By Carey Nieuwhof
ChristianWeek Columnist | July 26, 2016
In a perfect world, you wish everyone who comes to your church would stay forever. I get that. I share that desire too.
But the reality is that on this side of heaven people come and go, not just in church, but everywhere.
Think about it: you’ve switched gyms and supermarkets. You’ve bought and sold cars and homes. You’ve even switched jobs. And no, the church is not a commodity, but the law of averages tells you a certain percentage of people inevitably come and go.
Usually, when people leave a church, it’s because there’s a problem, a disagreement, or a conflict of some kind.
But I’ve also come to realize people leave churches when things are going well. As surprising as this sounds, every time you make progress as a church, you’ll lose people.
This comes as a shock to most leaders. And it can be very disheartening, especially if you don’t realize some loss even in great seasons is ‘normal’.
While I don’t have hard data to back these 5 reasons people leave your church, I do have more than a few conversations with leaders from great churches who still experience exits when things are going well. And all 5 reasons listed below are trends I have seen personally where I serve.
So why do people leave even when you’re making progress at your church?
Simple. The people who are at your church today are there because they like it the way it is. Change that (even for the better), and some will leave.
It will shock you. It will disappoint you. It will leave you scratching your head. And it’s unavoidable. But you need to keep moving or else you’ll be paralyzed by focusing on who you want to keep, not who you want to reach.
So when do people leave when things are going well?
Here are 5 surprising moments that trigger exits when no one is expecting it:
1. A move into a new building
So many people think a move into a new building is a positive step that will only cause growth. For a church that has momentum, that’s almost universally true.
But even when things are going well, you will lose people. Some people will love the portable days even better. Some won’t like the new location. Others may not like the design. Others may feel displaced.
For some people, there’s also a sentimental association with past places of worship as well. Maybe the sentiment is because they became Christians there, were baptized there, or even got married there.
For sure, that’s understandable. Most people get past the sentiment, but some don’t. And they’ll leave.
The church has to keep moving though…advancing the mission. After all, you cannot build a future by living in the past.
2. You’ve hired a new senior leader
Naturally, some people leave when you hire a new senior leader—a senior pastor, campus pastor or teaching pastor. But what’s surprising is some people leave even when you hire a great new senior leader.
People have their own reasons for liking the old better than the new, even when it comes to people.
Often the reasons are personal or preferential, not missional. They liked the only senior leader better, or felt a personal connection with him or her, or even had a friendship with him or her.
Even though a great new leader will lead a congregation into an exciting future, there’s always a small group that will not want to come for the ride.
3. You’ve added new staff
So it should be no surprise that when the leader changes, so does the team—the other staff and many of the key volunteers. Why does this happen so often?
I learned something a while ago in leadership: Leaders often behave missionally. Most people behave relationally.
What do I mean by that? Well, often as a leader, you think and act in terms of the mission. Most people don’t think or act according to the mission; instead they behave relationally.
So when a new staff member steps in and people sense “oh, this isn’t how it used to be,” they move on.
In the case of new staff (not senior staff…but associate staff), the good news is most people won’t leave the church—they’ll just leave their ministry area for a new ministry area.
I used to be surprised by this trend and often upset by it. Now I just realize that if we appoint a new leader, within a year many people on that leader’s team will change. Again, if the overall situation is healthy, they’ll relocate within other ministries. If it’s less healthy, people will leave outright.
4. You’ve stopped some old programs
Effective leaders don’t just start things, they also stop things. They realize good is the enemy of great (as Jim Collins said), and they are willing to cut good things to make way for great things. They certainly don’t hesitate to cut what is ineffective.
Yet it often comes as a surprise that people leave when their program gets cut, even if it gets cut ‘well’ and with sensitivity.
The reason people leave in circumstances like this is because for many people, what they’re involved in becomes the mission. If they run a Tuesday morning coffee club (even an ineffective one), their relationships within that club run deep and perhaps even their identity is caught up in leading that club. Change that, and they’re left floundering.
Again, healthier people will realize the mission is bigger than them and they will adjust and find a new place. Others won’t. They’ll leave. Even if the church as a whole is getting better at accomplishing its mission.
5. You announce an exciting new initiative
So let’s say your church announces a new initiative to reach more people, be more effective in the community or even add a location or ministry. As a leader, you’re pumped. As pumped as you’ve ever been.
Guess what? Some people won’t want to go with you. There will still be a tiny minority that likes your church just the way it is. They don’t want it to get bigger. They don’t want it to get better. They just want it to stay the same.
As exciting as the future is, some people prefer the present. Others live in the past. That’s just life.
How do you manage this tension?
All of this can leave you feeling discouraged unless you realize one core truth. As a leader, you need to choose your focus. As my friend Reggie Joiner says, you need to decide whether you will focus on who you want to reach, or who you want to keep.
If you think about it, deciding to focus on who you want to reach is the better choice. Some people are un-pleasable, and deciding to please the un-pleasable is an exercise in futility.
But even if the handful of people who might leave aren’t unappeasable, the people you need to reach are far greater in number than those you’re trying to keep.
The people you might lose always have other churches they can go to.
The unchurched people you will reach by changing…don’t.
Don’t burn bridges with those leaving (be gracious…thank them for their time with you), but don’t sacrifice the mission for the sake of a handful of people who don’t like the future.
The challenge, of course, is to reach more people than you lose, and to keep unnecessary departures to a minimum.
I hope this post comes as encouragement to you. Just know if despite your best efforts, you still see a small group walk out the door, you’re not alone. Keep making progress. Keep leading. Keep pursuing your mission.
If you’re leading well, who you reach will be greater than who you lose, even if in some moments it doesn’t seem that way.