When To Panic and When NOT to Panic When People Leave Your Church

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Most leaders I know fear losing people.

I do.

And I’ll bet you do.

After all, you spend a lot of your time trying to build your ministry.

When it comes to the mission of the church, it seems almost unthinkable to reach fewer people. Eternity really does hang in the balance.

And every person represents a potentially transformed life.

In any organization, none of us really want to reach fewer people or have less impact.

And yet, sometimes, one of the best ways to grow your ministry is to let the right people leave.

It might kill you to entertain the thought of people leaving (it still kills a part of me).

But hang on.

Sometimes losing people in your church or organization is a bad thing. Surprisingly, other times it’s not.

Knowing the difference is critical to effective leadership.

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to grow your ministry is to let the right people leave. Click To Tweet

This Should Bother You…Really

Like you, it bothers me every time someone leaves. And it should bother you.

Only sociopaths don’t care when people leave.

Only sociopaths never care when people leave. Click To Tweet

When I first started in ministry, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I just assumed that people who came would never walk out the door.

Deep down, it hurt so much every time someone left. I felt like I had let them down, like I let the church down, like I had failed.

I also felt as though if I had been a better leader, I would have been able to keep them.

For a season it hurt so much I pretended I didn’t care anymore. But I did. I do.

I realize some of this is irrational and much of it might be unhealthy, but it hurts when someone goes.

However, if you let it fester, you’ll begin to live in fear all the time.

In fact, you can end up with people-pleasing as your main goal. You will lead in a way that you hope is going to prevent the greatest number of people from leaving.

That’s a terrible strategy.

People pleasing is a terrible leadership strategy. Click To Tweet

99.97% v .03%

It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do in life, people will leave. I see this even in writing this blog.

But the number is smaller than you think.

I have an email list of 38,000 subscribers I talk to regularly. Literally every time I send an email, people unsubscribe. It doesn’t matter what I say.

I could send an email saying I just prayed for you, or giving away free Starbucks, or pointing them to a free resource (like my Leadership Podcast), and every single time, people unsubscribe.

It doesn’t matter how many free articles I write, how many free interviews I publish for leaders, some people are going to leave. Every stinking time.

At times it’s made me NOT want to send any emails at all, just so I can stop losing people.

But you know what?

That’s a completely stupid attitude. If you want to see how stupid it is, just do the math.

My loss is only about .03% when I send an email.

99.97% of the people I email are somewhere between grateful to okay with it. .03% are not.

You know what happens when I let my insecurity rule my decision making?

Fear wins.

Could you imagine if the fear of losing .03% of the people you lead stopped you from helping 99.97%?

Never let the fear of losing a few override your desire to help many.

Yet it happens all the time.

Never let the fear of losing a few override your desire to help many. Click To Tweet

Here are six scenarios that can happen when someone walks out the door.

This is a bit more of a nuanced article because, well, the subject is nuanced.

But I hope it helps.

1. When one of your best people walks out the door

There are usually only a few scenarios I can think of where you should panic when you’re losing people. We’ll start there.

It’s never a good thing when one of your best people walks out the door.

By great person, I mean someone who’s on board with the mission and vision. They give. They invite friends. They serve. They’re healthy people who love God and love others.

In other words, they’re simply good people.

When they start leaving, sound the alarm. If there’s ever a time to panic, this it it. Or at least it’s a time to do a deep gut check.

It’s usually a sign that something deeper is wrong.

And you’ll have to really keep an eye out to see if the good people are leaving. Because they almost never raise a stink.

The best people usually leave quietly. Toxic people never do.

So always be looking to see if great people are walking out the door. If they are, do some soul-searching, and try to figure out where you may have gone off mission.

The best people usually leave quietly. Toxic people never do. Click To Tweet

2. When There’s a Vision Shift

The most grey scenario you’ll face as a leader is probably when there’s a vision shift.

Vision shifts usually happen when a new leader comes in and changes the direction of the church.

It also happens when an existing leader pursues a new direction. I’ve lived through both scenarios as a leader.

During a vision shift, a variety of things can change—the music changes, the programming changes, the preaching changes or the whole DNA of the church shifts.

When a vision shift happens, it’s inevitable that some people will leave.

First, remember everyone who was currently attending your church (before the shift) loved your church the way it was.

That’s why change is so hard.

Everyone who currently attends your church likes it the way it is. Click To Tweet

So you can’t really blame people for being upset that things are changing.

As in scenario 1 above, be careful that you notice who’s leaving. If you see your best people walking out the door, pay attention.

At this point, in the midst of the shuffle, ask yourself this clarifying question when you see someone leaving: “Is this the kind of person we can build the future of the church on?”

Once you ask that question, you’ll know whether their leaving is a matter of concern. You may lose a few good people in a big vision shift, but to lose droves of people upon whom you can build the future of the church is quite another thing.

If those kinds of people are heading out the door, worry. You’re either going in the wrong direction, haven’t cast the vision clearly enough, or are moving too quickly (or too slowly).

In this season, also make sure the people signing up for the new direction are growing in number.

If those conditions are in place, you can likely keep going.

3. When Someone Who Doesn’t Care About the Mission Leaves

You alway have people in your church or organization who care more about themselves than they care about the mission.

Losing them is not a reason to panic.

After all, people who are off mission will never help you realize THE mission.

People who are off mission will never help you realize THE mission. Click To Tweet

Often you’ll run into people who think they’re the mission. Don’t try to hang onto them.

You may do backflips trying to appease and please them, and it will all be in vain. If they have some other mission (especially if their mission is themselves), you will have a hard time winning them to THE mission.

Don’t focus more on who you want to keep than who you want to reach. You’ll die trying.

Never focus more on who you want to keep than who you want to reach. Click To Tweet

4. When Someone In the Crowd Leaves

Every church has a ‘crowd’ — even small ones. By ‘crowd’ I mean people who attend but never engage.

The crowd in your church is really divided into two sections, those who are leaning in and those who aren’t.

Those who are leaning in are people who are new to faith or new to your church who you hope will make decisions to follow Christ, get baptized and become engaged members of your community.

When you start losing people from that section, pay attention. Those are people you don’t want to lose.

On the other hand, you have some people in the crowd who will never engage. You’ve tried everything. They simply want to attend. That’s it. No matter what you do, you can’t engage them.

You will inevitably see some loss from that group. There’s not much you can do about it, and you shouldn’t really worry about it.

5. When a Serial Church Shopper Leaves

Serial church shoppers are a thing. Don’t get too worked up about their coming and going.

If someone left 5 churches in the last 5 years, they’re probably leaving yours too.

Let them go evaluate someone else’s church. They don’t need to take up energy at yours.

I wrote about 5 key differences between a unchurched person and serial church shopper here.

If someone left 5 churches in the last 5 years, they're probably leaving yours too. Click To Tweet

6. When You’ve Lost a Toxic Person

As much as you may not want to admit it, there are toxic people in this world and in the church.

An unhealthy person can infect your team like toxins infect the human body. After some exposure, everyone feels sick.

The optimist in you and me hopes toxic people will become better. The good news is, sometimes they do.

Unhealthy people can grow healthier with the right care and attention in a healthy environment.

But some toxic people just don’t. Some remain difficult, despite all attempts.

And as you know, if you don’t address toxic people—or worse, let them gain influence—they can infect your whole organization, diminishing your effectiveness and taking everyone’s focus off the mission.

When they leave, be thankful.

If you want to know how to spot a toxic person, here are 6 early warning signs.

I also have a great discussion with Dr. Henry Cloud about how to handle toxic and foolish people in your church. It’s worth a listen.

You can listen to it (and even subscribe) for free on my Leadership Podcast here, on Episode 160.

An unhealthy person can infect your team like toxins infect the human body. Click To Tweet

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.