Last month a couple sat in my office and said, “We’ve been debating about whether or not to come talk with you. This might seem random, but it’s something we’ve been praying about. We want to put it out there and see if there’s anything to it, or if we’re reading things wrongly.”
The last few years have helped me curb my innate apprehension to statements like this. Among our elders, staff and congregation, we are sowing to reap a culture of godly criticism and godly encouragement, which means that we make room for conversations that might seem awkward or difficult to start for many people.
The couple in front of me that morning gave me the gift of trust as their pastor—whatever their issue, they trusted I would hear and respond to them in love. Each year when our church enters into a season of Covenant Membership Renewal, there may be conversations that go unsaid due to a sense of awkwardness or difficulty. But we need to have them and extend trust to each other in the process.
When No One Knows What to Say
People leave a church for many reasons. Some are good; some are less than good. Some members disappear without a trace, and others leave a tumultuous wake in their exit. As a pastor, these situations often leave me wishing I knew just what to say—and I suspect the member leaving wishes they knew what to say, too.
This lack of resolution results in the kinds of stories we hear from those coming in and going out of churches:
“We were members for 30+ years, but once we left, we never got a single phone call from the staff. It’s like they didn’t even notice or care that we left.”
“I tried to talk with the pastor, but we could never connect. There are still things left unsaid, and now I feel awkward about how we left.”
“I’ll just leave my comments on the feedback form; they can read it and call me if they have questions. I’ve said my piece.”
So how should members in good standing who want to leave the church address their exit with their pastor? And how should the pastor hear and respond when members leave? How do we both seize the moment to say the right thing?
A Necessary Conversation
No matter how much it hurts or how awkward it seems, it’s necessary for pastors and members to have these conversations. With all the grace, patience and other-focused love you both can muster, place the reason for leaving on the table and talk through it. Don’t let things fester.
In this conversation you serve each other by the giving and receiving of clarity, context and—one would hope—apology and forgiveness where needed. It’s Christians having a conversation, talking about life in their local body and treating each other like Christians.
Member: Serve your church with godly encouragement and godly criticism. Give clarity and seek context where needed. Your membership is a job, and being a member means you belong to something bigger than yourself. You are part of a body that protects the who and what of the gospel. Leaving your church is not the same as failing to re-up your club membership.
Pastor: Set your people up for their next church by pastoring them on their way out of yours. Give clarity and seek context where needed. Before they ever belonged to your church, they belonged to God. Entrust them to Him and pray. Don’t shy away from godly critique and have thick skin if it’s delivered imperfectly.
Member: Value your membership in Christ’s Church enough to leave a local body with the same measure of hospitality you expect to be welcomed in with at the next one. When it’s in your power, say the right thing. Have the difficult or awkward conversation. Be intentional to affirm and encourage your Christian brothers when you leave their care.
Pastor: Genuinely bless and work for the best for your members as they go or as they stay. Encourage your people in the “job” of church membership. Help them to see the importance of leaving well and entering into another body as soon as they’re able.
For both members and pastors, these conversations are difficult. But they’re also easy in light of the fact that Christ is our King, and He has promised us that His Church will not fail. Whether or not the local church does well or doesn’t do well, His kingdom will advance. Keeping this in perspective frees us up to have the necessary conversations. And when that time comes, tomorrow or next week or next month, we can seize the moment to say the right thing.