5 reasons why people leave church plants, why it hurts, and what to do
This is part of a series about lessons learned from planting a church. Last time we talked about vision. To read that, click here.
This time, we're going to talk about open handed pastoring and it's specifically for church planters. I'm not talking about open handed slapping people although there are a few times you'll want to. :) JK.
I'm talking about investing and pastoring people in a way that both invests deeply into them but also understands that not every relationship is forever.
People will leave.
Say it with me.
People. Will. Leave.
Sometimes it's you. Sometimes it's them. Sometimes it just is what it is. Learn what you can but don't take it personally.
For me, this has been one of the hardest things about launching this church. We meet people. We do our best to learn and love them. And then one day they just up and leave, some times for no obvious reason (at least to my face).
It hurts because you care about them.
It hurts because you care about your church.
It hurts becuase it's hard when those you care about don’t seem to care about what you do.
It hurts because you feel ashamed, weak and insecure that it bothers you so much.
When it happens (and it will happen far more than you'd like), how do you keep your heart from becoming bitter, from retreating into isolation or from resolving to just not build relationships in the future?
First, let's just clear the air. Sometimes there's a reason they leave and you can learn from it. Most times not only is there nothing you could have done, there is nothing you should have done. The best thing for everyone was for them to leave. It just wasn't a fit. And that's ok.
Everything is seasonal and when you outlast your season, what could be a transition becomes a divorce.
So why do people leave a church plant? Here's five reasons.
1. The movie was different than the book
When you're in the pre-launch phase, you're talking ideas, concepts, values and philosophies. Nothing is concrete. Each person is forming in their head what this church will look like when it takes shape but the reality is, they're doing this through the lenses of their experiences, expectations, church history and even baggage.
It's as if we're all reading the same book and when the movie comes out, some are pumped at the casting, set design and story. Many are not. It's not necessarily wrong, just different.
Except in the case of the Dragonball Z movie. That was just objectively wrong.
2. They are not starting something.They are leaving something.
Some people will be drawn to your new church because they think it won't have all the problems of their last church. That you won't have the shortcomings of their last pastor. They may be right in some areas but as long as people are leading and people are attending, the church will be broken. There must be grace that covers.
This isn't about overlooking sin or unhealthy behavior. It's about loving people with the grace and love of Christ. That means not loving people as they deserve but loving people as Christ loves us.
As the honeymoon phase winds down, they'll see flaws. This is where the Holy Spirit can work both in you and them to evaluate what is going on in both your hearts and in the church. What needs to be adjusted in the church? What needs to be adjusted in your hearts? This can be a painful, humbling process.
Unfortunately, instead of allowing God to do some uncomfortable heart therapy, it's easier to leave and go to the next new church that will finally do things right.
3. The idea of a thing is sexier than the doing of a thing.
I remember being 18k feet up hiking with a buddy. We were wet from hiking hours in the cold rain. We were in our cots, bundled in our mummy bags and shaking trying to get warm. I thought chattering teeth was something in cartoons. I understood it in that moment. It sucked. I didn’t want to be there.
I remember leaning over and saying
“Hike to Everest base camp they said. It’ll be fun they said. The idea of this was way different than actually doing it.”
We laughed and shook for the next long while until our body temps warmed up.
It’s the same way with launching anything. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get lift off. It’s more than all hands on deck. It takes as many people as possible willing to embrace discomfort for as long as possible. All while people are complaining that you aren’t as polished or have as many ministries as the 20 year old mega church down the street.
I’ve heard it said that many people don’t pursue their dreams because it comes dressed in overalls and looks a lot like hard work.
Planting a church is hard. It just is. It’s not glamorous. It looks like early mornings, sitting in traffic to go to another meeting, doing big things with limited budgets, making things happen with amazing, but inexperienced teams and continuing to do it long after the emotions have faded.
It isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it just takes 6 months for people to come to terms with it.
Pioneering isn’t for everyone. Most people are settlers.
4. No longer a fit for their age and stage of life.
Our realities are constantly shifting. Having kids is a shift but having a newborn is far different from having two middle schoolers or being an empty nester.
Stay at home mom. Starting a new business. Easing into retirement. Going to night school. Parenting a child with special needs while both parents working full time.
All these folks have extremely different realities. Your church plant may have been a good fit for a season but needs change. Availability changes. Sometimes they need to fight through...
But, if they have a child with special needs, your new church may not have the resources to help them like another church could. It’s not that you should do something differently at this stage of your church. It may not be wise for you to.
Again, everything is seasonal. Be faithful with the folks God brings to your church for this season.
Which brings us to the next shift that may cause people to leave...
5. Their faith and/or worldview has shifted.
This is especially true for people who have grown up in church and never had the space to push back on doctrine, beliefs and methodology.
Your heart to create a safe place to doubt may help them begin a healthy but scary process that may ironically culminate in them leaving your church. What may start as a pulling of a loose string may unravel their whole spiritual sweater.
Continue to love. Continue to give space. Continue to engage. Continue to ask questions. Continue to learn.
See things right before you try to set things right.
You don’t have to fix them. Trust that God is good and will lovingly allow them to go on their own journey.
You talk them into it and someone will talk them out of it.
This is especially true of those that are post high school to early 30’s. They need to have the ability to push back on all the walls and see what falls over. They may need to take the whole faith experience apart to examine every facet, take out the chunks that are outdated, man made tradition and put it back together.
You get to be a representative of God’s faithful patience. With them in the valley. Loving even if they aren’t. Walking with someone through this will give you a clearer understanding of the word longsuffering. Be faithful.
There are so many more. One thing I didn’t mention is that out of necessity, church plants tend to have sharp clarity of vision. Why? Because of scarcity.
Scarcity brings clarity and clarity is divisive.
The bottom line is that people will leave. Disproportionally so in the first year of your church plant.
Here’s what I think you need to be sure do to.
1. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Don’t react. RESPOND.
Respond with love, patience and grace. It won’t always make sense. It doesn’t have to.
Don’t take it personally even if they make it personal. Remember, don’t treat them the way they treat you. Treat them the way Christ treats you.
At times, this will take you leaning on the supernatural empowerment of God.
Think about this. Are you treating them in a way that will keep the relationship in tact if they want to return later?
Think about the Father in the prodigal son story.
2. Have a safe place to process.
Whether you like to admit it, you’re wounded and wounded people do irrational things.
On one hand, be careful of gossiping to people because you’re hurting, they’ll listen and you want to defend yourself.
On the other hand, be careful of bottling it up and coping in unhealthy ways. TV. Alcohol. Taking it out on family. Shutting down. etc.
Get regular therapy. Work out. But most importantly, find a safe place to process. Many times for me, that’s my wife. Sometimes, it’s one of our overseers. Every so often, it's the elders. It doesn’t extend further than that. In most cases, it’d be inappropriate to do so.
3. Stay focused on the vision.
Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.
You didn’t think this would be a walk through the park did you? Anything worth doing is hard.
Stop and rememer.
- Why did you start the church?
- Who did you want to reach?
- Who is on your team that needs to be loved, coached and developed?
- Who is in the church that is wanting to get connected, learn more about Jesus and be mentored.
- Who is in your sphere of influence that is depending on you to show them what a Christ focused life looks like?
Focus on those things. And you know what? You won’t want to. You’ll want to close off and keep your distance. What if they leave? What if they get close and hurt you?
You know what? Some will.
At the same time, many will lean into Jesus. Many will find healing. Many will catch the vision and spread the hope found in Christ to those in their spheres of influence. Many family trees will be forever changed.
So invest deeply but stay open handed. Just like you, everyone is on their own faith journey. They may be with you for hours, months or years. Be faithful with the time you have with them.
Ultimately, 100 years from now, we'll all be gone. Do what you'll be glad you did.
Rooting for you!