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Should We Pursue Those Leaving the Church?

Q:  Our church has been in transition for about 15 months, and we are still slowly losing people. The major problem and disappointment comes when the people who leave are dishonest with me and minimize the magnitude of their disagreement. Yet, they malign me to other members on their way out. Would you advise pursuing these members and lay leaders who are leaving our church or indicating they’re about to leave? 

A:  I can’t tell you how common this problem is and how often I’ve experienced it in my own leadership. To both react and lead properly in this challenge, I’ve chosen a foundational principle that I build my life and leadership on:  “I have to love people without needing them.”

In the early days of my ministry, I loved growth—which I translated as “success”—so I did whatever it took to keep every single person in our church. To me, each person represented growth and size. Anyone leaving seemed to represent failure. But I soon learned that this attitude was both unhealthy and destructive. It caused me to fight to keep people in the church who were undercutting the vision, biblical values, and enthusiasm we needed to reach new people and grow. They also were stifling the credibility and influence I was building as a leader. 

Realize this:  people who are talking about leaving your church for negative reasons will not be positive or supportive. As a result, they will make it their goal to influence other people to think and act negatively. So I don’t advise pursuing them or attempting to get them to stay. It won’t be positive for your church or for them. Instead, as pastors we must love them enough to let them go and find a church that lives up to their expectations. We must love them without needing them. When we need them, we compromise the good of the church to keep them. 

I don’t have to tell you that trying to keep these people isn’t healthy or God-honoring leadership. The good shepherd protects the sheep from exposure to harmful and destructive elements, and this is the role we have as pastors. Nothing is more destructive than a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing. So you must protect your church from people like this.

In the early days of our transition at NorthRidge, a young couple’s class of nearly 60 people walked out of the church. Because the average age of our congregation was 60-plus, losing young people was about the worst thing that could happen to us. The only thing worse would’ve been surrendering our vision and values to their agenda in order to keep them. Though I desperately wanted them to stay, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to need them more than I needed to make the right decisions as a leader. The situation was difficult, but the short-term loss has allowed our church to experience long-term gain we would never have found if I’d tried to keep them. 

This heart-wrenching loss taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes the best thing that can happen for the health of a church is for the right people to leave. By the right people, I don’t necessarily mean bad or ungodly people. Though to be honest, this is sometimes the case. Rather, I mean those people who, for whatever reason, will never be part of the church moving forward. I strongly believe that you should let them go. But be prepared. These people don’t generally leave quietly or respectfully. I’ll never forget the very public words one disgruntled lady directed my way as she was leaving for the last time:  “You have the face of an angel, but the heart of a thief.” Ouch. When people leave this way, they seldom are content to leave alone. Just remember:  the negative splash won’t last long, but the health and peace that follows will have long-term positive impact.

Of course, you’ll always have caveats. If the problem stems from a misunderstanding with people who have proven to be good-hearted and have bought into the church’s new direction, pursuing a fix could very well be worth it. And I encourage you to do everything you can to mend those relationships. 

Though we must be willing to lose people, it’s certainly not the goal. But if fixing the misunderstanding requires you to change your ministry direction, it’s not worth it.

Experience has shown me that negative people only have one agenda—to spread their negativity. So you must get them out fast, and then protect the rest of the congregation. When these situations erupted in our church, I’d call together anyone or any groups of people I knew who had heard the negative comments and I’d spend time with them. I’d lay out the situation before them and talk about what they had heard versus the reality of the situation. In most cases, this honest interaction protected our church from misperceptions of reality, as well as the negative ripple effect that happens when people don’t know the truth. 

But remember to address the issue with only the people potentially influenced by the negativity. Many years ago, my dad gave me good counsel:  don’t bring a hundred people in on something that only affects three. So while it’s your responsibility to protect the church, make sure you’re talking to the appropriate people. I’ve known many leaders who compounded the problem by introducing it to a larger group than necessary. 

And remember, you must love people without needing them. 

As senior pastor of NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan, and author of Change Your Church for Good (Nelson), Brad Powell consults with church leaders to help them lead their churches through transition. Additional resources by Powell are available online at Bradpowellonline.com. To submit your questions about transitioning your church, e-mail him at Bpowell@Outreachmagazine.com.

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Toni Ridgaway is a content editor for the Outreach Web Network, including churchleaders.com and SermonCentral.com.