Helping members leave your church plant well

Before I planted a church, I didn’t believe it when my pastor shared the unavoidable truth that within two years of our church plant, some on our launch team would not be with us.

But it ended up being true.

And I’ve watched it play out with the teams we’ve sent to plant. It’s rare that everyone stays for the long haul.

Like it or not, people change churches — even in church plants. No shepherd or sheep is exempt from this scenario; both roles deal with departure. Sometimes a switch is Spirit-led, and sometimes it’s self-serving.

How can a church planter lead through this inevitable reality, and how can a member leave their church plant in good standing? Is there a “best practice” to follow and a “worst practice” to avoid?

Here are three tips you can teach your members:

1. Don’t leave secretly.

There are multiple ways members can leave correctly, but one way is definitely wrong: without talking to your shepherd.

Secretly. Anonymously. Backdoor-ishly. These are all synonyms for leaving covertly, which is — in all reality — cowardly.

In a flock, sheep and shepherds must converse, and this is especially true when a member is considering changing churches. I’ve always appreciated members who gave me a heads-up about the “what” and “why” when they sensed God leading them to switch folds.

That was a positive sign they had nothing to hide and were being courageously accountable and humbly transparent, rightfully aware of the pastoral responsibility I had to “watch for their souls” (Hebrews 13:17). More often than not, they were hearing God’s voice accurately. In those times when they weren’t, it was that very conversation that helped them steer clear of an unintentional and unhealthy misstep.

2. Don’t walk until you talk.

If a member isn’t willing to have a conversation with their current pastor or elder about God’s direction to leave, they’re not ready to have a conversation with their future pastor or elder about God’s direction to land.

Remember: Sneaking out is a sign they’re probably running from something, instead of heading to something.

That’s why I strongly suggest planters teach their people, especially the planting team: Don’t walk until you talk. The pressure is high in the first few years and, in those years, when the going gets tough, the temptation for planting team members to leave can be deceitfully attractive. It’s imperative everyone know that, before they even once visit a potential new place to go, they need to talk with their shepherds about what God is stirring in their heart, kindly yet courageously laying out what they sense from the Holy Spirit. This will enable them to exit and enter in a way that is most beneficial to both flocks.

3. Communicate gracefully.

Members (even those who plan to stay long-term) must be gently reminded to own their responsibility to communicate with their shepherds. Too many members fall prey to the common complaint, “I was gone for two weeks and nobody noticed or called.” That’s a set-up toward blame, not a step-up toward responsibility.

No planter or pastor can read people’s minds or even track everyone’s attendance. Shepherds and sheep are both undeniably human, with all the accompanying limitations, and graceful communication is needed in both directions.

This to not to imply that a member can’t leave quietly. If God is actually redirecting someone’s involvement to a new place, they shouldn’t want to leave in a manner that is alarming. This highlights even more poignantly the need for a “notice.”

Having a proper conversation with the pastor first helps them have the subsequent discussions with other members later. A humble, healthy conversation with their pastors actually helps them make the switch “in the light” and prevents unnecessary, disruptive — and sometimes destructive — assumptions from forming with the pastors and others in the congregation.

It’s my prayer and desire that your members don’t change churches. Long-term membership, especially if they helped plant the church, is one of the most sanctifying tools God uses to build character in us and watch his work unfold generationally.

But if — or when — God truly directs one or more of your members in that way, I pray they commit to a conversation with their pastors first. In this way they will prove to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), a vital endeavor for church plants.

Published September 9, 2020