People slipping out the back door and out of the life of the church is one of the last things interim pastors should worry about.
Writers have sacrificed billions of electrons to articles about closing the church’s back door.
But virtually everyone overlooks perfectly good reasons why it should be left open.
The church’s back door is a hot topic. An Internet search on the phrase when a church member leaves. surfaces 33,800,000 Google returns and 97,400,000 on Bing.
There are articles that are nothing more than various lists of reasons. You’ll find a few instances of “the cause par excellence” (identifiable by prominent use of the definite article). There’s advice on what to do and what not to do, and stern lectures about the only permissible reasons for leaving.
Why worry about the back door?
What you won’t find is much serious reflection on why we should care (it’s merely assumed to be a bad thing) or if it’s really possible to shut it.
Perhaps we can’t close it.
This is a highly mobile society. Wage and salary earners change jobs every four years; professionals about every five. Although relocation slowed during the recent economic travail, Americans move at the rate of 24% in every five period. Or to put it another way, people on average move once every five to seven years. Why should churches be exempt?
Perhaps our worry about the back door is self-serving. I may be guilty of projection here, but I detect two unexamined sources of the preoccupation: (1) a defective model of “church success” and (2) the ego needs of clergy.
A pastor’s view of “success” creates anxiety when people leave
Brad Powell gives us rare and refreshing insight into the first.
In the early days of my ministry, I loved growth—which I translated as “success”—so I did whatever it took to keep every single person in our church. To me, each person represented growth and size. Anyone leaving seemed to represent failure. [Emphasis added]
A pastor’s ego needs create anxiety when people leave
Emotional intelligence is an important factor in personal well-being and ministry success. Independence is an emotional competency that distinguishes successful church growth pastors.
Independence is the ability to be self-directed and self-controlled in your thinking and actions and to be free of emotional dependency. Independent people are self-reliant in planning and making important decisions. They can stand on their own two feet.
Independent people are able to function autonomously—they avoid clinging to others in order to satisfy their emotional needs. The ability to be independent rests on one’s degree of self-confidence and inner strength, and the desire to meet expectations and obligations without becoming a slave to them.
People who crave acceptance at any cost and are scared stiff of giving the slightest offense have grave difficulty exercising independence. (Source: The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success [affiliate link])
Interim pastors probably have an easier path to follow when dealing with those streaming out the back door because their ministry focus isn’t to grow the church, it is to leave the church poised for growth under the next settled pastor. But we aren’t immune to our own ego needs.
But pastors and interim pastors can cope with these two problems by reframing people’s departures. Instead of dwelling on unjustifiable thoughts and feelings that they have rejected you (where’s the evidence to support this irrational belief?) or on feeling like a failure because your church size has dropped by 3 (where’s the evidence to support the view that the ministry is a failure?) consider the fact that people do you, themselves and the church when they leave!
They’re doing you a favor
More often than not those who leave do themselves, the church in transition and the interim pastor a favor. I’ve seen it time and again. Here are a few examples, all true.
- A skilled pianist left when her 94 yr. old mother was relieved of her ministry playing the church organ. A few weeks later a skilled musician (Ph. D. from a prestigious university, 14 years ministry experience, a genuine and humble servant leader) literally showed up at my office to ask about ministry opportunities. The result was far superior musicianship in our worship services.
- An active and involved couple departed, leaving a hole in the youth ministry. But an ad hoc group of parents and teens solved the problem within a week. The result was widespread parental participation in youth ministry.
- A flamboyant couple – he was a drummer and she was involved in Children’s ministry – left. The result was the church avoided a confrontation over killing the VBS program the next year (she was a major force in a unproductive program that sucked up hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars). On top of that, several other drummers stepped up.
- People intent on preserving a museum and not engaging in mission to the community leave when they see the tide turning against them. The result is always a win for them and the church. Both parties avoid major conflict, they end up in a congregation better suited to their preferences and the church is able to move ahead on mission.
An ancient (by Internet standards!) post from 2007 offers a sane look at the problem:
There should be no inherent fear in leaving a church, and there should be no pouting at the loss of a member. If a member leaves for another church, they’re going to somewhere they will fit better. The body as a whole will function better. (Joshua Cody, “When Church Members Leave“, Church Marketing Sucks Blog, April 26, 2007.
- We live in a highly mobile society.
- It is unrealistic to think that the church should be immune to this mobility
- Some of the concern about people leaving through the back door is rooted in the pastor’s less than godly concerns with wanting to be seen as a success and emotional dependence on the approval of others
- When people leave their departure often opens up previously unavailable ministry resources and opportunities
I’m not suggesting a completely laissez-faire attitude toward church departures. They may in fact point to a problem that needs to be addressed. And there may be times when you need to shut the back door on someone leaving the church.
- When they are under church discipline
- When they leave due to unresolved conflict
- When they leave unfulfilled responsibilities without proper resignation