Recently, I attended a wedding of a couple who grew up in the church that I have pastored for nearly two decades. Upon my arrival, I noticed how many of the attendees had been a part of our church at one time or another.
Being rather shy, I swallowed my pride, greeted each of them graciously, and asked about their families. I am sure that they had no idea how their decision to leave our congregation impacted me, and to further complicate the matter, very few of them had given any reason for their departures. For a pastor, losing a family in the congregation is a very personal matter, and a good shepherd will do some soul searching with each loss.
In nearly every case, I attempted to make contact with families deciding to leave. When a reason was given, it generally had something to do with a situation over which I had little control. No pattern has formed. The reasons have ranged from an unwillingness to reconcile with someone in the church who hurt them, to not liking what our church has become as we have transitioned to a church that continues to stay relevant in the 21st century. Often, I have found that the decision had more to do with what was happening within the individual than within the church.
As I have grieved over the reality of their choices, I have also been forced to be somewhat philosophical about ministry these days. Several things contribute to the departure of my folks to other places as well as the arrival of others from other local churches:
- Doctrinal integrity no longer seems to carry the same weight that it once did.
- Institutional loyalty and commitment to a community of faith is not as strong as it once was.
- Consumerism has fostered a restlessness, and individuals feel ready for something new.
- Unwillingness to deal with the hard work of resolving conflict or addressing a personal spiritual issue, such as a marital crisis.
With longer pastorates and changing cultural norms, pastors can become discouraged when they experience the loss of a family. In talking with some of my closest friends in the ministry, I find that we share very similar thoughts about the significance and personal pain of the loss of families. I clearly identify with the friend who said, "No matter the circumstances, it affects me when a person or family leaves. Frequently, I am the reason they leave. It's painful."
Another spoke on behalf of many pastors when he confessed that, "when someone leaves my church, my temperamental default response is to try and find some reason to blame myself. While a certain amount of self-examination is good, I realize that this can sometimes lead me to some unhealthy places emotionally."
One might conclude that the pastor simply needs to have a tougher skin about these departures. But many times it penetrates to the core of our identity and calling. We can speculate regarding the reasons, but a comment from a colleague is helpful in understanding some of the complexity of the emotional response.
He shared the following. "There are two main reasons departures are tough for a pastor (and others). First, there's the relationship piece. For any pastor that cares, for whom pastoring is more than a job, it's like losing family. Secondly, it's a hindrance to accomplishing what you're trying to accomplish together in the life and ministry of that church, especially when the departures come as frequently as they do these days. When a family leaves, they take more than a few less in average attendance on Sunday morning. They take financial support, involvement, connections, encouragement, and influence."
Those with whom I spoke are great pastors, and yet we share the common experiences of loss of families as well as the personal sense of pain. However, these are pastors who continue to manage their emotions and have come to terms with understanding that as one stated, "The shifting sands of our times and the transient nature of our culture bring this issue to the forefront more often than any pastor I know likes."
But in these changing days, it may be encouraging to remember the words of Paul who said, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow?" (I Corinthians 3:6).
After nearly four decades of pastoral ministry, I have become a bit more philosophical about the losses. My strategy for coping is not perfect but helpful.
First, I search my own heart to see if I have done anything to offend or hurt the disenfranchised family. Secondly, after clearing that issue, I simply recognize that the cultural trends that are impacting not only churches but all institutions are something that I cannot stop even though I attempt to address them. Thirdly, I have come to recognize that sometimes the departure of a family is God?s way of cleansing the church from an element that is hindering ministry.
Finally, I remind myself that generally people don't leave because they want to hurt me, but because they feel they need a change. I have decided that we are kingdom builders, and I need to let them leave and find a place to grow somewhere else. Though they did not take the time to say goodbye, I wish them well.
I always tell them as the Motel 6 slogan says, "We'll always leave the light on," should you want to come back. And sometimes they do.
Russ Long is senior pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Bel Air, Maryland.
Holiness Today, January/February 2013
Please note: This article was originally published in 2013. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.