Losing Church Members
“Dr.Hyles, how do I deal with people when they decide to leave my church and go to another church across town?” the pastor asked. That’s a hurtful thing pastors deal with. It’s hard not to take it personal. It feels like rejection. You wonder how you failed them or what you could have done differently.
It is something with which every pastors deals and Dr. Hyles was a master at dealing with it in the right way. He once commented, “When someone has decided to leave and go to another church, there are two things I do. First, I let them know that I love them. Secondly, I let them go.”
He went on to explain, “I do not want them to stay because I am desperate for them to stay. I am not desperate for them to stay. I do not need them to stay. I want them to stay, but that is because I love them. I look at church members like I look at a child growing up. There comes a point in time when you have to let them go, but you want them to know you still love them. If they leave knowing that I love them there will be no ill will. If I let them know I love them, they have a better chance to start afresh in another church. I want them to know I still love them because I do.”
He went on to say, “The letting go is a little tougher because it requires fighting off the emotions that affect us all. It is easy to feel rejected and let that turn into bitterness and anger. It is easy to say ‘Bad garbage, good riddance,’ but that is never the right thing to do, nor is it how I feel. Let them go. There are other people who need your love and attention, but if you are fighting your emotions over what you have lost, then you cannot do your best for those you still have. Letting go is a part of life. It is a hard part but it is still a part. Let go and and pray that everything will work out for good for them.”
Over the years Dr. Hyles lost many people. He once commented that the art of pastoring was learning how to lose people. It was difficult for him, just like it is for any pastor. He loved his people; however, he knew that people were going to leave the church, and when they did his reaction would be very important.
If we made a list of people who left his church it would be almost like a Hall of Fame of members. People of incredible position at one time or another left the church. Good people left the church. Influential people left church. People who had been with him through some difficult times left the church. People of high positions left the church. Deacons left the church. Sunday school teachers left the church. Yet in all of this he never allowed himself to be adversely affected.
There were some principles he used that helped him to not be adversely affected, nor to allow the church to be adversely affected. Here is what I learned from him.
1. It’s not personal unless you make it personal. Dr. Hyles had a philosophy that when someone left the church he would not take it personal. That prevented it from becoming personal. Their reason for leaving may have been personal, but his acceptance of it being personal was refused. He was not going to take it personal. Many pastors get hurt or offended when someone leaves for personal reasons and so it becomes personal. Then they wonder why the person gets upset with them, and turns against them. Never allow it to be personal. Dr. Hyles never did. He let them go rather than allowing it to become a personal issue with him.
2. It takes two to fight. Many pastors make the mistake of thinking they have to fight when someone leaves their church. Dr. Hyles often said, “I will not fight with someone who leaves.” They may want to pick a fight, but it is your decision whether or not to accept their challenge. If they are attacking you, ignore them. If they are trying to cause trouble, leave them alone. His philosophy was never to engage in any kind of battle with someone who chose to leave the church.
3. Never let them see you sweat. I heard Dr. Hyles talk about the fact that when someone of influence leaves your church the other members are waiting to see how you will react. He didn’t react. In fact, he was renewed with energy and vision for the church. People had to wonder why the person was leaving when things were so positive and going so well. He didn’t show pain or hurt even though he may have felt it. He refused to allow the people to see him panic or become discouraged. Some preachers go on a pity party and their people see it. Nothing is more unsettling to church members than to see the pastor affected by someone leaving the church.
4. He did not alienate those who left. When someone left his church, he did not tell his people to avoid them. He did not feel threatened when he saw a current member having dinner with a former member. In fact, he walked up to the table as though everything was fine because to him it was. He was glad when friendships were not destroyed when someone left the church. So many pastors show their insecurities when people leave their church by telling their people to avoid them. Do not be caught up in that. He was an expert at not allowing people to think he was upset in the least at those who left.
5. He filled their positions quickly. Dr. Hyles did not have a problem when someone left the church, because he already had someone in mind to fill their positions. He anticipated that people would leave. He never lost anyone without knowing who he would put in their place if they did leave. It never was because he wanted to replace them. He did not want them to leave, but he knew that the position had to be filled so he was prepared to do so quickly and seamlessly.
I learned to always prepare for the necessity of filling vacant positions. I lost 14 staff people in one 12 month period, but I had someone to replace them. When Bus Director Jim Vineyard left I asked Brother Hyles what was he going to do? He said, “I’m going to hire three men and keep on going.” And, he did!
6. He never had a “Goodbye, good riddance, bad garbage” mentality. He never looked down at those who left as though he was getting rid of trouble. He loved people. He never wanted anyone to leave. He was never glad that he was not able to help someone because they chose to leave his church. His attitude was always, “I’m sad to see you go but I still love you.”
7. He didn’t take it home. It can be difficult for pastors not to go home and complain when people leave the church. That is a sign you have taken it personally. It was often weeks or months before Mrs. Hyles or other members of his family realized someone had left because Dr. Hyles simply did not talk about it. And, when they finally and asked why, he made it sound as though they found another place where they felt God wanted them to go. He did not make his family feel betrayed by those who left. Mrs. Hyles could go to the grocery store without fear of running into people she thought were upset with her husband.
8. He made no excuses. If people left, he let them leave without trying to spin it to sound as though he was in the right and they were in the wrong. He didn’t need to be right. He did not need people to adopt his opinion about why someone left. He simply let them leave and continued to love them and let people think what they would.
9. He reached out to them through their new pastor. He would send a letter to their new pastor letting him know how good those people were and how happy he was that they had him as their new pastor. He spoke highly of them, and gave glowing remarks so that the new pastor would not hesitate to love them and pastor them fully. His goal was not for him to be the pastor. His goal was for them to have a pastor who would love them the way he did. He did his best to make sure that happened. That also prevented tension between him and that pastor.
10. He handled losses with great grace. Yes, Dr. Hyles lost many people over the years, but he never lost his integrity, nor did he lose the heart of his people when others left. He handled situations with great grace. Losing people was just a part of the process of working with people and he knew it. That is why the church kept growing. Sometimes churches quit growing because the pastor’s response to people leaving causes the remaining church members to question him. Most church splits take place because one or two people left and the pastor responded poorly. Soon others followed them.
I never knew Dr. Hyles to harbor bitterness toward someone who left his church. Never. He always loved them out the door and kept loving them after they were gone. However, he was able to let go of them so that he could move on and do the work for others. I never heard him say a bad word about someone who left church. NEVER. He loved people too much. When they did not do what he wanted, he still loved them exactly as he did before. So take his advice pastor. When someone decides to leave your church, let them know you love them and let them go.