When a pastor or staff member leaves a church under duress, they usually discover – weeks or months later – that most churchgoers from their former congregation seem to have forgotten that the leader ever existed.
More than 90% of the congregation never contacts the leader again – not via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or any other means of communication.
The leader is left wondering, “What happened to all my friends and colleagues? Why aren’t they reaching out to see how I’m doing? Did I mean so little to them?”
I felt this way when I left my last position as senior pastor 7 1/2 years ago. Thankfully, there were a few churchgoers who kept in contact with me, but I never heard from most of them again.
After devoting myself completely to that church for more than a decade, it hurt to think that so many people – whom I considered good friends – would abandon me so quickly.
But maybe there are good reasons why God’s people don’t contact their former leaders again.
Here are seven possibilities:
First, most of us gradually forget about people – even friends – that we no longer see.
Mrs. Coleman was the first great teacher I ever had. She taught me in third grade. After that year, I never saw her again.
Darryl was my youth pastor in my late teens. He helped me love and know Scripture. He moved to Colorado, then to Texas. I haven’t seen him in 40 years.
My father-in-law mentored me in church ministry for decades. I last saw him five years ago.
I know a handful of people who seem to stay in contact with everyone they’ve ever known, but most of us aren’t that way. People come and go in our lives.
That’s just the way life is.
I’m appreciative of the influence that Mrs. Coleman, Darryl, and my father-in-law had in my life. I think of them fondly. But since we are no longer in proximity to one another, we’ve all moved on. (And I think Mrs. Coleman died a long time ago.)
It’s just something we have to accept.
Second, many Christians are used to pastors/staffers coming and going.
The longer a person has attended church, the more transitions they’ve witnessed.
Before I entered my teens, my family attended a church where the senior pastor resigned … the Christian Education director was fired … and the next pastor was forced to resign prematurely.
At the next church I attended, the founding pastor resigned … the youth pastor left … an interim pastor came and went … another youth pastor left … the church called a new pastor … another youth pastor left (me) … an associate was hired … and then he resigned.
If you’re a veteran Christian, you might get worked up about one or two of those departures, but if you make a federal case about each one, you’ll die of a heart attack.
In baseball, there’s an adage that managers are hired to be fired. Many baseball fans express outrage after a well-loved manager is released, but their anger soon dies down, and fans come to accept things as they are.
The same thing happens in Christian circles.
And after a while, each succeeding departure is just par for the course.
Third, many Christians relate to paid church leaders as short-term friends.
I learned this one the hard way.
At my last church, I became friends with a man roughly my age. He had been a professional athlete with one of my favorite teams. We went to several ballgames together and had a great time.
Every Sunday, he’d give me a big smile and come over and shake my hand during the greeting time. After I preached, he’d hang around and let me know I hit a home run.
Before I moved away, I went to visit him one last time at home. Several nights later, he sent me an encouraging text.
Two years later, I contacted him, told him I was going to be in the area, and asked him out to breakfast.
It turned out to be one of the most awkward hours of my entire life.
He never asked me one time how I was doing. Instead, he talked all about his family and the church’s new pastor. (Shortly afterward, my friend and his family left the church.)
I thought our friendship would last for years, but in the intervening months, it had gradually died.
While it hurt me at the time, looking back, I didn’t nurture that friendship because I didn’t want to hear how the church was doing without me.
I’ve learned that while pastors and staffers view some churchgoers as friends, those same people probably view their leaders not as lasting friends, but as short-termers.
Fourth, some Christians no longer feel responsible for a pastor/staffer who has left.
Their attitude is, “As long as Pastor Joe or Youth Pastor Steve is paid by this church, I am duty bound to support them, pray for them, encourage them, and befriend them. But if they take off, they are no longer our responsibility. Now it’s up to their new church or their new boss to watch over them.”
When you’ve given so much of yourself to a congregation, this attitude can seem a little cynical. But in the long run, it’s probably healthy.
For example, over the course of my 36-year ministry career, I probably had 25 or so staff members serve under my leadership. Although we were on good terms when we parted, in most cases, I’ve lost contact with them … and they’ve lost contact with me.
When Judas left the Twelve, Jesus still loved Him … He just didn’t feel responsible for him anymore. I am not comparing departing pastors/staffers to Judas the turncoat, but I am comparing Jesus – the Ultimate Caregiver – to many churchgoers today.
Once a church leader has resigned, the majority of Christians won’t initiate contact anymore.
Fifth, some Christians have bought into negative rumors about the departing leader.
I think it’s despicable to spread half-truths and malicious gossip about a former pastor/staffer after they’ve left a church, but it’s done all the time.
The template goes like this:
“I wonder why So-and-So really resigned?”
“Well, I’ve heard that they mismanaged funds … were having an affair … could no longer recruit volunteers … lost the confidence of the church board … upset other staff members … weren’t working very hard …”
And the list goes on and on.
Here’s the problem: if you think that a former pastor/staffer really did mismanage funds or have an affair, are you going to reach out to them or write them off?
You’re probably going to write them off as some kind of defective Christian leader.
I don’t think I’ve told this story before, but several years after I left my last ministry, I was talking with a friend who had left the church (on good terms) before I did.
Eight months after my departure, this friend flew to the new area where my wife and I lived and spent a few days with us. This friend posted some photos on Facebook of us together … and was instantly unfriended by more than 40 people from our former church.
Why did that happen? Maybe it has to do with the next possibility:
Sixth, some church leaders either spread negative rumors or fail to correct them.
Imagine that you’re an average interim pastor. Your ministry as a pastor was never all that successful, but you’ve been called to a church where the previous pastor’s ministry was very effective.
You ask around, “Why did the previous pastor leave?”
If you’re a secure individual, you’ll try and hear all sides.
If you’re insecure – or feel inferior to the previous pastor in some way – you may covertly rejoice in anything negative you hear.
So when people come to the interim and ask, “Do you know why the previous pastor left?”, the insecure interim will respond, “I’ve heard that …”
And after the interim leaves, the next pastor may do the same.
In addition, as rumors circulate among the saints as to why the previous pastor left, even if the interim knows the truth, he will often do nothing to correct them.
Because he wants the congregation to forget about the previous pastor altogether so he can look good by comparison. He wants to loosen the bonds between the previous pastor and the people so he can influence them instead.
Does this stuff really happen in supposedly godly local churches?
Yes … all the time.
And sadly, since this information comes from a “man of God,” many people believe whatever he says … hook, line, and sinker.
Finally, some churchgoers feel rejected when their pastor or a staffer leaves.
When a pastor/staffer leaves a church, some people assume that the leader left of their own free will.
Maybe yes, maybe no.
My guess is that many churchgoers … especially new believers and those on the fringe … don’t know how churches operate, so when they hear that a leader has departed, they assume that the leader wanted to leave … and this makes them feel abandoned at some level.
Although I sensed that I needed to leave my last ministry, I was told that I could have stayed. Since I chose to leave, is it possible that some churchgoers felt that I had abandoned them?
A few years ago, I had breakfast with the president of a seminary overseas and he told me, “We Christians don’t handle transitions very well. We need to do a better job.”
What’s hard for many of us is that when a church hires us, they act very Christian. But when they let us go, they almost seem satanic.
I long for the day when God’s people act like Christians whether they’re hiring or firing leaders.