Heartache and brokenness has a way of teaching us things that comfort is incapable. There are things that can only be learned through pain.
One of the most painful experiences for me in the past few years was one that was repeated over and over again. While I was on staff at the last church I served in, we lost people by the droves. Saying good-bye to friends who chose to worship elsewhere - or nowhere - was heart wrenching for me. I cried about it. I dreamed about it. I grieved.
One thing I did not do was understand. Ever.
I felt betrayed. I felt sad. And on a very few occasions I felt relieved. The "problem" was gone. The "issue" was now forgotten. The complaining ceased for a moment perhaps.
But most of the time for me, one of the original members of the church, and the most senior staff member, losing people felt like losing family. It hurt. Terribly. It hurts me still today.
And then one day in early October of 2009, I resigned from my staff position and left that church fellowship in early November. I said good-bye after eleven years in that church. Not just any church, but a church I had helped "birth". A church I was fully invested in. A church I deeply loved. (and I still do!)
And over the past several months I've watched many, many more friends choose to say good-bye as well.
And you know what? It still hurts. For some crazy reason I still care. And it still makes me very sad.
But I've learned some things from being on both sides of this situation called "leaving a church". These are things I could never have learned had I stayed on staff. They are things I never could have learned if I had only been a member that chose to leave. Both experiences were needed to teach me these valuable lessons.
Here's what I've learned....from being left and from having to do the leaving: (Disclaimer: I know there are some truly difficult people out there - they could even be called crazy! - but what I'm writing about are most normal, average church goers!)
1) We are rarely honest when we leave a church. Most people hate conflict and this is a way some choose to avoid it - just leave. When asked why they left, they offer the most palatable of their many reasons, but I now know that they rarely speak candidly with leadership about the true reasons. Strangely enough, even though we are willing to walk away sometimes, we are not always willing to sit down and "offend" someone by telling them why!
2) Therefore, I believe that staff is the last to truly know (if they ever do) what is going on when someone decides to leave. I figured out early on that if I as worship pastor had heard about someone being unhappy, then many, many other people had not only heard about it but discussed it amongst themselves! Staff are the last to know the truth.
3) It is difficult for the pastoral staff members to truly hear people when they are unhappy because complaints make us defensive and fearful. We mistakenly believe we are holding everything together. When someone is unhappy we feel like our little ball of yarn is unraveling and we're trying desperately to put it back together. When this is our mindset, it's hard to just listen. Add to this the truth that many times ministers deal with cranky, hateful people and it's not hard to see why most pastors "listen defensively" because - let's be honest - most complaints are about us!!
4) Many times those who complain are "dismissed". I hate to admit this, but I have done this. I have failed to learn from a complaint because it made me look bad or because someone was mean-spirited as they "shared the truth". Sometimes I just wanted it to be over, for peace to reign, for everything to run smoothly (which it rarely did!!!) so I dismissed people's arguments. I failed to look for the kernel of truth.
5) People rarely leave over one issue unless it is a doozy! They generally speak up here and there, don't feel heard or loved or cared for, and then one last issue comes up and their emotional tank at church is low and so they walk.
6) When someone decides to leave the church it is a beginning, not the end - for both sides. This decision is really the beginning of grief for both parties. It's not the end of a conflict. It's the beginning of pain, or questions, and of grief. Being left and being the one to leave are both horrible.
7) We are most often unaware of and unsympathetic towards the pain of one another in these situations. And so the pain deepens and the chasm widens. And people leave with hurt that takes years to heal -if it ever does.
And perhaps the most practical things I learned were these:
***Churches are missing out on a wealth of wisdom by failing to truly listen to those who choose to leave their ranks. I think we could learn incredibly valuable lessons if we could truly hear what is at the heart of all those decisions to leave a church fellowship. I believe it would be honoring to God to care enough to try to have some gut-level honest conversations where people are truly heard. Perhaps we could grow in fresh ways and help people to feel more loved if we did this. In hindsight it seems wise - and practical - to learn from these people. If it's an issue for them today, it will be an issue for someone else tomorrow.
*** Attenders are missing out on seeing any real change occur as they are unwilling to sit down and share from their heart what is going on in their life at church. Without honest input, how will leadership know what the problems are?
So in closing I'll simply say that if you've ever come to me and complained, I'm sorry I did not listen better. I'm not sure we would have ever agreed, but I do apologize for not being as open as I should have been. I'm sure I was defensive. I know I was fearful. And I'm not sure I was loving. That does not mean that I did not love you. It just means I was not good at hearing complaints!
And to all church leaders I issue this challenge.... learn from those who leave. Take it seriously. Realize that those who have decided to make this change are valuable people, your family in Christ. Treat them with love.
May we all grow wiser and more compassionate as we seek to show true love for one another.