Sometimes, people choose to leave your church.
It’s an unpleasant reality that every pastor has to grapple with, and no clergyperson or congregation is immune. It doesn’t matter whether your congregation is growing, declining, or stable. It doesn’t matter whether your context is rural, urban or suburban. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter how well you preach, how well you love your congregation, or how much time and energy you pour into programming, studies, and pastoral care — no matter who you are or where you serve, you will occasionally discover that an individual or a family has left your flock in search of greener pastures.
And in some cases, their departure will have been triggered by something completely out of your control: perhaps the church down the street has a larger Sunday School program, perhaps they prefer the worship stylings of another congregation across town, or maybe they’ve gotten into a spat with another church member. Or maybe they are leaving for much more complex theological reasons, such as those related to our denomination’s current struggle over human sexuality. But no matter the reasoning behind their decision, the reality is that the departure of a church member can be deeply painful to us as clergy. Which begs the question — when we experience a loss of this nature, how can we effectively deal with the grief and care for ourselves?
Give yourself permission to mourn. It’s OK to be upset when you lose a member unexpectedly. You might feel hurt, blindsided or even angry…and that’s OK. Reach out to your clergy colleagues if you need to — remember, if they’ve been in ministry for any length of time, chances are that they’ve experienced the same frustration and disappointment that you’re feeling now. Talk to them, and you’ll likely receive support, solidarity, and helpful advice.
Unfollow them on social media. You don’t need to unfriend former members on Facebook, but if seeing their name pop up in your newsfeed stirs up negative feelings, it might be wise to at least unfollow them for a time.
Focus on the positive changes in your congregation. It’s easy to focus in on that empty space in your pews—but take a moment to consider the other things that are occurring in your church. Who are the new faces in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Which groups in your congregation are producing good, Kingdom-building fruit? How is God transforming your community through the ministries of your congregation? Instead of lamenting the past, invest your time in the newcomers and in the leaders who are making a difference in your congregation and in the world. (I’d suggest making a list of these people and putting it somewhere in your office, and commit to praying for them on a regular basis!
Create a sacred space and ritualize the transition. During my time in my current appointment, I have had two couples leave the church in the manner described above (both unexpected and due to factors beyond my control). About a month ago, I decided to try creating some kind of prayerful ritual that would enable me to say farewell to them and entrust them to God as they continue their faith journey in other congregations. Here’s what I did: I filled the water pitcher that I use for baptisms, and I took the water into the sanctuary. I wrote the former member’s names on small pieces of “disappearing paper” (a great resource for prayer stations; you can purchase it on Amazon), and then I dissolved the paper in the water. As the paper disappeared in the water, I prayed for the four people who I had named — asking that they might continue to grow in faith and discipleship in their new contexts, praying that I might be freed from feelings of hurt or bitterness, and also asking God to help me remember that I am still linked to them through the waters of baptism. Because the truth is that even if we are not worshipping in the same congregation anymore, we are still sisters and brothers in Christ, and we are still united by one God, one faith, one baptism! I ended this prayer time by making the sign of the cross on my forehead with the water, and then I took the pitcher outside and used it to water the plants in front of the church. Blending the imagery of baptism and new life with this “prayerful farewell” ritual was incredibly freeing. I might seem obvious, but I think there is something to be said for intentionally inviting God into the grieving process for something like this!
Like water, your congregation will ebb and flow over the years. Babies will be baptized, elderly saints will go on to join the cloud of witnesses. New members will join, families will move, and yes…some families will simply leave. And yet through it all, God remains the same. May God bless your ministry through all these transitions, and may you take extravagantly good care of yourself during the rough points on your vocational journey.
The Rev. Emily Spearman Cannon is pastor of Auburn First United Methodist Church in Nebraska.