Find out Why People Leave Your Church: 8 Tips for Exit Interviews

This week I listened to people who left their churches and never went back. I didn’t like their stories, for a couple of reasons.

First, it was painful to hear of their wounds. Their reasons for leaving varied widely, from mistreatment to malfeasance to neglect.

Then, it was agonizing to hear how none of them had been contacted by the churches they left. They felt ultimately disposable and forgotten.

Unfortunately, their stories are all too common. Even for churches that report shining statistics of new members, they’re often losing equal numbers out the back door. What’s happening? Why are they leaving?

Churches like to call in paid consultants to analyze their situations. Usually these hired guns interview the staff and survey the congregation. They typically uncover predictable things. But they may miss the glaring problems, which are best articulated by those who have left.

So, before you call in the next consultant, take a hint from other organizations: talk to your past customers. See what good employers do; they conduct exit interviews. It seems so obvious. But, in the church world, this contact is rare.

Why? Are we afraid of what we’ll hear? Is it too awkward? Do we feel that contacting lost members will only pander to their complaining?

Let’s forget the excuses and consider how to reach out to the lost sheep. You’ll learn how to improve your ministry, and you’ll show care for those who feel hurt. I was involved in a small team that did just that. We invited past members to sit down with us and talk about why they left our church. Without hesitation, they all agreed to meet. They talked openly, calmly and candidly. And they were so thankful that somebody finally noticed they had left and cared enough to inquire. What they told us was eye-opening and very helpful.

Here’s what we learned about contacting lost sheep:

1. Form a small team of level-headed volunteers to contact the lost sheep. Don’t enlist pastors or other church staff for this work. First, the departed members won’t be as blunt with paid leaders. Second, your staff may already feel pummeled themselves. The last thing they want to do is sit through another feared pummeling. So, select volunteers who are not currently serving in any leadership capacity at the church. These should be good listeners who will not get defensive when hearing negative comments about their church.

2. Assemble a list of those who have gone missing. Contact these past members personally. Let them know they’re missed. Ask if they’d share why they left. Assure them your purpose is simply to listen, not to coerce them to return. You simply want to know how to improve.

3. Set up a time, about an hour, to meet personally on neutral ground, such as a restaurant or coffee shop. Do not attempt to collect information through written surveys or over the phone. Meet face to face.

4. When you meet, reiterate you’re there to listen. Ask for their honesty and candor. Say something like, “I know you haven’t been around for some time. We used to see you all the time. I’d really like to hear about what might have led to your departure. It may help us avoid problems and hurt in the future.”

5. Take notes. And inform your interviewees that you’d like pass along helpful information to appropriate people who can make improvements for the future.

6. At the end of the interview, sincerely thank the interviewees. And extend a heartfelt apology that the church did not measure up to their expectations. This isn’t admitting guilt. It’s simply offering remorse and compassion for how they feel.

7. Then compile the results of the interviews. Look for any common threads. Prepare a report for church leaders who have the responsibility to make your ministry as strong and effective as it can be. Be sensitive about handling accounts of individuals who were named by interviewees. That information should be shared directly with the named individuals and/or their immediate supervisors.

8. Consider the results and take appropriate action to improve your ministry.

Part of the being the Body of Christ means noticing and caring when a part goes missing.

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Thom Schultz
Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.