Give Members Permission to Leave Your Church
It was a regular members’ meeting. We were removing a member who refused to share the name of the new church he was attending. We knew of no issues this member had with any elder or member, so we were confused. We wanted the congregation to understand he was not leaving well, and we said as much. That’s when another member spoke up on his behalf, asserting that the member being removed—and others who had recently left our church—was flourishing in their new churches.
In response, I rejoiced publicly over such good news.
I could have become defensive. I could have responded sinfully—perhaps I would have a week earlier.
Thankfully, though, before the meeting, a pastor friend encouraged me, “Juan, sometimes you have to give members permission to leave your church.”
For many pastors, this is counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to work hard to keep our members? Isn’t it wrong to lose them? The outspoken member seemed to imply it was an indictment on us if they were flourishing elsewhere.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our members are not my sheep. They are God’s. The church is not my flock. It is God’s. And nowhere does the Bible command Christians to be a member of your or my particular church. As elders, we are responsible for caring for the flock of God among us. And part of caring for the flock involves asking the flock to exercise its God-given authority by receiving new members and releasing departing ones. Yet to care well for the whole flock, we must sometimes encourage the congregation to permit members to leave. Even if we don’t fully agree with their reasons for leaving. Even if we prefer they remained.
Our goal is not to insist Christians belong to our church, but to some gospel-preaching church.
Once we learn to hold on to our members loosely, assuming they are joining another gospel-preaching church, we will begin to enjoy the benefits of leading some to flourish elsewhere, blessing other churches as a result. To do this well, we need to identify the reasons members leave your church, prepare them to leave well, and remind your church of the benefits of sending people elsewhere.
1. Identify Why Members Leave Your Church
Christians leave churches for a variety of reasons. Understanding why someone wants to leave helps you know how to shepherd them.
The most frequent reason you will lose members is when they move away. Shepherd these sheep by encouraging and helping them to find a like-minded church. Maintain regular contact with them until they do. Then remove them from your membership. You will miss these members, but you trust they will continue to flourish in their new church home.
Other times, members leave because they have become upset with church leadership, disappointed with ministry programming, or involved in conflict with other members. As you address these members, don’t quarrel with them. Teach with great patience, enduring evil when necessary and making corrections with gentleness. Perhaps the Lord will grant them repentance and lead them to know the truth (2 Tim. 2:24–26).
When members are upset, offer to meet with them. Seek to understand their concerns and then shepherd them appropriately. If the disagreement or conflict is over matters that are not sin but prohibit continued fellowship, establish a path for the member to leave well.
We’ve also had faithful members leave because they developed different hermeneutical convictions that did not permit them to remain at our church. The disagreements did not involve sin or primary doctrines of the faith. Still, their newly acquired convictions were important enough that they needed to move on. I’m thankful for these godly examples of departure.
Sadly, though, sometimes two parties cannot agree, try as we might to get them to reconcile. If their conflict has spilled out into the congregation, then the elders may need to share a few words to protect the church’s unity. In those cases, elders must maintain the tension between giving the congregation enough information to make an informed decision (for example, about the removal of a member) and seeking to maintain the departing individual’s reputation. When we don’t share sufficient information with the congregation, members may create their own narratives, potentially leading to division. Even after the matter is resolved, you may still need to grant permission for one of the parties to leave the church. If the issue is clearly a matter of unrepentant sin, however, you must begin the process of church discipline.
Finally, some members leave because they are no longer growing as they once did. Perhaps their convictions have changed. Perhaps their relationships have changed. Regardless, sometimes members need a fresh start in a new church. Brothers, in these difficult moments, give them permission to leave. Shepherd with an open hand. We should rejoice when former members flourish at another church. As pastors, we want to see Christians thrive in a family of believers that encourages them to follow Jesus.
At the members’ meeting I mentioned earlier, I asked our congregation to give these members permission to leave. I explained, “If you feel a need to go to a church that preaches the gospel but emphasizes politics, you have permission to leave. If you want to attend a church that preaches the gospel but emphasizes social justice, you have permission to leave. We are not the only faithful church in town. And you need to go where your theology, convictions, and relationships align.” Being able to say this signaled a significant turning point in my own thinking.
A week later, a sweet brother thanked me for encouraging the church to grant their family permission to leave. They loved High Pointe but wanted to be a part of a church that spoke more strongly on cultural issues. This brother and his family left well. I trust they are flourishing in their new church.
When you keep members who are not aligned convictionally on secondary or tertiary matters, their unhappiness will usually over time harm the church’s unity. So, fellow pastors, hold onto your members loosely. Give those who need it permission to leave. By doing so, you will maintain the church’s unity. But allow me to offer an even better reason to lose members—because you send them out.
2. Prepare Your Members to Leave for Gospel Opportunities
Healthy organisms grow. There is no reason to pit faithfulness and fruitfulness against one another.
But a desire for growth can make a pastor possessive of his flock. One way to guard our hearts against personal kingdom-building is to pursue what builds Christ’s church: missions, church revitalization, and church planting. But in order to prepare members to leave for the sake of the gospel, you must be intentional.
In addition to the consecutive exposition of God’s Word and the practice of meaningful membership, regularly raise up elders from within the congregation. The more faithful men you have serving as elders, the more generous you may be in allowing them to leave. New church plants need faithful elders. Revitalizations need faithful elders. Other churches in your area need faithful elders. If the Lord has blessed you with an abundance of faithful, qualified men, then why not share them with other churches?
Also, encourage your members to engage in church planting and global missions. Does your city or state need more new churches? Let the church know. Pray regularly that the Lord would raise up church planters to plant new churches. Pray for and celebrate new church plants in your area. Consider sponsoring a church plant and encouraging members and elders to leave with them.
Talk often about the advance of the gospel around the world. Pray for the Lord of the harvest to raise up laborers and invite members to ask the Lord if they should go to the mission field. Celebrate those that answer that call and continue your relationship with them after they’ve gone. As you do, you will be modeling generosity to your congregation.
Finally, celebrate other churches and pastors. Pray regularly for faithful churches in your area. Invite faithful pastors to share your pulpit from time to time. Your church needs to see many faithful men preach the same gospel.
And when possible, partner in ministry with like-minded churches. As your members see that your heart for gospel work is greater than your heart for building your specific church, they too will grow in generosity.
3. Remind Your Church of the Benefits of Losing Members
There are many joyful blessings of losing church members wisely and responsibly. As you release members to other churches, the mission field, or new gospel works, your church participates in the Great Commission. The Great Commission is fulfilled by planting healthy churches that reproduce other healthy churches (Matt. 28:19–20). This is our mission.
When you plant a church, you typically lose some of your best givers, workers, and leaders. While gospel ministry comes at a great cost, our sacrifices produce great rewards. Our generosity forces us to depend on the Lord for new members, more elders, and increased giving. Such dependence keeps you humble.
Finally, as you lose members to the work of the gospel, the Lord will also strengthen your church. You will be able to identify new workers who were simply waiting to serve. You will recognize leaders whose potential you never realized. And you will be able to witness answered prayer.
Over years of planting churches in our area, our church has learned that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. My prayer is that you will joyfully embrace that mindset and be strengthened by the joy of the Lord. Brothers, give your members permission to leave your church.