Questions from Pastor’s Wives: How Do I Respond When People Leave Our Church?

Hold people and the church lightly; neither belong to us, all belong to God

“I can’t make everyone happy or cause everyone to love everything about my husband or our church, but I can be faithful to run the race ahead of me and invite others to love Christ, who is the true focus of all our work.”

 

I said last summer that I planned to move away from writing about ministry and church planting, but in reality I haven’t moved away from it much at all. Why fight it? I’m passionate about the church, passionate about ministry, and specifically passionate about encouraging pastor’s wives. It is perhaps my favorite thing in life when I am invited to speak to pastor’s wives, look them in the eye, offer words of encouragement, and pray over them. We’ll go with second best today: I’ve set aside a few questions I received from pastor’s wives during the months I was promoting From Good to Grace and am answering one of them today. I’ll answer another in the next post. I invite your own insights and experiences in the comment section.

Question: How do you handle it when people leave your church? 
“[Since we started our church plant], we’ve had 3-4 families move on who were very close to us. We consider them friends and of course want them to worship where they feel called. However, it still really hurts, especially for my husband. How do you navigate this journey? It is awkward and sometimes I don’t know whether to reach out to the wife or just let it go. It is a lot to go through as a family when you realize people that you labored with will no longer be there. And then the congregation questions us as to where these people have gone or why they have left.”

My Answer:
I want to address this question in a way that will be beneficial for everyone in the church, whether you are a pastor’s wife or a person leaving or considering leaving your church.

First, to the pastor’s wife, I empathize with you. The church, especially a church plant, is personal to you, as it should be. This is the unique and specific way that God has called you to lay down your life in honor of Him, and the practical implications of that mean you’re laying down your life for people. You not only love the people you’re serving and have high hopes for how God will use your church in your community, but you long to experience the unity and community on a personal level as a part of that larger Body. It is painful, then, when those you love and have labored with leave, even if they leave in the best possible way.

That’s why we must carry with us a foundational understanding that there are few, if any, that will relate to our church as passionately or as personally as we do–the pastor and the pastor’s wife. This isn’t a value statement on the passion or heart of others, it is simply reflective of what comes with the ministry territory. It is good to care, it’s good to have vision and passion, but this truth also gives us a warning: hold people and the church lightly. Neither belong to us; all belong to God.

That’s what I try to think about when someone leaves, because it assuages the hurt of their leaving. Perhaps God is truly shepherding them toward a different flock. Perhaps our church is truly not a good fit for what He is wanting to do in and through them. And even if I believe it’s not a wise decision for them, perhaps God plans to use it for their eventual sanctification. I release them into God’s hands, recognizing that they belong to Him and trusting that He is working for their good. In my experience, it’s helpful to voice those thoughts to the people leaving, because it keeps the relationship open and unhindered and offers them a blessing as they go.

All of this is a process of wading through emotions to get down to that foundational truth, but it helps to have it ever handy: People and the church don’t belong to me. Additionally, God and His gospel don’t belong just to our church. I pray that the people leaving will find a place of rich gospel teaching and fellowship.

But what if people leave for other reasons, such as disagreement over practice, frustration with decisions or direction, or conflict in relationships? What if I feel that they’ve misunderstood or mischaracterized my husband or our church? What if they leave with slander on their tongue? What if they simply stopped coming and are unwilling to share their reasons for leaving? What if I am feeling anger and hurt but am unable to voice it because of my husband’s role? What if people are asking why so-and-so left and I can’t tell them the reasons?

This is where the pain of people leaving is compounded, because sometimes it involves the sin of others or tempts us to sin by means of anger, slander, gossip, bitterness, or lack of forgiveness. Thankfully, the foundational truth above applies here as well. The people of our church are being shepherded by God, but I too am being shepherded by God. I too belong to God. I too am being cared for by God. Our church is being nourished and knit together with Christ as our head. Unless I am in a position and relationship to have gentle and truthful conversations (both as a speaker and as a listener) with the leavers, I must trust the situation to the Lord. 

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