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Home » All Resources » Articles on Church Growth » Greg Surratt, 4 Reasons Why People Leave and 3 Ways Pastors Respond

4 Reasons Why People Leave and 3 Ways Pastors Respond

Greg Surratt more from this author »

GregSurratt.org

Date Published: 10/19/2011
In the early days of starting Seacoast, I used to wince when someone asked for an appointment. “Was this another ‘core team member’ hanging up their spurs?”, I’d think to myself.

If you are a pastor, you know how it feels.

It’s the phone call, the appointment, the whispered news. “We’re leaving the church.”

As much as they say “It’s not about you,” it usually feels like it is. It starts as a lump in the pit of your stomach that slowly makes its way up the twists and turns of internal plumbing, until it gets stuck firmly in the back of your throat. You didn’t see it coming and the hurt is commensurate to the level of the relationship. The closer the connection, the more intense the pain.

I watched my Dad and Mom deal with it in churches when I was growing up. Dad externalized, Mom did the opposite. She would hide her hurt behind the duties of raising a family, but I’d see her tears and wonder what was really going on. You didn’t have to wonder with dad. He would sometimes vent his hurt on those who didn’t leave, using thinly veiled references in sermons or conversations. These days I see evidence of the same in hurting pastors' twitters and blog posts. It’s hard to keep communication above the fray when your heart feels like it’s been kicked to the curb.

None of us are immune. In the early days of starting Seacoast, I used to wince when someone asked for an appointment. I’d think to myself, “Was this another ‘core team member’ hanging up their spurs?” It seemed to happen about once a monthm and I’d become a little gun-shy. Even these days I’ll feel that lump from time to time.

Occasionally, when I meet a newcomer who has transferred from a local church, I’ll wonder how much pain our “success” has caused area pastors?

Why do people leave?

  • Sometimes people leave because of a misunderstanding. Some of the people who left in the early years thought that Seacoast was going to be different than it was. Some couldn’t understand the vision or wanted it to be more like the mother church or another church they had been comfortable in.
  • Some people leave because of an offense. A lady told me once that her family was leaving the church because I had not acknowledged her or her husband in several social settings. Truthfully, I couldn’t recall any of them, but they had left an impression on her, so they left. Often they are offended with others in the church and rather than facing the issue, they just leave.
  • Some people leave because the excitement of the new has worn off. Long term relationships are difficult to maintain, whether it be in a marriage, a friendship, or a church relationship. In our bigger, better, faster culture it’s easy to become enamored with the new and shiny rather than put the investment in renewing what seems old and dull.
  • Some people leave because it is the sovereign will of God. He has a new assignment, a specific mission, or a better fit somewhere else for this season of life. Almost everyone who leaves chooses door #4, and for some, it may actually be the true motivation.

So, how do you respond?

  • Some leaders internalize it—they become paralyzed by the rejection. They risk isolation and distancing themselves from future relationships in order to avoid further pain.
  • Some leaders externalize it—they lash out to anyone who will listen. They risk collateral damage as they are processing through their pain.
  • Some leaders learn from it—they realize that sometimes people leave. They learn to process it in a healthy way and move forward stronger from the experience.

Does this ring true to you? Have I missed anything so far?


Greg is the founding pastor of Seacoast Church, one of the early adopters of the multi-site model. Located in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Greg is also a founding board member of the Association of Related Churches (ARC), a church planting network that has given birth to over 200 churches in the last 10 years and the author of a new book, Ir-rev-rend: Christianity Without the Pretense. Faith Without the Façade.

Juanita Rodgers
November 30, 2012
I think a lot of times the church can be one sided when discussing why people leave the church and we always talk about how hurt the pastor is or the pastor talks about how so many people have hurt their leaders but we never talk about how pastors abuse their privelages with their flock. The spirit of familiarity with the flock where you feel you can talk to people any kind of way because they have been with you for a longtime. The neglect factor not showing care of concern because they do not fit into your form of people (clicks) or refusing show care or concern because people are not your workhorses or yes people. If you do not say yes to every opportunity to serve in the church some leaders will look upon you as not being faithful. Some pastors receive an accusation about people without really consulting with the person who the accusation was brought upon. Some churches will make demands on people serving the church in giving of their time, talent, and treasure which is scriptural but in a demeaning way. Some Pastors motivate through negativity and manipulation and wonder why they do not reap the results they are looking for or lasting. They will put demands on a congregation as far as what it takes to be a member which outweighs what their giving to you in return. A lot of churches are set up to benefit as far as people serving their vision instead of their vision serving the people. Churches will move into a community and take resources and not give back into the community more less take care of their own yet we will go into foreign countries and do missions and will not take care of the people in need that belong to your own flock. Leaders will take resources and build up the image of the ministry but can't pay their staff. They will fly in high cost well know preachers and pay them 10,000 honorarium but can't pay members rent who has fallen on hardt and who has been faithful tither. They will set in their personal circles and talk make comments about people and their character to other members of the church and not think people are not taking note. I could say more. Am I against preachers no we need them but I just think the approach to why people leave is one sided.
Juanita Rodgers
November 30, 2012
I think a lot of times the church can be one sided when discussing why people leave the church and we always talk about how hurt the pastor is or the pastor talks about how so many people have hurt their leaders but we never talk about how pastors abuse their privelages with their flock. The spirit of familiarity with the flock where you feel you can talk to people any kind of way because they have been with you for a longtime. The neglect factor not showing care of concern because they do not fit into your form of people (clicks) or refusing show care or concern because people are not your workhorses or yes people. If you do not say yes to every opportunity to serve in the church some leaders will look upon you as not being faithful. Some pastors receive an accusation about people without really consulting with the person who the accusation was brought upon. Some churches will make demands on people serving the church in giving of their time, talent, and treasure which is scriptural but in a demeaning way. Some Pastors motivate through negativity and manipulation and wonder why they do not reap the results they are looking for or lasting. They will put demands on a congregation as far as what it takes to be a member which outweighs what their giving to you in return. A lot of churches are set up to benefit as far as people serving their vision instead of their vision serving the people. Churches will move into a community and take resources and not give back into the community more less take care of their own yet we will go into foreign countries and do missions and will not take care of the people in need that belong to your own flock. Leaders will take resources and build up the image of the ministry but can't pay their staff. They will fly in high cost well know preachers and pay them 10,000 honorarium but can't pay members rent who has fallen on hardt and who has been faithful tither. They will set in their personal circles and talk make comments about people and their character to other members of the church and not think people are not taking note. I could say more. Am I against preachers no we need them but I just think the approach to why people leave is one sided.
When I started pastoring 10 years ago, a seasoned pastor asked, "have they made you cry yet?" I didn't understand what he was talking about. "Of course not," I answered. With time I understood what he meant by those words. I have been comforted many times by remembering the cross, and the loneliness Christ must have felt. Today I understand that ppl will come and go for may reasons, but we must press forward to fulfill our calling.
Gordon Dorsey
October 25, 2011
yes very sad when a member up and leaves without expressing the reasons why. but that is the nature of the business we are in.members come and members goe as pastors we just have to do are best and give are all for the kingdom of Godand wish them well.
Rev Becky Troke
October 24, 2011
hia, we have a very small church on a very hard estate, there was a church here before but they departed from the word of God ther sermons became all the same and boreing, eventually everyone lost there vision and left,They left us the church and we changed the name and were so convicted by God to preach only His word, and nothing else, we have had some come and go because we dont leep up and down for an hour before we preach the word, we worship God in a way they young people who have never been to church can relate to, or already know from school. Now what has all this to do with the subject u may well ask, because we r so small every person who leaves hurts like mad, but we are so firm in our calling, there is only one question to ask "whoes church is it anyway", yes we would love even 50 people but its Gods church, and He knows we r being faithfull to His word. God Bless you all.
Tina Mcgehee
October 21, 2011
When my husband and I were senior pastors we used to have different feelings when people left or just didn't come to church. My husband would be disappointed and hurt while I would feel exhausted and depressed. We are human and the fact is: It hurts. However; we also have to realize that many people in today's churches are not fully healed and walking around to satisfy their needs and not the needs of God. Times have changed in America: I've noticed that other people from countries like Africa and India stay in their churches and will do whatever they can for God. I wonder if this is due to the watered down sermons that are so prevalent today? I would just ask my fellow pastors today: Are your sermons watered down or are they staying true to the Word of God? If they are true then rest assured that once you get to heaven you'll reap the rewards as mentioned in another post. Thank you.
For Brother Jeremy: Before I became a full time pastor I was an associate and held a public job. I worked for a large company in one of their factories and part of my duties included teaching anger and stress management. In order to teach the classes I had to take them first! My advice for you is to take an anger management class, even though you may not have problems with anger, it has proved to be very helpful to me as a pastor in understanding others anger and their responses to issues. It also helps me to manage my feelings toward their feelings! Hope this helps some.
David Hallum of Afton Grove Baptist Church
October 20, 2011
With the exception of the Pastor/Dr and the church member who responded to this article, everyone who wrote seems to share (overtly or covertly) the pain of losing church members. Why is that? Simply, they are not a flock of sheep, they are a family of saints. Sometimes the saints seem to have horns, but nonetheless, they are FAMILY. No one loses a family member without pain and no minister loses a church member without pain. It is part and parcel of the call. A pastor loves his people and only time will heal the wounds left by departing members.
Rolando Ruiz of Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamericana
October 19, 2011
When church members leave they are a double blessing, a blessing for the church that they left, because they couldn't continue worshiping there for whatever reason they came up with and a blessing to the new congregation they joined to work there for the Lord's glory. This way at looking at this has helped me in the ministry.
Stephen Knoll
October 19, 2011
I've been a full time pastor for over 30 years now and it still hurts everytime someone leaves. The most recent significant departure happened 6 months ago. It was a family that my wife and I were very connected to. In reality, they were like our right-hand people. We exposed our short-comings - highs and lows to them over a period of 4 years. They shifted to another church in town and it devastated me! It pierced me to the core and threw me in the ditch for a while. The hardest thing was continuing to get up every Sunday and move forward with such internal pain. At first, I purposed not to get close to anyone again. It hurts too much. But then, I wouldn't be a shepherd if I didn't feel for my flock. It's like a betrayal. Six months later, the emotion is not as strong and we have moved forward ..... and I have too. I guess my council for this would be to "keep on keeping on" ... Get up in the morning, be faithful, and go to bed." I would also say to do your best not to "defend" yourself. The temptation is to vent and to vent loudly so all know it wasn't your fault. Let the Lord be your rearguard and do your best to keep your mouth silent. I pray for these folks now and wish them God's best .... inside I still hurt for them and the void of what once was a wonderful relationship. Selah.

October 19, 2011
To the good pastors out there who are hurt and disillusioned because people are leaving without a word or excuse, I'm sorry that happens to you. All you need to do is teach the entire counsel of the word of God, if you are handling that correctly and managing your position in a godly manner, God will take care of the rest. I've belonged to and left 3 churches in my 30 yrs as a believer. The most recent (3mo ago) was because of false teaching, mishandling of the word and illegal practices in the financial department by the pastor and the head deacon. Now if you were to call them, do you think they would tell you why I left? No, they would tell you what they tell everyone else, that I didn't get my way, o. whatever that means :) Calling a former church for a reference of some sort is crazy. Who knows what work the Lord has done or will do in that person's life , and what if the report was poor, what would you do? Hang in there you men of God who are dedicated to teaching and living out the Word of God, you are few and far between, the rewards here may be few, but their are wonderful ones waiting for your arrival in heaven.
Pastor Victor Stevens-rosenberg Ph.d.
October 19, 2011
I believe every pastor who tends a flock should read Ezekiel 34 almost everyday. With all due respect, the essay and comments are more about the pastors than the heart of the people that leave the church. As a new pastor and school graduate I know for me while going to a non-denominational seminary/bible college, the Holy Spirit put me on a church tour. From the Catholic to the poor country church on a dirt road, a total of nine churches so far including the church my wife and I are attending now. I started going to school when I started going to a church on a regular basis. I was a man of spirituality and faith for many years but when I entered the world of churches/school I was quite naive. I never intended to go on a church tour led by the Holy Spirit, as all I wanted was a family of faith, beginning and ending with the first church. I remember when it was time to leave one church, I balked, and felt the hand of the Holy Spirit literally on my back pushing me out the door. I love staying in one home, one place and moving from church to church has not been an altogether pleasant experience. In His Love, I would suggest all pastors of flocks read the seven Epistles to John in Revelation often and be very aware of what does being Laodecia mean? The flock often reflects the shepherd, but without being judgemental, I discerned a real problem with the clerics: full of themselves, holier than thou attitudes, sermons full of feel good nonsense, a corporate mindset rather than a person to person mindset, okay before I go on, I understand we are just human with our flaws and imperfections, and it is easy for me who has never pastored a group of people just ones that come and go in my life, to be critical, however, even though I 'see through a glass darkly', now while in this mortal coil, and will see clearly in the next life, it is important beyond all measure to do all things through love. I know that the reason the Holy Spirit put me on what I call a church tour was to open my eyes to today's church, at least a slice of it. Nine churches does not make for a consensus but I believe there is a real problem generally speaking with today's clergy and the church. Not once were we ever asked why we left any of the churches!!! Enough said.
Rodney Shanner
October 19, 2011
I have made it a point to do "exit visits" when people leave. Quite frankly, I have found it very rare for those leaving to be honest about the reason(s). Thus, I take the "stated" reason with a grain of salt. Eventually, the true reason will surface through the "grapevine". Usually, the reason is self-serving, that's why people won't state it. So, I wish them well and don't burn any bridges.
James Way of Buffalo Baptist Church
October 19, 2011
Good article. Some people leave because they can't get their way -- it becomes a power struggle, "It's either me or them" mentality. When a person leaves a church without the expressed assignment of God, they not only hinder the church they go to, but they also miss the spiritual growth God intended them to receive and contribute at the church they are leaving. So often we pastors are excited because of "new people" we fail to ask, "Why did they leave where they were?" They don't have any qualms about asking us that when we leave and arrive at a new place of service. I have occasionally called "their" former pastor and asked about a "heads up". Trouble might have just walked in the door and we're celebrating? We are to be alert at all times shepherds of the flock. Thanks Greg for an important reminder.
Thomas J. Dawes of In His Name Ministries
October 19, 2011
there is another reason ppl leave the church - becoming house-bound. and when this happens it hurts the house-bound more than the pastor.
John Kiddy
October 19, 2011
Very seldom have I not been made aware of the unavoidable departure of church family members by the Holy Spirit and it helps, but it does not remove the pain. I pray I never get to the place that I don't hurt from their leaving.
John Van Haneghan of St Stephen Lutheran Church
October 19, 2011
A very valuable article. It can be one of those things that has a habit of sticking with you, and keep you from focusing on what good is going on in the life of your church.
Rev. Wayne Claxton
October 19, 2011
I take it personally sometimes, but yet its not about me trying to convince someone to stay beyond their season. Lets face it, ppl. will do what they want anyway without regards to how their decision affects others. I've learned to say, "bless them Lord where ever they go."
Scott Maxwell
October 19, 2011
Over 27 years of pastoring, I can count on a hand how many people actually called and told me they were seeking a new faith family. The rest just leave-- and I've called them to listen to them. I don't mind people leaving-- however, it does no good to leave and carry the wounds or unfulfilled expectations to their next place. I seek to bless them on their way so they can go in peace.
a statement that has comforted me over the years came from a fellow pastor "People leave churches, that's what people do". I expect everyone will leave at some point.
Jeremy Geerdes
October 19, 2011
This is good stuff. Certainly, very true. I wonder, though, if you can offer any advice for people prone to externalizing and internalizing the hurt to process it more appropriately and constructively (i.e., to learn from it).

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