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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Any Thoughts?

What do you see?

Any further thoughts on how to tell whether you should panic when someone leaves your church?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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


  1. Alyssa on August 16, 2020 at 2:39 pm

    I think you left out a 7th reason. It may sound harsh, but a 7th reason people leave churches is they have seen patterns of unhealthy priorities and leadership. We recently left our church of 4 years. We were active and involved. We began to notice concerns this last year and after talking with the leadership in multiple meetings for 6 hours total, our voice was trying to be muted, our concerns were not taken seriously, and the leadership weren’t introspective at all, they simply cast blame and rebuked us. Now 3 other prominent families are facing the same conversations with the same lack of humility in the leadership. I’ve been involved in many churches where the leaders want to get feedback, have healthy discourse, and encourage open conversations on how the church and people can all grow – but if many dedicated people are leaving, a 7th point should be made that maybe there is something unhealthy at the church that is happening.

  2. Lester Goff on September 21, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    Timely article. Thank You!
    Just lost two key people this past week, and that after a Message entitled, “You Belong Here”! After 14 years the wife got upset for the last time and they decided to go our “Sister church” miles away. They were a key figure in our small church. and I have to face the congregation this week for the first time without them. They are going to be missed and of course the questions will come…”Where is Brother and Sister —–? I’ve lost people before but these were the hardest, they were there when no one else was, they were big givers, they were helps, and on and on. Going to be a tough transition, but I know I’ve got to drive on.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2019 at 6:05 pm

      So sorry Lester,

      Those are some of the most difficult losses.

      Hope this helps,


  3. click on January 27, 2019 at 4:05 am

    Must be thanks for the great article here.

  4. Karim Andrew Vainga on August 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    Thank Nieuwhof!
    your ideology may be seen hash or strait but it fit neatly with these kind of people. human being can not controlled another human being easily except they willingly do so on their own. here is my point supporting your ideology; once this person know Christ personally they should have freedom of decision to be made by themselves we know this, normally when we are helping people that God brought on our way may not necessarily come to stay forever, sometime short turn or long turn. and also human beings their ways when have made up their minds on somethings it is hard for someone to change their so in case just leave them to go, Jesus did not run after all those that left him, once upon the time when it happened he asked the disciples are not going too? Peter answered to whom are we going to. people will always go or stay their own personal benefits in every institution even including myself if I am not benefiting from Christ what Am I going to stay in Christ than I have left long ago, but because of blessing I am experiencing every moment every day, and year that’s why I will die in him.

  5. Shay on October 11, 2017 at 7:25 am

    ….Nicely written Carey. The world is full of choices. Thank you for choosing to continue to be a voice of help.


  6. Dion on October 9, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Carey, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, I appreciate them.

    Nice balanced article about those leaving and those staying. When people leave I try to help them find somewhere else to worship. Some are open to that conversation, and some aren’t. It’s my belief that if we can help them find peace in their decision to leave, then that is best for God’s Kingdom. Food for thought?


  7. Janet Adams on October 9, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Well, now that you have the “lay” people all labeled and figured out for your “institutional church” and its growth potential, I wonder if this was my Father’s intention? Panic, people pleasing, people leaving, toxic, strategy, church growth, warning signs, good people, vision changes… The Church or the Body of Christ is and will never be an institution. The people are the church! The words Pastor and Lay People are placing the Church (the people) below the Pastor in a man-made hierarchy. Romans, Ephesians, and the Colossians letters all mention that the “Church” is the body of Christ. CHRIST is our head… and I am a part of His body.
    This blog is worrisome. Pastors feeling rejected, hurt, leary, and wringing their hands and wondering what to do if “their people” are leaving their institutionalized club.

    I’ve have sat in ROWS long enough in this worrisome spectator model. The institutionalized church with its PRE-PLANNED service, agenda’s, worship with all the trappings of a concert and designed environments have systematically left JESUS out. I have been sitting for more than 60 years as a spectator and am now learning to LISTEN once again to the still small sweet voice of my Jesus through His sent gift, the Holy Spirit. I invite my neighbors and friends to my house to read, pray and listen as we all share a meal together. We know the Holy Spirit teaches us truth as we read His Word together, enjoying discussion and insight from each other, HIS members of His Body. We have left the spectator model behind and gather in small circles sharing and listening and loving one another. We have left the idea that JUST one person in the front on a screen or standing a few feet above those pesky “church hoppers” or “toxic” people KNOW and HEAR only from GOD. I am now a “DONE” or “Unchurched” from the Institutionalized model! The true “Church” is an awesome body of Believers, a community of equals, not a hierarchy of a superior and his/her subordinates.

    I heard the Podcast and and once again felt demeaned as a so CALLED “LAY PERSON” as I read this blog today. I have broken through the barriers of the Institutionalized Church and excited to meet my fellow brothers and sisters. (Not home groups were the weekly sermon is regurgitated all over again).

    Looking forward,


    • William on June 30, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      Praise God for His truth that you have in your heart! I couldn’t agree more! The church is so sick with this “seeker” movement of type A mega-church wannabes.

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