It is unavoidable--people will leave your church, sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes not. Here are the top five reasons people abandon the house of God, and how to handle it when it happens.
But as the pastor moves down the aisle to greet his congregation, he glances over to the section that, only weeks ago, was occupied by several people who had been under his watchful care for a number of years. The feeling of success about the service he just led suddenly fades away. There's a pain inside his heart now--a pain he ignores as he gets ready to greet his flock on the way out.
One of the biggest reasons pastors quit the ministry is discouragement. Watching people leave a church prematurely, year after year, wears on a pastor's emotions and can play a big part in feeding feelings of discouragement and failure.
On a regular basis, pastors face the reality of people who have been part of their church deciding to leave. More often than not, these people have received a great deal of ministry and have been given special attention to get them through difficult times. And though it may not be talked about much at your local ministerial fellowship, when people leave your church, it usually hurts.
The local church was designed to be a community in which the people of God grow and flourish. Psalm 52:8 asserts: "But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God" (NKJV). When people who have been planted in a local church leave for any reason other than unavoidable circumstances--such as moving--it produces a time of grief for the pastor and for everyone who had been close to them. The sense of loss, depending on the relationship the pastor had with the ones leaving, can be close to the feelings one has when going through a divorce or separation.
The first time I experienced people leaving the church I pastored, I felt devastated and fought off a sense of "Where did I go wrong?" for months. I had been in the home of these saints many times, and never imagined they would stop coming to the church. Their decision to leave, I discovered later, was a personality conflict with a younger member of the church. I could not understand why it could not be worked out.
Bible school did not prepare me for this aspect of the ministry. Through the years, when different pastors would tell me of people leaving their church without a real reason, I would notice the pain in their hearts and the cries from within that were asking, "Would someone please tell me why, after I have poured my life out to these people, they would leave because of such a seemingly small reason?"
The pain of this loss, if not totally given over to Jesus, can affect a pastor's marriage and family. It can cause a pastor to continually fight feelings of discouragement and failure. And the more a person was involved with the church and close to the pastor, the more negative feelings have to be overcome.
One pastor shared with me how, in the middle of a building program, a sizeable number of people had left his church. Someone did not agree on some aspect of the new building, and apparently spread his negative opinion among some of the sheep.
As I stood there listening, I felt this pastor's discouragement. Just a month before, he was full of excitement and joy as the church was finally moving out of their old building to a new one. But I stood in front of him now, feeling so inadequate to minister to him. I became determined to find out what the Bible says about this subject.
I have studied the Word and sought the Lord to get some biblical answers for this challenge every pastor inevitably must face. I believe the Word of God gives us some direction and encouragement on this very difficult subject. There are many different reasons people leave a church prematurely, but I want to address five that seem to be the most prevalent.
Reason No. 1: Roots are not established. Without roots, people "tumble in" when they want, and then "tumble out" when they want--usually taking others with them.
One of the basic reasons people leave a church is that they simply never let Jesus "plant" them so their roots can go down deep and bring forth fruit. The Bible suggests that without roots, we cannot flourish: "The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God" (Ps. 92:12-13).
God Himself established the local church. And people are like trees: They must develop a root system to grow and flourish. I have noticed this over the years and have talked about it with other pastors. There are those who attend church services, and who even get counsel, but they always seem to be on the fence. Shepherds call sheep such as this "fence" sheep because they stay close to the fence, always looking for a way to get out.
When someone attends a church only looking to get fed and comforted, but does not develop the root system of commitment, it really is only a matter of time before they will leave. They will find the "greener grass" on the other side of the fence. They will always find someone who can preach better than their pastor, care more, counsel better and move in the anointing in a greater capacity.
Jesus is the builder of His church, and He knows where to plant us so that we will grow and flourish. To leave prematurely is to invite spiritual confusion and possible shipwreck.
Several years ago, a man who seemed hungry for God became part of our church. The person seemed to be part of the church vision, but time and circumstances revealed that he had no desire to be part of that vision. The last I heard, this man has gone to several churches, always leaving when the word "commitment" is placed at his feet.
Of course, there are times when God does move people to another church. But if the Holy Spirit is not leading them, I believe great damage can be done to their spiritual lives and to their destiny in God.
Reason No. 2: Connections are not made. People often leave a church when they never really "connect" to the vision and direction of that particular church. Each church is different and has a different vision from the Lord to carry out His specific purpose for their locale. It is possible to attend a church and to receive from the ministry there, but never connect to the vision the pastor received from the Lord.
This happens because either the person has his own vision, which is more important to him than the corporate vision of the church, or there is something about the vision the person does not agree with. In either case, unless the situation is worked out through prayer and counsel, it is only a matter of time before this person will decide to leave the church. If a pastor has a clear vision from the Lord, and someone attends year after year but never connects to that vision, the vision ends up becoming an issue to them and will be the element used to justify their departure.
Through the years, I have observed people who had a real vision from the Lord, but did not want to be part of a bigger vision for a season in order to grow and develop the skills they needed. I have seen these people drift from church to church, and from pastor to pastor, without any significant growth in character and anointing.
Elisha had to become part of Elijah's vision for a season. Timothy had to become part of Paul's vision for a season. When someone becomes part of someone else's vision, it causes them to be connected and to grow in the things of God.
Both Elisha and Timothy needed to be connected before they could be released for their ministry. They did not leave prematurely. In Elisha's case, if he had left too soon, he would never have received the double anointing.
Reason No. 3: Running from the truth. This reason is probably more common than we perceive it to be.
When the Word of God is preached or taught through the anointing, it brings with it truth and reality, about both God and ourselves. I have watched different people resisting conviction from the Holy Spirit when the truth was being presented to them.
I do not believe in beating the sheep with the Word of God. The truth from God's Word should never be presented harshly, but spoken in love. Correction should never be used to bring people to our standard, but to the standard of the Word of God.
Still, the truth almost always brings a sense of correction with it. Truth is the road by which conviction can flow into our lives. Truth keeps us from falsehood and deception.
Most correction should be done in an indirect way through the preaching and teaching of the Word. It must be done through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. No one gets to the place where he does not need the Word to correct some area of his life. If we believe we have come to a place of spirituality where we no longer need truth, we are simply setting ourselves up for a fall.
Reason No. 4: Because of an offense. This also is common in the local church. The Scripture tells us the stronghold that offense can bring: "A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle" (Prov. 18:19).
When offense occurs between church members, it must be resolved, or people will almost always leave. The process might take a while to culminate, but eventually, one of the two parties will leave, frequently taking with them several people to whom they have become close.
There are two types of offense that typically cause people to leave a local church:
Real offenses. An example may be when one church member gossips about another member, and it gets on the "church hot line." When the person being talked about finds out, there will be an offense. This offense only can be resolved through the direct communication of the people involved.
There must be repentance, forgiveness and a spirit of love to keep the people involved in the conflict in the same church. Jesus gave us clear direction on this subject: "'Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift'" (Matt. 5:23-24).
Many "gifts" being offered to the Lord each Sunday do not get any further than the ceiling. Offense is so serious that God is not interested in receiving from us until it is resolved. God knows the church will suffer greatly when an offense takes root and is not taken care of. People who do not get their offenses resolved will often, directly or indirectly, spread their bitterness and resentment to others. Hebrews 12:15 warns: "looking carefully...lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled." The root of bitterness can be awakened by many sources, but none gets it going like an offense.
Supposed offenses. I have observed there are "supposed offenses" that take place in the church. These are not really offenses at all, but are subjective, based on the disposition, maturity and motives of the person involved.
For example, in some churches--mine included--pastors do not counsel women alone. But I know of people who have taken an offense with a pastor and a church because they could not receive counsel from the pastor alone in his office. This is a supposed offense. It seems like a real one, but it is not.
People develop attitudes and justify their reasons for being offended and then make their plans to leave. I have found out in the years I have pastored that it is very hard to convince people that their supposed offense is not real, but only a subjective response of their own attitudes.
A supposed offense may also arise because of the standards set by the church. For example, I do not allow anyone to minister on the platform--whether to sing, to play a musical instrument, to teach or to preach--if he or she does not tithe. We have established this standard, and everyone who wants to minister on the platform in any capacity is made aware of this rule. The Bible says, "'Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?'" (Luke 16:11).
Some people may be offended when confronted about a lack of consistent tithing. This is another example of a supposed offense. They knew the rules but simply ignored them. When confronted, they simply chose to be offended about it. It is no surprise when they leave the church.
Reason No. 5: Loss of hunger. Sometimes people leave a church simply because they lose their hunger for the things of God.
When God is taking a church to a new level, everyone will be challenged to move on and leave some things behind. Sometimes it is the spirit of the world that needs to be abandoned or some tradition that needs to be let go. When the pastor and the church are moving on with God and someone does not want to go, it indirectly brings separation.
Consider the biblical account of Ruth, Naomi and Orpah. Orpah went back to Moab, but Ruth went on to Bethlehem. I do not like to see people "go back." I do everything I can to include them and to encourage them to move on with God. But just like Ruth and Orpah, there are people who want to go on to where the Holy Spirit is leading them, and those who don't.
If a person does not yield to the moving of the Spirit, then others who are moving on will begin to irritate them. Of course, this can work for good to help motivate people to keep moving on in God. The pastor must have the spiritual insight and discernment to encourage others to move on with God, and at the same time provide an atmosphere where everyone can grow and develop a true spiritual hunger.
As a pastor, you must remember that people will come, and people will go--it's an occupational hazard, if you will. There will be some whose absence will have a greater effect on you than others. You may have to work through certain emotions such as anger, rejection and discouragement.
Paul experienced this when a friend and co-worker in ministry with whom he had worked closely left him for the ways of the world (see Col. 4:14; Philem. 1:24). Paul wrote: "For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:10). I'm sure Paul wondered how this could have happened.
If you are a pastor who has lost people you were close to, draw closer to the Lord in brokenness, humility and purity. As you do, Jesus will restore your soul and cause you to rise to a higher level of spiritual maturity, strength of character and blessing in your relationship with a Father who is just waiting to embrace you.
Bill Smalt is pastor of the Rock Church of Wyoming Valley in Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Handling the Heartache When Someone Leaves
When someone you have loved and ministered to leaves your church, it exacts a painful emotional toll. But if you allow the Holy Spirit room to work, He can bring hope and healing.
Pray for those leaving. Don't let disappointment derail your prayer life. And though it may be painful, pray for that person or persons who are leaving your church. Pray for God's will to be ultimately done in their lives. Release them to God in prayer, and thank Him for the time you had to minister to them. This will keep your heart pure as well as keep any root of bitterness from sprouting up and getting hold of you.
Pray for those left behind. You're not the only one who may be hurting--people in your congregation are probably having a difficult time, too. Pray for those who will be affected by others' decisions to leave. Pray for wisdom and discernment for all involved--both those who are leaving and those who are left behind--so that everyone will have spiritual understanding for the real reason the decision to leave is being made. Pray that their faith will not fail during this hard time. Ask the Lord to give everyone the right words to answer when asked why someone has left.
Saturate yourself in God's Word. Go to the Word and ask the Lord for fresh revelation on the eternal plans and destiny for His people. This will bring about a new focus and level of understanding in relating to His sheep. The Word of God will bring about the comfort and strength you need during this difficult time.
Let it go. Realize that although you are watching over precious souls, you cannot be responsible for everyone's choices and decisions concerning spiritual matters. Only Jesus can carry that burden. We cannot control anyone's decision. We may know for sure what they are doing is wrong; and if they allow us to speak into their lives, we may be able to help them. If not, we cannot go beyond what God Himself does. He never violates free will, even if a person chooses to reject Him.
Talk to a friend. Find a pastor or ministry colleague with whom you can openly talk and share your feelings. Select someone you trust and who will keep things confidential. Ask the Lord for a fellow pastor with whom you can enjoy friendship and share anything with--someone who can understand both the struggles that occur in ministry as well as the disappointments people can sometimes bring.
Be of good cheer. Don't allow yourself to fall into discouragement. Make the choice, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to be encouraged and to run the race to the finish. Remember to "lift up your eyes" to the harvest field. It is ripe unto harvest.