Help for Walking through the Pain of People Leaving Your Church

HOW TO WALK THROUGH THE PAIN OF PEOPLE LEAVING YOUR CHURCH

Deacon Godsey
Pastor, Vintage Church

I recently wrote a piece about the struggle pastors (and their families) experience when people leave their church, a struggle (I argue) that culminates, not in learning how to “get over it,” but in learning how to walk through it. Unfortunately, the space of that post didn’t allow for diving into that process, so it may have left some readers
with a sense of, “Well that’s great…NOW what do I do?! If you’re telling me it’s not about getting over it, but learning to walk through it: how exactly do I do that?!

If that’s not you, be at peace; if it is, I hope these brief (non-exhaustive) suggestions can offer some tangible direction and encouragement in the midst of the pain you either have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience somewhere down the line…

Which leads directly to the first (and in many ways the most crucial) step in this process: honestly identifying and calling out the pain and grief for what it is. If we are ever going to effectively walk through our grief, we have to move past the temptations we’re bombarded with along the way. Temptations like:

  • Avoiding our pain by willfully ignoring it or engaging in unhealthy (or downright sinful) coping skills
  • Rationalizing our pain away by convincing ourselves its not really that big of a deal, or by beating ourselves up because “surely there are others suffering much worse than I am, so I shouldn’t complain…”
  • Fully indulging our flesh by becoming so comfortable with anger and bitterness that we fail to use them as motivators to press into healing, and instead come to embrace them as another twisted source of comfort

The list could go on, of course. The point is: avoiding the pain will never work in the long run. Eventually, in one way or another – and likely when you least expect it – that pain will come to the surface, and the longer you put off acknowledging and embracing it for what it is, the harder its going to be on you and everyone else around you. So own it, embrace it, and verbalize it. It hurts. It sucks. Be honest with yourself and with with God about that. He can handle it, and in all honesty, so can you. Denying or avoiding it is much, much harder. Trust me on this.

Second, let me repeat what I just said above: don’t just be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling, but start being honest with God about it as well. Don’t believe the lie that God wants you to “suck it up and get over it,” or that God is disappointed with you for feeling the way you do, or that it’s somehow sinful for you to express your hurt, anger, disappointment, etc. Read the Psalms, or the Prophets, or the Gospels, or – yeah, pretty much the whole Bible – and you’ll see that from beginning to end it testifies to God’s ability to handle the reality of our human experience, and the grace and compassion God extends to us in the midst of it.

Third, I strongly suggest getting some form of outside, objective help in processing the emotional and spiritual realities involved. That might take the form of a professional counselor (no, seeing one isn’t an expression of weakness, but of wisdom), a fellow pastor or priest (preferably one outside your immediate church or denominational structure), or a trusted friend (again, preferably outside your immediate church setting.) Whoever it may be, its important it be someone you feel safe with, who is emotionally healthy and spiritually mature enough to let you feel what you’re feeling and say what you need to say in the process, without using religious guilt to stifle your emotions and prematurely stunt the process.

Fourth, and I cannot stress this enough: you must give yourself grace to persistently, methodically walk through the process of forgiveness on a day-to-day basis for as long as it takes to be truly free from the burden of hurt you currently feel. Forgiveness is never magical; we don’t simply snap our fingers or wave our spiritual wands and say “Reconcilio!” (or whatever Harry Potter inspired phrase you can think of) and achieve perfect inner peace.

As in other scenarios, there will be days this forgiveness feels relatively easy to extend, while on others it feels excruciating. One day you’ll see someone who left your church out-and-about around town and think, “Oh hey, there’s so-and-so…Lord, please bless them and their family.” Other days you might see them walking down an aisle in the grocery store and think, “You know what, I think I’m just going to go in the opposite direction as quickly as I possibly can because the thought of having a face-to-face interaction with them is the most frightening thing I can imagine in this moment.” One day you might see them like one of your posts on social media and think, “Oh wow, that was nice of them…thank you Lord,” while other days you might see them post about how awesome their new church/pastor is and be tempted to think, “You know what… un-FOLLOW, un-FRIEND, be BLESSED, be BLOCKED, in Jesus’ name!” (For more on the #BeBlessedBeBlocked movement, visit @MsPackyetti on Twitter.)

You get the idea…it’s an up-and-down kind of thing!

And here’s what you need to remember: the emotional, spiritual roller coaster you’re on IS NORMAL. It doesn’t
mean you’re evil, that you’re a horrible Christian, or that you’re disqualified from pastoral ministry. It means you’re human and are in process; you need the sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit to help you grow in the consistent ability to extend grace and forgiveness to those who have wounded you…or as Jesus might say, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Finally, as much as you can, I encourage you to focus on those who have chosen to stay and regularly express your gratitude to God – and to them, in appropriate ways – for the opportunity to serve and grow alongside them. It’s always appropriate and necessary to grieve those who have left, but don’t let that get in the way of celebrating and continuing to grow in relationship with those have stayed!

Contrary to the common misconception, time itself will not heal all wounds. Some days you’ll feel like Frodo near the end of Return of The King, still sensing the presence of your old wound, yet still moving forward, ultimately unhindered by its impact. But when time is combined with the intentional engagement of these (and other) practices – and the enveloping and empowering comfort of the Spirit – it will work wonders on your heart and mind. Eventually you will be healed, just try to give yourself and others grace in the meantime…

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.