How the Failing Pastor Deals with Accidental Run-Ins with People who Left Church

People leave churches.

For the pastor, it’s hard not to take these leavings personally; especially when a large percentage of the Leavers tell you they are leaving because of something you did or said (or didn’t do or say).

Feelings get hurt. Hurt feelings tend to linger. I know we are to forgive 70×7 and stuff, but man, it hurts. I also don’t see anywhere in Scripture where forgiving means forgetting. To me, 70×7 means every time the pain comes back up, I need to get to a place once again where I can forgive it and move on. Until it creeps up again. Then forgive and move on again.

Unfortunately, people who leave in hurtful ways usually don’t die immediately. No bears come out of the woods and eat them. The ground doesn’t open up and swallow them. Fire from heaven seldom seems to consume anyone. Nope, they keep being alive and being around.

You’ll inevitably run into these people. Here’s what I’ve learned about these encounters.

1. The Leavers will typically be happy.
People who left usually couch their leaving in spiritual terms. Therefore, they must prove to you that they are better off since they’ve left your disaster of a church that was stifling their spiritual growth. Thus they will be happy. Excessively happy. Ridiculously happy. Happiness is the American signal that all is well. Their happiness will be rubbed in your face non-stop. Get used to it. Smile. Nod. Carry on.

2. The Leavers are just as uncomfortable as you are.
I’m just running into Wal-Mart to get some bread, just minding my business, thinking about sandwiches for lunch. And boom, there they are; the jerk faced Leavers. Fear shoots through all parties. But then the smiles come out. Small talk. Pretend nothing happened, no feelings hurt. Be happy. “Whelp, gotta go” I say as I lift up my loaf of bread. “Lunch is waiting.” Wilderness experts say that if you meet a bear in the wild, don’t worry, the bear is more scared than you are. Leavers are too. Smile. Nod. Carry on.

3. If you did nothing wrong, don’t act like you did.
Pastors typically take people leaving as a personal fault. I could have done more. I shouldn’t have said what I said. You can’t help but feel like you were wrong. There are some cases where I was. But in the majority of cases I can honestly say I don’t think I was massively wrong in any way. If that’s the case, don’t act guilty. I have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to cover up, and nothing to be ashamed about. If that is true, bring some confidence to the conversation. Let them be the squirmy one. Smile. Nod. Carry on.

4. Act oblivious.
I have developed avoidance skills. Anytime I’m in public I think about the odds of certain people being there. I usually run into the same people at the same places. My ears are alert for people’s voices. I’m constantly scanning out of the corners of my eyes watching out for anything that smacks of a Leaver. I can suddenly get massively interested in the nutrition labels of Doritos when I need to. Usually the Leaver is glad you are ignoring them. They’ll ignore you too. In the off chance they don’t, you’ll at least be prepared for when they approach. Then smile. Nod. Carry on.

5. Don’t be fake.
There are certain Leavers who really honestly were massive jerks to me and people in the church. I feel no need to be friendly. We both know what went down. I’m not playing games. I’m not joking about stuff. I’m not amused. I won’t be a jerk, but I’ll also convey the point that I’m not interested in any further interaction with this psychotic person. There are dangerous people out there that I don’t want to mess with anymore. These are the smallest percentage of my Leavers, but I know who they are and I will not engage. I’m done. Handed them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. I don’t smile or nod. But I do carry on.

Any time I’m in public I’m slightly nervous. Who will I run into next? There are stores in town I do not go in anymore because I know a Leaver works there. You can call it childish if you want. I’m sure this isn’t grace or love or forgiveness. So be it. We all have our limits. I don’t want to blow my testimony and that’s the only way I’ve figured out how to do that with certain people.

Leavers are a massive downer to the ministry. I’m not claiming to be the expert, probably not Christ-like enough, but these are my tactics. Maybe they’ll help. If nothing else, you can feel superior to me and my weaknesses. Fine. I smile. Nod. And carry on.

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