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Photo credit: Dallis Day Richardson

Photo credit: Dallis Day Richardson

Here’s a topic most pastors don’t want to talk about – what to do when someone leaves your congregation. I don’t mean because they are moving out of the area or being relocated by their employer. We have rituals for saying goodbye to people as they make these life transitions, especially if they have been intimately involved in the life of the church. We acknowledge the pain in farewell and pray God’s blessing upon them. We celebrate the gifts and graces they have brought to our faith community and express our thanks. More often than not there is cake and ice cream! Grief, grace and gratitude mingle in such moments.

I am not referring to these expected partings when people are simply living their lives and for a time we are blessed to be in beloved community with one another and then their life circumstances change. I am referring instead to those occasions when people make a conscious choice to leave a church because they no longer feel in sync with the direction the church is moving.

It’s never easy. Maybe that seems obvious, but I just want to acknowledge the pain. For everyone involved. For those choosing to leave. For those being left. For those charged with spiritual leadership of a congregation. Even for those who are only minimally aware of what has happened. The sudden unexpected loss hurts. There’s no way around it.

You may have guessed by now. This happened recently in the church I currently serve. A couple who had been involved in many dimensions of church life for years informed us one Monday morning that they were withdrawing their membership, effective immediately. It is not an understatement to say that most church members who knew them were left in stunned disbelief when they heard the news. No one, not even close friends, saw it coming.

To their credit, this couple had fulfilled their annual giving, completed various assignments on committees, and tied up loose ends. They did not leave angry or maliciously. Over a period of some time they had simply determined that their spiritual path no longer lined up with the theological emphases they were hearing from their pastors or their denomination. It was not a decision they made lightly, and I have no trouble affirming them as a sister and brother in Christ.

Every pastor who has been at this work of shepherding congregations for more than a year or two has experienced this kind of significant loss. We each have our own ways of walking through the aftermath with those we are called to serve. My own pastoral response involved first going to visit this couple in their home, listening as carefully and lovingly as possible, praying with them, telling them they are loved and will be missed, and asking God to bless and keep them. Then of course, I needed to leave, not wanting to prolong the new reality that I was no longer their pastor.

I was troubled by one thing though, and I heard myself verbalize it in their home that day, saying something like, “One thing I am struggling with is my belief that a community that follows Christ is going to be diverse and have many gifts and viewpoints. There is room for all of us at the table of grace. We don’t have to be in agreement on everything to have community. In fact, an important part of our church’s role is listening and caring for one another in our differences so that the world knows it’s possible.”

My pastoral default position will always be to bless people as they choose other paths. However, that morning in their home I wish I had gone beyond blessing and been bold and alert enough to venture, “I think you may be making a mistake. I think Christ calls us to something more than finding like-minded people to be our community. It would be better if you didn’t leave because of differences of opinion. It would be better if you stayed and continued the hard work of being in community with people who don’t always agree on everything, because honestly, that is what you are going to find wherever you go.” Those are the thoughts that were left unsaid because they were not yet clearly formed in my mind.

Creating genuine Christian community is never going to be easy, but a good place to begin is with the shared commitment to talk things through before heading for the exit in search of greener pastures!

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson