If you have kids, it hurts them as well, as they lose friends with little understanding of why, and with the added challenge of trying to navigate the emotional turmoil in your home (something you try desperately to dispel, but usually with little success.) And it hurts your team as a whole, as they wrestle with the relational loss and the potential impact on the kingdom vision you’re leaning into together.

All of which, of course, rebounds to you, the leader. You try not to carry the emotional weight of the world on your shoulders; you try not to carry the burden of your church’s kingdom effectiveness solely on your back; you try not to wrestle with the sense that its ultimately your responsibility, or the questions of whether people would still be leaving if you were just a better leader, or a better preacher, or had a better worship experience, or…

And the reality is, they would.

People would still leave.

No matter how great a leader you are, no matter how skilled a teacher, how gifted a worship leader, how relational you are with the students, how life giving you are with the kids…people will still leave. And that will always be hard, it will always require your courage to admit that, and it will always demand your willingness to do the hard work of grieving over it. It will never be something you learn how to “get over,” but it can – and must – become a reality you learn how walk through.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.