“We’re leaving the church.” The words a pastor hopes he’d never hear. I confess that as soon as I hear those words, a wrestling match begins in my soul: Their good versus my preference. My discouragement versus their encouragement. My frustration versus their joy in God. In those moments, I feel desperate for God to grant me the satisfaction that is available only through the glory of his goodness and sufficiency.
Whether you’re a pastor or a church member, what do you say when a friend wants to leave for another church? How do you help? Maybe you consider tying him up and locking him in a room so he can’t leave. Or maybe you put a guilt trip on him so strong that he is forced to reconsider.
Another option is to carefully and lovingly ask questions that help him search his own motives. But before you can do that, you need the goodness of God to invade your life, jolt your heart, and free you from any selfishness that would distort your motives. The good news for you is that God is in control, so you don’t have to control others (Psalm 115:3). Jesus is Lord, not us and not our friends (Philippians 2:11). We are free to serve our parting church members and remind them that Jesus is their treasure and guide because he is our treasure and guide (Psalm 73:25–26).
The Spirit may want you to encourage your friend to stay. Alternatively, he may intend for you to encourage him to go with your blessing and enthusiastic support. Or he may want you to do something between those alternatives.
Three Big Questions
Followers of Jesus are committed to building the local church, but they are also committed to building up potentially parting church members and sending them out with joy, if that’s where God is leading. Our commitment to our local church is nestled within our commitment to the universal church and the Great Commission to all people groups. When we build up our brothers and sisters, we advance God’s mission, even if that means building up our fellow members as they leave our local church.
So, how do we help them? Once we feel a deep sense of trust in God’s goodness despite our friend’s potential parting, then we may be ready to ask three categories of questions that will strengthen our service to them.
First, we can ask our friends why. Why do they want to leave? Why do they think God wants them to fulfill the Great Commission with another church? Why that particular church? Why has talking to other church members helped strengthen this sense of direction? If they have not spoken to other church members before deciding, why not? You’re not asking these questions to stump them, but to draw out their hearts.
The why questions help people search their motives and discover their deepest values and treasures. Perhaps God is their greatest treasure, and God’s word is guiding them. Alternatively, they may have wrongly clutched on to an idol that is driving them away from the gospel community God is calling them to. The answer is not always obvious right away, but good questions can clarify whether you should encourage them or caution them.
If you think your friend is leaving unwisely or sinfully, you should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Though you can’t control them, you can give a clear word of concern, your reason for the concern, and a question to prompt thinking. For example, you might say, “I’m not sure you are seeking God’s kingdom first in this. Your reasons for leaving had nothing to do with making disciples until I brought it up, so it seems that the Great Commission is not the driving force behind your leaving. Do you think you’re being driven by disciple-making or some other reason that marginalizes God’s kingdom, glory, and commission?”
Whether you encourage your friend to transfer or you raise a reason for pause, you don’t want her to take leaving the church lightly. The church family she joins will have one of the most profound effects on her pursuit of God and spreading a passion for his supremacy.
Second, we can ask our friends what. What did they accomplish at our church? What did they not accomplish? Where have they been faithful as members, and where could they improve?
This set of questions helps our brothers and sisters evaluate their calling before God in the relational context of the church. You want to celebrate the good works God fulfilled in them (2 Thessalonians 1:11). You want to identify the failures and lessons learned from the works neglected (Proverbs 11:14, 12:1). In all of this, you want your fellow member to reflect and gain clarity on his faith and obedience to Christ in the church. This process may help him get closure and confidence in leaving, or it may renew his burden for the church.
Some time ago, one of the brothers in our church left for school out of state. A group of us reflected on all of the ways he helped us grow and thanked him for his ministry as a faithful member. In a more private context, the two of us reflected on ways he could have grown more and how he could serve his next church more effectively.
Finally, we can ask our friends how. How can they leave in the most edifying way possible? Or if they now realize they need to stay, how can they reorient their church life to experience Jesus and accomplish his purpose in them here?
Knowing what is left undone can help our brothers and sisters to leave well and to exhort the church to continue to build the church. If they decide to leave, having clear and God-centered reasons for God’s leading will bless the leaders and members of the church. If God is calling the brother or sister to stay, reframing church participation prevents lingering discontentment. Instead, it moves the fellow member toward experiencing Jesus while also moving your church toward him.
One brother wanted to leave our church because he was burned out and had some close friends at a nearby church. After discerning that his reasons for leaving were cause for concern, I cautioned him not to decide based on his emotions, and I suggested that he spend three to six months being a faithful member without ministry responsibilities. He was refreshed and refocused. He decided to stay in our church, and we planned differently going forward so he would have a more feasible rotation and a better mindset about communicating his burdens to me as his pastor. Our church and his family have been strengthened significantly by this sweet providence.
So, when friends tells you they are thinking of leaving your church, humbly and calmly engage them in a way that serves them as they serve our Lord. Help them think by asking questions and giving them space to think through their answers. If you don’t, you may passively stand by while your friends make a decision that will stunt their growth and discourage the church.
But if you calmly provoke them to think about God’s purposes in their decision, you will lead them to Jesus, increase their wisdom, and encourage your church family.