What do you say to a volunteer who is leaving, because they’re disappointed, unhappy, or even angry about something your church is doing or isn’t doing?
Maybe they are upset with you personally.
How do you bring personal reconciliation into church conflict?
Unfortunately, especially in large churches, some people leave and never say anything. I wish they did. I’ve pursued more people than I can count, over decades in ministry, to ask for a conversation.
That’s the first step, ask for a conversation. The purpose is not a confrontation, but an opportunity to talk.
Don’t nurse a wound, seek to gain allies to your perspective, or put them in a bad light to others.
Instead, grab your phone and give them a call. It may or may not work out, they may still leave, but you will have done your best.
4 guidelines for a great conversation with someone who intends to leave your church:
1) Keep in mind that the Kingdom of God is bigger than your church.
You care about people, see their lives change, watch them grow, and sometimes they leave. That’s never easy, especially if they are unhappy.
You work hard to grow your church, but ultimately, it’s not your church, it belongs to God. I’ve often said to our staff, “The Kingdom of God is bigger than 12Stone.” That’s not always easy to live out, I know. I’ve been hurt when people leave too.
It might be a hurtful experience, but don’t get defensive.
You may feel like you or your church has been misunderstood. That’s not uncommon. There is no perfect church, and no one church can meet everyone’s needs.
But remember, you are not responsible for the happiness of everyone you serve. That’s impossible. But you are responsible, so far as it is up to you, to live at peace. (Romans 12:18)
In the end, maybe God has a plan for this person in another church. It’s often not that someone is leaving, it’s how they leave.
2) The point isn’t to change their mind, it’s to understand why they are leaving.
One of the biggest mistakes you or I can make is to succumb to the temptation to forsake shepherding and slide into sales mode.
I get it; you don’t want them to leave. You care about them. But think shepherd, not sales. Don’t talk them into staying, not even because you genuinely care about them.
They must want to stay.
Another temptation to avoid at all costs is using the “God card.” Maybe they shouldn’t leave, perhaps they are being unreasonable, but never use your spiritual authority to get someone to remain at your church.
The goal isn’t to get them to change their mind, but to find God’s mind in the matter. That requires you to understand why they are leaving.
When you talk to them, listen carefully. Do your best to get to the root issue.
The surface issue might be that they are unhappy about a specific decision, or a ministry they wanted but the church doesn’t offer. But it’s usually about something deeper.
It’s often more about trust, faith, and feeling personally valued. Do your best to get the conversation to that level.
Again, it’s OK if they leave, it has to be OK. But when you come to an understanding and can remain, friends, that pleases God, and His kingdom is strengthened.
3) The focus is their spiritual growth, not their approval of your church.
We’ve made it clear so far that the focus is peace, understanding, care and the bigger picture. But speaking the truth in love is also a vital part of the conversation.
Ephesians 4:15, (and the larger context) makes this clear:
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
It’s important to extend a sincere apology if they have been hurt and to communicate that you would like to see reconciliation.
However, there is no need to apologize because you didn’t lead the church, or the campus, or the small group, etc., the way they wanted or didn’t offer every ministry they felt is important.
Your responsibility is a person’s spiritual growth, not making them happy. Again, it’s just not possible to make everyone happy.
So, what if someone is being unreasonable, or divisive, or is not seeking to come to an understanding. Perhaps they merely want their way. In this case, it’s time to stand firm and speak the truth.
Clearly communicate a clear big picture perspective. You don’t need them to approve of you or your church but agreeing to disagree in peace is the biblical path.
A combination of humility of spirit and strength of conviction is the best disposition for you as the leader to have this conversation.
- Humility, because there might be something you don’t see. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
- Strength, because you represent a vision bigger than yourself, and you need to uphold that vision.
4) Don’t burn bridges.
Communicate grace, love and hospitality.
You may still disagree, but the goal is to remain united for the greater Kingdom, not to keep them at your church. (If your goal is to “keep” them, you will skew the conversation. Let that be their decision.)
In the conversation, always express sincere gratitude for their ministry, and communicate their value to the mission.
Always let them know that they are welcome to come back to your church any time.
That may seem strange now, but time heals much, and they will remember your sincere and gracious invitation.
A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you see the person in Walmart, rather than ducking behind aisle #2 until they are out of sight, you call out their name and genuinely enjoy seeing each other.
I’ve had several “Walmart Moments.” Some were awkward, sometimes because I didn’t handle their leaving well, other times maybe it was them. But blame isn’t the issue when a relationship is at stake. God’s heart is always reconciliation.
The good news is that most of those chance connections can be positive moments that move quickly to a handshake or a hug. You can both enjoy a sincere conversation about the good things that God is doing in both churches.
You just might be surprised with who comes back one day. That’s wonderful!
Always keep the doors of God’s Church open.