You go to the house of a family that you have missed from church for a few weeks. In the back of your mind you are hopeful that you will hear about a recent vacation. The conversation is pleasant, and they seem genuinely happy to see you. However, in time the conversation is opened up and they share that they are seeking another church, or not planning to come back. "You see pastor, its not you. We love you, but we feel like we need to make a change." You have probably felt the discouragement of these words. It reminds me of the old Warner Brothers character that went around saying, "I love ya. Bye, bye." You go home wondering what you or the church have done to offend the family, or what you could have done differently to have kept them from leaving.
Here are a few lines I have heard over the years, as I have spoken to people who talk with me about why they are leaving our church. You have probably heard theses too.
- "I love the church pastor, but we need more for our family than your church can offer."
- "I love you pastor, but there are people there that I know are doing (name the action)."
- "Pastor you are a wonderful pastor, but I just feel like I am not being fed."
- "Pastor you and the people are so wonderful, but I don't like the changes with (music, schedules, or any variety of big or small changes are often listed)."
I could go on with this list, and you could probably list dozen's of situations like this. I think that as ministers and leaders we must acknowledge there are usually deeper issues going on that they simply can not express. I am starting to learn that people don't always know why they left. I think that there is a stirring that is within them that is coming from deeper issue, and they leave over a feeling, which is often not easy for them to express.
Even if we are given opportunity to get some sort of exit interview they will likely share these ambiguous answers, which do not help us to improve our ministry. If there is a weakness, we may not know, because they are unable to express their deeper feelings. There may be situations of past changes, past ministers, or past friendship that prevent them from opening up to share with us. It may be this past pain that also has kept them from the deeper relationship that would keep have helped them to remain connected.
There is also the reality that we who are in a small church cannot offer the big church perks. It may frustrate us at times when some will leave without ever having sincerely offered to help the very ministries they desire. This often only seems to put salt in our wounds. However, we know that we can't do what those larger ministries do, and we shouldn't try. God has created us and our church for the unique place we are in. We can't imitate or pretend to be what we are not. We can only offer the best we are, and seek what unique ministry God has for us. We are not in competition with the big box church down the street. We are all on the same team, with a focus on different areas.
This past week in a Bible study group we were talking about when people leave our church. I am not talking about people storming out of the door, but rather people who have been fairly faithful or steady simply stop coming. Some wondered if it was not important to chase them and at least ask why they left. Others wondered if chasing people would only push them further. One thing we came to realize in the discussion was that if they were not getting connected with others then chasing them with any success was a near impossibility. If we hadn't connected to them deep enough before then chasing them wouldn't help, because we really didn't know them well enough for their trust to be open to us anyway. This does not mean that we shouldn't try to reconnect with them, but was a simple observation to the reality of such situations.
I never used to chase people when I started in ministry. I had the belief that if someone wasn't happy with us then they likely left for a church more suited to their taste. If they had moved on to another church then I could deal with the sadness and loss, because they were at least still growing in faith. If they had left because of a lack of deeper connection I felt that chasing them would either alienate them further, or waste a whole lot of time which could be better spent ministering to those who wanted to be there. Don't get me wrong I never tried to avoid, alienate, or wrote off people. I usually stayed in polite contact passing information and inviting them to events. I just didn't like going after people, who knew where we were, and had obviously chosen to go in a different direction. I just refused go to their homes time and time again or call them over and over, if they showed no interest in responding.
Over the past eight years my view has changed, and I tend to chase people at least for a while. In many cases life became busy, and the lack of deeper connection to others led to their drifting out of our church. Some openly admitted that they were seeking some sort of feeling, and now that was filled they didn't feel the need for being a part of the church. A few have actually shared some useful information about some minor problems in our church ministry that we have had to address over time. I still hurt when people leave, as I am sure any pastor of any church would. After all we are the under-shepherds responsible for the fold. We cannot help but feel the pain of a loss to the church, and the impact on the Kingdom of God.
We can do our best to make stronger connections in the future, and keep the door open to those who have left. However, we must also remember that we can't make everyone happy, and we are not called to try that. We are called to be God's hands and feet in witness to the world of His love. People have different personalities, and respond to different things. No one church can ever touch the heart of everyone that is why God has given us so many churches. That is also why there are so many people who are lost and hungry for a real relationship with Him still around us. Instead of worrying that we may not be the right fit for someone who goes to another church, maybe we should open our eyes to the five or ten people living nearby that go to no church at all.
Don't allow the discouragement of hearing someone say "I love ya pastor, but...", to create a painful stumbling block in your heart. Instead remember that you are not alone. Remember also that there were many whom Jesus could never get through to. Care for those who will listen, and reach those who have yet to hear. If you do get people to open up, be gracious and listen to areas that they may show you in your ministry that you can improve. We all have room for improvement, since none of us has yet reached the perfection of heaven. We all minister together with God's Spirit for His Kingdom. He will help to carry us on His mission.
- Keep strong in your journey,