Can You 'Fire' a Church Attendee?

Pastor-ignorant-churchMaybe fire isn’t the right word. But can you say no to someone in a way that suggests your church might not be the right church for them? How do you balance loving and caring for a person and not allowing him or her to leverage their personal wants and maybe even their own agenda?

I’ve been reading a great book titled The Orange Code: How ING Direct Succeeded by Being a Rebel With a Cause, by Arkadi Kuhlmann and Bruce Philp. I’ve been reading it slowly and thinking my way through it for a long time now. The chapter on staffing (“The Dirty Dozen”) is worth the book. There is another great chapter titled “You Say You Want a Revolution?” that speaks to the topic of this article.

Arkadi was working in the bank’s call center, as he regularly did, helping existing customers with routine transactions, helping new ones get signed up and listening to the voices of real people. A woman from Florida with a sizeable bank account was on the line, demanding that a printed statement of her account be mailed to her. Apparently, the fact that she was wealthy gave her the idea that she was entitled and deserved special treatment.

The book goes on to say that Arkadi politely explained that ING Direct did not offer this service, as it is one of the ways it keeps costs down. The woman pushed the issue and got crankier by the minute. She said a printed statement is the law. Arkadi, now beginning to lose his patience, corrected her. I love this line so I will give you a literal quote. He said: “The law says you have the right to own a gun. It does not say you have the right to a printed bank statement every month.”  By this time, the woman was fit to be tied and said something to the effect of, “Has no one ever taught you that the customer is always right?"

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This customer didn’t know she was talking to the ING’s founding CEO or how deeply committed he was to the business model. Finally, when Arkadi had had enough, he said, “That’s it. You’re not ready for this way of banking,” and closed her account. Basically, he fired her!

The church is not a business, and the part of church operations that is businesslike is certainly not like the banking industry. But ING makes a stirring point. At 12Stone, I often say, “We’re not a Christian cruise ship.”  We’re not here to bring you all the great programming you can think of. If we did everything we were asked to do, we’d have dozens of programs, from baseball leagues to classes in CPR.

It’s all good and worthy stuff, but the church not only shouldn’t do all of it, it can’t. All these things and more exist in the surrounding communities. Encourage your people to go out and join in. Cast vision for your people to make a positive contribution in the community and to take Jesus with them.

I can’t remember the last time I actually said no to an idea, just no to 12Stone owning the idea. If the person is truly fired up about it, they can go out and make it happen.

For most of these discussions, the person I’m talking to gets it, and we have a great conversation. I always try to offer ideas and potential resources if I know of something or someone related to what they want to do in the community.

But on occasion we get a “customer” like ING Direct did, and the person simply demands that we do what they want. (Really.) At that point we have a choice: We can bend the church’s vision, energy and resources to the individual's agenda or we can kindly let the person know perhaps 12Stone is not for them. I never like to see anyone leave, and certainly not upset, but there are times we have to let them go.

There is tension in this—trust me, I know. I’m a pastor, and my instinct is to shepherd the sheep, not tell them to find another flock! Again, I would never tell someone to leave and find another church, but that’s what they feel has been said when they don’t get what they want.

Let me offer some principles within those tensions for you to think about.

1. Love everyone, but cater to no one. Jesus served everyone the Father directed Him to serve. We are to do no less. But Jesus never let anyone derail Him from his purpose. One of many stories that illustrates this is in John 11. Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, was sick and dying. They pleaded with Jesus to come and heal him, but Jesus stayed where He was for two more days. I’m certain they didn’t understand in the moment. They were likely upset. Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha, but He remained where He was on purpose.

The tension is found in the fact that people are the purpose of the church, but Jesus never said His ultimate kingdom purposes for the local were to be surrendered to any single individual. Keep the larger mission in mind!

2. Know what God has called you to do, and don’t apologize for it. You can’t do everything, so do what you do well. Keep your list of ministries lean—very lean. Stick to the main thing. It is easily true that within the top five issues church leaders face is too little time and too much to do. And as a result, much of what is done is not done well.

Be strategic. Use resources wisely. Listen carefully to the prompts of the Holy Spirit. I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God won’t give you more to do than you have time to do it in. So, if you have too much to do, maybe you are doing something God doesn’t need you to do.

There are times for all of us that we press the pedal to the metal. But in this context, I’m talking about week after week and month after month—your longterm ministry lifestyle. So when you need to say no, don’t apologize. Let people know you (and the team) are on purpose, God is directing and there is no need to add more “stuff” right now, no matter how worthy it may be. And remember, the person(s) can always go do their great idea on their own. You don’t have to own everyone’s ideas.

3. Get used to the idea that your church isn’t for everyone. The message of Jesus Christ is for everyone, but your church is not, and that’s OK. It’s natural to be disappointed if someone who has been with you for a long time leaves your church. If someone visits your church for a while and doesn’t make it their church home, that’s just part of the process. Don’t take it personally. In the same way that you on occasion must say no to people, they can say no to you too.

If you try to make your church fit everyone, you’ll end up with a much smaller congregation than you will if you know who you are and what you do and are good with that. You can love and serve everyone, but you can’t please everyone. If a family leaves, love them well on the way out, and let them know they are always welcome to return as Jesus prompts them.

People love confident leadership and a church that knows where it’s headed. Even if they don’t fully agree with you, your confidence and zeal is attractive. I hope you don’t have to “fire” many people from your church, but you will need to say no, and possibly more often than you like within your comfort level. Remember that the kingdom is large and one day we’ll all be together ... and then, of course, it will no longer matter!

Dan Reiland is executive pastor of 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., listed in Outreach magazine as the No. 1 fastest-growing church in America in 2010. He has worked closely with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY. His semi-monthly e-newsletter, The Pastor’s Coach, is distributed to more than 40,000 subscribers. Dan is the author of Amplified Leadership, released in January 2012.

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