It’s never fun when people inform you that they’ve chosen to leave your church. It’s a hard reality to ponder that more people have left our church over the past 8 years than have stayed. Certainly, there are positive reasons people choose not to be a part of the church any more (a job transfer or a move out of state) and there are painful reasons (e.g. conflict in the church, not meshing with the philosophy of ministry, another church is more appealing to them or – pastors’ favorite one, “we’re just not being fed” — whatever that means).
Depending upon our personality types we may simply want to avoid a face-to-face conversation and “wish them well” from afar. Others feel the need to take a confrontational and maybe defensive posture that comes from being hurt, abandoned or betrayed.
Over the past few years our elders have tried to have a posture of a learner in these formats. Though we’ve done this imperfectly, we’ve purposefully tried to possess a “help us understand” posture of humble listening. Most often, we try to meet with them one-on-one (and, when not possible, over the phone or via email) in an “exit interview” type fashion in order to ask a few questions. To be clear, these meetings are never fun, always emotionally draining and give us clammy hands walking into them. We may not like they are leaving, but we believe we can learn things from them – and hopefully be able to thank them and to bless them as they go.
Here are four questions we ask in these “exit interview” type settings-
- What would you like to tell leadership?
Sometimes they’ve already spoken their mind; other times, people need to wait for an opening to open up. Sometimes people have given us in the initial answer, “We just feel God leading us elsewhere.” But when we get together and give them space to respond, we often hear the real reason for their departure. It may be hard to hear, but we want honesty and truth in a church family – even when family members choose to leave.
- Is there anything spiritually and/or relationally that you need to be released from?
Sometimes people know they need to transition but they feel guilty for doing so. They may be in charge of the set up and tear down team or play on the worship team. Being asked to be released from those roles can be helpful and a form of blessing. Sometimes they have admitted they are deeply hurt by a pastor or leader at the church (oftentimes without the pastor or leader knowing it) and need to share that hurt and allow space for the leader to confess and reconcile. Other times, they seek the church to bless them in their new Jesus community.
- How can we pray for you and encourage you in your new community moving forward?
We may not be happy they are leaving (and may or may not find their reasoning to be legitimate) but they are still brothers and sisters in Christ. As we say within Ecclesia, “it’s kingdom, not competition” this is the opportunity to live that out. Even though their departure may be a “loss” for our church, it may be a “win” for another church. Difficult (and, at times, excruciating) it can be a great expression of kingdom partnership with other churches by “sending” people to other congregations.
- What types of communication would you/we like or expect moving forward?
Frustration is the difference between expectation and reality. We find that if we don’t express expectations of communication as they transition is can cause awkwardness, frustration and even hurt after they’ve left. Take time to define what that looks like. It doesn’t have to take long, but opening up a space for this discussion is important moving forward, especially since relationships and people’s lives have been enmeshed.
There may be other questions you’d want to ask when meeting, but these four questions encompass much of what we feel is important in saying our goodbyes, as awkward and disappointing as they may be. And as we end, we pray for them, knowing that, as Paul wrote, God began a good work in them and will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
J.R. Briggs has three passions: to equip and invest in hungry kingdom leaders, to grow fruit on other people’s trees and to collaborate with others to create good kingdom mischief. In short, his calling is to help leaders who want to get better.