Although I am retired and not serving as senior pastor of any church now, I was saddened to hear of a family leaving one of my former pastorates for another church nearby. Both the family and the current pastor (my successor in the position in my former church) are my friends. I have had casual conversations with both. It is a situation not precipitated by pastoral failure, divorce or crisis in the lay family, or any other particular cause other than it was felt that a change was needed.
Happens. All. The. Time.
Any senior pastor who has served any length of time has had that sad experience where faithful members leave the church for another. I mean by this not leaving because of a job relocation or marriage or other standard cause but leaving because they like another church better than your church.
It is painful for the church and former pastor left behind, sometimes extremely painful.
I’m addressing the average-sized SBC church here – around 100 attendance, maybe a range of 70-150, probably with a single clergy staff, the senior pastor. Large and megachurches have a steady stream of people coming and going. It’s not that big a deal. It’s a very big deal to the average church.
Some humble thoughts from the hinterlands.
The reality of our autonomous system, a mobile clergy system where pastors come and go and stay an average of 5-7 years, and the overpopulation of churches in some area make this an inevitable issue. While the pastor may think that he is capable, personable, and skilled sufficient to retain members, he had better prepare himself for the experience of good people leaving to attend other nearby churches.
I’ve had close friends in churches leave. They weren’t unhappy. They weren’t mad. They felt “led” to make a change. It makes a difference, at least to me, if faithful members leave well; that is, they have a conversation, however brief, to inform the pastor they are leaving and why, if that can be explained. Sometimes folks just ghost the church and pastor which makes it awkward. The pastor has to find out on his own the family has left.
Changes in life situations sometimes cause people to leave. Marriage, divorce, the arrival of children, or an empty nest sometimes motivates people to change churches. The pastor may recognize some deficiencies in his church’s ministry but it’s likely that there’s nothing he could have done to prevent the change.
There is a general movement from smaller churches to larger churches. Like it or not, accept it or not, it’s the reality on the ground. Seldom, perhaps never in my experience, have people left for a smaller church unless they were moving to another area.
Sometimes there is a financial impact that has to be managed. With budgets tight, one family that tithes or ‘gives good’ can make a difference, negatively. Staff cutbacks, ministry and other giving cutbacks, and even the pastor’s own salary reduction may be necessary. Pain on top of pain for the pastor.
It is difficult for the pastor not to take such things personally. “If I was a better pastor, perhaps they would have stayed,” he may think. Rare is the pastor that is totally free from connecting his personal life and value to the growth or decline of his church. Yes, certainly, one’s value comes from the Lord, not your church, but…
Avoid blaming the church. I get it. People may grow up in a church and then grow out of that church’s style and ministry. We are way beyond having a single church for a single geographic area. For good or ill there is a marketplace for churches and members. Folks make decisions, come and go all the time. It is an unhealthy practice for the pastor to blame his church, “If this was a better church, they would have stayed.” Maybe so. Maybe not. The pastor might recognize some issues to be addressed and then address them. “Love the Lord” and “Love your church” is always the best approach.
You don’t have to put up with this kind of stuff. Go to an area with no churches, no gospel witness and you can be free of the competitiveness and changes in your area where there are dozens of churches for a small population. Most of us have been motivated to explore different kinds of service because of this. Maybe the Lord will lead you in that direction.
Most pastors will not be pastoring growing churches. Admit it. We think success is a growing church and failure is a shrinking church. Sometimes those are true. More often not, I believe. The SBC as a whole is either flat or declining. Denominational people would always shout, with feigned despair, that 80% of our churches are plateaued or declining. Would you guys just shut up and do something to help? Why don’t you, hotshot, get off the denominational payroll and get back on the front lines?
Take heart, the sun will shine again, roses will bloom, winter will end.
Just a short addendum here. In every area I have served people in my church have a story about a pastor who committed suicide. They are sympathetic but dispassionate about it: “Yeah, he shot hisself in the parsonage. It was awful.”
Your state convention, probably your association, certainly LifeWay will help you with emotional distress. Don’t mess around with depression. Get help.
No, they weren’t “your” members but “the Lord’s”, but you get the picture. Old dudes like to say how hard it was back in the day to pastor. I’m at the place where it looks a lot harder now.
Yes, this is more important than politics right now.
Additional insights and comments welcome…