It happened 10 minutes before the worship gathering was to start on an autumn Sunday morning in our one year old church plant. One of our children’s ministry leaders came up to me with a frustrated look in her eyes. Of course, as a pastor I was used to seeing this look in the eyes of children’s ministry leaders. She went on to tell me that one leader was absent that morning and that they had not returned calls about missing the prior week. The leader was frustrated to no end. Just as the conversation was ramping up the husband of the missing volunteer entered the room. He walked right up to me holding a sealed envelope in his hands which he promptly handed me, like a court summons, and said, “You need to read this, Pastor.”

Before I could gather my wits he had turned around and walked out. I stood dumbfounded as I read the letter from this couple effectually resigning her role as a children’s volunteer and his as one of our sound technicians. They were leaving the church. Just like that. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think they ever talked to me again. We couldn’t do much about it afterwards. Or so I thought then.

It happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it easier. People leave churches. For a variety of reasons, from disagreements about the direction of the church to worship styles… from a feeling of disconnectedness to feeling a lack of personal spiritual growth—people begin to leave a church.

Sometimes no one sees it coming and it’s a shock. But often there are tell-tale signs of the impending departure:

  • They start to complain to friends, family, small group members, and staff about church.
  • They “no show” at church-related get-togethers and worship services.
  • They visit other churches.
  • They drop out of their small group.
  • They seem distant in conversations with people that are sold out to that church.
  • They don’t return contacts.
  • They stop tithing and the treasurer notices it (whether anyone else does depends on who tracks it).
  • They stop serving in the areas of ministry they were previously committed to.
  • They often go as far as telling someone “we’re thinking of leaving the church.”
  • They sometimes go the distance and tell the pastor, but by then their minds are usually made up.

When any of these things happen the clock starts to tick and the people leaving have their radar up for any slight or offense to put them over the edge. Then there’s the “last straw” and they quit the church. When the “church divorce” is final the separation is similar to a marriage ending: everyone stops talking, chance meetings are awkward, gossip about each other slips out, no one talks about the obvious elephants in the room and everything, in general, become relationally “icky.” I think we can all agree that when people leave a church it’s usually not a pretty situation.

So what do we do about this? What do I do when a friend of mine leaves the church? After years of hits, misses and lessons learned I’ve started to realize what can be done when someone is leaving my church:

1) MY CHURCH NEEDS TO HAVE A FOLLOW-UP SYSTEM

It can be a bit complicated to set up and requires a database and an attendance system, but some have a follow-up system for people that stop attending church. At a Michigan church I served in we had a basic system of letters to people when they’ve missed a certain amount of weeks. The letter was a simple effort to “notice” that they are gone (a common complaint of people leaving is that “no one noticed.”) They also received a phone call from a volunteer asking for feedback on why they’ve been gone. Then, if they hadn’t been there for 3-4 months they got a “final” type letter from the Senior Pastor acknowledging that they were leaving the church and asking for specific feedback on a little card that they could send back and inviting conversation beyond that. Very few churches the size of that one do a system like that (actually, in researching this area one of my staff members found exactly zero churches over 1,000 doing it, but I’m sure there are some out there—or should I say I hope?) Once set up that system doesn’t take that much time and we felt it was a bare minimum effort to “close the back door” in our church. As churches grow larger they often only keep growing because more people happen to be coming in the front door than are rushing out the back door. We considered that unhealthy in the Body and we at least stopped people at the back door and say, “Hello, there. You seem to be leaving, could we talk about it?”

I think churches need a follow up system like this in one form or another. Yes, that one we ran was extensive–and many might not want to be that rigorous and would want to be more “relational.” I’m wary of when people say “relational” and they just mean “lazy.” However, I should point out that our whole staff saw the list of those not around, and it enabled them all to relationally connect with those that may have been leaving. On top of all this the Senior Pastor could make calls to people who might be leaving simply because we were a large church and he never made a personal contact with them. What a simple problem to solve!

2) I SHOULD NOTICE AND CARE

But here’s the flipside of that follow-up… it’s not really the exclusive job of the staff or the pastor to respond to people leaving. Thinking, “That’s the pastor’s job” is inaccurate in terms of follow-up. When one of my friends is leaving the church I should notice and care. I should notice because I look for my friends at church. When they aren’t there I don’t need a database to tell me they aren’t. I don’t need a form letter. I hang out with my friends. So when they aren’t there I shouldn’t shrug it off and say, “Oh well, maybe they are sick.” I can e-mail them or drop them a note or call them instead—even if just to say, “are you sick?” I can show them I noticed. If I have a pretty strong sense that their relationship with the church is suffering, I can take the initiative to talk to them about it. After all, I am the church. If their relationship with the church is suffering their relationship with me is suffering. I can jump in there and show them that I care—because I do care. If I don’t care, then I have to wonder if I’ve been faking the friendship thing with them.

I have to admit that in the past when a friend of mine was leaving the church I have done the worst possible thing: assume someone else was talking to them about it and figured the problem would go away. Of course the problem was my friend and they would do just that—go away. I’m ashamed to admit that months have gone by before I really thought about it again, and by then I would tell myself, “It’s too late now.” And so that friend would go unnoticed, uncared for, and feeling like “that church didn’t notice or care that I left.” And again, I am the church. I didn’t notice enough to care or care enough to notice. I have to do both to be a true friend.

Come back for Part Two of “When a Friend Leaves Your Church.”

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