In part one of “When a Friend Leaves Your Church” we talked about signs someone is leaving a church, and then two ways to respond, including developing a follow-up system, and caring about those thinking of or who recently have departed from your church. Here are three more ways to respond in this situation:
3) FRIENDS NEED TO TIP OFF THE PASTOR
Even though we’ve established that it’s not all the pastor’s job, there is a relational role for the pastor in all this. After I’ve had some heart-to-heart discussions with my friend thinking of leaving the church, it’s my responsibility to tip off the pastor unless I’ve been sworn to secrecy. In the very least I can say, “Hey, Pastor, have you talked with Joe and Jane Blow lately? I think they’d really appreciate a contact.” This is code language my pastor immediately understands and does something to follow up on. Whenever I did that with a pastor it was really great to have my friend come back to me and talk about how the Pastor had called them or gotten a personal note and how they feel “reconnected.”
In any church over 75 people the Pastor will not be able to keep up with the private concerns and feelings everyone has. And actually, I’ve personally been the pastor of three churches under 75 and in those it’s pretty difficult too. Human beings can only keep up on about 10-20 people in this way. Our span of care is quite limited. That’s why small groups, small classes, close friend, and family members are the keystone in building a bridge to people thinking of leaving a church. We can help our friends build the bridge back from one end first and then tip off the Pastor or other key leaders to build it from the other end. We could simply call this “the ministry of reconciliation.” This is also important because the Pastor will want to process the reasons why that person is leaving and determine if some changes could be made that are truly needed for the future.
4) SOMETIMES I NEED TO CONFRONT MY FRIEND WHEN THEY ARE LEAVING
There are times when I have a friend leave the church for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes I’m the only one who knows all those reasons too. Admonishing them is part of my role as a friend (admonishing is the biblical idea of giving accountability, confronting or perhaps you could say “coaching” someone who is in the wrong.) If my friend is in the wrong in why they are leaving (the facts they are basing it on are incorrect) or they are leaving in the wrong way (slandering people, gossiping about the pastor, causing division and pulling others along with them), then I need to roll up my sleeves and say, “I’m your friend and I always will be, but you need to know that I think your facts aren’t correct and the way you’re going about this isn’t right.”
Is that hard to say? For sure. Is it still my job? You bet. Do Christians do this much? Hardly ever. Is the absence of this a big part of the problem with the Church today? I think so. This “ministry of admonition” is the crucial way to resolve conflicts in the church. In Matthew 18 Jesus outlined how to go about this in different stages. I need to live that out with my friends if their incorrect thinking or hurtful behavior needs to be confronted. My closest friends in the church will be able to take this from me as a friend. I’ve earned the right to speak this into their lives. Even if the Pastor knew what I know, he likely isn’t as close to my friends as I am, so the responsibility is mine.
5) AFTER THE FACT I CAN STILL BE A FRIEND
Some people leave a church for very good reasons. God may be leading them to help out another church. They may be leaving to help start a new church plant. Perhaps they disagreed with the direction of the church for some time and feel like if they stay longer their honestly held opinions will cause disunity and know they should leave rather than do that. They may even distrust the leadership of the church, and if so they really can’t continue to follow. Or it may be more practical: they may be moving away or a family member really needs them to attend their church or they get married and choose to go to their spouse’s church, or they lost a loved one and the church reminds them to intensely of their grief. Or they may have such a vastly different worship style than the church and it is incredibly distracting for them to worship there.
Ironically, in these cases where someone is leaving for fairly good reasons there can still be hurt feelings. As their friend it’s important for me to let them know my feelings. I can write a note saying, “I know you’re leaving the church for good reasons, but it still hurts to see you go.” Or I can call them up and say, “It’s going to be really hard not being in the same church and small group with you.” On the opposite end the people leaving may have no hard feelings at all; but after they leave and no one says anything about it, they begin to question the friendships with people in their old church. Simple contacts acknowledging they are leaving and saying they are missed will bridge those gaps.
But this is also true of people that leave the church for what we feel are the wrong reasons. Maybe they don’t like the new youth pastor’s haircut, they thought a message series was “getting too personal,” or they think that they can only really worship God when the leader plays a guitar and not a piano. From time to time I’ll have a friend leave the church for reasons that I think are dumb. But they are still my friends. I might question their judgment, but hey, they probably question mine from time to time too. After the fact of a friend leaving my church I need to do the little things to still be a true friend.
When a friend of mine is leaving the church I need to remember that when Jesus died on the cross nearly all his disciples abandoned him for a time. Peter even denied he ever knew him. So far my friends that have left my church haven’t gone that far! But Jesus sought them out, called them out, and let them know they were forgiven, that they were still friends… that he “laid his life down for his friends.” These friends who left and then came back became the First Church of Jerusalem. All of Church history is founded on this process of what is done when things aren’t going well and someone leaves a group following Christ.
Here are some DISCUSSION QUESTIONS if you want to talk about this two part series in a group:
- Are there other good reasons people may leave a church? Do we question our reasons for leaving enough?
- What are some other “tell-tale” signs that someone is leaving a church beyond the list in this article?
- Have you ever left a church and felt like you were treated poorly or improperly in that transition?
- Read Matthew 18:15-20 as a group and then discuss what you think the different stages of confrontation should be when someone else offends you or sins against you. What is our responsibility and what should we “leave up to God?”
- Have you had a friend leave your church and you didn’t know what to do? How would you respond to that friend differently now?
- Build a list of practical ideas on responding helpfully to a friend who is thinking of leaving your church.