I love being a pastor. Really, there is no other job I want, nor one that has ever been so fulfilling. Furthermore, I love my church family – one of the primary reasons I so love being a pastor. Richland Baptist Church has been so good to my family and me, and we regularly praise the Lord for the blessing of having such a great church family.
Our church really is our family. For that reason, the most painful part of pastoring is not the long hours, the continued necessary preparation work, the middle-of-the-night calls or texts, the occasional confrontations, or even the funerals, as overwhelming as those can be at times. Because church is family, the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave the church family.
Now, I am not talking about when people leave because they moved away. Sure, that is not easy either, but it is obviously understandable. No, what I am talking about is when people leave without explanation or with an unbiblical explanation. They might leave for another church nearby or for no other church at all, but it always hurts.
“It’s not personal, but…,” might be something that is said if an explanation is given, but as a pastor who loves my church family, it is personal for me when people leave. How could it not be? Would anyone really want to be part of a church in which it would not be personal to leave?
If someone in your family said to you, “You know, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to be part of this family anymore. There is a family that lives in a nearby town that I am going to join instead. It’s not personal against you, but I’m leaving our family for them. They’re going to be my new family,” would you take that personally? Of course. Would it hurt you deeply? Of course, if you love your family.
You might be thinking, “Nick, that’s ridiculous. You can’t compare leaving a church to leaving a family,” but why not? Some of the closest relationships I have are with my church family. The people I spend the most time with on a consistent basis (next to my immediate family) are the people who are active in our church (which, of course, includes my immediate family). The people with whom I share the most important beliefs, values, priorities, commitments, and goals in life are the people with whom I have covenanted with in church membership. Our church is our family is a statement of truth that makes up part of the mission and purpose of our church.
When a person leaves a church – at least a church as defined throughout the New Testament – he or she is leaving a family. That hurts, as it should.
PONDERING THE PAIN
This summer, I have been incredibly blessed to be on a short sabbatical for the purpose of rest, spiritual renewal, and more time with my wife and children. By far the hardest part of my sabbatical has been missing much of my church family (thankfully, I have still seen and spent time with some at our Saturday Men’s Fellowship and other visits and meetings), worshiping with them on Sunday mornings (I have been attending other church services and learning from other pastors and leaders), and enjoying the various times of weekly fellowship on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Why has that been the hard part of the sabbatical? Well, because my church is my family, and I need my family. Returning at the end of next month will be a sweet reunion for me, and I look forward to that, even though the sabbatical really has been a huge blessing and encouragement.
One of the best parts of my sabbatical, second only to being able to spend more time with my family, is more intentional time in prayer, reflection, and reading. Sure, all of those things are things I do a lot anyway (as a pastor and as a Christ-follower), but so much of my time spent doing those things is for the purpose of sermon and Bible study preparation, counseling, and church ministry. My focus this summer has been more on how I can be a better Christian, a better husband and dad, and a better pastor.
More than I have in years (or maybe ever), I have done a lot of time just “being still” this summer. Less rushed to finish my next sermon, prepare for the next Bible study, get to the next meeting, etc., I have been incredibly blessed to be able to slow down when reading my Bible, praying, reading encouraging Christian books, and just thinking about things.
When thinking through pastoral ministry, though, I cannot shake the pain of all those who have left our church in my nearly-nine years here. Please do not misunderstand me – the blessings of pastoring and being part of this church family far outweigh the discouragements, but the pain hurts. For whatever reason, perhaps because my sinful flesh has led me to dwell on the past rather than focus on more consistently rejoicing in the Lord and looking to the future He has for us, I have thought a lot about the pain of loss this summer – the loss of people leaving.
Regardless of why this has been on my mind, the truth is still the same for me (and I imagine for many other pastors) – the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave.
The same reason the hardest part of the sabbatical has been missing my church family is the reason the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave our church family. Our church is our family.
As I have pondered this reality recently, I have realized that so often my response to the fear of more people leaving has been sinful. Rather than trusting the Lord for purpose and identity and relying on Him to be the husband, dad, and pastor He has called me to be, I so often focus on how I can do better to make others happy and not push people away. Granted, we should desire that others be happy and not be pushed away, but that desire should be rooted in our identity in Christ and our obedience to His Word and our fulfillment of His purpose for our lives. Only then can we truly be happy, content, and satisfied.
What I have realized that happens when I am obsessed with doing whatever I can so that someone(s) stays involved and does not leave the church is that I am a pathetic husband and dad. You see, never am I concerned that my wife is going to leave me. She is godly, faithful, loving, kind, and patient. Her leaving never even crosses my mind. Likewise, I am never concerned that my children will leave. Really, they cannot – at least not yet. Who would pay their bills and meet their needs? Plus, they have an amazing mom, even when their dad is a failure.
And, what happens when you have something secure but are fearful of losing something else? You focus on that something else and potentially neglect what you already have. Shame on me. I am neglecting my wife and children because I am fearful of more people leaving.
Church members leave, though. While I have so many great friends (family) in our church, history does not lie. Great friends (whom I considered family) left before. Thus, I cannot shake the feeling that what if more leave? No, it is not about the attendance numbers. While I care how many people are here and desire for us to reach more and more people for Jesus, helping more and more people to be disciples who make disciples, God has protected me from obsessing over numbers. I have no desire to leave for a bigger church. No, it is not about the numbers; it is about the people. It is personal for that very reason. Numbers are not personal. People are personal. So, when people leave, my heart hurts.
I have wept over people leaving. I have lost sleep over people leaving. I have wondered why people were leaving. I have not stopped thinking about people who have left.
Last week, I started to count in my mind the people who have left Richland in my time here, and I realized that I could not keep count without paper and pen, so I gave up. I realized that I ponder this pain so often because it is the greatest pain of being a pastor.
PRAYING FOR THE PEOPLE
When I add someone to my regular prayer list after they join our church, I do not remove them from that list when they leave our church, regardless of the reason. I continue to pray for them. Perhaps they left for sinful reasons. Perhaps they faded away and have proven themselves to not be genuine followers of Jesus (see 1 John 2:19). Perhaps I or someone in our church family sinned against them, and they have not been able and/or willing to get past that. Perhaps the Lord called them to a new place, including a different church. Regardless of the reason, I am praying and will continue praying, by the grace of God.
Would you please pray for me, too? Pray that I will keep my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Pray that I will be a better husband, better dad, and better pastor by being a better follower of Jesus.
Would you please pray for our church? Pray that we will be gospel-centered, biblical, united in Christ, and faithfully committed to God’s Word, His church, and His mission.
Would you please pray for at least one person you know who might be leaving his/her church for the wrong reasons? Maybe this person is living in sin and will not repent. Maybe this person is holding a grudge and will not forgive. Maybe this person looks at church like a consumer and desires something else because of what he/she can receive. Whatever the reason, that individual needs your prayers, just like we all need prayer.
May God help us to love Him in such a way that we desire to love and serve others, promoting the biblical unity of the church and investing ourselves in God’s only plan for fulfilling His Great Commission – the local church.