One autumn evening, I sat with a couple who had been members of our church for several years. They had come to tell me that they had decided to attend another church because they felt they needed a bigger and more vibrant youth program than what our church could offer. Inwardly I wanted to cry. Not only were these friends, this was the second time in just a few weeks that I was having this same conversation. Losing one family was hard enough. Two?
I was assured that they loved me and loved my preaching, but they had come to say goodbye. I was glad that I was not the reason they were leaving. But as I told my wife, it was like a girl you were dating breaking up with you and saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” It still hurt.
But losing people didn’t end there. Losing these two families resulted in some other families leaving. The rationale was “If they’ve gone, my child’s Sunday School class/youth group is even smaller, and I want my child to have more Christian friends.” Within a few weeks, this chain reaction led to our losing close to 40 people. That was a big hit – so much so that a month or two later I gathered our people together during the Sunday School hour and explained why so many people were missing.
Our people were gracious, and most of them were affirming and encouraging. Of course, you will always have people who suspect that there’s something sinister lurking under the surface. (You’re thinking about that person in your church right now, aren’t you?) But our people were supportive, and other families assured me they had no intentions of going elsewhere. I was grateful for that.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
Younger pastors, you will experience disappointments of all kinds during your ministry. This was one of the more significant ones that came my way. When people leave, you question yourself. Is there something you could haves done to prevent them leaving? Does this reveal a lack of effectiveness as a pastor? Are the conspiracy theorists in your church are on to something?
Go ahead – ask those questions. But sometimes it is just hard to be a smaller church.
So after you’ve asked and answered those hard questions, what do you do when people leave your church for less than the best reasons?
First and foremost, remember that God’s sovereignty extends to those who come to and those who leave our churches. You may lose people, but God is not wringing his hands asking, “What will happen to such-and-such church?” Your church does not belong to you. You are only a steward of God’s church. I know it’s easy to say and hard to remember, but you have to remind yourself of this often.
Second – and looking back I think I could have done this better – remind your people often of the meaning of membership, of the reasons we commit to a group of believers. This might not prevent people from folding their tents and moving on, but it might make them think twice before they do. And by the way, don’t burn your relationship bridges. The people who leave as I described above are not enemies. I was grateful that, in the years that followed, when I encountered some of the people who moved on from us, our relationship was still intact.
Next, pray that God will bless you with new people. Some people don’t feel at home in larger churches. They’re glad to be a part of a smaller congregation that feels more like family. They want their pastor to know them, to know the names of their children, and to know about their lives. Ask God to bring those kinds of people to you.
Finally, love the people God has given you. You may, like us, lose some families. But you will have others who remain. Love them. You may be hurt and disappointed by those who left, but don’t let those who stay with you feel that they are less important than those who are no longer there. If you need to mourn, and you probably will, do it privately.
For you young guys reading this today, I would wish that you would never have to deal with the disappointment of losing people to a larger church. But I believe that it is almost inevitable.
So when it happens, do your mourning. And ask yourself some hard questions. And if there is something you need to change, change it. But then roll up your sleeves and plunge yourself back into being the best shepherd you can be to the sheep God has given you.