I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed, and there it is again.
A picture of a family attending church. It seems like a nice church. They look happy. But it’s not my church.
They used to be at my church, but they left.
This is a family who attended our church for years.
They attended every weekend. They served. They were givers.
I loved seeing them and being a part of the same local church family.
I’m not sure if it was because we asked them to wear masks.
Maybe we didn’t open in-person services soon enough?
Perhaps it’s because we didn’t preach on politics?
Maybe we didn’t say enough about racial justice?
Maybe we didn’t defend the police well enough for them?
Or, maybe they just decided to attend the church where their parents go.
It could be any of these reasons or 100 more.
Maybe your church is different, but we’ve lost some people.
I believe this pandemic has led to a major church shakeup. And, I’m not just talking about people leaving church or choosing virtual only.
I’m talking about people leaving church A to join church B.
So, what should you do when you hear about another family leaving your church for the church down the road? How should you react?
Well, here’s what I’ve been attempting to do.
What Can We Learn
Often, when one of our employees leaves our staff, we do an exit interview.
This is a learning opportunity for us as an organization.
What was great about working at our church…what wasn’t? How could we improve?
These conversations have led to significant learnings.
We’ve made important changes because of exit interviews.
In the same way, whenever possible, we’ve attempted to connect with people who have left our congregation to allow them to share why they’re leaving.
These conversations take out the guesswork.
And, if you are open to receiving criticism and feedback, they could reveal gaps in your leadership, ministry offerings, or understanding of your community.
If 9 out of 10 families who have left your church in the last year say they are leaving to join a church that has a thriving student ministry, well, now you know you have a gap in your ministry.
The question is, what will you do about it?
Be Careful of Overreacting
I hate conflict. I really do.
Whenever someone is upset with me, my natural inclination is to try to make them happy. Give them what they want.
Something I’ve learned over the years is this natural inclination of mine is usually not good leadership.
If your goal is for everyone to be happy, your church will be a confusing mess of strategies and ministries.
Often, different groups of people in your congregation want opposing things.
Here’s my encouragement regarding the feedback you might receive in exit interviews with families leaving your congregation…be careful.
Be wise and be thoughtful.
Through 2020-21 we experienced families leaving our church because, at one point, we required masks.
We also experienced families leaving our church because, at one point, we did not require masks.
Do you see what I mean? You can’t make everyone happy.
You probably know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.
When you experience the pain of a family leaving, the temptation is to assume “everyone” is upset about what that family is upset about.
Most likely not.
In fact, when you hear from someone, “everyone is upset you are requiring masks”, the best response is, “Who?”
My point here is that the disgruntled voices are often the loudest.
Don’t forget that the people who are happy with your church are usually quiet.
Critical voices are louder than contented voices.
Be careful about overreacting by accommodating a few critical voices.
It may be that you need to make some adjustments but make them carefully and wisely. Don’t overreact.
Be as Gracious as Possible
As we all know, this season has been incredibly divisive.
People are arguing and fighting about everything.
I could be wrong, but I believe once we return to a sense of normal, there won’t be as much to fight about.
People are nervous and afraid right now.
Probably all of us have said things we regret because we are feeling tremendous pressure.
Here’s my point: Some of the people who have left your church have done so because they are overreacting, and they will realize it in a few months.
The question is, will they come back?
I think it depends on how you treated them on the way out.
Perhaps the wisest thing you can do right now is be as gracious as possible toward families who have left.
“Hey, I heard you and your family are attending XYZ Church down the road. I just wanted to tell you how grateful we are for the years you were part of our church. I hope you love your new church and if you ever want to return, know we would love to have you back.”
What if you called, texted, or wrote to every family who leaves with some version of this?
What if you let them know that the door is open for them to return?
I have a suspicion at least some of those families will return in time.
I enjoy a privilege (or a curse) that some of you may not. I am one of the people on the screen at my church.
I preach regularly, and so people around town recognize me.
Because of this, I end up in a lot of conversations with people who, in one way or another, feel attached to our church.
Over the last few months, I’ve had several conversations with people who are new to our church that connected through our online services.
Some of these people have begun to attend in person, and others are still watching from home but plan to attend in person when they feel comfortable.
Here’s what I’m saying. As you watch families leave your church because of a preference issue, it’s likely there are other families joining your church through your online presence.
We are all learning through this pandemic. It’s been tough.
We have lost some people, but I believe, on the whole, our churches will be stronger, more focused, and more effective because of all the pivots, improvements, and even cuts we have made to narrow our focus.
Continue to remain strong and know that we are praying for you and your church.