Listening to the parting shots

How does your church react when a member of the congregation leaves?

Gordon Atkinson, longtime pastor (and blogger) has written a thoughtful essay describing the importance of gracefully listening to the “parting shots” of departing church members… even when what they say isn’t what you want to hear:

Most of the time when people leave our church, however, they just disappear. We notice their repeated absence after some weeks have passed. If I can track them down, they’ll often give me their parting shot, a short, abbreviated explanation of why they are leaving. These parting shots can be difficult to understand. Sometimes people are angry over a real or imagined slight. Some people cannot honestly address why they are leaving the church, so they convince themselves that they’re “just not being fed,” or they need a place with more music or better music or different preaching. Sometimes people just lie—they don’t want to admit that they’d rather attend a large church where no one notices when they sleep in on Sunday morning, so they point a finger at a theologically wayward Sunday school teacher, or at my sermons…

Being in the ministry requires us to develop a thick skin. We need to learn to spot the bull and let it go without wasting too much emotional energy on it. But we also need to cultivate the ability to hear what people are really saying by listening to what is behind their words. However painful it may be, we must listen to the parting shots of those who leave, because there is truth buried there—below the anger and the scapegoating and the general dishonesty. My advice is to ignore one person’s opinion of you or your ministry, and to watch for trends and patterns.

I imagine that’s much easier to say than to put into practice; it can’t be fun listening to people tell you that they dislike your preaching so much that they’re leaving the church. If you’re a pastor, I’d be interested to hear how you handle these “parting shots,” and if you’ve learned to dig beneath the words to discern what’s really being communicated.

But since I’m not a pastor, my interest in this topic is more in how I, as a typical churchgoer, should act when I feel called to leave a church. I’ve never left a church out of anger or theological dispute; it’s always been something more mundane, such as moving to a different city. But reading Atkinson’s article makes me regret that I have rarely sat down with the pastor or leadership of a church to explain what I’m doing and offer a (friendly and positive) parting shot. Many employers conduct exit interviews with employees who are leaving the company; surely there’s valuable information to be gained from an informal interview with a departing churchgoer.

Pastors, how do you respond when you learn that a church member is leaving the church? And fellow churchgoers, have you ever delivered a “parting shot” upon leaving a church, and how did it go?

4 Responses to “Listening to the parting shots”

  • M. Nieves says:

    I find this so interesting since in my experience this is exctly what happens. People start sitting in the back pews, skip church a couple of Sundays ( I figure they are “church shopping”), and then when they stop attending Worship and after many unanswered calls from you, the Pastor, they finally come forward and let you know why they are leaving. I have heard so many resons over 17 years in ministry that I am not surprised anymore. Here are a few; the kids need something different and this church doesn’t provide for the youth; the music is to traditional; the music is to contemporary;the preaching is good but the christian Ed. needs better teachers, etc.
    I usually sit and talk to the people involved but I usually find it is too late because the desicion is already taken.

    • Chris says:

      @M. Nieves thanks for sharing! You mentioned that by the time most people leave their minds are already made up, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve successfully talked anyone into coming back?

  • saved by grace says:

    I bookmarked this post because I wanted to come back and comment when I had more time.

    We left our church of many years because of a geographical move. We talked to the pastor during the process and told him that we felt God was moving us and how. He prayed for us and assured us that he thought God would take care of us, wherever we ended up, and he actually teared up, saying he knew God might not ever bring us back. We didn’t offer any negative feedback. It was a good church and had helped us greatly in our Christian walk but we did feel for some time that the Lord was leading us on to a different situation spiritually (using economic and family issues to accomplish this.)

    The next 2 churches we were in did not work for us, but since we were not leaving the area (ie. have a “reason” to be leaving) more explanation was needed for leaving. It did not go well. We did not just disappear but went to the pastors and told them why we felt it wasn’t for us. I don’t think they believed us and were defensive.

    The second time was especially difficult and we went through a lot of emotional pain (as I am sure the pastor’s family did also.) We had tried several times earlier to work out several issues that had come up, but we never got a concerned response, so we eventually stopped trying. We were very discouraged by an attitude of disapproval towards people who were not the same (I am not talking about sin issues, but preferences and family standards/choices.)Judging from casual comments people made, very few people were understanding/growing from the preaching. So when we left, we said that we had tried to work out our differences to no avail and that we felt we needed to move on because we were “not getting fed”. It was taken exactly as you termed it “the parting shot”. It really wasn’t meant to be … it (the preaching)was just the most “fixable” thing we thought we could honestly say to help the dear friends that remained there at that church. ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ idea. You can’t really change someone’s personality quirks. But you can put up with a lot of uncomfortable stuff when the preaching is convicting and growth inducing.

    Yes, there were other issues. And yes, we had made up our mind by the time that we told the pastor that we were leaving. We agonized and prayed about it for over a year. It just came down to the fact that if we felt so discouraged every time we went to church and, on top of that, we were not growing, how was that a positive way to be bringing up our children? And if we, being saved for a long time and pretty radically changed by the Lord, were feeling such disapproval, how could we invite our unchurched neighbors and friends to such an atmosphere? It was time to move on!

    As I said, it was extremely difficult and we even went back to the pastor and tried to clear up what we saw as hard feelings but that did not go well either. God used it all in our life for good and to teach us things to do better and we have been at our present church for almost 3 years and we are doing well. I have watched others go through similar situations (including a relative who is a pastor and has lost members) and I really think it all depends on the pastor’s attitude. I can imagine how hard it is for pastors to discern between people who are getting sideways with the Lord and just want to take it out on you, and people who may have some real input and are telling you things because they care.

    More people we knew left that last church that we attended (actually most have moved on)and they said they learned their lesson by watching what happened to us: they weren’t saying ANYTHING! So that pastor never got any more true feedback. Everyone went on to different churches and are now doing well.

    I guess my point is that not everyone is just trying to lob a ‘parting shot’ when they leave a church. Sometimes they are giving you clues that you may just want to ignore and hope for the best, or write them off as “on the way out”. I would encourage pastors to talk openly with members who show signs of struggling because *that* is the point where some of the issues can be resolved.

    And not every separation needs to be adversarial or dramatic. One friend had her former pastor tell her he disagreed with their decision to leave but they were always welcome to come back. My relative, who is a pastor, had a member leave his church amidst serious allegations only to repent and return after a couple of years and they are now faithfully serving together.

    God moves people for different reasons and I think He has the different members of the body fit in where they will be the most useful. And He uses different types of churches and different types of people.

    Just another perspective …

    I do sympathize with how difficult it is to be a pastor and grow a church. And just when your heart bonds with a family, they may decide to up and leave without warning.

    May God strengthen you all for His work and His glory!

  • Some people stop going to church because it is boring , and there just not really into God and there not that interest in what is going on. Every year is a repeat of the same old , same old. The time the service is or even the location and only go because of tradition and not the LOVE for GOD and our Lord Jesus Christ.

    But… like anything else this only my though.